Eliot selected the title of his first quartet-Burnt Norton-from a manor house he once visited in Gloucestershire, England, because its grounds inspired the poem’s central image-the ethereal rose garden. For each of the quartets, Eliot chose a place name and together they function as “objective correlatives,” concrete foundations to which Eliot tethers his highly abstract, philosophical ideas. Each quartet takes its name from a specific locale that represents for Eliot an emotional or spiritual state. Burnt Norton and its rose garden symbolize vision; East Coker in Somerset (where Eliot is buried), the site of Eliot’s ancestral home, represents physicality and tradition; The Dry Salvages, a group of rocks on the Massachusetts shore line where Eliot played as a child, stand for life’s ebb and flow and the uncertainty of time; and Little Gidding, a religious community begun by Nicholas Ferrar in the seventeenth century represents the apex of spirituality (Bergonzi 166-167), a theme introduced in Burnt Norton that finds its culmination in the last lines of the Four Quartets.
The four locales also stand for the four elements cryptically alluded to in the epigraph. East Coker is earth, The Dry Salvages water, Little Gidding fire, and Burnt Norton air, the world of thoughts, words, philosophy and poetry (Thompson 84). The owners of the manor house that inspired Eliot gave it the name Burnt Norton because the present edifice was built on the same spot where its predecessor had burned down. Burnt Norton’s suggestion of rebirth-the phoenix rising from its ashes, the Christian soul ascending to heaven out of the dross of a discarded body, the twice-born yogi reborn in the fire of agni, must have held for Eliot extraordinary charm. Like his contemporary James Joyce, Eliot gravitated towards circular structures, ideas that start in one place and return in the end to the exact point of departure; thus in the title of his first quartet he prefigured his whole poem. Beginning with Burnt Norton’s central image, the rose of perfection, and ending with Little Gidding’s fire of purification, the rose and fire are compressed into a single symbol of spiritual unity.
However, before the sublime unity of Little Gidding can be realized, the first word of Burnt Norton, the first word of the Four Quartets-profane Time-must be accounted for. The Quartets taken together, then, embody a journey from the ignorance of time to an awakening in eternity. Burnt Norton’s opening lines, in seed form, function as a kind of road atlas for that journey:
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.
This passage demonstrates how well Eliot understands time. Sandwiching past, present, and future together, he creates the eternal moment, the natural condition of time according to quantum physics and the Veda.4 With a touch of glib humor, Eliot states that the past contains the future, a truism if time is conceived as sequential flow, that is, the future flowing into the present and the present flowing into the past, but an absurdity from the perspective of pure philosophy which holds that the future is always becoming and the past is always already gone. Eliot next suggests that the present and past will “perhaps” be found in time future. Once again he has his tongue firmly in his cheek. True, what will become the present and the past must first be found in the future, but because what is already the past and what is currently the present precede the future, is Eliot’s assertion logical? Moreover, Eliot adds the qualification perhaps they will be found because the future, unlike the past and present, is yet to be formed and remains forever uncertain.
In the first of the Four Quartets’ many paradoxes, Eliot states that “all time is eternally present.” This line is central to appreciating Eliot’s philosophical position in the poem. Time he says is not always present; it is eternally present. For time to be eternally present, it can have no temporal boundaries. But by its very nature, time creates boundaries. We define relativity by the dimensions of time and space. Again Eliot has made a paradoxical, Heraclitian-like statement that at first seems impossible, a forging together of the opposites time and eternity. His statement proves to be true, however, because time and eternity are from one perspective not antithetical but rather the very same thing. Just as an image in a mirror is both the same and completely different than the thing it reflects, so a moment of time is simply the reflection of eternity. If we could take a moment in time to its deepest physical level, even beyond the level of elementary particles, we would transcend all boundaries and locate eternity, the origin of time, the place where time does not exist and yet the place that gives existence to time. This is a fairly accurate description of what takes place during the practice of the Transcendental Meditation® technique.
