The first of the quartets, “Burnt Norton,” is named for a ruined country house in Gloucestershire. This quartet is the most explicitly concerned with time as an abstract principle. The first section combines a hypothesis on time—that the past and the future are always contained in the present—with a description of a rose garden where children hide, laughing. A bird serves as the poet’s guide, bringing him into the garden, showing him around, and saving him from despair at not being able to reach the laughing children. The second section begins with a sort of song, filled with abstract images of a vaguely pagan flavor. The poem shifts midway through the section, where it again assumes a more meditative tone in order to sort out the differences between consciousness and living in time: The speaker asserts, “To be conscious is not to be in time,” for consciousness implies a fixed perspective while time is characterized by a transient relativity (around the fixed point of the present). However, this statement does not intend to devalue memory and temporal existence, which, according to the poem, allow the moments of greatest beauty. The third section of “Burnt Norton” reads like the bridge section of a song, in which the key changes. In this section, Eliot describes a “place of disaffection”—perhaps the everyday world—which allows neither transcendence (“darkness”) nor the beauty of the moment (“daylight”). The fourth, very short section returns to a sort of melody (some of the lines rhyme) to describe the unattainable, fictional point of fixity around which time is organized. This point is described as surrounded by flowers and birds; perhaps it can be found in the rose garden of the first section. The final section of this quartet returns to reality: Despite the apparent vitality of words and music, these must die; the children’s laughter in the garden becomes a mocking laughter, scorning our enslavement to time.
Eliot is much less experimental with rhyme and meter here than he is in his earlier works. Instead, he displays a mature language consciousness. Through the repetition of words and the use of structures like chiasmus and pastiche, he creates a rhythm not dependent on previous poetic forms. It is as if the mere meaning of the words is not enough to express the philosophical concepts Eliot wants to explore, as they “decay with imprecision”: He must exploit the physical properties of the words themselves. The repetition and circularity of language that are this poem’s hallmarks highlight the infinite circularity of time: Just as past, present, and future cannot be separated with any precision, neither can the words used to describe them. Rather than exploiting bizarre combinations of images or intricate formal devices, Eliot uses the gravity of terms like “past” and “present” to create a beautiful monument of ideas.
The Four Quartets were written over a period of eight years, from 1935 to 1942. These years span World War II; they also follow Eliot’s conversion to the Church of England and his naturalization as a British subject. These poems are the work of an older, more mature, spiritually attuned poet, facing a world torn by war and increasingly neglectful of the past. Each of the Four Quartets considers spiritual existence, consciousness, and the relationship of the present to the past. Whereas The Waste Land and others of Eliot’s early works take an interest in the effects of time on culture, the Quartets are concerned with the conflict between individual mortality and the endless span of human existence. Accordingly, each quartet focuses on a particular place with its own distinctive significance to human history and takes off from that place to propose a series of ideas about spirituality and meaningful experience. Each quartet separates into five sections; Eliot used these divisions and the transitions between them to try to create an effect he described as similar to the musical form of the sonata. The Quartets, thus, display none of the fragmentation or collage-like qualities of Eliot’s earlier poetry; instead, Eliot substitutes an elegant measuredness and a new awareness of language: Puns and other forms of wordplay occur with some frequency.
Eliot does not hide the ideas behind the poetry here. His meditations on time and being are stated fairly explicitly and can be easily traced in the poem. “Burnt Norton” is, however, a poem about distraction, and two of the more interesting aspects of the poem are also two of its most understated moments. The first of these surrounds the garden in which the first section is set. Certainly the garden—”our first world”—references the Garden of Eden: A place of unattainable peace (and in this case insight) that is normally forbidden to mere mortals but that exists in memory and in literature as a standard to which everyday existence must be unfavorably compared. Yet the garden is also a part of the ruined estate from which this quartet takes its name; it bears the marks of human presence and abandonment—empty pools and formal hedges gone wild. The wreck of the garden brings to mind the ruins so prominent in Eliot’s earlier poetry, except that, here, ruins are a symbol of the futility of human aspirations and particularly of the futility of trying to alter the natural order.
Ruins also call to mind fragments, especially of the kind that make up Eliot’s earlier poetry. The first line of the second section of “Burnt Norton”—“Garlic and sapphires in the mud”—highlights Eliot’s new attitude toward the fragmentary nature of modern culture. This famous line juxtaposes a series of random things, but the effect is not the atmosphere of belatedness and melancholy characteristic of The Waste Land. Rather, the collage-like arrangements of this section form a nearly coherent whole, a meaningless song that sounds traditional but isn’t. Again fragments and ruins stand in defiance of human aspirations, only this poem does not lament that things once made sense and have now ceased to do so; rather, it declares that coherence never existed at all—that meaning and human experience are necessarily mutually exclusive.
The second center of interest in this quartet is constructed around the Chinese vase and the ruminations on poetry in the fifth section. This section clearly owes a debt to Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” with which it shares some of its thematic concerns and its imagery. The Chinese jar represents the capacity of art to transcend the limitations of the moment, to achieve a kind of victory over, or perspective upon, time. In its form and pattern, in its physical existence, the jar is able to overcome the usual imprecision of human expression. By emphasizing form and pattern, Eliot suggests that poetry, which takes advantage of the linguistic versions of these, may also be able to achieve transcendence. Nevertheless, at the end there still remains the ghostly laughter of children in the garden, mocking “the waste sad time” of the poet and of poetry. The place of poetry and Eliot’s own poetic practices will be a subject of scrutiny elsewhere in the Quartets.