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Burnt Norton (recap) - The Ex-Communicator

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May 25th, 2011


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11:02 am - Burnt Norton (recap)
The marking I was supposed to do today got cancelled, so I have an hour free now, and I would like to do another Burnt Norton post. (in two parts here and here)

In the first few lines of Burnt Norton, Eliot was being completely and baldly literal: 'If all time is eternally present then...' It is dry philosophical stuff, and I think unpacking the meaning is not doing any violence to the robust text.

In the remaining lines of the first stanza - about the rose garden - he speaks obliquely or metaphorically. There are massive problems - don't think I don't know - with unpacking that imagery. Some people - and I think espresso_addict took this view - would say that the overt meaning - a man going into a garden - is the right thing to concentrate on. And that may be true, because that overt narrative is what is consciously articulated or chosen by the poet. Perhaps I should leave the unarticulated alone, let it operate on the subconscious, without being hauled into daylight. Also, very commonly, people say that articulating implied meaning is destructive or demeaning, and poetry should be talked about in terms of its formal characteristics (or whatever - things other than 'what it means').

But I have found that trying to put implicit meaning into words has made the poem richer for me, and that is why I am sharing it as I do it. Trying to articulate something I felt without words forces me to join up the verbal and non-verbal parts of my mind and for me that is pleasurable. I don't know how common that is.

And I do believe without any real doubt that in talking about the rose garden and our first world, Eliot is referring to the Fall and our lost innocence. Or no - no, let me put it like this - he is making a poem about a tragic paradox of human consciousness which is also dramatised in a Biblical story and in various other stories and personal experiences.

The lines about ghosts of children and leaves and formal structures are about a way of living with that tragedy: he is saying the same thing as Yeats said in the lines 'How but in custom and in ceremony/ Are innocence and beauty born?' I think this second reading of the rose garden section is less solidly compelling, and furthermore Eliot presents this way of being - ceremonial calm as a way of suspending our grief and loss - as a transient or failed strategy, in the next lines, which I will put in another post.

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[User Picture]
From:teadog1425
Date:May 25th, 2011 01:23 pm (UTC)
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"But I have found that trying to put implicit meaning into words has made the poem richer for me, and that is why I am sharing it as I do it. Trying to articulate something I felt without words forces me to join up the verbal and non-verbal parts of my mind and for me that is pleasurable. I don't know how common that is."

It is deeply pleasurable for me too, if that is any use as a data point! ;) That is the reason I specialised in medieval literature - where 'working out what is meant' is a more easily justified past-time!

Sometimes I have found it a frustrating pursuit when I 'feel' something very strongly and can't articulate what is prompting it from the text, or can't articulate well enough to convince someone else to agree with my reading, let's say! But that is just motivation to get more skilled at constructing one's arguments and marshalling one's evidence! :)

[User Picture]
From:communicator
Date:May 25th, 2011 02:38 pm (UTC)
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That's interesting you should say that, because a lot of my thinking is non-verbal, I think more than most people, and that's paradoxically why I am quite interested in the process of communicating in words.
[User Picture]
From:espresso_addict
Date:May 25th, 2011 01:58 pm (UTC)
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Trying to articulate something I felt without words forces me to join up the verbal and non-verbal parts of my mind and for me that is pleasurable.

That's interesting. I've always felt that trying to put the subtext into words with something as rich as Eliot just loses what I love about it. But that's probably just because I'm rubbish at it. I'm enjoying reading your constructions.
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From:communicator
Date:May 25th, 2011 02:39 pm (UTC)
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I know that I can't render it fully in words, but trying to do it pushes me to - it stops me from leaving it all semi-conscious, which I am quite prone to do wth all kinds of things

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