Before beginning to meditate, a person’s mind will be found hovering on a thought, a set point in time, and then following the simple but specific criteria of the Transcendental Meditation technique, the mind begins to experience deeper, or less temporally defined, states of a thought until that thought is transcended and only pure awareness without an object of awareness remains (Maharishi, Science 50-57). What is most significant about this experience of transcendence, Maharishi explains, is not the experience itself, but rather its cumulative effects. Transcending, the mind becomes reacquainted with its own Self and immediately enjoys increased happiness and freedom and begins to develop such salutary qualities as creativity, adaptability, flexibility, growth, harmony, health, etc., inherent within this deepest level of life.
“What might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always present,” Eliot says in the next group of lines. “Always present,” eternal. If eternity is omnipresent, then past, present, and future are only an illusion; this means the destructive characteristics of time that wither away all life must also be an illusion. If time cannot destroy, then it cannot give birth. It is oblivious to change. In the Bhagavad-Gita, one of the primary inspirations for the Four Quartets, Lord Krishna, speaking of the eternal condition of the life of man, says as much to Arjuna on the battlefield:
He [man] is never born, nor does he ever die;
nor once having been, does he cease to
be. Unborn, eternal, everlasting, ancient,
he is not slain when the body is slain (99).
Life understood in its most developed state lies beyond the reach of time, never takes birth, and never dies. Without this fundamental knowledge that life is eternal, the temporal world of physical existence must be lived in trepidation and despair-or as Eliot would have it, “fear in a handful of dust” (“I. The Burial of the Dead,” The Wasteland).
Eliot states that “time is unredeemable,” a statement with two important implications for this poem. Time is unredeemable first of all because life is eternal, and because eternity is perfection it does not need redeeming. Secondly, being destructive, time cannot redeem; it can only cause change. To live in the temporal world means to remain unredeemed, unliberated, in bondage to the ravages of time, caught in the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth in the field of suffering. Joseph Campbell, inspired by both Vedic literature and the Four Quartets, takes a higher position than Eliot but not necessarily a contradictory one. He contends that time does not need redeeming because it has never fallen:
The eternal cannot change. It’s not touched by time. As soon as you have a historical act, a movement, you’re in time. The world of time is a reflex of the energy of what is eternal. But the eternal is not touched by what is here. So the whole doctrine of sin is a false doctrine. It has to do with time. Your eternal character is not touched. You are redeemed (The Hero’s Journey 227).
Krishna, in what Maharishi refers to as the seminal teaching of the Bhagavad-Gita, implores Arjuna to be free from time, to “Be without the three gunas . . . freed from duality” (126), the field of time. Freedom from duality is redemption in the highest sense of the word because it is one’s own true Self that is being redeemed. The three gunas to which Krishna alludes are “the finest aspect of creation” (222) and form the building blocks of temporal existence, the creative (Sattva), maintaining (Rajas), and destructive (Tamas) tendencies whose various transformations and mutations produce time, change, and the opposing forces of duality, such as good and bad, forward and backward, up and down, etc. These opposing forces trap those unawake to the field of pure consciousness in a lifetime of feckless actions that must remain unsatisfied as long as a person operates within the dimensions of time, because action within the field and influence of time cannot produce absolute effects; it can only cause the need for further action, ad infinitum. This system of action and its continuously deferred fulfillment resembles one of Maharishi’s favorite analogies, the activity of a person groping for the source of darkness in the midst of darkness. Only by transcending the field of change, the field of darkness, can the light of absolute fulfillment be found, as Maharishi explains in his commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita:
‘Be without the three gunas'; be without activity, be your Self [your own eternal, imperishable reality]. This is resolute consciousness, the state of absolute Being, which is the ultimate cause of all causes. This state of consciousness brings harmony to the whole field of cause and effect and glorifies all life. (127)
The poem’s most famous image immediately follows the opening, abstract contemplation of time, Burnt Norton’s exquisite, evanescent rose garden. With its layered sensuality, the garden strikes a welcome relief to the imageless, philosophical passage that precedes it. Unlike common gardens, Eliot fashioned his from the realm of the imagination, and, being non-physical, it need not obey the same laws as those engulfed in time:
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.
