This is, as I mentioned in my last 1936 PF post, an incredible year for poetry. Another beauty I can’t let escape notice is “Burnt Norton”, the first of what would come to be (in about a decade) a set of poems by T. S. Eliot called the “Four Quartets”. In them, Eliot reflects at length about an incredible variety of topics, drawing together issues he previously explored in poems like “The Hollow Men” and “The Waste Land” into a solemn but hopeful reflection on time, mortality, and purpose. Each piece of the quartet carries its own delights, and I’m sure I’ll ponder them as they surface one at a time (the rest of them in the 1940s, during the war). For now, let’s take a run at the opening lines of “Burnt Norton”, and Eliot’s first wrestle with the idea of time, a topic he returns to throughout the set:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
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.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.
Eliot is grappling with a concept so abstract and impossible that I think we are tempted not to engage with the poem at all—we can set it aside as being “too deep” or “too artsy” or whatever we use to distance ourselves from it. But I’m hoping to encourage you to try resting with the words on your mind a little, and seeing if they start to awaken some understandings for you: I know I’ve had to do that with this poem, and that it becomes more rich every time I return to it over the years. Eliot begins with the very simple idea—that we are creatures bound by time, and that time is a strange thing. There are all these ties that bind the past, present and future together. And the past and future are really only ideas we can confront in the present—now is the only time in which you ever live, or ever can. Eliot calls it, later in this quartet, “the still point of the turning world”.
We are not conscious of time in this way, normally—our memory, and our ability to imagine, allow us to live in the past and the future very happily for hours at a time, maybe even our whole lives. Eliot is calling us out of our reverie into a very serious contemplation of where we really are. What might have been and what actually has been are the same in one way—we access them only through our minds, only through the lens of the present in which we live. And words are caught up in this, too. Eliot tells us about footfalls, about a rose-garden we did not enter, and in our minds these images appear and echo. Do we see ourselves opening the door we did not open (an image that resonates enough with me that I wrote a poem about it, although not consciously in homage to Eliot)—if we see that, who is it we see? Where is that me, opening that door, and when does he open it?
I know, I know, this is getting a little too fanciful for you. But Eliot is trying to evoke things not easily expressed, and the images will come tumbling out of us if we linger near him. Are we willing to take up his invitation—to follow these echoes of memory and time where they lead, into the garden we never enter? He suggests we will enter the first gate with him, into our first world. Our first world—what is that? Where is it? I find the phrases powerful and almost threatening without knowing why.
I like poems that do this—poems that work on me slowly, sometimes over decades (as this one has), maybe never to be fully understood but always in the act of opening, like a flower. If you’ve never read the “Four Quartets”, I hope you’ll take them on: they’re easy to find (online and in print), and you can easily skim past what isn’t striking you right now to dwell on what does. For me the light in them began in the last one, “Little Gidding”, and is only now reaching “Burnt Norton” in a way that illuminates it, and still only in part. Or, if the poem just isn’t speaking to you, sit for a moment, sometime soon, and dwell on the idea of time and memory. I find it almost endlessly rewarding, and I expect you will too.