14 February 2010
Burnt Norton, part 1
We left off last with the resolution to carefully consider each section of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets with a view towards offering an interpretation of the poem as a whole. The limitations of the format in which I am writing will necessarily make this interpretation fragmented until we have finished going through the entirety of the poem; I only hope that it will nonetheless direct the reader back towards the poem and help bring them into confrontation with what it is trying to say.
"Burnt Norton," the first section of the poem, can be found at http://www.tristan.icom43.net/quartets/norton.html.
One aspect of the poem as a whole is its concern with the different modes in which time overtakes us. We say variously that time heals all wounds and that time destroys all things. The temporality of human existence is perhaps our greatest blessing and greatest curse. "Burnt Norton" revolves around several different considerations of the essence and meaning of time with respect to the possibility of freedom coexisting with determination. Let us begin to examine this problem in light of the first division of the poem.
This division begins (quite famously) "Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past." Many readers (myself for some time included) have difficulty form the outset reading this since it in no way resembles what we are expecting to find in a poem. Formally, it appears to be a sentential proposition concerning the nature of time. This is the sort of thing one may expect to find in a philosophical treatise. What is it doing in a poem? Is this the criticized "elitism" or "abstractness" of Eliot's poetry rearing its ugly head?
Such characterizations miss the possibility (here necessary) of the poet to speak philosophically in his poetry while still remaining essentially a poet. Like musical instruments, the voices in the Four Quartets do not possess the sort of personality that one typically expects from the speaker of a lyric poem. They do possess a certain characteristic tonality which consists in a fitting of the "concept" being "expressed" in the section with the manner of "expression" (such words are useful so long as we recognize that here expression and mode of expression are one). It may be useful to think of each section as corresponding either to one of the registers of the human voice or one of the instruments of a string quartet; here, we have a bass voice (or a cello from the quartet, if you prefer).
In fact, what we can almost correctly call the hopelessness of the first section of "Burnt Norton" is precisely suited to the sort of pedantic despair with which the poem begins. The meaning of the opening lines is clear: if everything that has happened is contained in the future, and if the future is contained in the past, then everything has already happened. As absurd (at the outset) as such a view may seem it is precisely the position of the sort of popular scientific materialism we still find floating about. If there are exact and binding laws in the physical universe, and if the physical universe is the only dimension in which anything exists, then everything that would ever happen is necessarily determined from the moment at which the universe explodes into being. Every chemical action and reaction in my brain, as I am writing this, is a necessary step from the previous set of circumstances that brought me to this moment. If this is the nature of the world, then it is beyond even hope or despair; it is at a place where hope is a meaningless word. All time, as the voice states, is "unredeemable." This question of the meaning of the redemption and its relation to time is one we will take up later; for now, I would suggest that one look to Prince Hal's "redeeming time" speech from Henry IV or alternatively the section from Ephesians where it is considered.
The voice goes on to proclaim that hope, which is necessarily tied up to what could be, never existed: "what might have been is an abstraction." As the voice introspectively travels back to a prior moment we first encounter one of the poem's key symbols, the rose. "Into the rose-garden" we go, even though such a journey is only "disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves." Here doubt begins to enter into the darkness in which we began: for though it proves nothing to this mechanistic speaker, he recognizes how strange it is that people would be drawn towards contemplation of the past if the past was necessary. What is being encountered in such contemplation? The voice "do[es] not know."
The garden is filled with what the speaker only hears as "echoes," the fact that these sounds are heard as echoes, perhaps like the "withered stumps of time" observed Eliot's Wasteland, may have less to do with the sound and more to do with the listener. A bird urgently calls out to him to follow the echoes, which the speaker proceeds to do. However, he is from the outset prejudiced against this calling, as he enters "our first world," he does so decrying the "deception of the thrush" that led him there. He enters the rose-garden when it is already autumn; the leaves have fallen off the trees; the garden is filled with what he perceives as ghosts moving "dignified" and "invisible" over the "dead leaves." Yet the bird apparently has a different view of things; it sings in response to "unheard music hidden in the shrubbery." Not only that, but the speaker recognizes that the ghostly beings in the garden must be able to see what is happening, for the roses in the garden, as he observes, "had the look of flowers that are being looked at."