There they were, dignified invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves
With his conspiratorial we, Eliot invites the reader to enter with him into the garden. Like the thrush, the garden which appears real but is not takes us in. The garden is not real, first of all, because it is fashioned from Eliot’s mind; secondly, the poem’s grammatical past suggests that if it ever existed it no longer does. The inhabitants of the garden are no doubt an allusion to Dante’s inhabitants of the underworld. These mysterious, invisible “they” associated with the dead leaves also seem dead. They are the ghosts of the past whose presence the artist always feels, according to Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” spirits of those dying generations.
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.
The imagined bird responds to the imagined music, “unheard music” like the eyebeams that have never been seen, like the imaginary flowers that only have “the look of flowers that are looked at.” The poet like the Creator creates a world that appears real but is always qualified. Only the bird can hear the unheard music because it exists in the same unreal world.
There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight
With the spirits of the past, “our guests,” we move “in a formal pattern,” formal because it is the pattern of Eliot’s poetry. We look at what for Eliot no doubt was a real pool, a memory from Burnt Norton manor, but for us an imaginary pool filled with imaginary water, twice removed being constructed out of sunlight. Like Shelley before him, Eliot makes his imagery here more and more ephemeral to demonstrate how insubstantial is physical existence but also to create a sense of transcendence by reducing the concreteness of physical objects.
And the lotus rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.
Out of the illusory water which can even reflect the spirits of the past grows a lotus rose, a symbol in Vedic literature of vision and perfection, then a cloud passes signifying the vision’s end.
Eliot ingeniously invests this passage with the various qualities of time and eternity that he examines and reexamines in the Four Quartets from multiple vantage points. First there is the thrush, as imaginary as the garden itself, but an intruder into the garden. Not possessing the garden’s timeless perfection, it is not free like the garden from the strictures of time. The garden, on the other hand, with its perfect beauty, illusiveness, and transcendence, is the embodiment of timeless characteristics. However, the rose garden is also susceptible to time because it is an ideal rather than a literal garden. In a hierarchical eternity, it will outlast a common garden, but like all linguistic constructions born of time, it will wither with changes in taste and perception, even against such poetic claims as Shakespeare’s, who boasted he would keep his love alive in verse forever “‘Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity . . . / Even in the eyes of all posterity / That wear this world out to the ending doom” (1380).
Although timeless perfection, the garden in another respect symbolizes the very character of phenomenal existence. Like the flatness of the earth it appears real but is not; it is a kind of magician’s trick:
This expresses a great metaphysical truth: ignorance has no material substance. It is just an illusion which should be easy to shake off. (Maharishi, 1967, p. 81)
Just as ignorance appears to have substance but does not, so the reality of the rose garden is a trick of the poet, a mirage like the water in the pool made from sunlight, a mirage that Vedic Science would explain in terms of states of consciousness. Reality depends upon a person’s awareness, or as Maharishi puts it, “knowledge is different in different states of consciousness.” Like the imaginary thrush who believes in the imaginary garden, people living waking state of consciousness believe the material world to be the true nature of life. Only in higher states of consciousness, Cosmic Consciousness, God consciousness, or Unity Consciousness, Maharishi explains, when the mind has fully realized that it is unbounded and eternal can material existence be said to be a mirage. Moreover, this reality dawns only through the two aspects of knowledge: understanding and direct experience, and this knowledge only becomes dependable when the experience becomes stabilized.
