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"The wounded surgeon..." (T.S. Eliot, East Coker IV)

Of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets, the second one, "East Coker," is perhaps the most explicitly Christian in both sense and referent. The fourth movement of "East Coker" is largely responsible for this assessment, though admittedly the fourth movements of the other quartets also embody a hymnic, confessional quality. This movement, which begins, "The wounded surgeon plies the steel," is at once a meditation on sacrificial atonement and the horrors of sickness unto death in an era of war, when "the whole earth is our hospital."The poem is not theological; it is theology. Original sin manifests itself in violence and decay, just as the Bible also imagines it. Eliot couples this with the promise of prevenient grace and a paradoxical, foolish faith -- calling this Friday "good."Here is the audio of Eliot reading "East Coker" IV. (I couldn't find one without images, but you can just close your eyes.)

 IV.The wounded surgeon plies the steelThat questions the distempered part;Beneath the bleeding hands we feelThe sharp compassion of the healer's artResolving the enigma of the fever chart.Our only health is the diseaseIf we obey the dying nurseWhose constant care is not to pleaseBut to remind of our, and Adam's curse,And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.The whole earth is our hospitalEndowed by the ruined millionaire,Wherein, if we do well, we shallDie of the absolute paternal careThat will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.The chill ascends from feet to knees,The fever sings in mental wires.If to be warmed, then I must freezeAnd quake in frigid purgatorial firesOf which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.The dripping blood our only drink,The bloody flesh our only food:In spite of which we like to thinkThat we are sound, substantial flesh and bloodAgain, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

About the Author

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University, author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard.



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'The fever sings in mental wires."Does anybody besides me think that some of Eliot's metaphors are the best since Shakespeare? I couldn't even begin to analyze why that metaphor is so telling and so exact. I couldn't even say what it means in different words, but there it is. What an imagist! Not to mention the whole incredible stanza which somehow justifies blatant contradictions, contradictions which we somehow accept and are grateful for,

I had been wishing that I could that recording that I had many years ago on a record that is long gone... thank you...

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