T.S. Eliot was always a favourite. Knowledge of his poetry was unnecessary. Anyone who named a poem East Coker, the parish west of Yeovil in which my grandmother lived, was someone who was to be esteemed.
Never mind that the name derived from the fact that Andrew Elliott (with two T’s) had left the parish in 1669 to travel to North America, the choice of the church as the burial place for T.S. Eliot’s ashes some three hundred years after his forebear had departed, marked a literally physical connection with the small Somerset parish.
Little Gidding, which with East Coker is one of the Four Quartets, a set of four poems published over six years by Eliot, includes the familiar lines.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning . . .
Eliot’s work is so well-known and so much loved that it seems almost heretical to question its wisdom, but does arriving where we started really mark an end? The suggestion is nuanced by that arrival bringing a knowledge of that place for the first time.
Perhaps journeying must continue until there is such a recognition. Perhaps feeling a return to the starting point is just a further step in a long sequence means a lack of perception of the essence of the place.
Sitting in my father’s armchair, there is recall of visiting him in hospital this week two years ago. There is a memory of him apologising to my companion for the dishevelled state of his hair. There is a sad remembering of a wish that he might return home and live out peacefully his remaining months.
Perhaps there is an unquietness that will pass in time. Perhaps the many hours of genealogical searching for my great grandfather, the quest for the surname we might have had, is a futile exploring that will reach no end.
The plaque to commemorate T.S. Eliot at East Coker church includes lines from the poem East Coker:
In my beginning is my end.
Of your kindness,
pray for the soul of Thomas Stearns Eliot, poet.
In my end is my beginning.
Beginnings and ends, ends and beginnings: Eliot finds a tranquility, a fulfilment in the circularity of life.
Sitting barely more than a dozen miles from his resting place, such equanimity is elusive.
I think Eliot may have been thinking of this:
I could never have been a Buddhist. I try to teach lessons on Buddhism to students at school and realize how far my worldview is from the tranquility of its practitioners