The previous article in this series discussed how to choose evidences for an essay. You must have solid “facts” or examples from your texts in order to begin to interpret a text, and your choices must be based on what you’ve decided to write your essay about, specifically. That’s the most challenging part of finding your evidences.
Learning how to write analysis and interpretation means learning how to think independently. The most difficult thing – the key skill — in learning to interpret and understand texts is to learn how to dig into the specific diction of that work. This article addresses how to interpret literary texts.
Before analyzing a work, first find the most important theme, and it’s essential to know that a theme is more than an idea and cannot be described in just one word. Rather, a theme, as the “message” of the text, is a phrase which expresses a deep meaning of this message. For instance, in The Fellowship of the Ring, a powerful theme is that true love means being willing to sacrifice oneself for the sake of others, even to the point of death. For an example of how to analyze a poem, see my article on Robert Frost’s poem, “Frost Thoughts: Poetry with a Punch.”
Interpreting and writing about a short poem is the best way to learn how to analyze a work, both because a student can focus on a specific, focused amount of text, and because the diction of a poem is concentrated and powerful. Studying poetry is the most helpful technique for learning about the various types of literary terms/devices have (metaphor, alliteration, etc.), the real focus should be on recognizing this figurative language and then explicating how it informs the text. It’s a skill which is gained through careful, aware reading and practice. And unlike what many believe about the art of analyzing literature, it’s a rich experience to learn the “secrets” of understanding literature: it is the key to unlocking the mysteries of writing which enlighten us, fulfill us, and help us grow and learn.
In this article I discuss how specificity and detail are your answers to solving the “mystery” of writing. The example I use is that of an academic essay, but specificity applies to all writing genres.
The Sherlock Holmes analogy springs to life again as we talk about the heart of your writing. If you are Holmes investigating 1) You look for evidences and develop a theory about how the crime was committed; 2) You use a theory and look for evidences. Solving a mystery is both analytic and synthetic (inductive and deductive).
When you write, your topic/subject is your mystery. Your topic must be specific, just as Holmes solves particular riddles. He doesn’t think about mysteries in general; in fact, when he has no particular mystery to solve, he falls into deep depression and resorts to taking cocaine!
Instructors often say, “Don’t be too specific, and don’t be too vague,” but most people should focus on the last part of that advice, as the challenge of writing is usually to clarify your point, not broaden it. So let’s say you want to write an academic essay about Frodo, based on The Fellowship of the Ring. You’ve decided that the theme you focus on is that of his self-sacrifice, so you write a thesis which asserts that the Shire is saved because Frodo is willing to take on the sacrificial quest of destroying the ring. Great–you’ve solved one aspect of the mystery! Now what?
You need to find “clues” from the text–evidences–which support your claim. For instance, Frodo accepts the dangerous assignment when Gandolf asks him to do it. Second, he continues the quest even when the Black Riders attempt to stop him and turn him into a wraith. And you continue on, finding other times when Frodo continues the journey. You can even go into times when he almost gives in to the power of the Ring, as these are also ways in which he would have given up the quest. (If you are writing an academic essay, be sure to use brief quotes from the text as your “evidences.”)
How do you determine whether an evidence/clue is an important one or not? Sherlock often runs across “red herrings” in his investigations: evidences which seem relevant to the crime, but are not. While it’s easier to determine what textual evidences which relate to your topic than it is for Sherlock to sort his clues out, it can sometimes be challenging to decide which are important.
Choosing the best textual evidences takes judgment and effort. First, find all of the examples you think are important. Then review them and choose only the ones you think are the strongest: do they push your thesis forward? Do they cause the reader to make deeper connections between your point and the text? How do your evidences help the reader to “see” the point you are making? Always loop back to your thesis and reassess as you flip back and forth between thinking about how powerfully your evidences develop your thesis and rereading the thesis. As with detective work, your strongest evidences will lead you to the strongest results!
With point #4 I investigate the pros and cons of outlining, as determiners of personality types!
There are two kinds of people: those who outline, and those who don’t. That’s how I see the world, anyway, based on my decades of experience in teaching
students of all ages how to write. Most writing programs do require students to learn how to outline, and it’s a necessary skill. But not all students write well by starting with an outline. Here’s why–how can I know beforehand what the details of my paper will be? If you think about it, you don’t know when you begin to write what you are specifically going to write about, so how can you outline information you haven’t thought out yet?
