The Wisdom of Humility
Topic: Wisdom & Knowledge
Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
The houses are all gone under the sea.
The dancers are all gone under the hill.
Thomas Stearns Eliot, OM (26 September 1888 – 4 January 1965), was an essayist, publisher, playwright, literary and social critic, and "one of the twentieth century's major poets". Born in St. Louis, in the United States, he moved to England in 1914 at the age of 25, settling, working, and marrying there. He eventually became a British subject in 1927 at the age of 39, renouncing his American passport.
Eliot attracted widespread attention for his poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915), which was seen as a masterpiece of the Modernist movement. It was followed by some of the best-known poems in the English language, including The Waste Land (1922), "The Hollow Men" (1925), "Ash Wednesday" (1930), and Four Quartets (1943). He was also known for his seven plays, particularly Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and The Cocktail Party (1949). He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948, "for his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry".
Four Quartets - No. 2 East Coker
Eliot, Thomas Stearns. “Four Quartets - No. 2 East Coker.” www.davidgorman.com, David Gorman, June 2000, www.davidgorman.com/4Quartets/2-coker.htm.
T. S. Eliot
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Thomas Stearns Eliot, Four Quartets
Four Quartets are four interlinked meditations with the common theme being man’s relationship with time, the universe, and the divine. In describing his understanding of the divine within the poems, Eliot blends his Anglo-Catholicism with mystical, philosophical and poetic works from both Eastern and Western religious and cultural traditions, with references to the Bhagavad-Gita and the Pre-Socratics as well as St. John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich.
Four Quartets, No. 2 East Coker
East Coker is the second poem of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets…. The title refers to a small community that was directly connected to Eliot’s ancestry and was home to a church that was later to house Eliot’s ashes.
In 1939 T.S Eliot thought that he would be unable to continue writing poetry. In an attempt to see if he could still, he started copying aspects of Burnt Norton and substituted another place: East Coker, a place that Eliot visited in 1937 with the St Michael’s Church. The place held a particular importance to Eliot and his family because Andrew Eliot, Eliot’s ancestor, left the town to travel to America in 1669. A plaque dedicated to Eliot and his ashes reads “In my beginning is my end. Of your kindness, pray for the soul of Thomas Stearns Eliot, poet. In my end is my beginning.”
David Gorman’s Commentary
The poem discusses time and disorder within nature that is the result of humanity following only science and not the divine. Leaders are described as materialistic and unable to understand reality. The only way for mankind to find salvation is through pursuing the divine by looking inwards and realizing that humanity is interconnected. Only then can people understand the universe. Despite the poem’s doubt and darkness, a note of hope is struck by the first line of the fifth section, ‘So here I am in the middle way’. This refers to the first line of Dante’s Inferno, ‘Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray’. Although the descent is predicated on going astray, so also is persevering beyond it into the light. . . . Dante argues that old men are supposed to return to God and describes the process in a way similar to the travels of Odysseus. Unlike Homer’s hero, Dante argues that men should not travel in the material world but in the spiritual world. Both Dante and Eliot put forth a similar view to St. Augustine when they focus on internal travels. Through these travels, mankind is able to have faith in salvation and able to see that there is more to the world than darkness. Eliot explains within the poem that we are all interconnected through time and that we must realize this. Only through this realization is mankind able to understand the truth of the universe. This, in turn, would allow humanity to break free from the burden of time. As Russel Kirk explains: “That end, for those who apprehend a reality superior to ‘birth, copulation, and death’—a reality transcending the rhythms of physical nature—is to know God and enjoy Him forever.”
Besides the many literary sources, Eliot also draws on his personal feelings and experience, especially on the great stress that he felt while composing the poem. Family and family history plays an important role in the poem. In particular, his mother wrote poems about the pilgrims arriving in New England. Similarly, Eliot used the image of pilgrims coming to America and the stories of them that were common throughout his childhood. Eliot found information on his family from a little book named Sketch of the Eliot Family, which described how Eliot’s family lived in East Coker for 200 years. When Andrew Eliot, T. S. Eliot’s ancestor, left, joining the pilgrimage, he disrupted the family history. Similarly, Eliot broke from his own family when he traveled away from his family, a family that he saw was declining. Within the poem, Eliot emphasizes the need for a journey and the need for inward change.
–David Gorman website [T.S. Eliot “Four Quartets – No. 2 East Coker”].
St. Michael’s Church – East Coker
A plaque, dedicated to Eliot and his ashes at the St Michael’s Church, reads:
“In my beginning is my end. Of your kindness, pray for the soul of Thomas Stearns Eliot, poet. In my end is my beginning.”
A Personal Note…
I took some liberties in curating the excerpts above because my direct ancestor Richard Dodge and his wife Edith attended St Michael’s Church and left from East Coker to travel to America in 1638. They were emigrating to Salem in order to join Richard’s brother William, who first moved to Salem in 1629. A third brother Michael was the church warden in East Coker when Andrew Eliot, Eliot’s ancestor, left the town to travel to America in 1669. – [akd].