competing images of old age: yeats vs. eliot
Updated: Apr 14
“Perhaps I am wrong in applying the word stoical to consolation which for Mr Eliot may have a theological reference,” wrote literary scholar G.W. Stonier,* “but ‘East Coker’ seems to me the sombre and moving utterance of a man looking round him as he grows old.”
I am glad that I am not the only one who thought this on my first read through the T.S. Eliot poem “East Coker.” In fact, the image of an aged man taking stock of his life and surroundings reminded me of another poem, that of W.B. Yeats (1865-1939), in a poem titled “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928).
Yeats begins his poem with the line: “That is no country for old men.” Some of you may have read the Cormac McCarthy bestselling novel under the title No Country For Old Men or perhaps, saw the 2007 Academy Award winning film of the same name that stars Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin and which depicts a nihilistic drug-war hellscape.
My second impression, however, focused me back to the poem itself, specifically to the opening word: “that.” To what does “that'' refer, exactly? In other words, what or where is no country for old men? The poet’s homeland of Ireland? Society in general? If the poem is autobiographical--and it seems that it is--the poet himself is a man of 63, not ancient, by any means, but comfortably beyond his mid-life mark. The more pointed question might be, then is why is this old man-poet fleeing his country for Byzantium?
Thankfully, we do not have to guess. The poet himself shared on a 1931 BBC radio show that in writing the poem:
I am trying to write about the state of my soul, for it is right for an old man to make his soul, and some of my thoughts about that subject I have put into a poem called ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. When Irishmen were illuminating the Book of Kells, and making the jeweled croziers in the National Museum, Byzantium was the centre of European civilization and the source of its spiritual philosophy, so I symbolize the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city.
So for Yeats that the aging man would “make his soul” is to say what he has ceased to be. He feels out of touch with the younger generation ( those who are held “in one another's arms”) and with nature around him (the “birds in the trees”). But what he does identify with now is “those dying generations,” such as those dying spawning salmon and mackerel fish that have the appearance of liver spots. From his vantage point as an old man he contemplates all that is “begotten, born and dies.” But what is more, the young, “ caught in that sensual music all neglect / Monuments of unageing intellect”: focused on the enticements of young life, the younger generation tends to neglect their elders.
Yes, he continues in stanza two, the world sees old men--such as himself--as pathetic, worthless things (“a coat hung upon a stick”); empty, reduced, shriveled, useless. So what is the answer? The elderly must make their own souls “sing again” in reflection of all they have accomplished, which is to say, erect “monuments of its own magnificence”.
And thus the reason for the odyssey toward--sailing to--Byzantium, that aged civilization, powerful at the time of Yeats’ writing (a time, by the way, that straddled the two world wars). The other-worldly place of which Yeats writes does not celebrate the youth of the flesh and all its delights, but instead, the soul, that non-corporeal part of man that lasts far after the flush of youth has fled.
Therefore, the poet calls “sage” those wise old men--for whom his country is no place and for whom Byzantium holds promise--who would teach men like him, bewildered by their agedness--to sing again, to delight in the soul; “consume my heart away” (or popularly: “eat my heart out!”). To hold onto joy, or find new ones, those who are aging must let go of some of the pleasures of youth and look for new ones. They must cast off, set sail.
And this is where the poem ends: with Yeats (or his speaker) yearning, as Shakespeare earlier taught us, to “cast off this mortal coil” in exchange for a new spiritual, unearthly, soulish frontier--dare I say, Heaven. He has been moved “out of nature” and is shown the desire of the heart. Never again will he have the bodily form of himself as a young man. Rather, like a gold bird fashioned by Greek goldsmiths, placed on a “golden bough” he will sing new songs to the people of his new country (Byzantium...Heaven).