The idea of an outline is that you will lay out a map, or blueprint, for your essay. This makes perfect sense, but writing isn’t like that. If we could neatly write an outline, in order, the minute we wanted to write a paper, we would hardly need to write the essay at all because the order and development of the concepts would be obvious! However, some people do work best with outlines because they find that having all of their “ducks in a row” before they begin to write actual sentences is most helpful.
Others of us work backwards and find that we need to write down our ideas in a somewhat random manner and then put them in order, once we consider how they relate to each other. We find it much easier to “see” their relationships before they are listed in a formal manner.
You are probably familiar with an alternative method which has been developed, called by various names: the “cluster,” “spider diagramming,” “bubble,”
“mind map,” or “brainstorming” method. This is a helpful approach for people who are intimidated by outlining or whose thought processes don’t work well for outlining, especially when first learning to write. Another method of helping students develop the frameworks for their essays is to simply have them write their ideas down using phrases, either on paper or typed on the computer, leaving a space or line between ideas. Then they can number them, circle them, etc., with arrows going from one to another – whatever works for them, in order to get the ideas ordered. From there they can make an outline fairly easily.
The Jane Schaffer method of teaching writing, which is the method I use, is a wonderful way to bring in outlining through the side door. It gives students a “place to hang their hats” without constraining them to develop complex outlines, yet they really are outlining their essays organically. The difference is that as they develop their essays they think conceptually about categories, integrating their content logically as they progress. You can find my article about the Schaffer method at https://writetothink.blog/the-writing-process/.
As I say to my students: Writing is structured, but it’s not formulaic. It’s analytical, but it’s also synthetic. It’s the development of logical thought, not just the explication of it. Write to think!
I continue the series by discussing the classical writing technique of “imitation” and how to apply this today.
In the classical education renewal movement there are attempts to get back to the art of imitation in writing. Traditionally this meant that scholars would imitate classical writers in a detailed manner, creating phrases and clauses which directly mimicked the grammar of the master they were modeling their work after. All of these present programs and efforts are laudable, but it is important to take into account the background of today’s students before offering up the most traditional kind of imitation curriculum. Here’s why:
In previous times a fully classical education included an exhaustive understanding of grammatical concepts, both in English and in Latin. While many “classically schooled” students today receive some solid grammar training, most don’t get the “full story.” (There are a few programs such as Rod and Staff or the Seton Home Study School which do provide the full complement of grammar.)
Students who receive only the rudiments of grammar in their early years should not try to “imitate” in the fully classical way in middle school and high school. Rather, they should be given assignments in which they model their work after others without trying to directly imitate their sentence structures. I base this suggestion on my experience attempting to get students who don’t have a full understanding of sentence structure to “imitate” in the traditional way. What happens with these students is that they end up struggling so hard to replicate structures they do not understand that they never move past that to produce good writing themselves. They often complete the assignments in stilted ways, just trying to get through them. At the crucial time when they should be learning to argue and analyze texts, they are instead caught up in the weeds for the sake of a “classical” education, which will in all likelihood not help them to be better writers in the long run.
If students have received genuinely complete training in grammar, they can benefit some from imitating the great writers in the traditional way. However, all students should be given assignments which focus on the diction of the works they study. This is the emphasis of the AP® (Advanced Placement) approach to teaching and testing in English and composition. First, by analyzing the diction (literary devices, tone, etc.) of great writers, all students come to understand the “nuts and bolts” of how the best authors communicate through both synthesis and analysis. Second, by responding to short assignments requiring them to compose in such a manner themselves without “worrying” about the specifics of grammar they have not learned students begin to truly model themselves after and “imitate” the finest writing. I believe that for most students today, this approach is the most helpful.
In Point #1 of this series about how to teach writing I briefly discussed the underlying connection between logic and writing and how your job as a parent/teacher is to point this connection out to your students on a daily basis, in as many areas as possible.
Point #2: Learning Isn’t Just About the Facts
Because learning to write is such a holistic activity and experience, it’s more important than ever to take the student’s attitude into account. Many students have trepidation about writing: they don’t know what is expected, and even when given good instructions their thoughts may be so “frozen” that they cannot think clearly. Here are two suggestions for helping students get past this “writer’s block.”
