T.S. Eliot

Burnt Norton by T.S. Eliot

‘Burnt Norton’ is the first poem in Four Quartets. Although it was first published in 1936, the poem appeared together with the rest of the quartets in 1943. Four Quartets includes four poems that were independently published over six years:  ‘Burnt Norton’, ‘East Coker’, ‘The Dry Salvages’, and ‘Little Gidding’. T. S. Eliot believed that Four Quartets was his best work. These poems explore the relationship between men and time, the need for spirituality, the importance of consciousness and existence, among other themes.

Burnt Norton by T.S. Eliot


Sections of Burnt Norton

Burnt Norton’ has 178 lines and can be found in full, along with the rest of the Quartets, here. The poem, like East Coker, The Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding, is divided into five sections. The first section focuses on the movement of time, while the second section explores the unsatisfying worldly experience. The third section introduces a possible purgation of the modern world, which contrasts with the lyric prayer of the fourth section. Finally, the fifth section presents the question of art’s possible entirety, which is equivalent to the seek for spiritual health. The poem is named after a manor house in Gloucestershire.


Theme of Burnt Norton

The main theme of ‘Burnt Norton is the nature of time, its relation to salvation, and the contrast between the experience of the modern man and spirituality. The lyrical voice meditates on life and the need to subscribe to the universal order. The poem’s structure and form are similar to T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, as several fragments of poetry are put together and set as one. The rhyme and meter rely on the repetition and circularity of language, which corresponds to the conception of time introduced in the poem. Light and dark, movement and stillness, and roses are some of the motifs that appear in ‘Burnt Norton’.

You can read the full poem here and more poems by T.S. Eliot here.


Analysis of Burnt Norton

Section One

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 […]

The first section of ‘Burnt Norton’ presents, on the one hand, a particular conception of time: “If all time is eternally present/All time is unredeemable”. The different temporalities of time are related to each other, as past and future are always implicated in the present. Through this conception of time, the lyrical voice explores the possibility that men can only control the present. This section also explores an alternate temporality (“Down the passage which we did not take/Towards the door we never opened/Into the rose-garden”) that, as the ending of the section suggests, is also part of the present: “What might have been and what has been/Point to one end, which is always present”.

On the other hand, the poem describes a rose garden, which is navigated by the lyrical voice. A bird works as a guide through the garden shows the lyrical voice around and asks him/her to look for the laughing children: “Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,/Round the corner”. The rose-garden is a symbolic place, as it evokes the Garden of Eden. This can be related to the author’s relation to Christianity and how it is manifested in different moments in the Four Quartets. The garden also shows signs of human presence and neglect: “Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty”. This idea of ruin will also come out in the lyrical voice’s mention of modernity.


Section Two

Garlic and sapphires in the mud

Clot the bedded axle-tree.

The trilling wire in the blood

Sings below inveterate scars

Appeasing long forgotten wars […]

The second section opens with irregular tetrameters, forming an embedded poem. This shorter poem connects unusual images (“Garlic and sapphires in the mud/Clot the bedded axle-tree”), which are “reconciled among the stars”. Although these images appear pagan to a certain extent, the relationship between them anticipates the theme of unity found in Four Quartets. This can also be read as an acknowledgment of the fragmentary nature of modernity.

Then, the poem changes its form and focuses on a meditation of consciousness and living (“Time past and time future/Allow but a little consciousness./To be conscious is not to be in time”) that goes back to the idea of coexisting temporalities in the present: “To be conscious is not to be in time”. The lyrical voice reflects on how to live in only one temporality when time is always changing (“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”). Consciousness, as opposed to time, is fixed but enables memory: But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden […]/Be remembered”. Note how the image of the rose-garden appears once again and how this section, as the previous one, is filled with images of nature.


Section Three

Here is a place of disaffection

Time before and time after

In a dim light: neither daylight

Investing form with lucid stillness

Turning shadow into transient beauty

Wtih slow rotation suggesting permanence […]

The third section of Burn Norton focuses on one moment: “a place of disaffection”. This place is linked to every day, which “Neither plentitude nor vacancy” can be found, and the modern life, where there is no transcendence (“Nor darkness to purify the soul”), no meaning (“Filled with fancies and empty of meaning”) and no beauty (“Turning shadow into transient beauty”). The lyrical voice relates to this modern world and self with numbness and lack of spirituality. Notice how this is emphasized by the use of repeated structures and words: “Dessication of the world of sense,/Evacuation of the world of fancy,/Inoperancy of the world of spirit;”. This is contrasted by the movement of time (“while the world moves”) that has been developed and detailed in the previous sections.


Section Four

Time and the bell have buried the day,

the black cloud carries the sun away.

Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis

Stray down, bend to us; tendril and spray

Clutch and cling?

The fourth section has only 10 lines and it focuses on the description and movement of time. Again, there are many images of nature that resemble the rose-garden in the first section.  The image of the yew (“Fingers of yew be curled /Down on us?”) that belongs to the yew tree, also known as the “tree of death”,  brings the possibility of a spiritual rebirth, which is, later, discarded by the lyrical voice. Notice that this short section establishes a sort of melody, as some of the lines rhyme, which is accompanied by the different lengths of the lines through the stanza that concentrates on the word “chill” that stands alone in the middle. This emphasizes the coldness of modern spirituality.


Section Five

Words move, music moves

Only in time; but that which is only living

Can only die. Words, after speech, reach

Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,

Can words or music reach

The stillness, as a Chinese jar still

Moves perpetually in its stillness […]

The fifth section of ‘Burnt Norton’ goes back to images and themes that were introduced in previous sections of the poem. The movement of time and how it can be addressed is again mentioned: “Words move, music moves/ Only in time”. Yet, the fixed point presented in this section is not related to every day as in the third section but to death: “Words, after speech, reach/Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,/Can words or music reach/The stillness, as a Chinese jar still/Moves perpetually in its stillness”. Thus, there is a paradox presented regarding time here, as the constant movement mentioned at the beginning and the stillness mentioned in this section seem opposite. In that sense, the lyrical voice mentions that desire would be similar to the constant movement among temporalities (“Desire itself is movement”), whereas love is closer to stillness (“Love is itself unmoving”). Love, as the relation of the themes and the poems itself to Christianity suggests, is related to religion and devotion, and it is a central element for remaining conscious and present.

This section also addresses art (“Words move, music moves”), its relation to time, and its capacity to become eternal, and it can be related to the image of the Chinese jar. Moreover, this image is a clear reference to Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn, as the jar represents the capacity of transcending the moment and times itself. According to the lyrical voice, “words, after speech, reach/Into the silence” and poetic form, like the stillness of the Chinese jar, can resemble something eternal in its present state.

The final lines of the poems return to the laughing children in the rose-garden, asserting the circularity of the poem: “There rises the hidden laughter/Of children in the foliage”. Yet, the laugher becomes a mocking laugher, related to the enslavement of modernity.


About T. S. Eliot

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1888. He was a British poet, essayist, and playwright. Although born in the United States of America, he became a British citizen in 1927. T. S. Eliot moved to England in 1914, at the age of 25, and stayed there until his death. He died in his home in Kensington, London in 1965. T. S. Eliot is known as one of the most important poets of the twentieth century, as he was one of the key figures in the modernist movement of the early 1900s. His most famous poems are The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Waste Land, Journey of the Magi, Ash Wednesday‘, and Four Quartets, among many others. T. S. Eliot won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.

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Julieta Abella Poetry Expert
Julieta has a BA and a MA in Literature and joined the Poem Analysis team back in May 2017. She has a great passion for poetry and literature and works as a teacher and researcher at Universidad de Buenos Aires.
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