As I contemplate Yeat’s thoughts on the aging self--himself as an old man-- I wonder how or whether they actually connect to what I find in Eliot’s East Coker, beyond superficial qualities. Both were not young men when they penned their respective poems. Both lived in the shadows of war. Both sought to find human meaning in a modern world that seemed increasingly disordered or at least 0ff-centering.
But in Eliot I do not sense the nostalgia that I feel with Yeats. Yes, "East Coker" begins with the refrain, “In my beginning is my end,” a thought that occludes the entire poem (it ends: “In the end is my beginning”), but the direction his meditations go do not evoke sadness for what has been lost. Instead, there is a mix of the ancestral/historical (East Coker is his ancestral town) mixed with the metaphysical (what exactly does it mean spiritually-eschatologically that one’s beginning is one’s end and vice versa?). The content that lies in the middle-time or way in the poem (essentially 219 of the poem’s 221 lines) forms a sort of meditation on the poet’s ancestral town which was Medieval (his Great Grandfather lived there in the 1600s before setting sail for America) and takes on a communal feel. “In my beginning is my end” he begins and then describes the town whose houses have fallen into disrepair due to the ravages of time. Here he pivots into a poetic musing of the ancient wisdom of the Book of Ecclesiastes that to everything there is a season (and by inference, and ending).
Next, he again remarks, “In my beginning is my end,” after which he paints a picture of a Medieval English summertime evening dance, in which the “weap pipe and the little drum” play a tune, “the time and coupling of man and woman” is evident as they live out their lives in seasons. The syntax here is decidedly pre-Elizabethan, evidenced by the poet’s use of the archaic words/spellings “betokeneth,” “matrimonie,” and “dausinge.”
Eliot concludes this section by breaking up the revelry thus: “Dawn points, and another day” (time keeps on moving) and “I am here / Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning.” He is remembering a past that is only his by family tree in a place that is particular to the ancestral town but also a universal place in metaphysical time. There he stands in his beginning as a man of middle age. The sense, to me anyway, is not nostalgia so much as connection to a man’s cultural heritage and home but also his current bearings in the world at a certain point in time. This exploration and description of a place feels meditative rather than melancholy as was the effect of Yeat’s yearnings to cast off his current location (Ireland) for an idealized place where the elderly could find a home.
Further down in section II of “East Coker” Eliot riffs on the theme of wisdom, particular wisdom of the age. This of course is implied in Yeats's poem--the bustling city streets and lives of the young saw no value in the presence or wisdom of the aged--but again in Eliot the effect is dissimilar. Eliot discusses the limits of ancient wisdom (even though he makes allusions to Hercules and other classical figures in the poem): do not let me hear / Of the wisdom of old men, but rather their folly , / Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession…” insists Eliot. But why? Is there not wisdom that can be gleaned from elders? Yes, but Eliot is occupied with another virtue, that of humility: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”
Indeed at the time he wrote this, London was under constant nightly raids. The terror of war hung over the British people like a heavy cloak. The future was unclear, the past had slipped away (“The houses are all gone under the sea / The dancers are all gone under the hill.”). What remained was not wise sayings or even complaints about better bygone days (as in Yeats), but rather the admission that at the dawn of the 20th century man still possessed very little wisdom, or at least not enough to end destructive world wars.
At this point in the poem, Eliot turns to a Christian mystic for help in crying “O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark…”). This mystic, of course, was St. John of the Cross the 12th century monk, whose untitled work long known as The Dark Night of the Soul does not focus on wisdom (personal or collective) but the soul’s struggle to find God in the midst of darkness, struggle and sin.
My final thought, then, is that yes, there do seem to be similarities in the two poets’ descriptions of old (or even just middle) age. But the direction of the poems and therefore their emotive effect do seem quite different. Yeats came across as wistful and nostalgic (and a bit bitter?), while with Eliot we feel in him a spiritual guide who shows us snapshots of the past and the present in order to help guide the soul--his and ours.
*(G. W. Stonier, ‘Mr Eliot’s New Poem’, New Statesman, 14 September 1940)