T. S. Eliot
Four Quartets: The Sign and the Symbol

The use of language, (taking into account the reader-response theory of Wolfgang Iser), and the cyclical nature of East Coker
by Nick Ambler
For more on T S Eliot see The T S Eliot Page

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.

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 [1] 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 [2] 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' [3]. 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. [4]

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:

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass. [5]

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 introduces human existence into this dichotomy with the double meaning he invests in the word 'houses'. The material house is built by people and like them it perishes with age. Similarly, the historical, biblical and family house such as the House of David or House of Tudor also rises and falls on the peaks and troughs of fate and fortune until it is replaced by another house, family or monarch. The House of Windsor for example replaced the House of Hanover.

Despite the trauma of destruction and regeneration suggested by 'old timber to the new fires,' [6] with the pangs of human birth and death, Eliot is celebrating rather than lamenting the single transient contribution to the cyclical nature of existence. The essence of the poem lies therefore in its solid sense of, and understanding of, the unity of the pattern, not in the surface textual allusions. The allusions are there to fulfil this functional purpose within the structure of the poem, and are not a lofty or esoteric end in themselves, or a puzzle for readers to solve.

One finds that Eliot incorporates a range of different forms of language, which he uses to varied but intended effect. He is as concerned with the use and resurrection of language as he is with the life and death cycle of mortality. He finds the use and reuse of obsolete language an apposite parallel to the destruction and regeneration of our physical existence. For example he integrates lines from Spenser's Epithalamion into East Coker:

In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie -
A dignified and commodious sacrament.
Two and two, necessary conjunction, [7]

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.

The impact of the words, however, then, as now, is determined by a man-made construction that can supersede actual meaning. Meaning is never pure because it is corrupted by context and the process of decay. So words, for Eliot, remain the inexact and limited tools of humankind. They must all be used and worked hard to provide the most powerful if imperfect form of expression.

With the inclusion of Spenser's lines Eliot is demonstrating the potential for language to be enriched when archaic forms and spellings are bonded into the poetry of the present. The wheel of language can be transformed into a continuing spiral which, with use, can feed off past and present usage and so perpetuate itself so long as writers make innovative use of it and do not allow it to ossify. This process of course also depends, in keeping with reader-response theory, on readers continuing to read and re-read the text.

Thus whilst words and literature can progress through reinvention, and individual people die whilst the human species evolves, one must remember that death is necessarily part of the living process of 'eating and drinking, dung and death.' These are the characteristics of the imperfect life-cycle that humankind has had to endure since the fall from Eden, and language is the equally manifest but corrupted medium through which life is perceived and expressed. Eliot illustrates his parallel between the restrictions of life and limitations of language in Burnt Norton:

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach,
Into the silence. [8]

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:

And all is always now. Words strain
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. [9]

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 birth of the new and unfamiliar creates what Iser calls the 'identification process' [10] for the responsive reader. Like Eliot, the reader identifies the familiarity of the past, but this is not at once the familiar ground on which we are all able to experience the new. It is identifying the unity of familiar if diverse linguistic and literary components from which Eliot creates the unfamiliar, and from which he fashions the new from the old. Therefore, the reader shares the identification process with Eliot as he takes old but identifiable material to construct that which is new, unfamiliar but immediately identifiable to those readers who have analysed the construction process, and in Iser's reader-response terminology, 'realised' the text along with Eliot.

In the second of the Four Quartets we have further echoes of earlier writers. One very precise image which openly focuses on Eliot's concern for unifying disparate, but familiar elements is borrowed from Stevenson's Requiem:

The houses are all gone under the sea
The dancers are all gone under the hill, [11]

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:

Time present and time past
are both perhaps present in time future, [12]

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 was a confirmed and conservative member of the high Anglican church. He saw life as a blessing and a burden. Post-lapsarian guilt sharpens his awareness of what humankind is, and could have been. In Eliot's view we can now only accept the weight of existence and the burden of loss it carries. In the third section darkness and light, stasis and dancing are juxtaposed until we have the poignant memory of Eden with the loss and gain of its memory:

The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth. [13]

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.

In the fourth section Eliot suddenly changes verse form as he moves form predominantly blank verse to a controlled alternate line rhyming scheme. He examines the religious issues of human responsibility resulting from 'Adam's curse'. Humankind's existence, for Eliot is founded on the ultimate paradox. After the fall from paradise we are reborn in the death of Christ and the promise of the resurrection to the former state of grace. This prompts Eliot to illustrate the cyclical nature of illness and cure by a further fusion of opposites melded towards spiritual redemption:

Our only health is our disease. [14]

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:

And to be restored our sickness must grow worse. [15]

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:

So here I am in the middle way, having had twenty years -
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure.
Because one has only learned to get the better of words. [16]

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:

Old men ought to be explorers. [17]

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 my end is my beginning. [18]

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 existence.

1 Four Quartets. pp. 21-27
2 The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach
3 Ibid. p. 55
4 Ibid. p. 50
5 Four Quartets. p. 21
6 Ibid. p. 21
7 Ibid. p. 22
8 Ibid. p. 17
9 Ibid. p. 17
10 The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach
11 Four Quartets p. 24
12 Ibid. p. 13
13 Ibid. p. 25
14 Ibid. p. 25
15 Ibid. p. 25
16 Ibid. p. 25
17 Ibid. p. 17
18 Ibid. p. 27

T. S. Eliot. Four Quartets. London: Faber and Faber. 1986
Wolfgang Iser. 'The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach', in Reader-Response Criticism, (pp. 50-69) Jane. P. Tomkins (Ed.) London: John Hopkins University Press. 1980

© Nick Ambler, April 2003

See also: The T S Eliot Page > T S Eliot Books >

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