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.
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.
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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