Eliot, "Burnt Norton" (Commentary)


With an almost musical abstraction/contemplation on the nature of time, the poem opens in Burnt Norton, a manor house in Gloucester, England.  It reflects that the past and the future are always apprehended in present experience, as is speculation about what might have been. It perhaps invokes Ecclesesiates 3:15 here: "Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past into account."  Like all memory, time cannot be recovered (ala' redeemed), for we both see and do not see that past; we both hear and do not hear.   All are experienced in the present moment.  There's no going back per se.  The rose-garden, which invokes associations of both a spiritual and a sexual nature, is often associated in Christian iconography with truth and/or the Virgin Mary.   Here, it also represents the might-have been world.  To disturb the dust suggests doubt about invoking a forgotten time or possibility. (1-17)

Commanded by a bird, who perhaps represents the quick seizing of experience (though there are also associations here, ironically, with both deception and the Holy Spirit), to enter the garden, Eliot considers focusing on the "first world" that has both echoes of his New Hampshire boyhood, as well as the Adamic world.  As a result, the ones who are "[m]oving without pressure, over the dead leaves" can be both long forgotten individuals, as well as Adam and Eve.   There he encounters the "unheard music" of the roses, which as perceived objects in a sense, receive him as well, for he feels a part of this world. (18-30)

Eliot recalls perhaps an actual experience here.   He looks into a dry, concrete pool surrounded by boxwood shrubs.  There, the pool seems to be filled with light with a lotus flower rising from it.  The lotus flower has connotations of peace and perfection, of simplicity and non-striving.  The "heart of light" echoes Dante's Paradiso 12:28-29: "from the heart of one of those new lights/ there came a voice that drew me to itself." (The context in Dante is that of the sphere of the sun, and the lights are the redeemed teachers and scholars.) The bird warns Eliot to leave because "human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality."  Eliot then restates the theme of the eternal present. (31-45)


This section opens with what is considered the most obscure image in The Four Quartets.  In one reading, garlic represents the lower, sensual forms of love and sapphires represent the higher, more platonic forms of love, both of which lie at the feet of the "bedded axle-tree" or the cross.   (The axle also plays off the coming wheel image.)  "The trilling wire" of the violin note sings along with and is indeed reconciled with all the dance of creation -- the human body, the stars, the seasons, the plants and animals.   In life, those that appear at odds ("the boarhound and the boar") are unified in purpose in the greater scheme of things. (32-61)

The mystical experience of God outside time is paradoxical because like the axle of a wheel it is a still point which neither moves nor does not move.  Likewise, to think of an axle or a mystical experience in terms of duration is meaningless; it is other than time.  To be in such a state is to be free of our own desires, plans, and compulsions. It also imparts to us a sense of completion that clarifies our old expectations.  Erhebung, or German for exaltation or enthusiasm, is used by Hegel to suggest the state achieved by the dialectic, for it reconciles seemingly finite opposites.  It transcends reason.   Such an experience is nonetheless dependent on the human body and its senses. (62-81)

The present is like the still axis point of the wheel. "The moment in the draughty church" has been alternately suggested as Eliot's experience at Little Gidding or the experience of an incense-filled communion service.   In any case, only in the present can both past experiences and future expectations be serenely encountered. (82-89)


The poem, now takes a new direction, moving from an experience of God in the way of affirmation, where God works through the things of creation, to the way of negation, where God works by taking away all our fleshly preconceived notions.  It opens in a "place of disaffection" -- the London subway, which is only partially lit during Eliot's time.  It is a place that offers neither the advantages of day nor those of dark.  Instead, it is symbolical of strained, apathetic, meaningless human existence -- only a chattering without truth. (90-113)

One is called to a dark night of the soul, where one lays aside sense, imagination, and will.  One must be free of self-willed movement like that of the subways in their "metalled ways." He also makes reference to Paul Klee's famous painting Twittering Machine. (114-125)


How will we overcome the chill of death that comes to us all? Only in God's uncreated light which is "the still point of the turning world".  The clematis is sometimes associated with the Virgin Mary.    The kingfisher full of light perhaps refers to Hopkins' "When Kingfishers Catch Fire," thus invoking the power of inscape in God's creations. The yew tree is a complicated symbol.  It has associations with paganism, Britain, and death.  Eliot may be playing off Tennyson's In Memoriam 2.1-2: "Old Yew, which graspest at the stones/ That name the under-lying dead".   (126-135)


Eliot then turns to reflect on the problem of words.   Words, like all human endeavors, have their limits; they fall apart in the quest for meaning.  Only poetic form, such as that of the Chinese jar, resembles something of eternity in its continual present nature. The singleness of Christ the Word is surrounded by the cacophony of delusions.  The chimera is a mythical creature either with a lion's body, a serpent for a tail, and a goat's head protruding from its back or with the head, mane and legs of a lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a dragon. It typically represents impossibility, delusion, or sometimes sexual fury.   In any case, it represents a duplicity of creation that works against the simplicity of true submission (136-158)

Eliot contrasts desire, which is self-motivated and promoting, with that of love, which is in complete repose and submission.  In this sense it is like our experience of the present and the timeless, and this perhaps is the meaning of his vision (159-175).

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"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding