A Cooking Egg: by T.S Eliot - Summary & Analysis

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       The poem A Cooking Egg was written in 1919 and was published in the volume entitled Poems-1920. A Cooking Egg is a stale egg which can be used only by cooking. It cannot be taken raw or used like a fresh egg. The poem contains the story of a person of middle age over thirty who has to face a dirty and joyless present. He finds some relaxation in thinking of the joys of his childhood, the past appears slightly better than the present. The protagonist also thinks of his future of his life in heaven where he will have lot of comforts but where he will miss the joys of his childhood. He comes back to the real mundane world and finds life sordid and hateful. He is like a cooking egg-stale and unacceptable.

A Cooking Egg is a stale egg which can be used only by cooking. It cannot be taken raw or used like a fresh egg.
A Cooking Egg

Summary

      "In the thirtieth year of my life when I drank up all my shame." Pipit-the protagonist's lady-friend sat upright in her chair at some distance from where he was sitting. A book of pictures entitled Views of Oxford Colleges lay on the table along with the knitting of the lady.

      On the mantel-piece were displayed the pictures of her grandfather and her great grand aunts. A book entitled An Invitation to the Dance also lay on the mental-piece.

      (The speaker dreams of his future in heaven). The protagonist shall be a man of honour in heaven and there he will meet Sir Philip Sidney, Coriolanus and other heroes of the same calibre.

      He shall not lack wealth in heaven for he shall meet there Sir Alfred Mont (founder of Imperial Chemical Industries). Both will have a lot of money invested in five percent Exchequer Bonds of British Government.

      The protagonist shall not lack the society of high class women. He shall have Lucretia Borgia (Duchess of Ferratra) as his bride. She will tell him amusing stories of high life much better than the real and limited experiences of Pipit, his lady-friend.

      The protagonist will not need Pipit in heaven; here he will be taught the 'Seven Sacred Trances' by Madame Blavatsky (the founder of Theosophical Society, Piccarda de Donati, the nun in Dante's Divine Comedy will give him religious guidance).

      (The protagonist now thinks of the past and the joys of childhood.) But where can he find (in heaven) the joy of eating behind the screen, he penny world (sweets) of his childhood? At the moment he sees the redeyed scavengers coming from Kentish Town and Golders Green (suburbs of London). The dreams of his ambitions are buried underground the roman soldiers buried along with their flags and trumpets in the snowy Alps mountains. They are lost in today's world of 'buttered scone and crumpets.' His dreams like a weeping crowd disappear with a hundred cheap restaurants of London. (A.B.C. is the name of a chain of cheap restaurants).

Critical Analysis

      The poem can be easily divided into three parts. The first part (L. 1-8) presents a real and current scene, the second part (L. 9-24) refers to the joys of heaven, and the third part (L. 25-33) re-collects the pleasures of childhood. So the present is compared both with the past and the future, and the conclusion is that the present reality is extremely filthy and disgusting.

      Pipit's Company: The protagonist is a man of about thirty years facing a woman, his friend named Pipit, in the room. She is a spinster and the poet speaks of her as the bride and spiritual guide of the protagonist. Pipits the name of a small song-bird, but here it is the pet name of the lady. She is conservative and traditional, busy with her knitting. On the mantel-piece could be seen the pictures of her grandfather and her great grand-aunts. There was also a book entitled An Invitation to Dance on the mantel-piece. The speaker also sees in the room a book entitled Views of the Oxford Colleges. This reminds him of his past and the hopes for the future.

      Life in Heaven: Finding his present unhappy and mean, the speaker thinks of his future. Perhaps after death, he will be able to get honor and happiness. In heaven, he would be able to enjoy the company of great heroes like Sir Philip Sidney (of the Elizabethan Age) and Coriolanus and others of the same caliber. So he would get honor in heaven. Secondly, he would have a lot of wealth in heaven. He would be in the company of Sir Alfred Mond who was the President of Imperial Chemical Industries. He would be a co-sharer with this big industrialist and invest his profits in five percent Exchequer Bonds of the British Government. In heaven, he would have the society of aristocratic and sophisticated ladies. Perhaps he would marry a great lady like Lucretia Borgia who would entertain him with stories and anecdotes of high society. As compared to her, Pipit would be a plain and simple woman with a little experience of life. In heaven, he would get spiritual guidance from Madam Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society and the author of Seven Sacred Tances. As compared to her Pipit would first an apology. He would also get benevolent guidance from Piccarda de Donati, the man mentioned by Dante in The Divine Comedy and who provided him with a good deal of spiritual knowledge.

