Helen Gardner

Helen Gardner: On "Burnt Norton" (2)

The subject of Burnt Norton can be defined in various ways. If we adopt the method of commentators on The Divine Comedy, we may distinguish a literal, a moral and a mystical meaning. The literal meaning is simply that the poet has felt a moment of inexplicable joy, a moment of release, like the moment Agatha speaks of when she looked 'through the little door, when the sun was shining on the rose-garden'. It is a moment of escape from the endless walking 'down a concrete corridor'; or 'through the stone passages of an immense and empty hospital'. This moment of release from the deadening feeling of meaningless sequence, 'in and out, in an endless drift', 'to and fro, dragging my feet’, into the present, the moment when, in Agatha's phrase, 'the chain breaks', is connected here with the memory of 'what might have been'. The poem springs from this experience, and it sets by it another experience, which is sought deliberately, but which is the same, for 'the way up is the way down'. If we pass from the literal to the moral meaning we may say that the virtue to which Burnt Norton points us is the virtue of humility: a submission to the truth of experience, an acceptance of what is, that involves the acceptance of ignorance:

Internal darkness, deprivation

And destitution of all property,

Desiccation of the world of sense,

Evacuation of the world of fancy,

Inoperancy of the world of spirit.

If we pass then to the use of theological terms we may say that mystically the subject of Burnt Norton is grace: the gift by which we seek to discover what we have already been shown.

From The Art of T.S. Eliot. Copyright © 1949 by The Cresset Press.

Helen Gardner: On "Burnt Norton"

The more familiar we become with Four Quartets, however, the more we realize that the analogy with music goes much deeper than a comparison of the sections with the movements of a quartet, or than an identification of the four elements as 'thematic material'. One is constantly reminded of music by the treatment of images, which recur with constant modifications, from their context, or from their combination with other recurring images, as a phrase recurs with modifications in music. These recurring images, like the basic symbols, are common, obvious and familiar, when we first meet them. As they recur they alter, as a phrase does when we hear it on a different instrument, or in another key, or when it is blended and combined with another phrase, or in some way turned round, or inverted. A simple example is the phrase 'a shaft of sunlight' at the close of 'Burnt Norton'. This image occurs in a rudimentary form in 'The Hollow Men', along with a moving tree and voices heard in the wind:

There, the eyes are

Sunlight on a broken column

There, is a tree swinging

And voices are

In the wind's singing

More distant and more solemn

Than a fading star.

At the close of 'Burnt Norton' a 'moment of happiness', defined in 'The Dry Salvages' as a 'sudden illumination' is made concrete by the image of a shaft of sunlight which transfigures the world:

Sudden in a shaft of sunlight

Even while the dust moves

There rises the hidden laughter

Of children in the foliage

Quick now, here, now, always --

Ridiculous the waste sad time

Stretching before and after.

This is the final concrete statement of what 'Burnt Norton' is about; but it recalls the experience we have been given in a different rhythm and with different descriptive accompaniments in the second half of the first movement, as the sun for a moment shines from the cloud, and the whole deserted garden seems to become alive:

Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,

And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight, 

And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,

The surface glittered out of heart of light,

And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.

Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.

The image repeated, but with such a difference, at the close establishes the validity of the first experience. Brief and illusory as it appears in the first movement, it has not been dismissed. It has remained in thought and it returns. Though

Time and the bell have buried the day,

The black cloud carries the sun away

when the 'sudden shaft' falls, it is time that seems the illusion.

From The Art of T.S. Eliot. Copyright © 1949 by The Cresset Press.