Study Guide

Four Quartets Burnt Norton, Section 1

By Eliot, T.S.

Burnt Norton, Section 1

Lines 1-5

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.

  • There's no messing around here. Eliot comes out throwing philosophical haymakers in these opening lines. Often, a poem will open with a really clear image to help get you grounded; but our speaker starts off totally high-concept and tells you all about how the past and present are both contained in the future. Right away, we're wondering, "What does that mean?" Worry not, though, because Eliot's going to spend… oh, a couple hundred lines or so trying to explain. 
  • When the speaker says that the present and the past might both be contained in the future, it might be his way (we're just assuming our speaker is a he at this point) of talking about the idea of destiny. If you have a clear destiny, then everything that's going to happen has already happened in the future. Right? Right.
  • The more the speaker talks about past, present, and future being contained in one another, the more all time starts to collapse into a single moment. This effect is established further when the speaker uses chiasmus to reverse his earlier line: "And time future contained in time past." By making his claim about time one way, then saying the exact same thing by reversing the words, he's actually making it really hard for your mind to keep the ideas of past, present, and future different from one another. Why our speaker wants to do this, we're not so sure yet.
  • To polish off this opening nugget of thought, the poem suggests that if past, present, and future ("all time") is "eternally present" at the same moment, then there is nothing we can really do to change the course of history and no way we can make up for anything bad that's happened in the past (which is "unredeemable"). In other words, the poem doesn't open on the most hopeful of notes. Looks like ol' T.S. is picking up where the brutal dreariness of "The Waste Land" left off. At least for now…

Lines 6-10

What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

  • Just when we're about to ask the speaker what he's talking about, he keeps rambling on about time, and says that there's not much point in wondering "what if?" about things that have happened in our pasts. What if you'd sunk that winning shot at the basketball game? What if you'd been born on another continent? What if Marty McFly hadn't gone back in time and taken his own teenage mother to the "Enchantment Under the Sea" dance? You get the picture.
  • Well, the speaker says that there isn't much point in worrying about all this stuff, because it's all just "an abstraction / Remaining a perpetual possibility" (6-7). By calling these thoughts a "perpetual possibility," the poem is saying that our questions of "what if?" will never become reality, because the past is over and done with. The only thing that this kind of thinking will give you is "a world of speculation" (8), or to translate, a world of endless wondering. 
  • Everything that's happened and everything that could have happened are basically the same thing, because the past is finished and all we have is what's around us right now, in the present. As in… now.

Lines 11-15

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

  • Does anyone else think that Eliot's starting to sound a little creepy? Just checking.
  • In these lines, the speaker takes the abstract time stuff he's been talking about and turns it into a clear image. In this case, he takes our questions about "what could have been" and turns them into the image of echoing footsteps. Just like our pasts are full of things we could have done, the footsteps of our past echo figuratively through our memories, reminding us of the paths we never took (or people we never asked to the school dance). 
  • Whatever path we ended up taking in our lives, the speaker assumes that it hasn't led us to true spiritual peace. If it had, we wouldn't be sitting around wondering what could have been, would we? This ideal of peace is symbolized through the image of a rose garden, which is a pretty peaceful place to picture yourself hanging out in, if you compare it to the brutal desert that appears in "The Waste Land." The rose garden here might also refer to the actual rose garden that was part of the property of the real-life "Burnt Norton" house that Eliot uses as the mental setting for this poem. 
  • In the fall of 1934, Eliot was exploring the grounds of an abandoned house in the English countryside. This place was called "Burnt Norton" by the locals because it was built on the same site as another country manor that was burnt down by its suicidal owner, William Kyte, in the 1700s. We're not actually sure if Eliot knew this story when he was writing this poem, but he definitely starts playing on the "burnt" aspect of Burnt Norton through the fire and ash imagery he brings up later in this poem
  • (Check out "Setting" for more on this stuff.)
  • In lines 14 and 15, the speaker also says that it's not only your past decisions that echo in your mind and fill you with regret; it's also the speaker's own words. To put it another way, the speaker wants to make it clear that he's intentionally reminding you of all the things you regret about your past, almost in a jerky way. Gee, thanks.

Lines 16-20

                               But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
                         Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?