Another reason not to dismiss the rose garden as simply a mirage is that it achieves what poets have always struggled to achieve-poetic immortality. The phrase “unheard music,” a reference to “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the touchstone of all immortality poems, attests that poetic immortality is undeniably one of Eliot’s aims in the Four Quartets. In Keats’ poem, the magnificent urn, its human figures frozen in time, and the poem celebrating the urn, each itself an image of eternity, taken together multiply the poem’s immortal effect. W. B. Yeats’ immortal bird hammered out of gold, a closer influence on Eliot, is fashioned out of “the artifice of eternity” in “Sailing to Byzan-tium” “to sing . . . Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” But all such images of immortality in art, as we know, are simply a convention, indestructible only insofar as art, like everything else, is a permutation of the absolute reality. Hence, in spite of poetic protests to the contrary, no work of art, no poem, not Keats’, nor Yeats’, nor Eliot’s is really indestructible. Keats’ urn, Yeats’ golden bird, and Eliot’s rose garden may each disdain the mutable complexities of life, but each is itself no more immutable than Shelley’s haughty Ozymandias, whose plaque arrogantly boasts of his longevity while his stone image turns to dust.
This eternal process of creation and destruction, Maharishi explains, is the natural growth and evolution of life. No creative act can exist without a former state being destroyed.
When life evolves from one state to another, the first state is dissolved and the second brought into existence. In other words, the process of evolution is carried out under the influence of two opposing forces-one to destroy the first state and the other to give rise to a second state. The creative and destructive forces working in harmony with one another maintain life and spin the wheel of evolution. (1967, p. 27)
Although immortality can be located in time, “What might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always present,” it cannot however be sustained by time; immortality can only be sustained by its own field of immortality. Maharishi explains that this is why there is always a need for spiritual renewal. An enlightened master, established in that field of immortality, speaks to those established in time, and something of his immortal words becomes lost, no matter how attentive the disciples (1967, p. 11). For physics this is an example of the second law of thermodynamics: entropy increases over time.
The mortality of poetry, the lasting effect of words, is a chief concern of Eliot in the Four Quartets. As the acknowledged spokesman of the Modern period, the great poet of his age, Eliot wondered how long his thoughts and those of other poets would remain viable. The language of lesser writers he quickly dismisses: “Words,” he says, when not put to their best use, “strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, . . . / Decay with imprecision.” The last word in the line is telling. Through deeper introspection, Eliot’s persona comes to the conclusion that words, though not immortal themselves, used to their best advantage can lead to the field of immortality: “Only by the form, the pattern, / Can words or music reach the stillness.” This ability to contain eternal silence through poetic patterning is for Eliot the greatest virtue of poetry.
It is in the stillness where perfect order can be located, where poets discover the perfection of order through form. The most patterned and most perfect poetry notes Maharishi is found in the hymns of Rik Veda, “in their more expressed form, laid out in the whole creation, diversity of creation contained in those expressions of Rik Veda” (Maharishi, 1971). First cognized by enlightened sages and then later written down in Sanskrit-the language Maharishi holds to be closest to the language of cognition-Rik Veda expresses eternity through its eternal form and patterning. It is a similar eternal patterning to which Eliot espouses. It is the poetic patterning of the Veda, much more than its meaning, that contains the fullest knowledge of life. For that reason, Vedic pundits who recite the Vedas are taught its rhythm and meter before learning to fully assimilate the meaning of the words. So perfect is the patterning of the Veda that it is possible to speak volumes about the relationship between sentences, words, letters, and even the silences in between. Maharishi has commented at length on a (A) the first letter of the Rik Veda, which “stands to represent the whole field of knowledge” (1994, pp. 123-24), demonstrating that the entire Veda can be conceived as a commentary on this one the first letter of the first word, Agni, but also that the Veda is a highly condensed form containing the structure and relationship of all existence, absolute and relative. Hence, it is in the poetic patterning of the Veda that the very source of life is found.
