(ETA - a few glitches there while I repaired the HTML, should be OK now)
Burnt Norton is a manor house which burnt down, was rebuilt, converted to an orphanage and was then abandoned. Everything about the place Burnt Norton, even its name, is therefore suggestive of the passing away of time, and of the loss of the past. Some people think that the poem Burnt Norton is about the persistence of the past. I think the opposite: it is about how we are surrounded on all sides by nothingness and obliteration. Well, OK, it is also about the trace the destroyed past leaves in the present.
The poem says (to me at least) that we live in a thin sliver of existence surrounded on all sides by nothingness. When we listen to a tune, only a micro-second of one note really exists: the start and end of the tune are as non-existent as Ancient Rome. The past and future are not like rooms next door, which we can step into from the present. If we live in the present like a room, it is a room with a great roaring abyss just outside. And the room is wafer-thin.
The first three lines set out the ground:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
I think Eliot is saying that if the past and future have any existence it is as a trace in the present. We only know them in as far as they can be deduced from what currently exists. But -
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
If the past and future were entirely contained in the present – if you could deduce absent time from current time – then we would be living in a deterministic universe. There would be no free will, no sin or redemption, and so to Eliot it is unthinkable.
Hmmm. I wrote ‘unthinkable’ but actually it is all too thinkable to Eliot, it represents the horror of the atheism that he finds slightly compelling even as he fights it off: ‘All time is unredeemable’.
The implication is that the meaning of the present rests on the non-existence of the past. If the past existed in the present, if it was even deducible from the present, then humans would be meaningless puppet-creatures. Reality would be like the limerick:
There was an old man who said ‘Damn
I finally know that I am
But a creature that moves
In pre-destined grooves
Not a bus or a car, but a tram’
The image Eliot will use is an underground train, but to the same effect: ‘Damn’.
It’s more than that. If the universe is non-determinist then we need not only the obliteration of the past. We also need a potential past which never came to be, though it might have been:
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
So, human freedom doesn’t just depend on first order non-existence – the non-existence of things that used to be – but a second order of even greater non-existence (if that’s even possible) the strange non-existence of things that might have been but never even existed once. Things that are compatible with the present, but never existed at all. For instance choices that we might have made, but didn’t.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
This is the first bit of the poem that sounds like poetry. The sadness and regret of bad choices, and the times we turned away from beauty and love, and chose to be business-like and lonely. Just as what is rests on what isn’t and what never was, so our free will rests on all the bad choices we made, just as (in Eliot's humanist Anglicanism) human value rests on the possibility of sin. If we embrace our terrible mistakes we become free creatures.
How hugely compact and concise the use of language is. I have talked about the first 84 words of the poem (!), and I have taken 700 words to begin to explain what it means to me, in a most clumsy way.