T. S. Eliot
The use of language, (taking into account the reader-response theory of Wolfgang Iser), and the cyclical nature of East Coker
In my beginning is my end. In succession
In this discussion I shall be examining Eliot's use of a
range of linguistic devices in East Coker. The
discussion will focus on how T. S. Eliot (1888 - 1965) employs the
medium of language to parallel and reflect his perception
of the cyclical and repetitive patterns of the life and
death process. As well as the linguistic aspects of Eliot's
poem I shall be referring to the reader-response theory
of Wolfgang Iser to demonstrate how the symbols used to
convey the cyclic repetitive patterns of being are as
much the fruit of the reader's interpretation as they are
of the poet's intent. Account is taken of how Eliot's use
of cyclical images, and the language he uses to create
them, impacts on the reader's perception of the division
and unity between the physical and spiritual dimensions
of human existence.
It is all-too-easy when studying the Four Quartets  to become diverted by the range of erudite references which Eliot uses. One can become so immersed in researching the derivation of the material that a preoccupation with the sources can obfuscate the poet's primary purpose - the poem as a holistic form, not a series of obscure references.
In East Coker one is confronted with this challenge. It seems that in this second of the Four Quartets Eliot is not so much displaying scholarly references, as testing the finite nature of language to probe the limitations and the extremities of human thoughts, conditions and existence.
What has been thus far propounded, however, one could argue, is a reader's selected and specific response, superimposed on the text. The argument puts language rather than, for example, religion, as the central critical theme of East Coker.
Indeed, Wolfgang Iser, in his essay The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach published in Reader-Response Criticism  argues that the text is as much dependent on the reader as the writer to give it meaning. Therefore, a biased reinvention of the text created by the lone reader becomes an irrelevance because it is the response process in relationship to the text which is important, not the product. Iser points out that the entirety of the potential text is infinitely richer than any of its 'individual realisations' . Thus reading a text is not merely an exercise in subjective interpretation, but rather a collaboration between reader and writer. Iser identifies two poles within the realm of production: the artistic is the writing of the text created by its author, and the aesthetic refers to the understanding of the work applied to it by the reader. 
Iser argues that the text only takes on a life when realised by the reader. He states that the intended literary work, or signifier, as planned by the writer can never be identical with the constructed, signified, text, because the writer's concept and planning can never be an exact match with the final production. The written text in turn cannot be exactly the same as the reader's response to it. Language is insufficiently exact, and thought processes too diverse for reaction to coincide perfectly with conception.
Thus language is a malleable but inaccurate medium which when organised into a piece of writing may acquire a semiotic structure such as a sonnet or song, but the semantics remain fluid, unique and subjective simply because language is never static, uniform or stable. This is because meaning changes over time. Indeed if Iser instructs us in the shared but subjective creativity when realising a text with the writer, Eliot reminds us that we (the readers and writers) are all part of the ontological cycle of humanity whose only outlet against the painful prescription of birth and the inevitability of death is the inexact but creative medium of language.
Eliot uses language to reflect the finite nature of life and the infinity of existence. Life incorporates death because existence is universally ongoing and although individual life is ephemeral it is perpetuated through subsequent generations in the evolution of our spiritual development. In his use of language Eliot juxtaposes the spuriously solid image of the 'house' with the enduring cycle of destruction and restoration. A factory replaces a house and life replaces death but the individual life and the physical house are transient states and objects, which are built and born, destroyed and replaced by different objects and incarnations, and so the cycle is perpetuated:
The fluent confidence
of the free verse suggests Eliot's conviction that from
the point of birth begins the death span of individual
life. Eliot is very conscious of the life and death cycle
being interdependent on each other, which causes him to
unite linguistic opposites in his work, e.g. 'beginning/
end,' 'rise/ fall,' 'destroyed/ restored.'
Eliot's inclusion of
this fragment of Elizabethan English verse demonstrates
both the limitations and potentiality of diachronic
language. He uses a linguistic fusion of different
periods of English as a parallel to his unity of
opposites within the text, such as 'life and death',
which are symmetrically opposite stages of the cycle of
existence. People live and die and language changes and
evolves with the life/death cycle of humanity. Eliot
reflects this cycle via the change and diversity in
language and this makes the receptive reader aware of
change in language which can be construed as paralleling
changes in the existential states of living and dying.
