The fifth movement of [Burnt Norton] gathers up all that has gone before it in the first four movements and introduces some new material. It is very much like what one finds in Mozart, Beethoven, or Bruckner. We have here movement versus stillness; life versus death; stillness versus sound; the beginning versus the end; and, the new material—words.
After all, Eliot’s material is words, as marble is the sculptor’s and notes the composer’s. It is not as though words are mere instruments or just the lowly handmaidens of meaning. Words are the thing. When we visit Chartres, we do not dismiss the stone and glass as the mere stuff of something infinitely greater than stone and glass. The cathedral is stone and glass. It does not exist at all without stone and glass. We cannot drive any wedge of meaning between the materials and the glory to which the building testifies. The whole thing is glory, under the particular species of stone and glass. The same goes for notes in a concerto or divertimento, or swipes of oil and pigment in a Vermeer. The material constitutes the modality under which we perceive the thing itself.
“Words move . . . only in time.” Well, obviously. By the time you get to the end of your sentence, the first word has moved into the past—into another time. It is the same way with music. You can’t whistle the briefest melody without carrying on the enterprise under the scepter of time. Your first note is gone by the time you get to the end of even the first bar. So—we are still coping with time here in Eliot’s poem.
There follows, in the same line, after a mere semicolon, a strangely sybilline remark: “but that which is only living / Can only die.” Is this not painfully obvious? But depend upon it, Eliot is not given to larding his poetry with superfluous platitudes. Perhaps we could put the matter this way: Eliot’s poetry, like alchemy, takes the lead of platitude and transubstantiates it into the gold of significance. Or, to change the metaphor, in Eliot’s poetry, we are drawn up into the exceedingly rarefied sphere of the crystalline heavens, so to speak, where things we had never particularly noticed, because they were so utterly and embarrassingly commonplace, suddenly appear in all of their sparkling solidity. Good poetry, we have to keep in mind, most excruciatingly with Eliot, does, in fact, distill words as we ordinarily throw them about in daily chitchat and raise their very substance to inexorable significance. “Transubstantiate”, “distill”, “raise”: the very difficulty of addressing the matter in my prose here illustrates the point. Eliot’s poetry does all of that simply by taking words (as Mozart did notes, or Vermeer pigment) and making something significant (and beautiful). Prose has to prowl about the outskirts, like a guide with his bunch of tourists. The thing itself stands there.
Another early reminder that we’ll be reading and discussing T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in our February and March sessions. On February 23 we will focus on “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker.” Please bring your own favourite excerpts, interpretations and comments for discussion about these challenging poems.