Mama Liked the Roses (And So Did T.S. Eliot): Deciphering “Burnt Norton” – Part 2

Have you ever wanted to reclaim the past? In images, especially those of poetry, we […]

Will McDavid / 7.12.11

Have you ever wanted to reclaim the past? In images, especially those of poetry, we possess a moment frozen in time. It seems so accessible the more detailed and the more sensuous a description we give it—such as Eliot’s ghostly trip into the rose-garden last week—and yet the permanence which it suggests is devastatingly illusory.

In one of Kurt Vonnegut’s descriptions of aliens, the Tralfamadorians from Slaughterhouse-five compare the human experience of linear time to being strapped down on a moving train, without being able to turn one’s head right or left, and having to look through a small hole at a six-foot long pipe. The reality of our imprisonment to time can be brutal amidst ageing and change, and Eliot meditated on this pain in some of his other works as well.  Last week I used “Ash Wednesday” as an entry into the Quartets, and this time I’ll briefly cite a line from
Eliot’s “Prufrock”:

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

Disillusionment. Ageing. Change. These can be especially brutal when the future looks bleak, as it did for Eliot’s old man. And this despair only increases the temptation to look backward, to fetishize images that can be permanently inscribed in one’s memory or in verse.

In “Burnt Norton,” after Eliot’s reflection on what could have been in the rose-garden, he addresses the problem of temporality by taking refuge in divine stillness and immutability. In Dante’s Paradiso, which was very influential for Eliot, there was a divine Wisdom, or Mind of God, at the very center of the universe. Sure, medieval Catholics believed that Earth was the physical center of the universe but, in a deeper sense:

The nature of the universe, which holds
the center still and moves all else around it,
begins here as if from its turning-post.

This heaven has no other where than this:
the mind of God, in which are kindled both
the love that turns it and the force it rains.

Later, Dante looks more closely at this turning-post:

And when I turned and my own eyes were met
by what appears within that sphere whenever
one looks intently at its revolution,

I saw a point that sent forth so acute
a light, that anyone who faced the force
with which it blazed would have to shut his eyes,

We saw in Eliot last week that the epigrams come from Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher who developed the pre-Christian idea of logos as the central Reason in the universe. In a pagan Greek view as well as a medieval Christian one, the physical world on earth is messy. Things decay, good things fail to happen or end, and suffering strikes unexpectedly. In the Word, however, all chaos holds together and forms a beautiful and yet unseen harmony.

Eliot was an unhappy man for most of his life, a man to whom time brought a failed marriage, episodes of anxiety, and crushing flashes of despair best expressed in his “Waste Land” and “The Hollow Men.” Even the episode in the rose-garden was despairing because in it Eliot ascribed the false permanence of memory and artistic imagery to the fundamentally impermanent—a necrophilia of sorts. He compares himself and his companion to ghosts. No surprise, then, that he follows this by a meditation on the Word, in which all things hold together in the one thing truly permanent and unmoving:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is…

The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,
Erhebung [elevation] without motion, concentration
Without elimination, both a new world
And the old made explicit, understood
In the completion of its partial ecstasy
The resolution of its partial horror.

Amidst the pain of past pleasure foregone, Eliot understandably latches onto the still Word, the Word outside time. It’s here that all of the worldly ecstasies are shown to be partial and wonderfully completed, and in which the horrors and sufferings are shown to be partial and finally resolved. Everything is made explicit and understood, and from this the poet takes comfort. This vision, furthermore, is not mere cosmological reflection, but rather it is occasioned by a view of the cross:

Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree
…the dance along the artery
The circulation of the lymph
Are figured in the drift of stars
Ascend to summer in the tree
We move about the moving tree

An axle-tree, in Eliot’s time, was a carriage part shaped like a cross–an image of one is on the home page. Eliot combines the cosmological turning-post—or Mind of God—with a stationary cross and anatomical imagery of the crucified Christ. The combination is appropriate because both images are associated with the person of the Word, and it is only in the cross that the majesty of the Word and the higher vision of cosmological  harmony may be recognized. So Dante, of course, takes comfort in a beautiful vision of higher harmony, an order of which he can be cognitively assured.

And yet such ecstatic visions are also images, and though they are true they do not provide escapes from time. As Dante’s vision of paradise progresses, he learns that he must eventually bear his own cross in horrific exile from Florence. For Eliot, too, the vision into higher reality is itself false permanence, as the speaker must continue to live in time, strapped to a train whose speed he can’t control and looking through a six-inch tube. Things may not even look any different in time, but the Cross and the Word still do reveal a higher reality:

Below, the boarhound and the boar
Pursue their pattern as before
But reconciled among the stars.

Everything is reconciled—this is the Good News! And yet “among the stars”—how does Eliot’s speaker apply it to down-to-earth, everyday life? We’ll look at Eliot’s response next week as he applies the idea of transcendent reconciliation with the unchanged patterns of the physical, time-bound world.