First, give the student a brief initial assignment which is easy. Praise the student for specific phrases which are good. Do not focus on minor grammar issues at this point, but instead, bring out the positive content you see. You can almost always find something good to say about any genuine effort a student has made.
Second, when you do get to where you want the student to edit, do not use strictly negative words and phrases such as “No” or “That’s not right.” If you do, the recalcitrant student will return to the “frozen” mode because of fear of failure. Here are are some helpful phrases I use which work well: “That’s a good start, and also _______”; “You’re almost there, but you also need to _______”; “Not quite; let’s see how you can _________.” Students will learn that your phrases mean that aspects of the work aren’t what they should be, but they won’t shut down or feel that you are rejecting their efforts altogether; they will be want to improve and feel capable of improving.
Having academic standards for students is different from putting unrealistic emotional pressure on them. It’s our job as teachers to figure out the ways we can inspire and motivate students so that they not only learn, but love learning.
When you write, you connect the dots between language and logic. It’s a two-way street: The more you write, the more logical you become, and likewise, the more logical you are, the better writer you become.
This series of mini-articles will present specific ways in which teachers, and specifically homeschool parents/teachers, can teach writing well. These steps will not be formulaic, but they will be structured. There is a big difference.
Structured writing is writing which has purpose and direction. It is a given that for students to learn write in a structured manner, they must have the basics of grammar under their belts. They use the “tools” of grammar to build the structures, or frameworks, of their essays. All writers should strive to be consciously structured in their writing. In other words, they should attempt to control their phrases and sentences, and the ways in which they express themselves.
Formulaic writing is writing which demands that students use particular kinds phrases and clauses to create their work in particular and specific order–for instance, when a student is required to use phrases in assignments starting with certain types of words, such as prepositions, adverbs, verbs, etc. While it might be helpful to train students in this sort of formula for a year or so, in the long run there are negatives which supersede the positives. The significant problem with this method is that it is an overly regimented way of teaching students how to think about how to write. What should be part of a comprehensive grammar program (usually not taught now) has been tacked onto the larger writing curriculum in an attempt to belatedly teach the students these grammatical constructs. I admit that the opposite problem, that of not teaching any rules of writing at all, is not good. In fact, it’s worse. But that doesn’t make teaching writing formulaically a good solution. It’s not.
I think this gets back to the recent interpretation by “classical” learning advocates of the Dorothy L. Sayers essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning.” In this interpretation and application of how to teach, recent “classical” educators write curriculum based on a legalistic misunderstanding of the stages of learning. This is preposterous and Sayers, I am sure, would not agree with its extremity and rigidity. Children can think logically and independently from an early age; they can put their own thoughts together logically, although of course their levels of maturity must be taken into account. But to separate out their ability to think for themselves according to age is a completely fallacious approach to learning.
All that to lead up to my Point #1 for teaching writing:
Point #1: Teach the student how to focus and think logically. This is the background for learning to write a “unified” essay, but a thesis is merely a result of this kind of good thinking. You can do this by helping the student focus on whatever you discuss during the day, not just during school time. Teach the child how to draw logical conclusions from opinions, no matter what the subject.
There are various approaches to understanding poetry. In the 20th century, the rise of literary criticism began the process teachers now use of analyzing specific literary (rhetorical) devices such as similes, metaphors, etc. to explain the poem. In the 19th century, though, the focus was on having students memorize the poetry and experience the language of the works as a whole. Which approach is best? My answer is both. Memorizing a poem “makes it your own,” but understanding the diction leads you to richer understanding which causes the poetry to enter deeply into your soul.
Today, honors courses require that students take the poems apart rhetorically. This approach to literature, and poetry specifically, is due to the influence of the New Critics, the group of 20th century authors who popularized the idea of literary criticism. They, and their approach, are no longer “in vogue” in universities today, due to the rise of
Marxist-feminist and other post-modern critical approaches. But in truth, literary criticism as we know it owes its existence to the New Critics such as I. A. Richards, et al, since they taught us how to break apart diction with such careful and specific techniques.
