‘East Coker’ and the Great Wars

St. Michael's at East Coker
St. Michael's Church in East Coker

‘East Coker’ and the Great Wars

During the course of the Great War, many traditions of the British were forsaken in light of the rapidly changing times. The horrors and alterations brought by a world at war affected more than just social constructs— they went as far and deep as changing and restructuring literary tradition. The writers in this new ‘Modernist’ period of literature sought to revive tradition by, ironically, dismissing older forms and subjects. The new experiences of large-scale and civilian warfare, of “a new patriotism, richer, nobler, and more exalted”[1], and of rapid changes in culture and morals brought into play fresh subject matter for the prose and poetry of a budding century. Whereas the central theme of the preceding Victorian era was the conflict between faith and doubt, the Modernists contemplated the topics of their day, which nearly always stemmed from the unprecedented scale of the wars that filled the first half of the century. T.S. Eliot’s poem “East Coker” embodies this new archetype of literary tradition by incorporating experiences from both World War I and II, and in doing so helps to shape the path of Modernist literature.

The first stanza of “East Coker” speaks of destruction and rebuilding, in a way embodying the sentiment of post-War England.  Eliot writes:

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.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,

Here Eliot paints a scene of the war ravaged British isles, many of its structures ripped asunder by the German bombers. The air raids throughout the Great War were a real and present danger alive in the minds of all the British citizens. Every night was filled with fear that a bomb would hit the family home— the children were sent to live deep in the countryside. In the first three lines Eliot adeptly makes use of enjambment to amplify the effect of the broken houses and fear. By splitting the sentence across lines without punctuation, it breaks the flow of the poem, echoing the brokenness of dwellings. Eliot also speaks to how society was never able to truly recover to its pre-war state. Indeed, according to the War Cabinet, Reconstruction “was ‘not so much a question of rebuilding society as it was before the war, but of moulding a better world out of the social and economic conditions which [had] come into being during the war’.”[3] Just as new social and economic conditions changed during the war, so did the literary form and matter in the mind of Eliot. When he mentions, “Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires” he is signifying this change, suggestive of how many buildings were converted to factories to aid the war effort during both World Wars.

The second stanza of the poem weaves an eerie, almost hypnotic, description of a silent country village. In particular, they are reminiscent of the many contested hamlets on the Western Front. Consider the following excerpt:

In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
…In a warm haze the sultry light
Is absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone.
The dahlias sleep in the empty silence.[4]

Again, Eliot uses line enjambment to echo the broken fields and villages that could be found anywhere caught in the crossfire of the Great War. Towns were left in “empty silence,” the inhabitants evacuated, leaving behind a solitude in between skirmishes. Here he also uses multiple stressed syllables to break from the usual iambic pentameter, such as, “deep lane,” and “afternoon.”[5] Eliot breaks from using iambic feet like many other poets do and it gives the poem and unusual twist, causing the reader to focus in on the lines and drawing you into this mysterious, silent village.

Another theme that T.S. Eliot may have been commenting on is the degradation in morals that Britain underwent in the early twentieth century as a result of the World Wars, namely a sharp increase in promiscuous behavior and illegitimate children. Whereas the Victorians had very strict views against sexual contact outside marriage, the horrors of the wars deteriorated the religious objections held by many. We read that, “the religious teaching that the body was the temple of the Holy Ghost could mean little or nothing to those who saw it mutilated and destroyed in millions by Christian nations engaged in war.”[6] In “East Coker” Eliot writes about, “The association of man and woman / In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie— / A dignified and commodious sacrament”.[7] By using archaic spelling here, he could be drawing a connection to how the idea that sexuality was to be kept for marriage is an old convention and unneeded—at least in the eyes of the lower and middle-classes. The traditional theme of a struggle between faith and doubt takes on a different focus when viewed through the lens of a post-War poet. In merely a few lines we get a sense of how much the hostilities affected the core of British culture by effecting a change in religious mores.

Thus it is that we see how Eliot adeptly uses a change in literary form and theme to revitalize literature and weave a new tradition that relies upon incorporating the grand social changes that were born out of the Great War rather than employing the structures of old tradition. His use of enjambment to convey the brokenness of a war-torn Europe is especially striking, as is his utilization of antiquated spelling and words to remark upon the revolution of religious morals— chiefly regarding sexuality. Ironically, Eliot’s move from the old traditions was able to bring in fresh ideas presented with more depth and breadth than was formerly done; it is a lesson we would do well to remember.

[1]Arthur Marwick, The Deluge; British Society and the First World War (New York: Norton, 1970) 49.

[2] T.S. Eliot, “East Coker” Handout, 123.

[3] Marwick 239.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Marwick 108.

[7] Eliot 124.