'In my beginning is my end...
In my end is my beginning.'
Thomas Stearns Eliot
Minutes off the beaten track it hides, an unassuming parenthesis in what we call civilisation, but now a candidate for a world heritage site, an old Roman gem at the core of a threaded maze of roads amid the furling bean green and golden hills of Somerset, straight out of a picture book of fables. You would easily miss it if you weren't on a quest for Eliot, or ancestors, or the groves of Eden.
East Coker is out of this world. No wonder the good folk who live there are engaged in chronic combat with developers threatening to beleaguer the south Yeovil meadows, diggers at the ready, hard heads further conserved by hard hats. It's where my maiden name rings out, and not only there, throughout the area. I cannot claim kin with Eliot. In fact, I only discovered a native connection with the village as a result of a recent visit, and have yet to investigate names common to our respective genealogies. My nearer forebears lived at Montacute about four miles from East Coker, another unspoiled village of the same stamp, built in beautiful ochre Ham stone and home to Montacute House, a concept Elizabethan mansion now in the hands of the National Trust.
Epiphany is the only way I can describe my first sighting. This was the place. The state of being. Past and future, sense and senses, dissolved into irrelevance. Afterwards, when I returned to the poems, they were fluent with illumination. Do not look for him in his Missouri birthplace, nor around his memorial stone in Westminster Abbey, nor yet where a plaque, blue as the quivering Somerset flax woven by our ancestors, marks his residence in London, 'the timekept City'. Although he cherished the mystique of the river culture of St Louis where he was bred, the Four Quartets breathes the spirit of this corner of quintessential England and strongly inspires many of his poems in other settings. It was a revelation for him, too.
Today, he blesses the habitation of his forebears who ventured out to the New World after the English Civil Wars, the Puritan rebellion and subsequent Restoration of the Monarchy in the 1660s. (His maternal Stearns line is said to have sailed with John Winthrop's fleet circa 1629/30, a voyage brought to life by Anya Seton's vivid novel The Winthrop Woman.) This is where he felt he belonged in the grand scheme of earthly things, and chose to have his ashes interred at the church of St Michael and All Angels.
Eliot's American upbringing was Unitarian, but, as the youngest child, with a congenital double hernia, he was often left in the care of his Irish Catholic nurse who did not scruple to take him to Mass on occasion. When he came to Britain as a young man, escaping the tentacles of his 'terrifying' mother, and later acquired British citizenship, he found his equilibrium in the Anglo-Catholic church, thus completing a circle of centuries. This wing of Anglicanism, I think, he saw as capable of bridging the jagged schism which has bedevilled the history of these islands.
As with the virulent Spanish 'Flu in the wake of WWI and the epidemics following WW2, Black Plague followed the Civil Wars and from June 8th to September 10th of 1645, it took the lives of seventy parishioners who were buried in a common grave. East Coker and its manor were staunch Royalists and Cromwellian destruction of its sacred stones and memorials, silver and altars, was especially severe. At the restoration of Charles II, a new Royal Arms was installed in the church four times the size of the original. From that small village, over the centuries, pioneers, adventurers and servicemen travelled to every continent.
For me, unseen presences gathered in the shimmering, hypnotic haze, echoes of voices, hints of memories beyond recall, fragments of another tapestry, no doubt the subjects of 'daguerrotypes and silhouettes'. I do not call them ghosts, for that is too chill and remote, as though their life is gone forever, not dwelling alongside the generations since, sowing and reaping, conserving and striving, tending flock and cattle, fleeing the deadening and driven horizon of stockbrokers and bankers, 'the desert...squeezed in the tube-train next to you'.
It is strange that East Coker, where I do not know that I have ancestors, speaks to me on multiple levels and exerts a pull which Montacute does not, love it though I do. It must have something to do with the contours of this landscape because I've also realised how subliminally influenced I was by Eliot's poetry in Dreams of Gold, my long-ago first published novel, how similar in rhythm, inflection and sentiment some of the phrases are in the more poetic sequences. It was an experimental literary piece when I was finding my feet in the genre after three or four youthful apprentice works in historicals. Imagism and Ezra Pound was mentioned by a publisher's reader (whom she did not like!) but I had not read him, and had only a brief acquaintance with Eliot who seemed somewhat obscure back then. Even when a new edition of Dreams of Gold came out in 2007, it was almost an accident that a quotation from The Rock was chosen for the rear cover beside one from Kahlil Gibran.
Eliot's genius for subtext, for timeless arcs, for pinning implicit truth amidst an alchemy of ideas while sifting to the rock bottom of things, is, in the pristine meaning of the word, awesome. He explores the compelling mysteries of our existence within architectural forms as august as the pillars of Greece and Rome. His life was one of pain, frustration, anguish and disillusion, but he managed, through creative striving, to navigate towards an era of supreme happiness in its closing chapters, after marriage to his secretary at Faber, Valerie Fletcher, almost forty years his junior. He would have counted that real success, and worth the journey, his method vindicated. He was no recluse, loved dancing and was naturally sociable, but drew back from the fireworks of fame, enduring book-signings with good grace even when ailing and exhausted in his latter days.
'For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.'
Needless to say, there are only whispers of Eliot in my writing, but I must own a modest share in the same influences. When twilight falls and mist rises above the flowing fields, and the pre-occupations of our little day are done, then the spirits stir and the vapours seep into our bones... We know that nothing, but nothing, pledged to Life and regeneration, is lost and forgotten. All is ongoing, perpetual motion. The passing generations are still passing...
'In that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a Summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman
In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie -
A dignified and commodious sacrament.
Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or arm
Whiche betokeneth concorde. Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter
Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under earth
Nourishing the corn. Keeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death.
Dawn points, and another day
Prepares for heat and silence. Out at sea the dawn wind
Wrinkles and slides. I am here
Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning.'
You know what I'm wondering, don't you?