Some assert that analyzing literature rhetorically in this manner “ruins” the enjoyment of it; this is not true. Like any aspect of learning, the more you understand the specifics of the topic, the better you can appreciate its unity. Those who have had negative experiences “digging into” literature have simply had poor teachers who have not successfully passed on the truth that in the humanities, we must comprehend what we read both inductively and deductively, and when a student is challenged to do this, he begins the process of independent thinking, of unifying his thought so as to see the poem as a powerful communicator of truths, both emotional and spiritual.
Let us take Robert Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” as an instance of a poem which yields rich results when we “unpack” it rhetorically. Here is the poem:
“Nothing Gold Can Stay” ~ Robert Frost
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Frost is deceptive. He uses nature to write “beautiful” poetry, but upon examination, we find that his diction is complex, and if we are not extremely careful in approaching the poem, we will be led astray, rather like a detective who is distracted by false evidence, and thus misses the clues which will lead him to discover the true topic at hand.
Although he lived during the time of the development of modern poetry, or “free verse,” which abandoned traditional rhyme schemes and meters, Frost despised this movement. He famously quipped that writing free verse is “like playing tennis with the net down.” In other words, without the rules, there is no poem, no way to create a work of value and structure. Thus, Frost’s poetry is traditional, but deceptively so because of his informal diction; he appears to be holding a conversation with us over the backyard fence or a cup of coffee, when in fact he is always giving us fresh assessments about life and the world, and our relation to it as humans.
After reading the poem out loud, we establish the rhyme pattern. (For those already familiar with these basics, please forgive this brief review.) The rhyme pattern is that referred to as “couplets,” as two consecutive lines rhyme before moving on to the next set of two. Always use lower case letters to show a rhyme pattern, as shown at the end of each line. Frost’s is traditional here, as always:
flower/hour b (skip the “er” in flower, and read it in the 19th century way, as “flow’r”)
leaf/grief c day/stay d
We engage next with the meter: The rhythm of the poem. Each syllable is stressed or unstressed in our natural speaking manner, creating the “patterns” we know as “meter.” The first and last lines do not line up with the meter of the rest of the poem; lines 2-7 are strictly iambic, but the first and last lines are not. Iambic meter means that the first syllable is stressed, and the second is not. There are two syllables in each “iamb”; each “iamb” is called a “foot.” A poet may have as many “feet” in a line as he chooses. Frost chooses to have three in his lines here, so this is called iambic trimeter.
But let’s get back to the intrigue of those first and last lines not being iambic. Why? The lines have more stressed (emphasized) syllables in them than the iambic lines. When a poet uses stressed syllables in this manner, he is drawing the reader’s attention to these lines. Frost wants us to notice these first and last lines because they are communicating his theme. Additionally, he uses alliteration to pound home the stress: the hard “g” sound in “green” and “gold” wakes us up. Let’s look at the first line:
The emphasized (stressed syllables) are shown in capital letters:
NAture’s first GREEN is GOLD.
Nature, green, and gold are emphasized. We get it that this poem is about nature. But—is it? Why is nature’s first green also gold? Is that true? Nature’s first green is actually in spring. How can green be gold? The leaves turn gold in the fall, right before they die and fall off. So even in the first line, Frost is presenting us with a dilemma—a quandary. Let’s go on and see if we can find some explanation in the next three lines:
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Gold is the hardest hue (color) to retain. Why? – because the leaves are dying. While the shimmering gold leaf is the height of beauty, it is also bittersweet; it is a sign of impending death. So, this poem might not be about how beautiful nature is; it might be about something else, such as, perhaps, that death is inevitable. And, not only is death unavoidable: importantly, life’s climax, this nadir of perfect glory, is fleeting, and even as the leaves enjoy their golden glory, they are moving towards death, as we are.
