Study Guide

Four Quartets Burnt Norton, Section 2

By Eliot, T.S.

Burnt Norton, Section 2

Lines 49-53

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 of "Burnt Norton" shows us a couple of random objects lying in the mud, and says that these things "Clot the bedded axle-tree." An axle-tree is the metal bar that joins two wheels on either side of a car or wagon. The "bedded" part is probably short for "embedded," meaning some sort of vehicle is stuck in the mud. This point carries on from Section One of "Burnt Norton," in which the speaker has been describing how our minds make us bogged down in thoughts of the past and future, which keeps us from focusing on the present. 
  • Also, don't forget that, whenever the speaker mentions mud, he's almost definitely referring to a battlefield. There was just too much of an association between mud and World War One during Eliot's time for readers to ignore this. The speaker also wrote "Burnt Norton" just before the outbreak of World War Two, and actually wrote the later quartets while the Germans were bombing England. 
  • "The trilling wire in the blood" seems to continue in the vein of the speaker's war imagery, making us think of the razor wire and communication lines that spanned the battlefields of Europe in the early twentieth century. To say that this wire is inside our blood, though, also suggests that we modern folks haven't really gotten over the anxiety and terror of war, and that we are still living with a fear of mass destruction. 
  • This anxiety in the blood "[s]ings below inveterate scars" (52). "Inveterate" is an adjective that refers to a habit that's unlikely to change. So, in other words, the scars left by modern warfare have changed the way we think, and this new way of thinking isn't likely to change. This new way of thinking is one of fear, loneliness, and spiritual emptiness following the destruction of the first half of the twentieth century, which can all be found in the thought of soldiers dying in the muddy fields of World War One. 
  • But if these scars cause us such awful feelings, how can they be "[a]ppeasing long forgotten wars" (53)? Here, the speaker's saying that, even after people have forgotten about World War One, the damage that this war did to the human spirit will still linger and make us depressed. In one way or another, the modern world has taken our spiritual faith and left us with nothing to hang our hats on when it comes to finding life meaningful. It sounds like not even a new sweater from Banana Republic would make the speaker happy at this point.

Lines 54-63

The dance along the artery
The circulation of the lymph
Are figured in the drift of stars
Ascend to summer in the tree
We move about the moving tree
In light upon the figured leaf
And hear upon the sodden floor
Below, the boarhound and the boar
Pursue their pattern as before
But reconciled among the stars.

  • So far in Section Two of "Burnt Norton," the speaker has been his usual gloomy self. But starting in line 54, he starts saying some pretty hopeful things. For example, after saying that the vibration of violent wires is in our blood, he suggests that our blood contains a "dance along [its] artery" (54) that is "figured in the drift of the stars" (56). He includes the circulation of our lymph in this image, too, and in doing so he suggests that there is a deep connection between the flow of our bodily fluids and the movements of the entire universe. This is the kind of cosmic spiritual meaning that Eliot never really gives to human life in "The Waste Land." But here, our speaker seems pretty enthusiastic about it.
  • This connection between our bodies and the stars is what allows us to "ascend" from the autumn mud into the glorious "summer in the tree" (57). In the previous few stanzas, the speaker has implied that humanity is stuck in the dying days of autumn, like a dead leaf in the mud of spiritual emptiness. But now, he says that our connection to the stars brings our spirits back upward, turning us back into leaves (and souls) that are physically and symbolically un-fallen. 
  • From this new place of spiritual enlightenment up in the tree, we can still look down and the see animals like "the boarhound and the boar" chasing and killing each other. But these actions don't seem pointless from our new perspective, since we know now that this "pattern" of nature is "reconciled among the stars" (63). In other words, the speaker's telling us that everything (especially the cycle of life and death) is connected to the universe in a meaningful way, and realizing this can allow us to connect with something higher than ourselves. Far out.

Lines 64-69

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

  • Well now we're right back in the abstract, super-conceptual territory that this poem started us out on. The good news? If you ever want a description of what the speaker is hoping to find in his spiritual quest, you don't have to look much further than, "the still point of the turning world" (64).
  • So what does the speaker mean by this image? Well if you think about it, the toughest thing about the speaker's spiritual quest is the fact that he's looking for a sense of permanent significance in a modern world that's all about change, all about the endless movement from past to present to future. 
  • The speaker is not foolish enough to think that he can stop the world from changing, but he does sometimes wonder if there's a chance for us to find a spiritual space of experience that will be like "a still point in the turning world." In order to describe what this space of experience would be like, though, the speaker has to overcome the slight problem of taking two completely opposite things (change and permanence) and combining them into a single image. That said, "a still point in the turning world" does a pretty good job of this.
  • When you try to combine the world of change with the world of permanence, there are a few other things you need to rope together too, like the physical world and the spiritual one. This is why the speaker goes on to say that this "still point" must be a place that isn't just physical or spiritual, or in other words, that is "[n]either flesh nor / fleshless" (62-63).
  • This place can't be something we're moving away from "nor towards" (64). In other words, you can't think of this place using the opposites that you usually use to make sense of your world (i.e., good-bad, close-far, fast food-healthy food). It needs to be a place that exists beyond opposites.
  • Another good image the speaker uses to describe this combination of opposites is the image of a "dance" (66). He's definitely taking this image from W.B. Yeats, who closes his own poem "Among School Children" with the line "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" 
  • Drawing on Yeats, the speaker uses the dance as a symbol that blurs boundaries between things that are supposed to stay separate, like the person dancing and the type of dance he or she is doing. 
  • Maybe in reading Eliot's poetry, you can actually catch a glimpse of something beyond opposites: a "still point in the turning world." This is a place that is neither moving nor still. We can't call it "fixity" or stillness, says the speaker, because we can't stop the world around us from moving. Also, we can't say that the ideal he's talking about is a place of movement toward or away from anything specific, like a goal. Instead, it's a place where movement happens for its own sake in the present moment, like what you get with dancing. 
  • This is a place where "past and future are gathered" (69). It's the real moment in your present life that all time points toward.
  • Haven't you ever been dancing and totally forgotten about all your worries? If not, our speaker feels bad for you.
  • Finally, he says that this "still point" is not a place where we rise toward the divine or fall into the mud of modern emptiness. It is only the still point for its own sake, and it's very hard for us to describe it, other than the fact that experiencing it is similar to dancing for its own sake. In this place, says the speaker, "there is only the dance" (73).