In one of the most deservedly quoted passages in English literature, Eliot locates this source of life in the ever-changing universe:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance. I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where. And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
Eliot discovers the timeless, unmoved mover, within the limits of time, at a specific point, at the hub of the universe around which all creation turns, what Joseph Campbell calls the “world navel” (1949, pp. 40-46). This hub or point, however, is not a fixed point; it can be located at any place in creation. Similarly, all who practice the Transcendental Meditation technique experience a state of Transcendental Conscious-ness parallel to Eliot’s still point within the boundaries of their own ever-changing selves wherever and whenever they sit to meditate. In the following, Maharishi alternately uses the terms Self, Being, Brahman, and Absolute to convey the different characteristics of this state:
The hymns of the Vedas and the Bhagavad-Gita sing of the glory of the imperishable Self, Being, ultimate Reality, the Brahman which is the supreme, ultimate Absolute. They say: Water cannot wet It nor can fire burn It. Wind cannot dry It and weapons cannot slay It. It is in front, It is behind, It is above and below. It is to the right and the left. It is all-pervading, the omnipresent, divine Being. (1966, p. 35)
Maharishi’s method for locating and describing Being is in one respect the exact opposite of the manner in which Eliot identifies the still point, and yet both descriptions come to the same conclusion. For Maharishi, because Being is all inclusive it can be located everywhere; it is behind, in front, above, and below, and because it is immortal it cannot be harmed; it cannot be burned, dried, or slain. Eliot, contrastingly, takes the opposite tack. Instead of saying what the still point is, he says what it is not. Seeing the still point as lying outside of the field of time, Eliot says that it cannot be identified by the characteristics of time; it is “Neither flesh nor fleshless; / Neither from nor towards . . . Neither ascent nor decline.”
So what then is the still point, and where exactly is it to be found? It is what the phenomenal world is not, and it is found where the world does not exist. Hence, it is neither this nor that, nor here nor there. However, immediately following this sequence of negations, Eliot seems to contradict himself by locating the still point in a specific space-time reference, where the dance is. But the dance, a noun which might be taken either as an act or an event, is surprisingly a description, a metaphor to suggest the still point’s paradoxical dynamism that contradicts the quiescence of its name-a dynamism without which the highly-charged universe could not exist.
The dance, then, like the still point that it is meant to clarify through analogy, needs clarification itself. The complexity of the dance, simultaneously robust and tranquil, is further complicated by context, where Eliot alters its meaning to suit the ever-fluctuating varieties of existence, making it at one moment absolute, the next relative, and at another simultaneously both. Such contextual variance is one element that makes Eliot so difficult, but in this case he is being neither obscure nor careless, he is actually being faithful to the complexity inherent both in relative existence and its relationship to the absolute. Typical of such complexity is the way the meaning of the word dance shifts radically from line to line. When Eliot says, “Except for the point, the still point, / There would be no dance,” dance here can refer to either the act of creation or creation itself. Earlier, however, Eliot says, “at the still point, there the dance is,” equating the dance with the still point, the absolute, timeless, source of creation. Finally he says, “Except for the point, the still point, / There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” The first dance in this sentence refers to creation and the second to the origin from which the creation emerges. Dance as Eliot keenly understands is an appropriate word for all three of his uses-the source, the act, and the object of creation-because although they are distinct in the field of time, from the perspective of the source they are one and the same.
Many critics believe Eliot’s use of dance refers specifically to the Dance of Shiva, the spinning out and maintenance of all creation from the silent, eternal, pure con-sciousness that changes without changing, creates without creating, manifests without manifesting through the power of Lila or divine play. However, it is also a reply to the question: “How can we know the dancer from the dance”? from the last line of Yeats’ poem “Among School Children” (1983, p. 217). The answer is we cannot. The dancer and the dance, the wave and the ocean, the creator and the creation, are ultimately one and the same, but only when the dancer knows that the two are one. By knows, Yeats seems to be indicating that knowledge is more than simply intellectual understanding. Maharishi explains that complete knowledge includes both understanding and direct experience. To either know the dancer from the dance or to know the dancer is the dance is the difference between states of consciousness.
Knowledge of non-difference between dancer and dance can be compared to Maharishi’s explanation of knowledge in the different states of consciousness (see endnote `1). Knowledge in one state of consciousness has nothing to do with knowledge in any of the other six states. In the fifth state, for instance, the knowledge that one is enlightened is true but incomplete: true in the experience of inner awareness, but untrue in the perceptual experience of outer phenomenon. Only in the seventh state, Unity Consciousness, in which refinement on all levels of human experience has been completed can it be said that there is a state of non-difference between inner consciousness and outer phenomenon. Eliot seems to be making a similar point in the statement “there is only the dance,” which conflates dancer and dance into one making them indistinguishable, unifying them into a beatific wholeness. In Burnt Norton’s next stanza Eliot poetically describes this state:
The inner freedom from the practical desire, The release from action and suffering, release from the inner And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving.
