Morris Weitz: On "Burnt Norton"

However, it is in the Four Quartets that the immanence theory of time is worked out fully in poetic terms. The first lines open on what seems to be the classical Augustinian conception of time, with its placing of the sense of the past and the future in the present; but the poem soon shifts to an orthodox neo-Platonic theory:

[Quotes first 10 lines of "Burnt Norton"]

The present and the past are perhaps already part of the future but the future is determined by the past. In this sense, all temporal experiences are in the present, at every moment, and we cannot redeem the temporal because it is never away from us to be redeemed. Also, and this becomes clear in the total context, 'All time is unredeemable' has another meaning: There is no redemption if we recognize only the flux. Further, even the realm of pure possibilities, of things that might have happened, is no different from the temporal: Past, present, future and possibility point to one end which is always with us; that is, which end, as the Eternal or Timeless, immanent in the flux, is the ultimate source of explanation of it.

This notion of the Eternal or ultimate reality being immanent in the flux as the Logos which anyone can discern, but which only a few do discern, clarifies most of 'Burnt Norton'. Consider the following lines;

Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose-garden. My words echo

Thus, in your mind.

The rose-garden is the key idea in this passage. Eliot has used this image in much of his poetry and there is cogent conflicting opinion about its meaning. Whatever the general meaning may be, if there is one, at least here it seems to function in a double sense, as an actual place -- a rose-garden; and as a symbol of those temporal experiences which reveal most poignantly the immanent character of the ultimately real. Like the Christian 'Kairos', the rose-garden symbolizes those moments that show, more than any others, the meeting of the Eternal and the temporal.

Besides the echo of the Logos, which is the meaning of the temporal, there are other echoes in the garden. There is, first, the deception of the thrush, calling us to a world of mere temporality. But such a world is one of indolence and desiccation, a reiteration of the waste land and the land of the hollow men:

There they were, dignified, invisible,

Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,

In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air. . . .

 

There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting,

So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,

Along the empty alley, into the box circle,

To look down into the drained pool.

There is also the echo of the undeceiving bird, who leads us to other, more alive voices, to those who are less dignified and patterned: to those who can see the reality of the roses, for the roses do have 'the look of flowers that are looked at'. These are the voices of the children, hidden excitedly in the apple tree, who are laughing and singing; but who are, as we realize in 'Little Gidding', 'Not known, because not looked for / But heard, half-heard, in the stillness / Between two waves of the sea.'

The bird is the messenger of Truth, telling us that the rose-garden echoes with life: and that this life itself is a manifestation of something which is more than the mere flux. But the bird also knows that man will not acquiesce to that which is true:

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind

Cannot bear very much reality.

The second movement of 'Burnt Norton' sharpens the immanence conception of time: that the Eternal or Timeless is the ultimate dimension of the flux and gives it whatever reality and meaning it has. After an introductory passage, in which physical movement, 'The trilling wire in the blood', epitomized in the struggle between the boarhound and the boar that ends in death, is falsified as the only movement there is, we come to true, nonphysical movement:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; 

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, 

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, 

Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,

Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, 

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

The still point, of course, is the symbol of the Logos, but it is also the symbol of the Christian God. In God is the source of movement and the temporal. Not that God is movement; rather from Him emanates movement, to utilize a neo-Platonic idea. There is the temporal, the flux; but without God, the Timeless, there would be no temporal.

To experience the Eternal, the 'still point', is to transcend the temporal; it is to give up desire, action and suffering; to rise upto God, but with no physical action; and to understand both theTimeless and the temporal for the first time:

[Quotes from "I can only say, there we have been; but I cannot say where" to "The resolution of its partial horror."]

We must start with the temporal, the ever-changing experience; and come to see its dependence upon the Timeless:

                                Time past and time future

Allow but a little consciousness.

To be conscious is not to be in time

But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,

The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,

The moment in the draughty church at smokefall

Be remembered; involved with past and future.

Only through time time is conquered.

In the final movement of 'Burnt Norton', the distinction between the Timeless and the temporal becomes the distinction between The Word and words. Words lie, but it is only through words that we can conquer them, to express the truth which is The Word. And what we want to say we cannot say because words are always changing, being in the flux; but even with words we can suggest The Word: That God, Who is the Final

Cause, did initiate the first event and does determine the last event:

Desire itself is movement

Not in itself desirable;

Love is itself unmoving,

Only the cause and end of movement,

Timeless, and undesiring

Except in the aspect of time

Caught in the form of limitation

Between un-being and being.

The movement and the poem end with a concrete and visual return to the rose-garden with their contrast between the inadequate affirmation of the sole reality of the flux and the true recognition that there is something more, the Eternal, echoing in the laughter of the children. How ridiculous, then, the sole acceptance of 'the waste sad time Stretching before and after'.

From "T.S. Eliot: Time as a Mode of Salvation." Sewanee Review (1952).

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Criticism Overview
Title Morris Weitz: On "Burnt Norton" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Morris Weitz Criticism Target T. S. Eliot
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 02 Nov 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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