Lines 70-75

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.
The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,

  • The speaker doesn't really know what to say about the still point in the turning world, other than that we've already been there.
  • He can't say where exactly this place is, but can only use the word "there" to talk about it. He also can't say how long we remain in this place, because the place exists outside of time. It's a place where we have "inner freedom from the practical desire." Or in other words, we don't spend our time worrying about practical things like exams and going to the mall. 
  • We are totally released from all action and the "suffering" that comes from action. This has to be the case, because you can't live a life of action without piling up a few regrets. In this place, we're totally released from all of our usual compulsions or desires, whether they're inner compulsions like love and hunger, or outer ones like really wanting the new HALO game. 
  • When we're freed of these desires (in a really Zen sort of way), we become "surrounded / By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving" (74-75). This white light seems to be the light of spiritual enlightenment and fulfillment, which has to be both still and moving, because neither stillness nor movement on its own would satisfy us. If we had stillness, we'd get bored and crave movement. If we had movement, we'd wish for a sense of calm stillness.

Lines 76-80

Erhebung without motion, concentration
Without elimination, both a new world
And the old made explicit, understood
In the completion of its partial ecstasy,
The resolution of its partial horror
.

  • "Erhebung" is a German word that refers to the "elevation" or rise of the mind from the material world to the higher realm of spirit. The speaker insists again, though, that this rising happens "without motion," and that it comes from a "concentration."
  • Usually, concentrating on something means focusing your mind on a very limited scope. But here, the speaker is trying to talk about a type of concentration or heightened attention that still covers everything "Without elimination." 
  • Reaching this state of mind will allow us to understand the modern world and its connection to the old world through the "partial ecstasy" that you participate in by finding the still point in the turning world. But with this partial ecstasy comes the need to confront the part of experience that is "horror." There's no getting around it, humanity has done some rotten things over the course of history, and if you're going to have any hope of finding spiritual peace, you're going to have to come to terms with all of it.

Lines 81-84

Yet the enchainment of past and future
Woven in the weakness of the changing body
Protects mankind from heaven and damnation
Which flesh cannot endure
.

  • Don't get too happy about this whole thing about dancing at the still point of the turning world. In these next lines, the speaker shows us that the trap or "enchainment" of always thinking about the past and future is connected to the fact that we live in mortal bodies.
  • Just think about it; of course we're going to worry about the past and future. After all, we only get one life, and we're not getting any younger. We need to use our time wisely to get the most out of life, and this is why we don't spend every second thinking only about the present.
  • Worrying about the past and future might actually be our way of intentionally not focusing on the present, because maybe then we'd have to actually confront the fact that our modern souls are totally empty. This would be a tough thing for us to "endure," since no one wants to feel like they've wasted their life. 
  • Worrying about "heaven and damnation" is all well and good during Sunday mass, but we don't want to think about this stuff all the time. The speaker might be super-emo and take himself super-seriously, but he admits that this doesn't mean the rest of us have to be that way.

Lines 85-92

                                             Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.

  • Lines 85 and 86 seem to refer back to line 45, where the bird in the garden says that humankind "[c]annot bear very much reality." In other words, the speaker seems to dedicate this last little bit of his poem to saying that even though living in some sort of cosmic present is the ideal way to experience life, the fact that we are mortal creatures keeps us stuck in time and "[a]llow[s] but a little consciousness" (90) of the true reality of here and now. Basically, the fact that we have to worry about all our daily schedules and routines keeps us numb and ignorant to all of the beauty that's around us. It's kind of the same message that the really emo guy tries to communicate in American Beauty.
  • To be truly aware of the world, or "conscious" in the speaker's terms, means that you don't think at all about the past and/or future. But on the other hand, he admits that it's only possible for us to have beautiful moments if they happen in time. It's not like you can just freeze time. (But then again, the speaker didn't live in a world where awesome stuff like this happened.) 
  • In any case, it's still pretty great to remember our beautiful memories, like a "moment in the arbour where the rain beat" (89) or a "moment in the draughty church at smokefall" (90), and The speaker admits that we can only remember these things if they're actually "involved with past and future" and happen in a world where time keeps passing. 
  • The speaker ends this second section of "Burnt Norton" by saying that "[o]nly through time is time conquered" (92). By this, he suggests that you can't just jump outside of time, because you're a mortal human being and time is going to run out on you someday. That said, you can still be happier if you spend the little bit of time you have appreciating the world that's right in front of you. 
  • Ultimately, the speaker knows that it's not realistic to think that everyone in the world will suddenly go Zen and start pretending that they're rocks. But at the same time, it's good to have a perfect ideal in mind when you're trying to become less obsessive and anxious about your daily routine and your future.