The next line is tricky, but is a continuation of his now clear theme, that life is temporal, and we are all on a journey towards death:
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
The question here is: What does “subsides” mean, in context? It can mean lessen, become less severe, etc. We can discover what Frost means by paraphrasing some: As it dies, one leaf gives way to another leaf which will spring fresh in spring, green and bright. A leaf dies, but it is replaced by another, new leaf: the cycle begins again, and the process repeats itself each year. That’s fine, but – didn’t we already know that? Frost was just laying the groundwork: now he goes on to zing his point home in the last three lines, explaining all in the poem’s “shift”:
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Most poems have this “shift”- a point where the author surprises the reader somehow as he changes his viewpoint; it might be a minor twist, or it might be a big one. It’s minor in this poem, if you’ve been paying close attention. Paraphrased, the first of these lines says,
“In the same manner, death came into the world through the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.” The allusion to Eden encapsulates much, but it’s key to understanding the poem; “thus death came into the world,” as the New Testament says. Notice the word “sank” in the phrase “sank to grief,” which implies that originally, the progression to death did not exist. There was a better world, but we do not live in that world. We must accept not only the mortality of nature in general, but our own mortality.
Although Frost is not religious, he relies heavily upon this Judeo-Christian understanding of the nature of humanity: death entered into the world, and it is inevitable. Think about the line
So dawn goes down to day
Here is another quandary. Shouldn’t dawn be the beginning of day; don’t we say that the sun comes “up”? Isn’t it sunset that goes “down”? Why does dawn go “down” to day? You may already see the answer: because dawn brings forthanother day, time has progressed. The dawn goes “down” not only because it disappears as day springs forth, but because it is another harbinger, a marker on the march of time towards death.
The poem concludes with a strong accent on the word “nothing,” which we now understand much more clearly than we did when we read it as the title:
NOTHing gold can stay.
The unspoken messages are now clear: life is precious, but transient, and we should value every minute, for we do not know when the golden leaves of our lives will drift into eternity. Nature’s first green is gold because the very start of life (spring, green) is also the beginning of our journey towards death—we eventually become “gold,” when we reach our maturity, and then will soon pass from this life to the next. We may or may not believe in the biblical explanation for the brief nature of our lives, but we know that its point is true. And, he implies, if we accept this reality, we will have a better chance of appreciating the life we experience here, before we “shuffle off this mortal coil.”
I realize this is a shibboleth among educators today, but I’m going here anyway: recent studies have shown that there is no valid scientific evidence to show that particular students (of any nature) learn better through either an auditory, visual, or a kinesthetic approach. In other words, there are no individual learning modes. As someone who has spent quite a bit of time learning about and teaching special needs students, I do realize that the “received wisdom” in today’s educational community directly contradicts this assertion.
I have always quietly questioned the “learning styles” approach for several reasons. First–and this is purely anecdotal–I have never personally observed any remarkable improvement in a student I have taught due to using lessons which were based on how that student’s learning style had been assessed, even when I was working in special education, applying these lessons diligently.
Second, as a devotee of the Mae Carden philosophy of education (in addition to having attended a Carden school as a child and having received training in the method as an adult), I have absorbed her pedagogy: all students should learn through multiple senses: “reading, listening, speaking, and writing,” as Miss Carden put it. In other words, we develop our intellects by using our various God-given senses. Mae Carden also emphasized individualized learning. By this she did not mean developing an entire new curriculum for each student, but rather, the teacher’s taking the time to work individually with each student. Miss Carden trusted the good teacher to work at finding ways to connect with students. ( I was acquainted with her personally, and know this to be true.) She knew that a teacher who cares about her students will be given the ability to help them when she makes the effort. This is why it is important to keep class sizes small: most classical educators’ experience is that a class which has more than 15 or 16 students is not going to meet the individual needs of students. The teacher simply cannot “divide herself up” during the class period so as to meet the particular questions of students, if the class is large.
My experiences teaching larger classes live online for others for almost a decade have borne out this belief. Because my own five children are grown, and because my husband is a surgeon who works long hours, I had the time to work very long hours in order to give my many online students the individual attention they deserve, through email and phone conversations. However, larger classes are not good, even when the teacher is willing (and able) to give this kind of time commitment, because some students “slip through the cracks” during the class period, and do not learn to interact and grow intellectually through the class discussions. Because I now run my own school, I am able to restrict the class sizes appropriately.
Finally, from a broad philosophical view, the idea that we use multiple senses makes sense, because we all are human beings. That may sound simplistic, but if you think about it, it’s perfectly logical. When teachers engage students by bringing multiple senses to bear, they are teaching the “whole child.” We are whole people, not fractured beings, artificially segmented into disparate parts. It’s not possible to separate out our thoughts and inclinations into neat categories, although it certainly is a temptation!
