Poetry Friday: 1936, part 2

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.
                                       Other echoes
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.


6 comments on “Poetry Friday: 1936, part 2

  1. semibee says:

    The Waste Land has been interesting enough so far that I’ve ignored most of Eliot’s other work, but this is LOVELY. A masterful introduction, this post is like an invitation to enjoy something grand without being crushed by the grand weight.

    The speaker feels like a kindred spirit in this poem; I envy Eliot his ablility to sparsely define those too-big ideas that float around in our heads.

    What might have been is an abstraction
    Remaining a perpetual possibility
    Only in a world of speculation.

    I dig this stanza. Curious, though, why he didn’t indent it to pair it with this one:

    But to what purpose
    Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
    I do not know.

    This feeds back to the path not taken, the rose garden undisturbed; how we think back on pasts we left undone, disturbing the dust. Saying “I don’t know why we do that” is odd, though. After all those defined deep thoughts in the beginning of the poem, I think he knows the answer and is inviting us to think on it, then eventually taunts us to catch up through the garden of undone with him.

    Those echoes, they’re the curious ones. THOSE give me the shivers. What is he insinuating, do you think? That something else could make echoes in a garden of undone, planted and tended just by you? Maybe I’m traveling with the metaphor too long.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Deb, I’m thrilled you took the post as it was intended—a hopefully non-threatening invitation to something really grand. 🙂 I think you’re right about Eliot: sometimes I read his stuff and think “well, obviously!” but then I catch myself and realize that maybe the idea had never been that obvious until I saw him state it so simply. His choices of indentation are definitely interesting—I made sure to reproduce them here (which HTML is not happy to do) because I think they’re significant. He’s very into structure…for example, each of the quartets is divided into 5 parts, and there are obvious (and not-so-obvious) similarities between them which have given critics plenty to chew on. So I think the decisions to indent are really very purposeful, and it would be interesting to see where he does this throughout “Burnt Norton” and the others.

      And I don’t think you’re taking the metaphor too long at all—I agree with you that the “other echoes” make my hair stand on end. I think it’s that he’s taken us into such a private place, such a quiet internal place, that the thought of other echoes being there is like hearing a noise when you _know_ you are home alone, or catching a glimpse of a face in a crowd of someone who has been dead for years. It’s eerie and enticing all at once. I hope you take on the poems, and I’d love to hear what you think of them. I think you’ll find (as I did) that their beauty and power is not uniform, and some passages just don’t seem to land at all, but that others are remarkable and among the best of the 20th century’s verse. We’ll see. 🙂

  2. Will have to get these poems. I usually like Eliot, but haven’t read these. I am really looking forward to your poetry posts now. Meanwhile, this idea of time used to fascinate me as a kid. I read a novel called The Ghosts and another that I can’t remember, that both played with the idea of how time interconnects. I read The Ghosts over and over because of my delight in this. Now I come at it from another angle, with a personal and professional interest in mindfulness practice. So, again, thanks for this blog — I am loving the places it takes me!

    OH, and what do you think about the lack of Pulitzer for fiction this year???

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Beth, I’m glad that the poetry posts are reaching you—I definitely think anyone interested in mindfulness would be attracted to the Quartets, since Eliot becomes more spiritually aware (and incredibly focused on the spirituality of time and the present moment) in his later work. The poems are often published in slim little paperback volumes—I think I bought my copy for about $5—and well worth the price. And of course by now you’ve seen my comments on the big “snub” of 2012 (which kind of has to be about DFW, doesn’t it? at least in part? it was a really gutsy choice by the jury to put it out there, and I’m thinking it backfired on them)—on the plus side, it’s sending a bit more attention at the Pulitzers, and hopefully at some of the more deserving winners. Anything that gets people talking about books makes me happy. 🙂

  3. […] Poetry Friday: 1936, part 2 (followingpulitzer.wordpress.com) […]

  4. […] greatest poems—T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.  In one of my posts on the poems of 1936, I devoted my attention to the opening stanzas of the first of the quartets, written in that year—”Burnt Norton” captured the imaginations of more than a few […]

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