Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Burnt Norton

Because of To the Lighthouse and because of my current research of Maori lintels, I have been thinking a lot about liminal states of being. I see a great deal of liminality in Eliot's Four Quartets, particularly in "Burnt Norton." I liked Middleton's argument that situates the poem itself as having a kind of in-betweenness: originally written as a modern poem, Eliot recast it in the Four Quartets as both a poem present as a modern poem and as a ghost of modernism itself—it is, as Middleton notes, "'caught in the form of limitation/ Between un-being and being" (88). What Middleton suggests is that the poem exists only in the space and time before the other poems in the series have been read—it is thereafter "erased" (83). I think that the poem also situates human existence as being in a state of constant liminality. In this way, we resemble the poem itself.
For Eliot, it seems, the reason for this in-between state is time. Time is a medium that denies stable existence because of its constant movement. I think this is what he first hints at when he writes, "All time is unredeemable" (I: 5). The first section seems to be primarily about past time, which the narrator seems to chase as "echoes" (I: 19) through the rose garden. Venturing into the past ("our first world" (I:24)), our "eyebeam" is "unseen" (I: 30) by the "invisible" (I:25) people of the past. Venturing into the past thus creates a sort of cancellation of our existence, and I think this is what the bird refers to when he says "human kind / Cannot bear very much reality" (I: 44-5). The ending lines of the section, "Time past and time future / What might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always the present" (I: 46-8), seem to indicate that both types of time force existence into the present. But, as the rest of the poem shows, the present hardly exists at all because of the insistence of time.
The second section seems to be a description of the present. The "bedded axle-tree" (II:2) of the second section functions as an image of spiritual existence, which is caught in the present—the axle-tree is positioned between two wheels which represent the movement of past time on one hand and future time on the other. That these wheels are not mentioned here perhaps illustrates their elusiveness, or the inability to really know them. The "Garlic and sapphires in the mud" (1) which "Clot" (2) the axle-tree could be those hyper-real flashes of experience to which we have access—the intensely bad (garlic) and the intensely good (the sapphires). Since some people are quite fond of garlic, this idea might not hold up—however, the potency of garlic and the brilliance of sapphires both point to a kind of intensity. In the next stanza, the "Neither/Nor" binaries are a reflection of the narrowness of human existence, the tiny gap between times in which we exist. We are neither one thing nor its opposite—we are somewhere in between. Existence, is "At the still point of the turning world" (I:16), a point between times, but Eliot makes sure to remind us "do not call it fixity" (18). The closing lines of the stanza, "I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where. / And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time" (22-3), are a more explicit statement of how time cancels existence. The next stanza seems to be a longing for spiritual freedom from time, which we are not able to sustain because of "the enchainment of past and future / Woven in the weakness of the changing body" which "protects" us "from heaven and damnation / Which flesh cannot endure" (33-6). The empty space between "endure" (36) and the "Time" of the next line could function as the representation, again, of our liminality, which endures between time.
The third section would logically be a description of the future, and I think it is that; however, it is a meditation rather on a different kind of time, a time which has become "Time before and time after" (III: 2) rather than "time past" or "time future." I think this is the time surrounding existence. It is death. Perhaps it is a kind of purgatory or even damnation that the souls could "Descend" (25) into. Perhaps having to remain in the world—the mention of certain locations indicates a worldly attachment— while not being of it is a kind of hell Either way, it seems to be one method of escaping time, this living in "Internal darkness" (28).
The fourth section also seems to be a kind of reference to death, and perhaps both represent the future because all futures hold death. The fourth stanza represents a brighter type of future, however. Here, "light"(9) is present, and we are perhaps full of light, as it is possible that the "sunflower" and "clematis" may "turn to us" (3).
The final fifth section, I would argue, is not a part of the poem proper—it is supplementary to the quartet as a fifth piece of it. It is outside the literal "time" of the poem, as it has no rhyme scheme whatsoever. "The Word in the desert" (V: 19) almost has to be the word of God, which is placed in contrast to human words that "strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden" (13-14). I think this stanza thus describes the active pursuit of the salvation that would result in the death of Section IV.

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