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Four Quartets: "Burnt Norton"

Summary
The first of the quartets, "Burnt Norton," is named for a ruined country house in Gloucestershire. This quartet is the
most explicitly concerned with time as an abstract principle. The first section combines a hypothesis on time--that
the past and the future are always contained in the present--with a description of a rose garden where children hide,
laughing. A bird serves as the poet's guide, bringing him into the garden, showing him around, and saving him from
despair at not being able to reach the laughing children. The second section begins with a sort of song, filled with
abstract images of a vaguely pagan flavor. The poem shifts midway through the section, where it again assumes a
more meditative tone in order to sort out the differences between consciousness and living in time: The speaker
asserts, "To be conscious is not to be in time," for consciousness implies a fixed perspective while time is
characterized by a transient relativity (around the fixed point of the present). However, this statement does not
intend to devalue memory and temporal existence, which, according to the poem, allow the moments of greatest
beauty. The third section of "Burnt Norton" reads like the bridge section of a song, in which the key changes. In this
section, Eliot describes a "place of disaffection"--perhaps the everyday world--which allows neither transcendence
("darkness") nor the beauty of the moment ("daylight"). The fourth, very short section returns to a sort of melody
(some of the lines rhyme) to describe the unattainable, fictional point of fixity around which time is organized. This
point is described as surrounded by flowers and birds; perhaps it can be found in the rose garden of the first section.
The final section of this quartet returns to reality: Despite the apparent vitality of words and music, these must die;
the children's laughter in the garden becomes a mocking laughter, scorning our enslavement to time.
Form
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Eliot is much less experimental with rhyme and meter here than he is in his earlier works. Instead, he displays a
mature language consciousness. Through the repetition of words and the use of structures like chiasmus and
pastiche, he creates a rhythm not dependent on previous poetic forms. It is as if the mere meaning of the words is not
enough to express the philosophical concepts Eliot wants to explore, as they "decay with imprecision": He must
exploit the physical properties of the words themselves. The repetition and circularity of language that are this
poem's hallmarks highlight the infinite circularity of time: Just as past, present, and future cannot be separated with
any precision, neither can the words used to describe them. Rather than exploiting bizarre combinations of images or
intricate formal devices, Eliot uses the gravity of terms like "past" and "present" to create a beautiful monument of
ideas.
Commentary
The Four Quartets were written over a period of eight years, from 1935 to 1942. These years span World War II;
they also follow Eliot's conversion to the Church of England and his naturalization as a British subject. These poems
are the work of an older, more mature, spiritually attuned poet, facing a world torn by war and increasingly
neglectful of the past. Each of the Four Quartets considers spiritual existence, consciousness, and the relationship of
the present to the past. Whereas The Waste Land and others of Eliot's early works take an interest in the effects of
time on culture, the Quartets are concerned with the conflict between individual mortality and the endless span of
human existence. Accordingly, each quartet focuses on a particular place with its own distinctive significance to
human history and takes off from that place to propose a series of ideas about spirituality and meaningful
experience. Each quartet separates into five sections; Eliot used these divisions and the transitions between them to
try to create an effect he described as similar to the musical form of the sonata. The Quartets, thus, display none of
the fragmentation or collage-like qualities of Eliot's earlier poetry; instead, Eliot substitutes an elegant measuredness
and a new awareness of language: Puns and other forms of wordplay occur with some frequency.
Eliot does not hide the ideas behind the poetry here. His meditations on time and being are stated fairly explicitly
and can be easily traced in the poem. "Burnt Norton" is, however, a poem about distraction, and two of the more
interesting aspects of the poem are also two of its most understated moments. The first of these surrounds the garden
in which the first section is set. Certainly the garden--"our first world"--references the Garden of Eden: A place of
unattainable peace (and in this case insight) that is normally forbidden to mere mortals but that exists in memory and
in literature as a standard to which everyday existence must be unfavorably compared. Yet the garden is also a part
of the ruined estate from which this quartet takes its name; it bears the marks of human presence and abandonment--
empty pools and formal hedges gone wild. The wreck of the garden brings to mind the ruins so prominent in Eliot's
earlier poetry, except that, here, ruins are a symbol of the futility of human aspirations and particularly of the futility
of trying to alter the natural order.
Ruins also call to mind fragments, especially of the kind that make up Eliot's earlier poetry. The first line of the
second section of "Burnt Norton"--"Garlic and sapphires in the mud"--highlights Eliot's new attitude toward the
fragmentary nature of modern culture. This famous line juxtaposes a series of random things, but the effect is not the
atmosphere of belatedness and melancholy characteristic of The Waste Land. Rather, the collage-like arrangements
of this section form a nearly coherent whole, a meaningless song that sounds traditional but isn't. Again fragments
and ruins stand in defiance of human aspirations, only this poem does not lament that things once made sense and
have now ceased to do so; rather, it declares that coherence never existed at all--that meaning and human experience
are necessarily mutually exclusive.
The second center of interest in this quartet is constructed around the Chinese vase and the ruminations on poetry in
the fifth section. This section clearly owes a debt to Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," with which it shares some of its
thematic concerns and its imagery. The Chinese jar represents the capacity of art to transcend the limitations of the
moment, to achieve a kind of victory over, or perspective upon, time. In its form and pattern, in its physical
existence, the jar is able to overcome the usual imprecision of human expression. By emphasizing form and pattern,
Eliot suggests that poetry, which takes advantage of the linguistic versions of these, may also be able to achieve
transcendence. Nevertheless, at the end there still remains the ghostly laughter of children in the garden, mocking
"the waste sad time" of the poet and of poetry. The place of poetry and Eliot's own poetic practices will be a subject
of scrutiny elsewhere in the Quartets.