17 February 2010

Burnt Norton, part 2 [i]

We now will consider the second section of Burnt Norton. The previous section we considered was sung in the bass voice (a cello); it brought out the darker side of the earthly solidity that characterizes such a voice, though at its end it faded away into something quite different. Now we are faced with a section that is expressed through a soprano tone (violin); of all the parts of Burnt Norton it is the fieriest and bears (along with part 4) the closest resemblance to what might be immediately understood as poetry. Because of the density of this section this analysis will be divided into several parts.

Formally, this division of the poem is divided into three sections. The first, from "Garlic and sapphires" to "reconciled among the stars," is a carefully crafted incantation that attempts to distill and conjure up the essence of "Burnt Norton" in a single, spell-like saying. The second section consists in a commentary on the sentence "reconciled among the stars," written in verse form. The third section repeats the main theme of the relation that prevails between moments in time which we considered in the first divisions, though transformed by what has transpired in this division.

Writing any sort of commentary on the first section of this division is virtually impossible. It is one of the most tightly wound pieces of poetry I've ever seen; while much of Eliot's poetry has many handholds for the critic to use in his ascent, this section is like a sheer wall of glass or diamond. Nonetheless, I will make a few comments; they will be necessarily relatively more wrong than the majority of what I will write about the poem but hopefully they will still be at least helpful in some manner.

The pairing of "garlic and sapphires" in the section's opening stanza suggests the admixture of the common (garlic) and the precious (sapphire). Garlic and a carved gemstone would look rather similar if their forms were shrouded by mud. The mixture of peasant's food and the noble's rare jewels in the terrestrial mud (and of course both garlic and sapphires come from the earth) is a most fitting symbols for human life. For our lives are an admixture of both the most common "animal" functions (though the poem hardly makes the mistake of conceiving of them in this manner) which we share with other members of our race and with the lower animals and the divine fire which informs our human character. On earth these two poles are mixed together constantly; be wary of he who thinks he has left behind one or the other, or who thinks he can separate them in a clear and distinct manner.

The axle-tree bedded in the mud presumably belongs to some sort of wagon or cart. I've often imagined that it is a series of wagons or a caravan of some sort, carrying all sorts of wares, which might go some way towards explaining the actual presence of the garlic and sapphires in the mud; but such an interpretation is not necessary. The use of the word "clot" plays with the next line, where "the trilling wire in the blood" names that explosive (but musical) force that makes living things live. It trills; why it is not at peace is forgotten, but until the debt of the "long-forgotten wars" has been "appeas[ed]" the trilling goes on. This pattern is hardly simply human or simply "biological" or even simply earthly, however. All the manifestations of this pattern are "figured in the drift of stars." The phrase suggests that even the timelessly eternal stars, the forces which in the form of the Zodiac (the "circle of animals") were thought to control the world, are themselves not timelessly eternal but mutable. Now a command: "ascend to summer in the tree." It was clear (to me) that we were already on a muddy path, at night after a day of rain when the clouds have cleared; now the trees are explicitly invoked and are presented as the place of our ascension. Trees stretch their arms to the very heavens yet always remain rooted in the earth (which is why I find trees to be one of the most fitting symbols for human life). Summer, the season in which this section is transpiring (and which recurs in a later section), is a timeless season (like winter) in that it represents the zenith of the sun's ascension in the sky. It is the season in which the life that sprouted in the spring comes to fruition. Summer is traditionally associated with the southerly direction and with fire.

Now that we have raised ourselves above the trees, floating like the ghosts of the first division of "Burnt Norton" (but over a "sodden floor" instead of "dry leaves"), a great mystery is revealed to us: though the "boar" and the "boarhound" continue their serious play, they now have been "reconciled" among the stars. I shall steel myself against the temptation to pronounce this reconciliation as either "subjective" or "objective" and steadfastly state that it is at once both and neither, for reasons that will become clearer at a later point.

Thus we have quickly traversed the first section of this division of "Burnt Norton." Next comes the section that begins "at the still point of the turning world," which (as I indicated above) I take to be a commentary upon specifically upon the phrase "reconciled among the stars." More generally, it is a commentary upon the entire preceding section, but it specifically concerns itself with the essential nature of the reconciliation.


Clipstock said...

I have enjoyed returning to read your more frequent posts. Keep it up.


Anonymous said...

I have thoroughly enjoyed your commentary on Burnt Norton. Having just 'discovered' Eliot, I have found it most helpful. I look forward to reading the next installment.