A summary of Eliot’s classic poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Burnt Norton’ is the first poem in T. S. Eliot’s last great cycle of poems, Four Quartets. It was published in 1935 as a standalone poem; it would only be five years later, when Eliot wrote ‘East Coker’, that he came up with the idea of writing four poems loosely based around significant places for Eliot. How we should analyse and interpret ‘Burnt Norton’ remains open to question. Is it a fine example of Eliot’s later devotional poetry, or does it show Eliot moving into abstraction and vagueness? You can read ‘Burnt Norton’ here.
Burnt Norton is a manor house in Gloucestershire, England, which Eliot visited with an old friend, Emily Hale, whom he had known as a youth in the United States. Following his separation from his first wife, Vivienne, in the early 1930s, Eliot rekindled his old friendship with Hale, and the two of them visited Burnt Norton in 1934. This visit was the starting-point for the five-part poem that Eliot wrote and published the following year.
As the opening lines of ‘Burnt Norton’ make clear, time is a major theme in the poem. It also reflects Eliot’s conversion to Christianity (he had been received into the Church of England in 1927), and is partly about the soul’s salvation and how we might hope to be saved. But the epigraphs to the poem are from a pre-Christian – and, for that matter, even a pre-Socratic – source: the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. They can be translated as ‘Though wisdom is common, the many live as if they have wisdom of their own’ and ‘The way up and the way down are one and the same.’
Like Eliot’s earlier poem The Waste Land, ‘Burnt Norton’ is divided into five sections. As Helen Gardner notes in The Art of T.S. Eliot (an indispensable book about Four Quartets as a whole), which contains what is still some of the finest analysis of Four Quartets, that each of the poems which comprise that sequence follows a similar pattern. The first section considers two contrasting but related ideas which establish the theme of the poem: in this case, the relation between the present moment and the past or future. The second section then takes the opposite approach: it explores one theme but from two contrasting ways: in ‘Burnt Norton’, a highly lyrical piece immediately followed by a more colloquial exploration of the same thing. The third section then explores – with a twist – the ideas presented in the first two movements. This section prepares us for the fourth – a brief lyric (compare Eliot’s ‘Death by Water’ from The Waste Land). After that brief fourth section, we have the fifth and final section which concludes the poem and resolves the contrasts or contradictions presented in the first, as if Eliot is ‘wrapping up’ an argument.
The first section of ‘Burnt Norton’ centres on a rose garden, which suggests Christianity (‘our first world’ evoking another garden, the Garden of Eden, though roses also suggest the Virgin Mary) but also romance and sexuality. This section explores an alternate reality, focusing on things which might have been but never were (the passage not taken, the door never opened) – it may be that Eliot was drawing on his relationship-that-never-was with Emily Hale (who would later express a desire to marry Eliot, though Eliot declined). Indeed, ‘our first world’ might also refer to Eliot’s and Hale’s upbringing in New England. In the garden, Eliot hears the ‘unheard music’ of the roses. Is this a nod to John Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’? ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.’ Perhaps. But then the very bird that had lured Eliot into the garden commands him to leave, as humans cannot bear much reality.
The second section contains those two different approaches to a linked theme. The opening poem, written in irregular tetrameters, combines unlikely images (garlic and sapphires, the boarhound and the boar), suggesting that these are ‘reconciled’ when ‘among the stars’. This prefigures the unity with which Four Quartets as a whole will end, with the fire and the rose being joined as one. The second half of this second section focuses on the notion of the ‘still point of the turning world’, which harks back to the focus of the opening section: how to live in the present moment while time is constantly moving, and the present is already becoming past (as Heraclitus, from whom Eliot takes his epigraphs for ‘Burnt Norton’, observed: everything is in constant flux). Erhebung is a German term meaning ‘elevation’ or, if you will, exaltation: specifically, the German philosopher Hegel used this term to refer to the fusion of two contradictory ideas.
The third section of ‘Burnt Norton’ moves us to the London Underground, and we find ourselves descending into the empty subterranean world of the London commute, something previously treated by modernist poets such as Richard Aldington and F. S. Flint. Here, though, Eliot imbues Tube travel with a sense of spiritual numbness, with the ‘abstention from movement’ (moving while not moving) being a nod to the experience of travelling in both the London Tube train and on the lifts or elevators at the Tube stations: when we travel in such contraptions, we both move and don’t move, we physically remain still but are moved around by the technology. Human beings are just things to be belched out from the Tube exists (‘Eructation of unhealthy souls’): as with The Waste Land, modern man has lost his spiritual way. (Indeed, travelling in the elevator offered a different kind of Erhebung, we might say. It is also a modern-day version of the Dark Night of the Soul, descending into the darkness.)
The fourth section is, as promised, a brief lyric, referring back to the idea of the ‘still point of the turning world’ and the threat of death that hangs over all of us (‘Fingers of yew’). The fifth section then brings together several of the strands found so far in ‘Burnt Norton’. How can poetry address these paradoxes and problems of time, lived experience, and spiritual meaning? A number of opposites – movement and stillness, being and not-being – are here presented. Desire is like movement, and love, by contrast, is like stillness – ‘love’ here suggesting religious devotion.
‘Burnt Norton’, as Peter Ackroyd remarked in his biography T.S. Eliot, cannot be adequately paraphrased. Nor can one arrive at a neat, simplistic analysis of its themes and paradoxes. It is best viewed, perhaps, as a meditation on time and religious devotion, on the difference between materialist experience of the world and a deeper, spiritual existence. But even this raises further questions – questions which we are probably not meant to be able to answer.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Burnt Norton House by Michael Dibb, 2010; via geograph.org.uk.