This is not to say that we do not have different “preferred” styles of learning. I might like to learn by watching videos or listening to audio books, but there is no evidence that I learn better through my preferred modalities. In fact, I may not learn nearly as well through these methods. And this brings up the underlying point: it is a teacher’s job to help a student develop a love for learning, in all modalities; as Carden herself said, “Life is a joy, so should be learning.”
The assertion I am presenting here, while backed up with solid studies, is not popular. The government has learned how to usurp our tax money from us in ways that supposedly help our children who struggle with the accepted public school modes of learning. Other “individualistic” pedagogy popular in the homeschool movement have latched onto the “learning modes” philosophy; finally, well-meaning parents who want to find ways to understand their own children’s struggles have claimed this explanation because they have been duped.
Nothing replaces individual interaction with a dedicated teacher/mentor. In the ancient classical world, those lucky few who were educated had tutors who guided them into learning with personalized attention. For the past century or so, “educators” since John Dewey have been trying to find a magic bullet which will replace this traditional approach. The result has been a disastrous experiment which has damaged our children and our society beyond measure. Unfortunately, many so-called “classical educators” participate in this experiment, either unwittingly or wittingly. There is no replacement, no magic bullet. There is only the difficult but rewarding work of learning how to learn.
I teach writing according to the Jane Schaffer writing method, used by high achieving schools in their honors and AP programs. The Schaffer pedagogy meets the definition of “classical” because it leads students into developing critical thinking skills at an early age. Schaffer is qualitatively different from other popular “classical” writing methods, because Schaffer teaches them how to analyze, interpret, and assess ideas. Put another way: students’ minds are engaged in such a manner that they are inspired to develop independent thought. This is because students are led to ponder what a character’s (or historical figure’s) motivations are, or what the consequences of his or her actions or words are, within the context of the theme and diction of the story.
Schaffer is simply a codification of how analytical writing was taught traditionally. As I often tell students, they are like Sherlock Holmes walking onto a crime scene. They must look at the situation presented, as a whole, and from that assess what the important “evidences” are. The Schaffer method calls these “concrete details” (CDs). From there, students use the context of these facts to determine the theme(s) of the text. Why did the author use those facts at that point? Students also bring their own knowledge of life and universal truths to bear on the situation: What is the point of the passage? What does it reveal about the character, or what message is the author communicating to the reader?
When students begin to think analytically, they begin to think independently. Of course, this is the goal of a classical education, not the memorization of a bucketful of facts or texts. The necessity of having such skills before entering the halls of higher education cannot be overemphasized. The Jane Schaffer approach takes time to learn in the beginning–students are building up their “deductive” muscles. But with guidance and practice, they become independent thinkers.
The “method” is a proven way to bringing students’ minds to bear, in order to train them to focus so that they successfully learn the process of analytical reasoning. As students begin to incorporate the techniques so that they think and write inferentially, they no longer need the Schaffer steps, as they have begun the process of independent thinking–the ultimate goal of our educational efforts.
We cannot have it both ways, and no sneers at the limitations of logic . . . amend the dilemma. ~ I. A. Richards
In a film my graduate class viewed on T. S. Eliot, one of the people interviewed stated that Eliot converted to Christianity merely because he came to believe that a Western man can only partake of Western tradition—he cannot truly appreciate or understand Eastern philosophy and religion, as he is culturally an integral part of the West. I find this statement to be an intolerable condescension—a prejudicial way of denying the validity of Eliot’s religious experiences without denying his artistic greatness. For it is only just to attribute to Eliot the Anglican the same characteristics one attributes to Eliot the searching agnostic: the qualities of honesty, desire for truth, deep thought, and consummate intellect.
It is universally recognized that Eliot’s poetry draws upon the history and traditions of both East and West, but with his post-Wasteland (post-conversion) poetry a question has arisen as to what extent his works contain not just reference to the Eastern tradition (that is a given), but also—to what extent they incorporate the essence of Eastern philosophy, as opposed to that of Christianity. In other words, how Christian, in the orthodox sense, is Eliot’s later poetry? An investigation of the concept of time in “East Coker” in light of Eliot’s post-conversion worldview, as compared to the Eastern (Hindu) understanding, sheds light upon the meaning of the Four Quartets and specifically here, in “East Coker.”
