What does constitute a great piece of fiction? In our Literature & Composition: Year 1 class, we are reading the bittersweet classic by Margaret Craven, I Heard the Owl Call My Name. The story is about a young Anglican pastor, Mark Brian, who is sent to a rural native community in British Columbia, and concerns his spiritual and internal growth as he learns to love this land and people, unaware that he himself will soon die. Each year when I reread it, I choke up, no matter how much I’ve prepared myself beforehand for the moving conclusion. The book has such power because it speaks truths with beauty and simplicity; the author’s restrained diction causes the reader to genuinely feel the unspoken, deep emotions which the characters express, often through what they do not say as they face their trials and joys. The straightforward yet imagistic style of the book also goes along with the setting and flavor of the native culture, since the people there, in addition to living without most of the material comforts of modern life, are without guile. I Heard the Owl Call My Name also speaks to what is best in us, pointing our souls towards the spiritual values which lie deep within through its symbolic language, borrowed from the natural world.
The novel uses foreshadowing and contrasts between two disparate cultures in organic ways which function as a tapestry, weaving together plot development, theme, and tone to connect the reader emotionally with the characters and their culture. From the first page wherein we a learn that the young pastor is unaware that he is dying, until the closing chapters in which the earthly and spiritual pilgrimages of Mark come to a fitting and moving conclusion, the reader accompanies Mark on his journey towards Love.
The perfect novel is a vessel which contains a unity of subject, thought, and spirit. The perfect novel inspires and rejuvenates our souls, calling us towards the transcendent. The perfect novel leaves us with the sense that we are more complete than we were before we read it; we are more than the sum of our parts; we more keenly know and feel our connections to humanity and to our spiritual roots.
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.