Eliot’s Four Quartets remain among his most critically acclaimed and notoriously inscrutable works. Although there’s no established consensus on the precise meaning of these poems, they’ve all been viewed as meditations on time, each focusing on a particular aspect of this central reality of human life. Constantly going back to the Quartets and always enjoying them, this summer I’ve taken it upon myself to try and tease out some of the questions and ideas Eliot develops. Feel free to comment with other takes on the poem.

In “Burnt Norton,” Eliot struggles with the contingency of the past: there was a genuinely good, enjoyable experience which he might have had and yet did not. To build a framework for looking at Eliot’s angst over this, we’ll briefly turn to a couple of his other poems.

In “Ash Wednesday,” one of the first poems he wrote after his conversion to Anglicanism, Eliot faces the threat of unredeemable time:

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is only actual for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice.

This early resignation in the poem captures the poet’s troubled emotional life, dealing with the difficulty of human spiritual agency and the threat that there is nothing we can truly rejoice in without having to construct something. Through this place of resignation, however, Eliot’s speaker comes to a place of prayerful dependence, begging to God:

Redeem the time, redeem the dream

Eliot could only hope for redemption to the extent that he dealt with the true threat of unredeemed time, and this contrast gives both “Ash Wednesday” the poem and Ash Wednesday the day their beauty and poignancy. In “Ash Wednesday” the threat is merely immanent time, time which holds no eternal significance and is not positioned within a transcendent metanarrative. What if time doesn’t point to any good beyond itself but is mere time, what if place is only place? Thoughts and fears like this one, motivated by frequent anxiety and depression in Eliot’s personal life, push him toward the religious vision of his later poems. In some ways his earlier “Waste Land” is an honest look at unredeemed, merely immanent time, an eternal stagnation which his epigraph hints is worse even than death. Luckily for him and his readers, however, Eliot’s search for meaning was answered, though he continued to struggle with certain questions within a Christian context. These struggles play out in his Four Quartets.

“Burnt Norton” has been described as a meditation on time and possibility. It’s based on a manor Eliot visited with a woman named Emily Hale, although he was still married to his wife, Vivien Haigh-Wood. Hale asked Eliot to marry her soon after his wife died, and many read romance into their friendship, even into the period when Eliot’s wife was still alive. The letters between them are sealed for close to another decade on Hale’s request, so we’ll have to wait on a verdict.

Many contemporary critics believe that Eliot’s abstract meditation on what could have been in “Burnt Norton” was occasioned by a personal fixation on the foregone possibilities with Eliot and Hale during the manor visit. Eliot was constrained by a failing marriage to Vivien, so he was unable to act on his attraction to Hale. He explores it, however, in an imaginative walk into a rose-garden on the property with an unnamed companion:

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

While Eliot paints a happy picture of the speaker and his companion strolling among the roses—with strange laughing children thrown in for good measure—he hints that all is not well. Why not?  None of it actually happened. The children are ghostlike, “moving without pressure, over the dead leaves.” They’re both “dignified” and “invisible.” Finally, toward the end of his reverie, a bird which acts as his guide through the garden continues to urge him forward into the garden, for “human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality.”

In short, this as an angle Eliot takes on the classic problem of suffering. Why were good experiences foregone?  Why must his trip to the rose garden be incorporeal? The past is unalterable, which makes Eliot both nostalgic and despairing for a nostalgia that can never be fulfilled:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps contained in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.

In the present moment the past is unalterable; since the future is determined by the past, in the present everything seems determined and therefore closed to redemptive possibilities. Suffering and the pain of missing out on a genuinely good thing are not redeemed because all time is eternally present; the current, purely immanent moment is all we get, and past and future are practically necessary while theoretically contingent—that is, the moment in the rose-garden could have happened, but it was always never going to.

Perhaps a key to unlocking this problem is the Edenic character of the garden, described as “our first world.” The past is not what it could have been because that is unrealistic—there has been a Fall. Without forcing the Genesis narrative onto Eliot’s poetry, I do want to say that the empty paradise of the first strophe, in which humans move as ghosts, reflects a world of Edenic perfection which has been lost or perhaps never possessed. We cannot reach the garden.

Where is reason to be found in the world and in time? Where are the possibilities of redemption?  I’ll mention one for now, which is Eliot’s epigraph: “the way upward and the way downward are the same.”

From Heraclitus, this passage asserts the ultimate harmony of the universe, which is a collection of processes unified by Reason, or the logos. St. Paul appropriated this Greek idea of a unifying universal Wisdom to form his idea of the Christological Word. Eliot, later in his poem, will make a similar move from purely immanent harmony, to transcendent meaning, to their incarnational unity:

Only through time time is conquered.

Check back next week, when the poetry gets even more abstract before getting piercingly clear and providing moving (…) solutions to the problems of possibility and time.