This dual reflection also demonstrates to the reader that
if life is limited so is the language through which it is
perceived. Words used in Elizabethan times remain the
same. Meanings have changed and become obsolete but they
are still there in archaic form to be used when needed
for a poetic purpose.
Eliot's use of 'only' reinforces the notion of the single, insignificant acts of birth and death in the sweep of the relentless but repetitive panorama of existence; 'that which is only living/ Can only die'. Thus life fades into death and words fade into silence. Life's natural processes, like the language used to express them are part of the 'dung/death,' 'eating/drinking,' 'end/beginning,' cycle. In Burnt Norton Eliot reminds the reader of the pertinacious and dynamic yet frail nature of language:
For Eliot, words decay
and thus form and meaning changes, but the signifier
words remain, corpse-like, there to be resurrected in
their original signified forms as in the Spenserian lines
in East Coker. Living and dead words coexist and
stimulate each other within the scope of the poetics.
Indeed within the limits of language degeneration and
decomposition are part of the cycle of linguistic
evolution as they flame into the phoenix of the new and
become reinvented when a decayed past and questing
present collide to conceive a vibrant future composed out
of the husk of language and its spent words.
The dancers image is especially apposite. If life and death unite to make the opposing patterns of existence, different kinds of literature are combined by Eliot to generate new forms of poetry. Correspondingly, if, as stated in Burnt Norton:
then motion, image and
expression exist and cease simultaneously in the act of
the dance. The dance is made of time, image and motion
components, and the parallel with life is when the
physical elements wear out and bodily life finishes.
Similarly, when the moving image is over the dance ceases
and the single dance, like the single life is of brief
duration. However if the dancing is carried on by the
living then the continuity is extended. Thus the dance of
life and the language of life are both limited, but are
changed and recharged by new generations of people, poets
and dancers. The cycle although imperfect will be
perpetuated. Indeed life and art in order to evolve and
survive must be able to change.
Eliot is reflecting
that life in its eternal spiral is forever tainted with
lost innocence, and with death as its punishment, which
is the everlasting shadow on the human condition. The joy
of Eden is a fragile echo of wholeness, but the agony of
the birth and death process are the ultimate brutal
points on life's cyclical pattern. They are made yet more
painful when compared so closely with the laughter and
ecstasy of what might have been.
The disease is required to bring the soiled cycle of existence back to its former healthful and blissful beginning and to remind the reader of our and Adam's curse:
Eliot returns to a slightly hesitant blank verse in the fifth section as he considers his personal feelings about poetry, language and life. He is still concerned with the circular pattern, with the bonding of opposites, but feels that God-given life is corrupted by the man-made mess of which he is a wasted part. Eliot feels that words, as the tools of the poet, are inadequate to express the enormity of this tragedy. One can optimise their use and master them as a technical medium, but this does not avoid their limitations. Nor does it allow mere literary achievement to compensate for the failure of the poet to understand or express the experience of his wasted years to the profound depth in which he feels it:
It appears that the discussion of the 'mess of imprecision' and sense of failure in the final section is the reflection of middle-aged maturity rather than maudlin or self-indulgent pessimism. Perhaps it is Eliot's Christianity which prompts him to finish on a strong note of hope. Eliot reasons that:
Thus old age can prepare one for death, and the exploration of its inevitability can be used to enhance the living process. This reflection will then transform the desolation of what we see as death into a positive perspective within the cycle of mortality in which dying is just another part of living imparted by Christ, the joy of resurrection and the sacred cycle:
In conclusion, it
appears that, for Eliot, once death is accepted as part
of the messy legacy of humanity, the cycle of human
existence can be perceived as a process of birth, death
and triumphant regeneration. This view is based on his
belief in enduring Christian principles and the spiritual
and physical evolution of humanity towards a greater good.
Throughout East Coker Eliot is commenting on the
apparent contradictions of the human condition. He
illustrates this by melding together disparities as he
describes the human cycle of birth/death, food/dung,
renewal/decay. He uses a variety of linguistic devices to
reflect these extremities, and includes classical quotes,
popular references, archaic language and biblical
allusion. Thus this use of language is intended as a
linguistic metaphor for the disjunctions and
contradictions that compose the conflicting states within
the cycle of mortality and the nature of humankind's