  • At this early point, you might already be asking, "Hey speaker dude, why're you being so negative?" Well in these next lines, the guy admits that he "do[es] not know" (18) about "to what purpose" (16) he is using his words or "echoes" to remind us of our wasted potential. 
  • The speaker uses the metaphor of "[d]isturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves" (17) to express how his poetry "blows the dust off" our faded memories and reminds us of the happiness we haven't found in our lives. The best happiness we ever might have known is something like the perfection of the rose garden, but not really the genuine article. That's why, instead of an entire garden to lie down and relax in, we just get a crummy little bowl full of rose leaves, like the kind someone might have sitting on a table inside his/her house. The rose leaves are just enough to remind us of how enjoyable a rose garden is, but isn't exactly the real thing; so it just ends up being a tease. 
  • In these images then, the speaker shows us that the purpose of his poetry is to remind us that our idea of happiness is nothing compared to the true bliss of spiritual peace, the same way that a dusty bowl of rose leaves isn't the same as walking through an actual garden.
  • In lines 19 and 20, he actually suggests that—apart from our personal memories and his not-so-cheery reminders—there are "Other echoes" or traces of the peace we've never really achieved in our lives. We don't know what these reminders are yet, but when the speaker asks us if we should follow them, we pretty much get the idea that the question is rhetorical, and that we don't really have much of a say in the matter. On the other hand, the speaker also, asks, "Shall we follow?" which puts the ball in our court, pushing us to the deeper question of whether we even want to achieve spiritual peace. At first, we might be all like "Of course!" But we're about to find out that isn't not an easy road to peace.

Lines 21-24

Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.

  • Wait, where'd this bird in line 21 come from, and how can it talk? Well, it might be a bossy parrot; but more likely, the bird's message is something the speaker imagines himself hearing in the chirping of your average bird. 
  • The sounds of this bird seem to be what the speaker means when he says there are more echoes in the "garden" of spiritual peace than just our own regrets. The bird, for example, repeatedly tells us to "find them" (21); but at this point, we've got no clue who "them" refers to. 
  • Apparently, the things or people we're supposed to find are "Round the corner" of the garden, meaning that they are just barely out of sight. They must symbolize something pretty meaningful, or else the speaker's bird wouldn't be telling us to find them.
  • By saying that the "them" of this line are "Round the corner," the speaker is able to establish that the deep spiritual meaning we're looking for in our lives always seems to be just out of sight. We never experience or "see" this meaning directly, but it always seems as if we're barely missing it. 
  • To see "them," we need to go "Through the first gate" (22) and "Into our first world" (23). It's not easy at first to realize what our "first world" is supposed to be. But if you look closely at how much the speaker focuses on the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings of nature in these passages, you realize that the "first world" is probably the world we face directly through our five senses, instead of the "second world" of our abstract thoughts, which takes us away from our five senses and the present moment in a way that the speaker doesn't really like. 
  • When he calls the bird a "thrush" in line 24, he might refer to Thomas Hardy's famous poem from 1900 called "The Darkling Thrush." In this poem, the thrush's birdy song represents a sort of hope that the human listener can't understand, since the dude doesn't speak "bird." 
  • By saying that the thrush causes "deception," though, the speaker might mean that it's important for us not to make the bird into a metaphor or symbol, because that would just be our abstract brains taking us away from the "first world" of our senses and the present moment. What we need to do is just listen to the bird's song as a natural noise, and use it to focus our minds on the physical world that's more concrete and more immediate than the world of thoughts and words.

Lines 25-31

There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
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.

  • Still no word on who "they" are, but apparently there was a time in the past when "they" were right in front of us, looking "dignified [and] invisible" (25). We know what you're thinking: how are we supposed to find "them" if they are invisible and they can move without any weight or "pressure, over the dead leaves" (26)? Well there's no answer to that one yet…
  • Whatever or whoever "they" are, the speaker likes to link them with autumn, the time of year when the leaves on the trees start to die. Along with the image of Burnt Norton, the speaker's use of autumn brings up ideas of death and the coming of winter, both in the physical sense and the spiritual sense. Just as the leaves are dying and falling from the trees, the human spirit (or more specifically, your spirit) is starting to die.
  • At this point, though, the speaker says that "the bird called" (28) "through the vibrant air" (27) as a way of responding to "The unheard music in the shrubbery" (29). So either this bird is really good friends with the Knights Who Say "Ni!" or there's something in that shrubbery that's really worth checking out.
  • According to the speaker, there's an "unheard music" in the shrubbery. We might wonder how we know the music is there if it's unheard, but he's talking about the music of nature itself. He's talking about actual noise here but is calling it music, because music is something we're supposed to appreciate, just like nature. Just like we're supposed to listen to the noises that a bird makes, the speaker suggests that we should listen to the noises of the natural world carefully in order to root ourselves more firmly in the present moment. 
  • If we are going to actually achieve the kind of "direct hearing" and sense of present-ness that the speaker wants us to, we need to really, really pay attention to things without any distractions. The only way that roses can have "the look of flowers that are looked at" (31) is for us to concentrate on really looking at them without letting our minds wander to other things, like what we're going to do on Friday night. 
  • By using the past tense, the speaker suggests that there actually was a time when we were able to see the natural world this directly. But on the other hand, isn't he undercutting himself by using the past tense? After all, isn't it only the present moment we're supposed to be worrying about? Seems like a contradiction, if you ask us.

