June 16th, 2011
|09:34 am - Burnt Norton 49-57|
In the first part of this stanza, Eliot is presenting the implications of human corporeality. A human being is a material object. Being a body traps us in time, and in the sensual experience of the moment. But it also unites us with physical forces and processes which extend into the past and future, and across the whole universe.
We exist as bodies made of meat. According to conventional religious opinion, we get stuck and trapped in the present clamour of our senses and forget more important matters, forget god and spirituality. This point of view is satirised by Yeats for example in Sailing to Byzantium: ‘Caught in that sensual music all neglect/ Monuments of unageing intellect’.
But, alternatively, being made of matter unites us with all other matter in the universe, so we are no longer separated from it, but manifestations of great forces and processes beyond ourselves. According to a pagan or atheist point of view being corporeal is our redemption, not a barrier to redemption.
Now you might think, from other things he has written, including in this very poem, that Eliot would take the first view. But in this section of Burnt Norton he seems to work his way round to reconciliation with the body.
Garlic and sapphires in the mudGarlic and sapphires are the sweets of corporeal existence, which trap us in the sensory experience of the body, like a wheel caught in mud. The focus is caught in the ‘now’. It does not move lightly through time, but is stuck compulsively wallowing in pungent and voluptuous sensation.
Clot the bedded axle-tree.
The trilling wire in the blood‘Inveterate’ means ‘habitual’ or ‘engrained’. The process of evolution is a habit of matter. The evolved body is a scar; it arose from natural processes which were wounding. The body is the by-product of billions of years of fighting for existence. Everything about our body is the product of violence. The power which pushes the blood through our arteries is the power of war. Heraclitus (whom Eliot quotes at the start of Burnt Norton) said 'War is the father of all things'. This is the point Eliot is making here.
Sings below inveterate scars
Appeasing long forgotten wars.
But even this rather horrifying model serves to reconcile us with time. Our present existence only makes sense as a product of the past: we have the evidence of time, the weight and significance of time, intimately revealed through every process of our body. If we evolved, then we evolved in time, and we are not trapped in the present.
The dance along the arteryThe physical body is also the product of calm, impersonal, Laws. Principles of mathematical precision and Platonic transcendence. Our bodies are pure manifestations of inviolable cosmic forces.
The circulation of the lymph
Are figured in the drift of stars
Ascend to summer in the tree.
We are all these things, creatures trapped in this moment by sensory noise, the inheritors and products of brutal evolution, and material beings which manifest cosmic law.
ETA - and notice the movement here, from the lower trunk or axle of the tree, embedded in mud, up through the flow through the arteries or the phloem, lifting up through the trunk, to the top leaves of the tree, or the crown of the head.