Denis Donoghue: On "Burnt Norton"

The fifth and last movement of the poem is its most contentious part, for reasons I'll try to explain. Much depends on the value we give to the first three lines: 'Words move, music moves / Only in time; but that which is only living / Can only die.' It recapitulates the statement about being conscious and remembering; as if to say that while of course we have to live in time, we are not obliged to live according to its chronometer or in deference to its 'metalled ways'. The distinction between Chronos (Yeats: ‘the cracked tune that Chronos sings') and Kairos, the time of meaning and value, is much to the point here. The silence into which words reach is, so far as it is attended to, their meaning, not their defeat:

                        Only by the form, the pattern,

Can words or music reach

The stillness, as a Chinese jar still

Moves perpetually in its stillness.

Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts, 

Not that only, but the co-existence,

Or say that the end precedes the beginning,

And the end and the beginning were always there

Before the beginning and after the end. 

And all is always now.

In The Living Principle Leavis gives an account of this passage so invidious that it impels him beyond the necessity of his argument into a commentary, finally negative, on Eliot's entire later poetry. It is clear that he reached this position for many complicated reasons; including a radical shift in his scale of values, such that Eliot must be diminished by a revised comparison with Lawrence, a fate that Lawrence, too, suffered by still later comparison with the Tolstoy of Anna Karenina. Leavis allowed himself to be scandalized, in his commentary on 'Burnt Norton', by Eliot's insistence -- at least it appeared to Leavis to amount to insistence -- that 'the really real ... is the eternal' (177). Except by relation to the ultimately real, which is eternal, human life has no significance: this is what Leavis accused Eliot of believing, on the evidence of 'Burnt Norton'. Eliot, that is, 'insists on the unreality, the unlivingness, of life in time' (179).

I don't find Eliot believing anything of the kind: he couldn't have believed it and still be a communicant of a Church which is founded upon the redemption of time by the Annunciation. How Eliot judged those forms of temporal life which, were content to be, in every limiting sense, merely temporal, and to obey the call of punctuality and immediacy, is of course a different matter: on that, the evidence he has left is clear.

In 'Burnt Norton', the words which induced Leavis to protest are those which seem to entail a claim, on Eliot's part, to know what 'the meaning' is; such words as 'form' and 'pattern', and, from an earlier movement, 'the dance'. 'The ultimate really real that Eliot seeks in Four Quartets', according to Leavis, 'is eternal reality, and that he can do little, directly, to characterize' (175). Directly, of course not. Nor is there any pretence of 'characterizing'. Form, pattern and dance are merely analogies, ways of putting not 'eternal reality' but the poet's striving to apprehend it. Form, pattern and dance denote the point at which an otherwise mere event may be brought to disclose its meaning; brought, by exerting upon it the pressure of a more demanding moral and spiritual perspective than any judgement entailed in the immediacy of the event itself.

That the meaning is dynamic is clarified by the 'Chinese jar' which 'still / Moves perpetually in its stillness'. Where Eliot comes a cropper is in his attempt to be more specific than that, distinguishing between a visible and an audible stillness, and trying to go beyond the distinction. 'Not that only, but the co-existence': the co-existence of what? He finds it impossible to say just what he means; as the passage about the incapacity of words goes on to confess almost at once.

In the interval between Murder in the Cathedral and The Family Reunion, Eliot had temptation much on his mind; the temptation of Thomas á Becket, of Harry's father, of Christ in the desert and more generally the temptation of silence to dissolve in chatter. The last lines of this movement are perhaps melodramatic:

                        The Word in the desert

Is most attacked by voices of temptation,

The crying shadow in the funeral dance,

The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.

I can't find any particular -- or particularly cogent -- meaning in the last two lines: what the shadow is, or who or what the disconsolate chimera is. Eliot is rattling old bones.

The poem ends more quietly in another attempt to represent the pattern as dynamic:

[Donoghue quotes from "The detail of the pattern is movement," to "Stretching before and after."]

Structurally, it is a return to the beginning, a discursive passage about time, love and desire; a passage in which the English language, in this respect like Mallarmé's French, seems to be intoning itself without requiring either a speaker or a listener to be in attendance. As in the first movement, we are released from its monitions to the imagery of gardens, children and laughter. The figure of the ten stairs comes from St John of the Cross and may be left unglossed; it sustains the Heraclitean motif of the way up and the way down. It would be more useful to quote, from the third movement of 'Little Gidding', the passage about the use of memory:

                This is the use of memory:

For liberation -- not less of love but expanding

Of love beyond desire, and so liberation

From the future as well as the past.

This is what 'Burnt Norton', and indeed the other Quartets, are about: starting from the unquestionably rich ground of laughing children in the foliage, how to avoid losing or, worse still, humiliating the promise implicit in the sunshine and the laughter. How to convert the low dream of desire into the high dream of love.

In the chapter on Alice in Wonderland in Some Versions of Pastoral William Empson remarks how a certain feeling about children developed in England after the eighteenth-century settlement had come to seem narrow and inescapable; a feeling 'that no way of building up character, no intellectual system, can bring out all that is inherent in the human spirit, and therefore that there is more in the child than any man has been able to keep' (260-1). This idea of the child, 'that it is in the night relation to Nature, not dividing what should be unified, that its intuitive judgment contains what poetry and philosophy must spend their time labouring to recover, was accepted by Dodgson and a main part of his feeling' (261).'Burnt Norton' is full of this feeling, along with a doomed conviction that it can't be recovered, and that the only thing possible is to invoke the plenitude of one's memory of such unity, and start again from there under better, because more exacting, auspices.

The success of 'Burnt Norton' is still in dispute. The reason is, I think, that none of the critical procedures developed and employed in the fifty years since the publication of the poem has been responsive to the kind of poetry we find in 'Burnt Norton'. I can put this briefly by saying: nobody, not even Leavis, took up where D.W. Harding's account of the poem left off. Most of the critical procedures which have been used with success in the analysis of poems have concentrated upon one or another of a limited set of terms: image, symbol and structure. No critical method has arisen which proposes to show the poetic character and potentiality of discourse. It is still an effort to take the harm out of the word 'discursive'; as reviews of John Ashbery's poems sufficiently indicate.

From "On ‘Burnt Norton’" in Words in Time: New Essays on Eliot’s Four Quartets. Ed. Edward Lobb. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

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Title Denis Donoghue: On "Burnt Norton" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Denis Donoghue Criticism Target T. S. Eliot
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 02 Nov 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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