Lines 32-35

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.

  • The speaker keeps reminiscing about how we encountered "them" in the past. He actually says that "they" were our guests, moving with us in a "formal pattern" (33). Compared to nature, the "formal pattern" here actually seems kind of artificial. 
  • In addition, it seems that "they" and "we" went to "look down into the drained pool" while all this phony dancing was going on.
  • If you've come across Eliot's "The Waste Land," you know that a lack of water always symbolizes infertility and a spiritual thirstiness that never gets satisfied. Just like the pool, the spirits of modern people are totally drained. The case is similar here in "Burnt Norton," where the beautiful setting of the rose garden seems to change into an empty alley, a lame party, and finally a drained pool. 
  • It's good to remember here that, even though the pool and the rose garden are symbolic places for the speaker, they were probably inspired by the actual garden at Burnt Norton that Eliot explored in real life. 
  • At this point, you've got the speaker giving you two options when it comes to existing in the world. One is a life where you always worry about a past and future that you can't really change, and spend your whole life never paying attention to what's in front of you. The other is a life where you do pay attention to what's in front of you and enjoy the peacefulness and happiness that comes from that. But hey, if enlightenment were that easy, you wouldn't have three more quartets to read…

Lines 36-41

Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos 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.

  • So the pool is still dry, which means that the speaker's probably still talking about a bad spiritual situation. But then something good or bright seems to happen in line 37, where the empty "brown edged" pool is suddenly "filled with water out of sunlight."
  • This idea of sunlight filling the pool with water definitely seems to suggest some sort of spiritual life or enlightenment falling on the pool and restoring its spiritual meaning. From this new spiritual light-water, we hear that the "lotos rose, quietly, quietly" (38). The lotos here, or lotus, is a flower that has a lot of significance in eastern religions. More specifically, the lotus rising out of the mud traditionally symbolizes the human soul climbing out of its dirty obsession with material possessions, and up toward the spiritual goals of peace and enlightenment. 
  • This pool sounds like it's doing pretty well at this point. We seem to have a sense of calm as "the surface glitter[s] out of heart of light" (39). But then in the reflection of the pool, we see "them" behind us, and suddenly a cloud passes and the pool is empty. This sudden darkness suggests that things have gotten bad again, though we don't exactly know why. Whoever "they" are, there's something about seeing them in the pool that makes our perfect moment pass, and brings with it a symbolic cloud that ruins our experience of calm.

Lines 42-48

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

  • Now it sounds like the "them" that the bossy bird has been telling us to find are a bunch of children playing and laughing in the autumn leaves. This image gives us a sense of childish innocence, which might actually be a good guideline for helping us with the task of focusing more on the present moment. Unlike adults, children totally live in the moment when they're playing and laughing, and this is the quality we lose when we get older and start thinking more about the past and future.
  • The bird tells us to go play with these children, but then weirdly adds, "human kind / Cannot bear very much reality" (44-45).
  • This statement hits us like a slap in the face, since this same bird has been telling us for a while now to look at the reality of the "first world" around ourselves by focusing on the present moment. But maybe that's just the way it goes; maybe focusing on the present moment like children is what we should shoot for, even though we can't actually handle too much of this experience at once. Maybe it's something that can only happen to us in little moments.
  • The first section of "Burnt Norton" closes by repeating the ideas of lines 9-10, which show that everything in the past that "might have been and […] has been" (47) just point us to the present moment, which is the only reality we really have to go on. The rest is just memories of the past and wondering about the future, which our minds make up as they go along. 
  • There's a sort of naïve innocence in focusing totally on the present. After all, adults have to think about their jobs, mortgage payments, etc., which usually involves a lot of scheduling and planning for the future. Isn't this always the first thing your parents tell you once you hit your teenage years? "Well, you've had your fun as a kid, but now it's time to think about the future." In the first section of "Burnt Norton," the speaker might be suggesting that this attitude plays a big part in the general unhappiness of the modern world.