March 14th, 2011

breaking bad

Burnt Norton preamble

I am going to start again with a read-through of Burnt Norton by TS Eliot.

Burnt Norton is the first poem in 'Four Quartets', which as a combined work won the Nobel Prize. But it was written five years before the next in sequence, and it was not planned as part of a series, but as a stand-alone. So I think a lot of the formal features which structure the rest of the Quartets were backwards-engineered from Burnt Norton, and arose naturally within this poem, which is by far my favourite in the sequence. BTW I am going to try to stop typing 'I think that...' and just say what I think.

I try to read it as something very plain and overt, about the nature of human existence in time. I have several books about this poem, but I don't agree with them, because they read the poem as speaking obliquely, hinting at theology. Eliot said he wanted:
to write poetry which should be essentially poetry, with nothing poetic about it, poetry standing naked in its bare bones, or poetry so transparent that we should not see the poetry, but that which we are meant to see through the poetry, poetry so transparent that in reading it we are intent on what the poem points to, and not on the poetry

And that's how I want to read it.

Burnt Norton is a manor house in Gloucestershire. It burnt down, hence its name, then the rebuilt house was used as an orphanage, and then unused. So I think this house is an image of time where the past is burnt up utterly. Think of The Langoliers, who eat the past. Or The Fire Sermon
'form is burning, feeling is burning, perception is burning, volitional formations are burning, consciousness is burning'.
breaking bad

Burnt Norton 1-5

The first five lines of Burnt Norton present an hypothesis about time. Then draw a line under it.
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
Full. Stop. All the rest of the Four Quartets discuss the alternative hypothesis.

But first the discarded hypothesis. Perhaps time is a dimension like space. Perhaps the past and the future are just as 'present' as the present, perhaps other times are like other places, which exist in a definite fixed form. Perhaps the past and the present and the future are implicit each in each other. Perhaps by knowing the present we have sure knowledge of the past and future. Perhaps the past is not burnt.

If this hypothesis is true - argues Eliot - there is no free will, there is nothing to be attempted. No hope. Time is unredeemable. This whole world is a total mockery.

But if this hypothesis is wrong, then our existence in time is much more complex, and difficult, but also meaningful and hopeful. And the rest of the poem, and the four poems, are about the implications of that.