Eliot’s rose garden: Some phenomenology and theology in “Burnt Norton”

Kevin Hart

eliots-rose-gardenI wish to begin with the opening passage of T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” the first of Four Quartets (1944), because I find it the most difficult part of the poem as well as one of the richest sections of it. Its difficulty and its richness are coordinate in ways that need to be specified, and while Four Quartets as a whole continually interprets the opening passage while further enriching it, it is also true that this passage establishes the lines along which we interpret the whole of the Quartets, including what we understand to be the character of its wholeness. “Burnt Norton” was written in the autumn of 1935 and published before the idea of the further three poems came to Eliot.1 That Four Quartets is a whole can scarcely be denied—its unity is thematically and formally insisted upon in “East Coker,” “The Dry Salvages,” and especially “Little Gidding”—and yet “Burnt Norton” also exists as a poem in its own right. More exactly, one might say that it once existed simply by itself but now does not: it was progressively taken up into a greater unity, and now the later three sections permeate the first, ramifying and deepening some if not all of its lines. This first poem, section, or movement of Four Quartets has two epigraphs taken from Heraclitus, which frame the whole. Let us begin with these.
The first epigraph is the second of Heraclitus’ fragments: τοῦ λóγου δὲ ἐóντος ξυνοῦ ζώουσιν οἱ πολλοὶ ὡς ἰδίαν ἔχοντɛς ϕρóνησιν. In English: “Though wisdom [λόγος] is common, yet the many live as if they had a wisdom of their own.” And the second epigraph is the sixtieth of the fragments: ὁδòς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή. In English: “The way up and the way down are one and the same.” Puzzled as one might be by the title, “Burnt Norton,” one is not likely to be entirely bewildered by the epigraphs, for we are told that they are from Heraclitus’ fragments, indeed from Hermann Diels’s edition, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (1903).2 One might not frequent the redoubtable Greek scholarship of the Germans or even be able to read pre-Socratic Greek, yet one knows that these remarks are philosophy, taken from the very fount of Western thought. Eliot’s audience is expected to construe Greek, it would seem, or at the very least be able and willing to read poetry with philosophical resonance. Doubtless too Eliot’s intended audience in 1935 is educated and Christian for the most part, and would be quite capable of performing the hermeneutical task of adjusting pagan Greek insights to Christian teachings, of giving λόγος a Johannine spin (Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρòς τòν θɛόν, καὶ θɛòς ἦν ὁ λόγος (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”)), perhaps by way of early Logos-theology. Diels encourages his readers in this enterprise by translating λόγος as Wort.3 Certainly the poem is often taken to bring philosophical fragments into the field of theological remarks.4 When read in the context of “Burnt Norton,” the first epigraph would thereby come to mean something like, “The Christian revelation is given to all, though many persist in following their own minds,” and the second, “One transcends one’s sinful state only through humility, by becoming alter Christus.” So readers of “Ash-Wednesday” (1930) or people who had seen Murder in the Cathedral (1935) might think as they come across “Burnt Norton,” knowing very well that Eliot converted to Anglo-Catholicism in 1927. Yet by the time they complete the poem they may wonder if the translation is simply and fully from pagan philosophy to Christian doctrine or a Christian theology. That wonder may well persist if they read the whole of Four Quartets, though that is an issue I cannot consider in any detail here.

Read the complete essay
Another early reminder that we’ll be reading and discussing T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in our February and March sessions. See the SCHEDULE PAGE for details.  Please bring your own favourite excerpts, interpretations and comments for discussion about these challenging poems.


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