The speaker and his ghostly cohort (and presumably the bird) move "in a formal pattern" into the "box circle." The importance of formal patterns will become more apparent when we enter the second section of "Burnt Norton;" the box circle, I believe, refers to the central section of the garden in which a circular pool is walled in (at some distance from the pool itself) by a very short hedgerow. Symbolically, it is a reference to "squaring the circle," a process that ancient geometers reportedly attempted and which certain alchemists claimed to have accomplished. While it is mathematically impossible to perform this function because of the transcendence of the number "pi," the alchemical meaning of the square circle pertains to the elevation of the material (lead) to its perfection in the spiritual (gold).
The pool appears "drained" and "dry" to the speaker. Yet all of a sudden, remarkable in the manner in which the speaker presents it as unremarkable, "the pool was filled with water out of sunlight." If such an event transpired in our lives we would no doubt find it noteworthy, yet the speaker only punctuates this event with a comma from the previous line that ended in "brown-edged." The surface of the water "glittered out of heart of light," a beautiful image that is reminiscent from the Wasteland, and the ghostly onlookers become visible by their reflections in the water. The lotus flower that floats in the pool, like the squared circle, symbolizes the transformation of the lesser into the greater. For the lotus (according to the interpretation in Hinduism) is planted deep in the mud of a pond, only to emerge and unfold as the most beautiful of flowers.
"Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty." What just happened? The symbols that we have just encountered all pertain to what we may generally and almost emptily call "transcendence." What a mighty word, and how low it has fallen now! We need now only understand by transcendence a shifting beyond the world in which one had previously lived; a shift that must be to some extent qualitative and not simply quantitative. The possibility of the existence of an undetermined realm in which freedom would be possible is not something that the speaker at the outset wished to admit. Yet even when he comes face-to-face with it, he seems completely unable to understand what he is looking at.
What Eliot is driving at here is an extremely important point to understand as the poem continues. While most of us believe that we are "free," none of us can easily explain what that means. Eliot is trying to force the reader in the whole of this first division precisely into the position where the tremendous tension that one must undergo to acknowledge the reality of freedom can come to pass. For there is no empirical evidence of any kind that human beings could possibly be "free;" the concept of free will cannot exist in a purely "physical" world, once "physical" has been understood in the light of the physical sciences. Yet though we cannot explain it readily, there are moments where we experience a sudden and fleeting vision and we seem to be actually capable of deciding our path for ourselves, beyond all the conditions and experiences that have made us who we are.
The section draws to a close as the bird exhorts the speaker to "go," for "the leaves are full of children." "Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind / Cannot bear very much reality." These cryptic final words of the bird are its most profound utterance and possibly the solution to the riddle of freedom, a solution that is invisible to the section's speaker. Just as can only stare at the sun for brief moments before one's eyes are blasted, so it is with the experience of transcendental realities. The moment of ecstasy, like the statue by Bernini, pierces one with an unearthly ray of shining fire. Just as the man who goes to the surface in Plato's allegory and stays in the sunlight cannot with ease return to the cave, so too we who must live in this world cannot for long endure the experience of another world. This is the "reality" that the bird is speaking of. People usually read this as the bird suggesting some sort of flight to fancy and false imagination, but it is in fact making a quite true statement that we who (for better or for worse) must now live in a world of shadows simply cannot bear many glimpses of a higher sort of world.
The experience has in some ways changed the speaker, who concludes with a decisively different rephrasing of his opening lines:
"Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present."
The possibility (which will be considered in the next section) that the coming-together of past, present, and future is actually the precondition for the possibility of freedom instead of its destruction is hinted at in the conclusion. For instead of proclaiming that all time is "contained" in time past, he now suggests that time "point[s] to one end," a very different sort of proposition indeed. The "might have been," which was before an abstraction, is now coupled together directly with the highly concrete "what has been." The experience of the lotus in the rose-garden has brought some measure of enlightenment to the deep voice that preached despair beyond despair.
We will continue next time with an analysis of the second section "Burnt Norton." This next section corresponds to the soprano register of the voice, and has a much more melodic and complex structure.