Visits to Little Gidding and East Coker

06 Oct 2020 7:40 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)

With “Burnt Norton” behind him, Eliot’s poetic sense continues on high alert. Two days after the publication of his Collected Poems on 2 April 1936, Eliot muses on birds in a delightful letter describing the sound of the nightingale. He awoke from dreaming about Hale to hear a nightingale singing in the middle of the night, he tells her, and he heard it again in the morning. But the nightingale doesn’t sing so much as clang: its harsh song seems to express a knowledge of good and evil, unlike the bawdy shout of the cuckoo or the piping of finches, wrens, and chiffchaffs. He compares the sound of the nightingale to the clanging of Dr. Roylott of Stoke Moran’s safe (in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”). Birds are dependent upon poets, he observes: the mocking-bird is only as great as Walt Whitman has made her, and the nightingale is supported by Sophocles and the myth of Philomel. He hopes that he has done something for the hermit thrush (alluding to its “water-dripping song” in The Waste Land, and perhaps to the thrush in “Burnt Norton”).

On 11 May, Eliot encloses a positive review and some letters from admirers praising her poem. “Burnt Norton” is about her, he says, and also about time. It is more about her than about the moment in the garden that serves as a pretext. Ten days later, he writes about his upcoming excursion to what will be the site of his final Quartet: Little Gidding, where he plans to “shed a few tears over Crashaw, Mary Collett, Nicholas Ferrar and John Inglesant.” On 26 May he reports  enthusiastically on his experience, recounting the history of the monastic settlement founded at the time of Charles I (he refers her to John Henry Shorthouse’s 1881 novel, John Inglesant). He describes the 17th century front of the church and its interior, of which he has taken photographs, and its atmosphere of holiness. The countryside was covered with hawthorn, elder, lilac, and buttercups in bloom, which he wishes she could have seen; he wanted her with him (“If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges/ White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness”).

A month later (18 June), Eliot encloses his photos of Little Gidding and describes his second momentous excursion: to George Herbert’s church at Bemerton (disappointing—no air of holiness) and to East Coker in Somerset, the ancestral home of the Eliots until their departure for Massachusetts in 1663. Eliot praises East Coker’s church (except for an ugly stained glass window put up in honor of the family by an American cousin), the inn where he stayed, and the country, where he feels at home. He concludes the letter by describing a film he has just been to see, Show Boat, with Paul Robeson singing “Ole Man River” and some Mississippi scenes which made him homesick. Thus in person or in imagination, Eliot visits the settings of the other three Quartets within the space of a month.


  • 07 Oct 2020 10:34 AM | Isobel
    I check this blog every day. Thanks!
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  • 07 Oct 2020 10:40 AM | Isobel
    Actually, often my paintings are inspired by Eliot - Prufrock particularly but I am working on one at the moment from Burnt Norton. Here's a link if you're interested . The Eliot ones have Eliot titles and a bit of poetry/explanation if you click on them.
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  • 08 Oct 2020 12:54 AM | Jonathan Morse
    A clip from the 1936 <i>Show Boat</i>, with Robeson singing "Ol' Man River," is online at
    Link  •  Reply
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