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The subject of Burnt Norton can be defined in various ways. If we adopt the method of commentators on The Divine Comedy, we may distinguish a literal, a moral and a mystical meaning. The literal meaning is simply that the poet has felt a moment of inexplicable joy, a moment of release, like the moment Agatha speaks of when she looked 'through the little door, when the sun was shining on the rose-garden'. It is a moment of escape from the endless walking 'down a concrete corridor'; or 'through the stone passages of an immense and empty hospital'. This moment of release from the deadening feeling of meaningless sequence, 'in and out, in an endless drift', 'to and fro, dragging my feet’, into the present, the moment when, in Agatha's phrase, 'the chain breaks', is connected here with the memory of 'what might have been'. The poem springs from this experience, and it sets by it another experience, which is sought deliberately, but which is the same, for 'the way up is the way down'. If we pass from the literal to the moral meaning we may say that the virtue to which Burnt Norton points us is the virtue of humility: a submission to the truth of experience, an acceptance of what is, that involves the acceptance of ignorance:

Internal darkness, deprivation

And destitution of all property,

Desiccation of the world of sense,

Evacuation of the world of fancy,

Inoperancy of the world of spirit.

If we pass then to the use of theological terms we may say that mystically the subject of Burnt Norton is grace: the gift by which we seek to discover what we have already been shown.


From The Art of T.S. Eliot. Copyright © 1949 by The Cresset Press.