Four Quartets contains evidence that Eliot’s conversion was a deeply thought out shift in philosophy which affected the entire framework upon which he viewed his personal existence in space and time, and that of modern society. To discover any less would be to reveal a disappointingly shallow thinker who had lost his moorings in a sea of confusing and contradictory panaceas, grasping at Christianity in the desperate hope of finding some answer—any answer—to the modern dilemma. If Eliot truly converted to Christianity but did not infuse his work with his beliefs, then he was, in the final analysis, a hypocritical and duplicitous poet.
Eastern and Western concepts of time are fundamentally different. The Eastern concept of time is circular—symbolized by the wheel or mandala—and the Western concept is linear. Since FourQuartets describes various cycles and since Eliot often utilizes Eastern cultural references, critics have made the connection with the circular mandala. However, I propose that the cycles seen in the “Quartets” represent a more linear, Western concept of time than is generally appreciated. In the Four Quartets, Eliot presents cycles repeating along a linear course, which in three dimensional space could be thought of as a focusing spiral, a concept analogous to the traditional, Western literary device of the seasons repeating their cycles in the context of advancing time: not the same as, but reminiscent of, Yeats’ widening gyre.
What is the fundamental philosophical difference between the mandala and the seasonal cycles? The Eastern wheel returns repeatedly upon itself, while the progressing element of the seasonal cycles allows for variance and newness to occur. Thus, the more linear concept of seasonal cycles reflects Eliot’s Christian theology (Eden -> sin -> fall -> birth -> death -> resurrection -> salvation ->conclusion), while the mandala, revolving upon itself, yields the solipsistic experience of continuous reincarnation.
It is with these differences in mind that we turn to the Four Quartets and the nature of Eliot’s view of time, as reflected, specifically, in “East Coker.” East Coker is the town to which Eliot’s family moved when they came to England from America, and it was in that same Somerset district that their ancestors had also lived. In Section I of the poem, the narrator associates himself with the past through family ancestry and through all of the generations in time (Weitz 60). The section begins “In my beginning is my end, “ and goes on to list all of the things that are either “removed” or “restored”: houses, open fields, factories, a bypass, fires, ashes, bones, leaves . . . and subsequent to the list, an Ecclesiastical placing of these events in time. Each creation or destruction is placed within its own framework:
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto. (I: 9-13)
By using the structure of Ecclesiastes’ “a time . . . ” to open the poem, Eliot conjures up the consciousness of the Western, Judaeo-Christian concept of time; it is ordered; it is both developmental and progressive in nature. The timber goes to the fire; the fire to the ashes, the ashes to earth; the earth is flesh, fur, feces. The ecological “chain” must move in orderly progression concluding at its starting point, the earth itself. Its cycle is a natural, empirical one, not a philosophical one. “In my beginning is my end” is signified not only through the narrator’s return to his ancestral home, but by the earth’s continual metamorphosis as it cycles, making “all things new.” In the end of Section I, the ancestors’ lives are also described in terms of Ecclesiastes, thus associating the narrator’s present visit with their past—they stand together as one experience:
. . . [K]eeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living season
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of a man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling,
Eating and drinking, Dung and death. (I: 40-47)
In the second stanza we see the thesis: “In my beginning is my end” gather into itself the future. If time makes all things temporary, changing and metamorphosing them, the future is part of that; the future is actually integral to the present and the past:
In a warm haze the sultry heat
Is absorbed not refracted, by grey stone. (I: 20-21)
Just as the light is absorbed, not refracted, so the experiences of the past and present are melded into the events of the future. All earthly experiences will disappear, but as Eliot makes clear in “Burnt Norton,” the foundational poem of the set, there is found in the midst of it a “still point of the turning world.” This still, permanent point, the Word of God, the Logos made flesh in Christ (V in “Burnt Norton”) is the eternal, unchanging locus about which all other events, past, present and future, revolve, and in which they are actually contained: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of the Lord endures forever” (Isaiah 40:8).
Section I Ends:
. . . Dawn points, and another day
Prepares for heat and silence. Out at seas the dawn wind
Wrinkles and slides. I am here.
Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning. (I: 48-51)
The dawn is “point”ing towards another day—time progresses—but it also points towards the narrator’s place “here . . . there or elsewhere. In my beginning.” As the new day dawns it brings a new time, but not a new identity. His beginning is also his end; he finds his being stable as he looks at himself in changing space and time, because is grounded by “the darkness of God”—that is, the overpowering, inexorable permanence of God (see II: 12-13).
The first strophe of Section II of “East Coker” is a contemplation of the seasons’ relationship to time:
What is the late November doing
With the disturbance of the spring
And the creatures of the summer heat,
And the snowdrops writhing under feet
And hollyhocks that aim too high
Red into grey and tumble down
Late roses filled with early snow? (I: 1-7)
While one critic sees this section as the seasons “cancel[ling] one another out rather than adding to a pattern” (Headings 127), I see the section as describing the tension between the seasons as a framework upon which time eventually concludes in “that destructive fire”—most likely the end of time as described in the book of Revelation and other places in the New Testament.
November is in tension with spring–summer creatures with snowdrops–roses with snow—all pull against each other and press time along to its final conclusion of “destructive fire,” even as earlier, the dawn has pointed towards it. The essence of the world in time as it is now will eventually disappear. In Yeatsian terms, “The center cannot hold”; “The houses are all gone under the sea. / The dancers are all gone under the hill (II: 49-50). In other words, nothing which is only “in time” will stand, because time deceives—it causes us to think we have a larger , more encompassing knowledge than we do: “The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies / For the pattern is new in every moment” (II: 34-35). Section II concludes with the only path for approaching God and thus, permanence and significance, ‘The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility; humility is endless” (II: 47-48).
Through humility one can attain eternal existence, because only through humility can the window be gained which will lead to knowledge of the Logos. But such self-abnegation is the hard road; one must, as Section III reveals, travel through the dark. The dark (the suffering God brings as the way to humility) will strip the soul of its pride and bring it to a place of recognizing the vanity of trying to discover any purpose outside of the context of the Logos. This process of developing humility occurs with an unfolding of time which reveals to the narrator the true insignificance of his own identity and existence in the universe and throughout time, as he looks back on all of time and imagines also the future.
This leads to the specifics of what it means to allow humility to have its way. At the end point are the qualities associated with the Logos itself, “But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.” In Section IV the Logos is symbolized in the person of a wounded surgeon, and the Church as a dying nurse (Headings 128)”:
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
beneath the bleeding hands we eel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart. (IV: 1-5)
Here the solution to impermanence is found: the deceived and the transitory state of mankind can be cured with healing through the Christ surgeon, by the Church, as is symbolized by Good Friday and Christ’s sacrificial death on that day (Headings 128). His sacrifice transcended time and covered the condition of mankind of all time—past, present and future—thus drawing together all of time and all people into one unit and given them a transcendent permanence and meaning. Thus the section concludes:
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood–
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good. (IV: 21-25)
Section V is contemplative; the poem draws a distinctive conclusion, an end point viewed through age, as the narrator looks back over twenty years. He sees failure and hopelessness in frail human attempts at greatness along the way. But these years of living reveal the need for a “further union, a deeper communion” (35-36). His final conclusion can be termed as a kind of Christian existentialism: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business” (18); our human responsibility is to follow the way of humility and let God and the unfolding of time and eternity determine the rest. In the final analysis then, there is only this—a clinging to the unchanging Word: “The here and now cease to matter” (30) because eternity is seen as having the only lasting and overriding value. However, specific individual experiences in time lead toward that eternity; the distinctly temporal journey propels one forward into the ultimate reality of “union and communion” with God. The poem closes by turning its opening phrase, “In my end is my beginning,” because the narrator has realized that eternally speaking, he is no more (or less) now than he was at birth; he is only of significance in terms of the Word as both the Alpha and the Omega.
By using the theme of time and then proceeding to compress, expand and unify it throughout the work, Eliot has give us a poem of lasting value and spiritual significance; when placed with the other poems in the Four Quartets it presents a kind of brief “poetic epic,” revealing an inner journey of a soul’s awakening to and discovery of eternal and transcendent values.