      The Past and the Present: Will Heaven provide everything for him? No doubt it can give honor, wealth, high society and spiritual knowledge, but it can provide the simple joy of childhood, as for instance, the satisfaction of eating sweets behind a screen unobserved by the elders in the family. Such joys were possible in the past, but they could not be repeated in the present or the future. The present reality is filthy. As one peeps out one sees the red-eyed scavengers coming from the London suburbs to clean the streets. The dreams and aspirations of the past are dead like the Roman soldiers buried under the snows of the Alps Mountains. The joys of childhood are no more. Only the stark present with its sordid realities faces the protagonist. He is fed up with the tensions of urban life. He is one of the multitudes of men who pass their time weeping in cheap restaurants. The reality is extremely menacing and grim. The protagonist feels inadequate and stale like a cooking egg.

      The Epigraph: The epigraph is borrowed from Villon's poem The Great Testament. It means: "In the thirtieth year of my life when I drank up all my shame." It represents the condition of the protagonist who finds the present dreary and melancholy. However much he may reflect on the joys of childhood or the joys of the future in heaven, he cannot escape the shame of the reality of his current life. His situation is really deplorable and pitiable.

      Style: The poem consists of eight stanzas of four lines each. Between the seventh and eighth stanza stands one line, rather meaningful and it undoes the monotony of the quatrains "where are the eagles and the trumpets?" The image of the Roman armies going out to conquer and dying in the snow-bound alps sums up the futility of the past. The contrast technique between the present and the past, the past and the future, the present and the future are used to good advantage. The poem adequately sums up the sordid mechanical routine of urban life and the misery and frustration of modern society.

Line-by-Line Explanation

L. 1. Pipit: perhaps a familiar, affectionate pet-name, or perhaps carrying a learned and obscure 'egg' joke. Pipit is the Greek misrendering of the Hebrew Yahweh, regarded by occultists as a word of power: written on a shelled hard-boiled egg, it is said to open he heart to wisdom.

L. 3. presumably a volume of pictures showing the colleges of Oxford University.

L. 5. Daguerreotypes: photographs produced by one of the earliest processes, in use from about 1840-60.

L. 8. probably a piece of sheet music with that title. There are several nineteenth-century songs and piano pieces of that name, the best-known of which is by Weber.

L. 9. I shall not want: 'The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want' (Psalms xxiii, I).

L. 10. Sir Philip Sidney: (1554-86), Sidney was the exemplary figure of 'Honour' in Elizabethan England. He was the complete gentleman - courtier, statesman, poet, patron of the arts, and soldier. His humanity is celebrated in the story of his last words, spoken as he lay dying (during an attack on a Spanish convoy) and passed on his cup of water to another wounded man: 'Thy necessity is greater than mine.'

L. 11. Coriolanus: The hero of Shakespeare's Coriolanns, a Roman general whom Shakespeare presents as a leader driven by a destructive, selfish 'heroism.'

L. 14. Sir Alfred Mond: (1868-1930), industrial capitalist, founder of Imperial Chemical Industries.

L. 16. Financial bonds issued by the British Government, carrying an interest rate of five percent,

L. 18. Lucretia Borgia: (1480-1519), Lucretia was one of the notorious Italian Borgias. Her brother, Cesare, was the poisoner. But Lucretia could undoubtedly provide good 'society'. She was Duchess of Ferrara, daughter of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (afterwards Pope Alexander VI), engaged six times, four times married, and closely associated with the most noble and powerful Italian families.

L. 22. Madame Blavatsky: Helen Petrovna Blavtsky (1831-91), the famous Russian spiritualist and Theosophist, well-known in England and America.

L. 23. The 'Sacred Trances' belong to the secret doctrines of Theosophy, known only to the adepts.

L. 24. Piccarda de Donati: a nun, who was compelled to break her vows. She was consigned by Dante to the lowest level of Heaven, where remain the souls of those who were unable to keep their vows on earth. She addresses Dante (Paradiso iii, 25-30) as a child and explains to him the meaning of God's will (70-87).

L. 25. But where; L. 29. Where are: These line openings imitate a classical Latin Device, Ubi sunt ('Where are') commonly used in poetry to signal sections of regretful recollection. This device is used by Villon in Le Grand Testament (see note to Epigraph). Penny world: this name has long been used in the confectionery and baking trades for various kinds of cakes and sweets. Perhaps Eliot is using the words specifically as well as in their wider, metaphorical sense.

L. 26. in some households (particularly in the nineteenth century) it was customary for the children to have some meal with the rest of the family; but at their own table and separated from the adult by a screen. Eliot may be referring to this custom, rather than to some kind of secretive eating.

L. 28. Northern suburbs of London.

L. 29-30. the eagle was one of the emblems of Roe, use particularly by the legions of the army; and these lines probably refer to a Roman force defeated or lost while crossing the alps of Northern Italy.

L. 33. A.B.C.'s: Branches of the Aerated Bread Company's chain of inexpensive restaurants sill found throughout London.

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