Listening to "Burnt Norton"
I’m using the word “listening” in this series on Eliot’s Four Quartets to suggest not only that the poetry should be read aloud or listened to, but also that the reader might “listen” more attentively than just search for a literal understanding of the poetry. To “listen” is to pay attention more deeply—to listen to what is not being said. To listen to the silence between two waves of the sea.
In the introduction to this series of essays I suggested there were three elements that were crucial to understanding Eliot’s masterpiece: the poetic technique, Eliot’s spirituality, and his biography. Although the poems seem impossibly abstract, they are in fact, rooted in objective experience. The key to understanding them is to understand those objective connecting points in biography and geography—time and place. Thus Eliot establishes the objectivity by titling each of the four poems with a particular place name.
Burnt Norton is the site of a ruined manor house in Gloucestershire, England. The Norton house was burned down in 1741 by its owner Sir William Keyte, who died in the fire. Eliot visited the site with his friend Emily Hale in 1934. All that remained of the manor house was the ruined garden.
Emily Hale was the woman in Eliot’s life who would have been his perfect partner. Suffice it to say that she may have been a kind of Beatrice figure for Eliot, and as such she is the key that unlocks the riddle of “Burnt Norton.” As she and Eliot visit the tragic site of the ruined manor house he muses on “what might have been” and “the passage we did not take toward the door we never opened into the rose garden.”
The visit to the rose garden and the musings with Emily about a love and life together that never happened lead to a broader contemplation on the nature of time, free will, and human choice. The meditation is resolved in the stark and realistic acknowledgement, “What might have been and what has been point to one end, which is always present.”
This phrase is the center point of the poem, for the rest of Burnt Norton is an extended meditation what Jean Pierre de Caussade called “the sacrament of the present moment.” The art of contemplation is to enter into “that place” where regret for the past and fear of the future is void. There is only the reality of the present moment, and contemplation is the vivid and vital participation in that sacrament of time.
The second section rhapsodizes on this art of contemplation. With various images Eliot attempts a description if not an explanation. Contemplation is “the still point of the turning world.” It is “neither arrest nor movement. . . . where past and future are gathered.” It is “inner freedom from practical desire.” It is participation in a dance with the whole world of time and the cosmos in perfect synchronicity.
In the third section Eliot compares the calm bliss and harmonious plenitude of contemplation with the lassitude, boredom, and empty despair of the desperate. The two look alike, but are akin as madness is to genius. This is not contemplation, but “tumid apathy” The lost souls are “distracted from distraction by distraction.” The bitter wind of urban hell is the “eructation of unhealthy souls.” It is the belch of boredom and the slack faces of empty minds and hearts anesthetized by loss of faith.
The short fourth section takes us back to the garden. A cloud sweeps across the sun, the clematis climbs and clings, a kingfisher wings across the sky, and the present moment again presses in.
In the final section Eliot summarizes his musings on time and the art of contemplation, but now he weaves in his feelings on the interaction of all this with his vocation of poetry. The words are inadequate. They slip and move. The reality is in the stillness of contemplation and to talk about it is unsatisfactory. How can you explain or even describe “the stillness of the violin while the note lasts” or the beauty of a Chinese piece of porcelain? “The words strain, crack and sometimes break under the burden.” Instead, at the heart of the stillness there is movement—the movement of time like the movement of music or laughter.
The final section ends by re-asserting the theme in a new way. He had said, “What might have been and what has been point to one end, which is always present.” Now he echoes those thoughts: “Quick now. Here now. Always. Ridiculous the waste sad time stretching before and after.”
The biographical details of Eliot’s visit to Burnt Norton with Emily Hale illuminates the nostalgia of the poem, and his contemplative spirituality provides the content and drives the poem forward. There only remains the opportunity to elucidate some details of his poetic technique.
The symbolists strove to use ambiguous or bewildering images and language to bring the reader to the edge of a new experience of the numinous. Eliot is a master of this technique. He intends the bewildering, abstract, or obtuse images and language to break our literalistic search for merely denotative meanings. The strange language and imagery is meant to disconcert us and thus bring us to the threshold of a wider reality beyond the mundane and quotidian.
It does no harm to remind readers who are confused to take the time to look up words that are unfamiliar. One of the functions of literature is learning. Nevertheless, some of the terms can be explained. Here are a few explanations: What is the “unseen eyebeam crossed”? It’s an allusion to The Ecstasy, a poem by John Donne:
Our eye-beams twisted, and did thred Our eyes, upon one double string; So to’entergraft our hands, as yet Was all the meanes to make us one,
What is the “box circle”? On the one hand, it is a delightfully confusing paradox, but on the other hand, anyone who has visited a formal garden will recognize the clipped hedges of boxwood shrubs. The shrubs planted in a circular pattern would be the “box circle.”
What shall we make of “Garlic and sapphires in the mud clot the bedded axle tree?” I’m not convinced by any of the attempts at literal explanation of these lines. Instead it is a perfect example of Eliot’s use of the symbolist technique. Do not ask what “garlic and sapphires in the mud clot the bedded axle tree” means literally. Instead ask how it makes you feel.
Perhaps in the garden at Burnt Norton Eliot saw an abandoned axle from a wagon lying in the mud with bluebells and wild garlic growing over it, and that image produces the lines which introduces us through the dynamic of emotion to feel the earthy mix of mud and machinery, flowers and gems that represents the experience of contemplation.
The “loud lament of the disconsolate chimera” is another example of a phrase that may have a literal meaning, but which is more important for the emotional impact of its mysterious sound.
Within the use of language Eliot intends to open us to the experience. He wants to share the emotion as much as the meaning. The other confusing or bewildering language in the poem can be discovered with a bit of curiosity, thought, and research.
Listening to the Four Quartets is a close and concentrated kind of listening, but as in all close work the rewards are bountiful and the enlightenment joyous.
From Reluctant Allies
 Check out Jeremy Irons’ excellent renditions here.
 For more on their relationship link to my article here.
 Al Kimmel has some interesting thoughts on the subject here.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. A graduate of Oxford University, he is the Pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Church, in Greenville, SC, and author of twenty books, including Immortal Combat, The Romance of Religion, The Quest for the Creed, and Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men. He contributes to many magazines, papers, and journals, including National Catholic Register, Catholic Digest, and The Stream. His latest book, Beheading Hydra- A Radical Plan for Christians in an Atheistic Age, is published by Sophia Institute Press. Visit his blog, listen to his podcasts, join his online courses, browse his books, and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.