The first church you reach as you drive out of the village is not the one you’re looking for. Go a little further on and down the hill, and you will find it, the larger of the two. Walk up past the row of 17th century Alms Houses, past the mass grave marker for those who died in the plague, past the old Gumbie cat that sits and sits upon the wall, and there it is—the Parish Church of St Michael’s in the Somerset village of East Coker.
For those who know their poetry, the name East Coker will be instantly recognisable as the title for one of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, but just why I should have spent my afternoon trying to find this village church may be less obvious. But, it is all about Eliot and my attempt to make his acquaintance, albeit more than fifty years after his death.
Go through the heavy studded oak door—a door that by the look of it could bear witness to several centuries of comings and goings—and you will find yourself in a simple church like so many others in Somerset. There are pews and kneelers, occasional Victorian stained glass in medieval traceries and memories of those who came and went, etched in plaques upon the walls. But at the West end of this church, below the window in the corner, there is one oval plaque that carries the opening line of “East Coker”—”In my beginning is my end” — and the name of the man whose ashes lie interred below, Thomas Stearns Eliot, Poet.
For an American poet who changed the world of poetry, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and whose work still astonishes and baffles readers, this seems an unlikely resting place. Today there is no pomp, just a simple vase of white lilies and the silence of an empty church. Eliot chose this spot. He had visited the village and the church because his forefathers had left for the States from this Somerset village in the 17th century and perhaps like many descendants of émigrés he felt the need for a homecoming.
Why I should be drawn to sit in silence before the grave of one I have never met is, I admit, puzzling. Eliot’s poetry is difficult and in places impossible, but it is rhythmic and almost primordial in others. Perhaps I am here to pay homage and kiss the hem of a great man. Or perhaps I am here to question, hoping for answers. Eliot’s silence is, however, thunderous. The finality and completeness of death, his death, is underlined by that silence in the church. But, even silent thunder can be eloquent. What is not said—the negative space around our words—is as important as the wit and depth of our sounds. A line from the end of The Waste Land came to me, perhaps was offered to me: “Then spoke the thunder.” His thunder, I thought, a clamour that rattled around the globe. A grumble, a rumble, long drawn out and wrapped in obscure language and startling imagery that holds and humbles the reader.
I reached out and touched his plaque tracing the T for Tom, mouthed a childish prayer and left. Outside the August sun was still shining and any rain clouds that had threatened were now flying to the east of East Coker. A verdant nature had taken the place of the cold church stone and cornflowers swayed blue in the breeze.
Eliot was gone, but that he had been here at all was the point. Here, in his East Coker church, out of sight, he rests for his eternity—a thunder passed, but still heard from afar.
© Allan Gaw 2017
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Testing the Waters: Lessons from the History of Drug Research
What can we learn from the past that may be relevant to modern drug research?
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