In England’s green and pleasant land

Campaigners are claiming world heritage status for the Somerset village of East Coker in an attempt to thwart the development of thousands of new homes. East Coker is the last resting place of American poet T. S. Eliot.

Eliot (1888-1965) was a playwright, literary critic, and for some the most important English-language poet of the 20th century. Others might argue for W. H. Auden, or Philip Larkin, or e. e. cummings, or Robert Frost – but that’s another matter. Born in St Louis, Missouri, Eliot moved to London in 1914 and was naturalised as a British subject in 1927. The poem that made his name, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917), is regarded as a masterpiece of the modernist movement – despite the fact that the Literary Supplement of The London Times (21 June 1917) cynically observed: “The fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr Eliot is surely of the very smallest importance to anyone, even to himself. They certainly have no relation to poetry…”

Eliot followed “Prufrock” with some of the best-known poems in English, including “The Waste Land” (1922), “The Hollow Men” (1925), “Ash Wednesday” (1930), and “Four Quartets” (1944). He also wrote “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” and five plays, including “Murder in the Cathedral” (1935), memorably performed and recorded by Robert Donat. T. S. Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.

“East Coker” is one of a series of four poems and places the poet celebrates in Four Quartets. In the 16th century Eliot’s ancestor Sir Thomas Elyot lived there and wrote a treatise on how to become a virtuous, sophisticated, and accomplished member of the ruling class, and from there in 1669 another ancestor, Andrew Eliott, emigrated to New England. The poet’s ashes are interred at St Michael’s church, where a plaque carries the inscription: “In my beginning is my end … In my end is my beginning.” The lines occur in “East Coker”, the second being a saying of Mary, Queen of Scots. As well as the Eliot connection, East Coker is notable for its typical “Englishness”, its sunken lanes, a medieval dancing circle, and its stone cottages. The Romans built elaborate villas there and the English buccaneer, sea captain, author, and scientific observer William Dampier was born and raised in the village.

One of the ironies surrounding the furore over keeping East Coker pristine and unspoilt is to be found in the poem “East Coker” itself. The famous opening line goes on to describe houses rising and falling, being removed and destroyed, making room for fields, factories, or by-passes:

“Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires.
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth…”

And, as new houses are often constructed from the remains of houses of the past, so Four Quartets is built on references to earlier poems, deliberate allusions to Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, and Tennyson that enrich and deepen the narrative. Maybe Eliot would not have minded East Coker being subjected to enforced change and, who knows?,  he might have spoken against the rather fanciful call for world heritage status. As he points out in “East Coker”:

“The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”

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