Eliot’s reference to desire in this image of enlightenment interestingly is accurate but misleading. Maharishi comments that, “Desire in the state of ignorance overshadows the pure nature of the self, which is absolute bliss-consciousness, and keeps life in bondage and suffering” (1967, p. 237). Therefore, when the mind is permanently established in bliss, “freedom from the practical desire,” as Eliot says, takes place even though desires continue. Many commentators on the Bhagavad-Gita have made desire the enemy as Eliot does in the Four Quartets. However, Maharishi makes it clear that without desire there would be no action, no motivation to progress, or for that matter, even to exist. What is lost in enlightenment, then, is not the inclination to desire, but rather the attachment to desire (1967, p. 239), an issue that Eliot takes up in Little Gidding at the end of the Four Quartets. In enlightenment a person’s relationship to desire changes; it “ceases to be ‘the enemy on earth'” as Lord Krisna calls it. Because enlightenment brings complete fulfillment, one is no longer driven by desire for personal gain, but even then desire does not end. An enlightened person acts for the good of all mankind (1967, p. 162), and as each person newly steps on to enlightenment, as the bliss and harmony of society increase, the joy of the enlightened person’s fulfillment deepens.
The opposite of fulfillment is the life lived in ignorance of the still point, in the “turning shadow” and the “transient beauty / With slow rotation.” This is the world of impermanence that, like a spinning top losing its momentum, wobbly gyrates around the silent hub. In a mock imitation of Dante, Eliot recreates a descent into the underworld, this time a descent into the subway of the “unreal city.” Unlike the frightening horrors of the Inferno, Eliot’s abyss is a “twittering world,” a typically modern and insipid image made to compare unfavorably to the vitality of a former age. Lost city dwellers, whose faces are “time ridden,” ignorant of eternity, who only know “Time before and time after,” strain to see in the “dim light” and inhale the “faded air” through “unwholesome lungs.” Such people seem caught in what Maharishi calls “the binding influence of action, the bondage of karma,” “the cycle of impression, action, and desire that sustains the cycle of birth and death” (Maharishi, 1967, p. 142). They are Eliot says “[d]istracted from distraction by distraction.” Not anchored to eternity, such “men and bits of paper, [are] whirled by the cold wind.” “[E]mpty of meaning,” where people are “Filled with fancies . . . / Tumid apathy [and] with no concentration” or purpose, this world is horrifying in its vacuity.
Just as Keats found truth and beauty to be primary-those qualities which most reflect transcendence in the world-Eliot, in the final section of Burnt Norton, settles on “Love” as opposed to physical desire, “Not in itself desirable,” as the supreme expression of consciousness, as his antidote to “the twittering world.” Love, more than the ambivalent feelings of human beings, is for Eliot the embodiment of the divine. Christ endures crucifixion out of love and compassion for humanity; Krishna out of love, “Caught in the form of limitation,” takes birth “To protect the righteous and destroy the wicked, to establish dharma4 firmly . . . age after age” (Maharishi, 1967, p. 263). Love, untainted by time is the highest expression of the eternal, an act of creation. It is, Maharishi explains, the reason the unmoved moves, the unmanifest manifests. Out of love, the one becomes the many to multiply its bliss, its divine nature. “Love is the sweet expression of life, it is the supreme content of life. Love is the force of life, powerful and sublime” (Maharishi, 1973, p. 13). Love, truth, beauty and all desirable qualities find their full value at the origin of life, for Eliot at the still point, in the gap between “un-being and being.”
Apply for a chance to win a FULL SCHOLARSHIP or $10,000 WRITING SCHOLARSHIP to the David Lynch Masters in Film program.
Enter your name and email address to receive: