Burnt Norton examines life “in and out of time” inclusively; East Coker, associated with Eliot’s ancestral home, looks at time more personally. Indicated by the possessive pronoun in the Quartet’s opening statement, “In the beginning is my end” refers to Eliot specifically but also to Everyman. The line also echoes the first words of Genesis: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth”-according to Judeo-Christianity, everyone’s beginning. After Burnt Norton ‘s unrelenting emphasis on eternity, East Coker’s beginning with “beginning” is slightly startling, but less so when we find how closely Eliot connects it to an end-ing, creating an Eliotonian, virtual circle.
As a modernist, the phrase “In the beginning is my end” would have had a nihilistic as well as a spiritual meaning for Eliot. The beginning which anticipates an ending, if fact all temporal endings, is a prefiguration of death and destruction:
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth.
In this passage we see the eternal cycle of creation and destruction, life under the dominion of time, underscored by the Biblical reference ashes to ashes, dust to dust. However, given Eliot’s proclivity for paradox, eternity is implicit even in this bleakest image of time. As each house falls along with its tenants, only to give rise to new houses and new tenants which will subsequently fall, an endless superstructure pervades the cumulative individual moments of creation and destruction. Time is synonymous with change, but in the midst of change eternity is found forever lurking. Maharishi states, “[d]espite the continual change of bodies in the past, present, and future, it [the non-changing, imperishable Self] ever remains the same” (Maharishi, 1967, p. 92).
In the next stanza, non-change is more easily discovered. With a few brief strokes, Eliot fashions a contemporary scene: “a van passes” in front of a field, almost floating in the heat of the afternoon, “in the empty silence” where “dahlias sleep.” From this modern locale objectively rendered, we are drawn back through the colloquial language of Eliot’s ancestor Thomas Eliot (from The Boke Named The Governor) into an intimate sixteenth-century ritual (Traversi, 1976, p. 130):
The association of man and woman
In daunsinge [sic], signifying matrimonie-
A dignified and commodious sacrament.
Two and two, necessarye coniunction
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche betokeneth concorde. Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles.
This stanza celebrates the time-honored event of marriage accompanied by the joyous activity of dancing, a rite played out by countless newlyweds of every generation. The scene depicts physical desire in the act of “leaping through the flames,” as well as tradition, that flow of repeated social-patterning which defies time and connects past, present, and future. Woven into the scene’s homespun fabric are three favoriteEliot images: dancing, fire, and circles, scattered everywhere throughout the Four Quartets.
Used to depict the eternal life in Burnt Norton-the play of the phenomenal world whirled into existence from the depths of the unmoved silence-dancing emerges in this quartet a smaller and lighter activity, the joyful gyrations of a few at an event only meaningful to the few. But, like the poetic patterning of Burnt Norton, the dance of East Coker contains joyous freedom and unbridled movement, the same qualities in microcosm of the eternal dance. Typical of his multi-layered vision, Eliot uses dancing in this scene not only as an expression of personal liberty but also for death, again indicated by the leaping through the fire.
Elsewhere in the Quartets dancing conveys the sordid, meaningless movements of the spiritually lost, the dance of the living dead, and fire and circles are employed with similar ambiguity. Sometimes fire destroys, at others it purifies, just as circles vacillate between symbols of eternity and confinement. The ambiguity of these reoccurring elements typify for Eliot the life of opposing values. This is the lesson of the Bhagavad-Gita. Arjuna sees those on the battlefield before him simultaneously the evil ones it his duty to destroy and his kinsmen whom he loves.
Arjuna’s main problem was to reconcile love of kinsman with the necessity to root out evil. He was desperately seeking a formula of compromise between righteousness and evil. But on any plane of life these are irreconcilable. That is why, having explored all the avenues of his heart and mind, Arjuna could not find any practical solution, could not decide on any line of action. Lord Krishna, however, shows him the field where righteousness and love merge in eternal harmony, the eternal life of absolute Being. (Maharishi, 1967, p. 127)
In Section II Eliot introduces the primary concerns of East Coker: the role of the poet caught in that sensuous music of time, and poetry as a means to escape the snare of time. The first stanza written in a consciously poetic style is filled with echoes from Yeats (“triumphal cars”), Frost (the “destructive fire / Which burns before the ice-cap reigns”) and Whitmanesque poets whom Eliot believes have imprecisely represented the turbulent world, “That was a way of putting it-not very satisfactory: / A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion.” Instead, Eliot hopes to find an honest means of communication, but disillusioned in his search he comes to mistrust “words and meanings [and the] poetry does not matter.” Patterns, so comforting in Burnt Norton, falsify in East Coker because their instability makes them “new in every moment.” Wisdom, solace to the romantic Wordsworth when the spiritual visions of childhood had faded, cannot comfort the modernist Eliot. Old age having known only a lifetime of ignorance acquires not wisdom but folly. In this pessimistic mood, the only knowledge the poet finds is humility.
Such an unfruitful vision of the poet foundering against the waves of time can only lead Eliot’s persona to temporarily view existence as a funeral of darkness, a catalogue of humanity marching into the silence of death. But with his customary fondness for reversals, Eliot turns this doomed quality of darkness into Godliness, because for him the quietness of darkness can also represent silence, not the silence of doom, but the transcendent silence of the still point:
the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing-
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be light, and the stillness the dancing.
The deep silence of this stanza emerges through a careful series of negations-waiting without hope, without love, without faith, and finally without thought-a series of discriminations that eventually lead to the dancing stillness. A parallel sequence of discriminations experienced during Maharishi’s Transcendental Meditation® technique leads to an analogous state of silence. As the mind-free of expectation-settles down it is fully conscious, but at every point it is increasingly less conscious of external phenomenon. Although this movement from grosser to ever-refined states of awareness takes place effortlessly, spontaneously without any action on the part of the practitioner, it is as though the intellect is choosing to reject what is less refined in favor of what is more refined at any given moment. When the mind transcends the finest level of phenomena it leaves off being conscious of anything until it experiences only pure consciousness, a phrase that rings strikingly similar to Eliot’s “conscious but conscious of nothing.”
Eliot instructs us to wait for this moment of spiritual silence “without hope” and “without love” because such external abstractions belong only to the phenomenal world. To wait without love or hope recalls Eliot’s analysis of the “still point” in Burnt Norton where he says, “there we have been: but I cannot say where. / And I cannot say how long, for that is to place it in time.” One must wait without love and without hope, for to do otherwise is to place one’s self in time. Paradoxically, once the still point has been permanently attained, when consciousness has been fully expanded, hope is realized and love is unrestricted.
Eliot next advises to “wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.” Waiting without thought means transcending thought, an experience of that lively state of pure potentiality before a thought has formed. Outside of death or the inertia of deep sleep, transcending is the only way the mind can experience thought-less-ness. To become “ready for thought,” the mind must intimately know the source of thought. Until then thinking, Maharishi explains, caught in the web of time, will remain superficial and egocentric, but once the source of thought is established on the level of one’s individual consciousness, thinking becomes powerful, evolutionary, and fulfilling. Having gained the source of thought, one becomes “ready” for it, ready to think and then act with profundity supported by the Laws of Nature (Maharishi, 1963, pp. 144-145).
The section ends in vision: the darkness of death and the flickering light-earmarks of the sensory world-are transformed into the light of life, and the stillness of death and the stillness of waiting are transformed into the dancing stillness. No longer a participant in the life of time, one becomes the silent witness to “the agony / Of death and birth.” Life is lived as the “Whisper of running streams, and winter lightening, / The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry, / [and] The laughter in the garden.”
Section III’s final stanza seems at first nothing more than a clever set piece, a procession of Zen-like conundrums, but with more consideration it reveals itself to be among the poem’s most profound passages:
You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again?
Eliot enjoys being clever, but here what he is running to earth is nothing other than complete truth, “not less than everything.” In pursuit of such elusive game, he defies the awkwardness of being repetitive, because what he seeks to understand and convey cannot be repeated too many times; therefore, he brazenly revisits the path to the transcendent still-point, closely scrutinized only a few lines previously. He introduces this passage with an inquirey:
In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In the first of this passage’s riddles, Eliot gives us the nondescript place nouns, there, here, and not here, which appear to be different but are metaphysically identical. To “arrive there,” is “to arrive where you [already] are,” Eliot informs us. What kind of a nonsensical journey is this? It is a journey of understanding. Like quantum physics’ mysterious sub-atomic particles which behave simultaneously as particles and waves until a limiting choice is made, so here and there also function without distinction until a decision is made. As the bumper sticker says, “wherever you go there you are,” but of course having arrived you will always be here. When you leave a place there will be here and here will be there. Here is to space as now is to time. It is always now and it is always here.
Secondly, the journey from there to “where you are” is a journey of perspective, a change of experience. There for Eliot is the same as it was for the 19th-century Transcendentalists: transcendent Nature or the deepest level of one’s own existence, the goal of all conscious and unconscious desires, a return to the primordial, unfractured state from which the journey of personal evolution began. However, because one is and always has been the transcendental Self, the journey can only be made in the form of remembering or reawakening to one’s status that has been forgotten; and because one has been asleep to one’s greater status, Eliot can say, reawakening you “arrive where you are not.”
In one sense, this journey of arriving where you both are and are not is accomplished in a momentary transcendence, a going beyond all sensual experience, beyond the boundaries of the non-self and arriving at the unboundedness of the true Self. Such a journey is very fast but ephemeral, like a momentary epiphany. >From a broader perspective, reawakening to your own Self is a state of unbroken enlightenment, accomplished at that moment when you fully realize that you have always been your Self, have always been unbounded and eternal, and will never again lose your eternal status. Maharishi describes in a similar way the state of Cosmic Consciousness achieved though regular and repeated experiences of the Transcendental Meditation program, emphasizing the pronoun that rather than Eliot’s adverb there:
Life finds its goal in the state of the eternal freedom of the Transcendent, spoken of here as ‘That’; Knowledge Itself. The use of the word ‘That’ makes it clear that the goal of life does not lie in the sphere of phenomenal existence [here]; it lies beyond it. The real life is not this which is commonly referred to as life; beyond this is That Reality of life. This is a teaching of life from the standpoint of renunciation.
The Upanishads declare: ‘Tat tvam asi-That thou art’, implying that this obvious phase of phenomenal existence, which you take as your self, is not your real nature-you, in fact, are That transcendent Reality. (1967, pp. 357-58)
In this state there and here are experienced as non-different, but until you reawaken to that state, the equivalency of there and here continues to exist “where you are not”:
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
To arrive at knowledge, we “must go by a way which is the way of ignorance” because ignorance, relative, unreliable knowledge, is all that we can know until all ignorance has been burned away in the purifying fire of absolute, unchanging knowledge. To gain what we want, “not less than everything,” we must dispossess ourselves of what we only think we own. We must renounce that which is “unreal” for that which is real. This series of steps parallels the practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique when the mind settles down to the field of unbounded consciousness, giving up activity (1967, p. 198) for silence, time for eternity, the reflection for the mirror. To “arrive at what you are not,” you must “go through the way in which you are not,” but when arriving, that is transcending, you will find not the thing you are not but rather the thing that you are, your deepest reality, and you will realize that you always have been what you are and never have been what you are not (1967, pp. 357-358).
In Section V, East Coker returns to its principal theme, a poet’s “raid on the inarticulate.” As the putative poet of his age, Eliot feels the last two decades have been a waste; words fail him; his poetic powers are deteriorating; imprecision distorts what he wishes to say; and what he wants to discover has already been “found and lost again and again.” Maharishi similarly demonstrates in the following paragraph life’s eternal pattern of loss and gain:
The truth of Vedic wisdom is by its very nature independent of time and can therefore never be lost. When, however, man’s vision becomes one-sided and he is caught by the binding influence of the phenomenal world to the exclusion of the absolute phase of Reality, when he is thus confined within the ever-changing phases of existence, his life loses stability and he begins to suffer. When suffering grows, the invincible force of nature moves to set man’s vision right and establish a way of life which will again ful-fill the high purpose of his existence. The long history of the world records many such periods in which the ideal pattern of life is first forgotten and then restored to man. (1967, p. 9)
Despite this endless cycle in which wisdom is lost and gained, Eliot believes “[t]here is only the fight to recover what has been lost. . . . For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
The final stanza of East Coker brings the poem full circle. “Home is where we start from,” and home is where we want to return. But conventional old age, near the end of personal time, is lived in pitiful isolation “with no before and after, / But a lifetime burning in every moment.” Like Prufrock who “forked no lightening,”5 who measured out his “life with coffee spoons,” Eliot’s septuagenarians in this poem spend “The evening with the photograph album.” It should not be that way;
Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union.
“We must be still and still moving,” that is, we must be full of that inner, non-active, silence. Maharishi says that even as we perform action; we must be anchored in Transcendental Consciousness and ultimately Cosmic Consciousness (1966, pp. 61-62) Eliot states we must move “into another intensity / For a further union.” Maharishi holds that the ultimate union is the union of the non-self and the Self in Unity Consciousness in which all existence is seen as the same undifferentiated Atma.
East Coker ends with an inversion of its first line, “In my end is my beginning,” often interpreted to mean the beginning of eternal life at death with an ascendence into heaven (Mathiessen, 1959, p. 185). This line may suggest salvation, but it equally conveys the conditions of Vedic liberation. The fusion of beginning and end is “the moment in and out of time.” Beginning at any time and any place in the grip of time, one proceeds to that eternal end beyond time and space towards a new beginning and a rediscovery of the original beginning. This is the end of the journey of personal evolution that in one sense never takes place, since the relative action of the journey itself loses its validity in the infinite realization. The end of the journey achieved through the Transcendental Meditation program Maharishi gives the name Unity Consciousness, when the
experiencer and the object of experience have both been brought to the same level of infinite value and this encompasses the entire phenomenon of perception and action as well. [When t]he gulf between the knower and the object of his knowing has been bridged. (R. Orme-Johnson, 1987, p. 339)
When what one sees and what one is can no longer be distinguished, time and space lose their relative meanings, and only in such infinite/eternal existence can the beginning and ending be the same. For Eliot this coming together of beginning and end takes place when “the past and future / Are conquered and reconciled.” In this state all life is experienced as eternity without change; therefore, having once arrived at this final state of evolution, even the path of evolution-a series of changes-is seen as an illusion. Such is the paradoxical relationship between the relative and the absolute.
The end is not only the finality for those who discover it, it is, Maharishi says, by its very nature “the source, course and goal” of all existence, the be all and end all of everything. For the spiritual pilgrim it is the journey’s end where ignorance is vanquished and knowledge is fully restored, where all opposites, such as individual and universal, finite and infinite, and time and eternity are resolved. About this state, this nondifferentiated beginning and ending, the Upanishads declare, “I am That, thou art That, all this is nothing other than That.” I am the totality; “I am Brahman.”
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