Study Guide

Four Quartets Burnt Norton, Section 3

By Eliot, T.S.

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Burnt Norton, Section 3

Lines 93-101

Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing shadow into transient beauty
With slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.

  • No slowing down here. The speaker is still trying to describe exactly how modern folks like ourselves can find spiritual peace.
  • He falls right back into talking about how worrying about the past and future, or "time before and time after," is basically a place of "disaffection" or unhappiness that keeps us feeling crummy.
  • This "dim light" of unhappiness contrasts with the spiritual brightness that fills the pool in line 37. In other words, the speaker tells us here that there might still be a little bit of spirit (light) left in our modern lives, but it's dim at best.
  • Again, the poem tries to convey the numbness of modern life by saying that the "light" of our souls isn't bright enough to create the fleeting, "transient beauty" of shadows. What are shadows in this instance? Well, they're things that come and go very quickly (transient), which is just like a lot of things in our lives. Our possessions, our health, and even the people we love: all of these things will eventually go away, and with our spirits so dim, we don't even have the ability to recognize how beautiful these "transient" shadows are until they're gone. 
  • Even though our spirits are dark, they aren't quite dark enough to "purify the soul" through "deprivation." So what does the speaker mean by this? Well, he means that there's a silver lining in a person being completely broken down by sadness and spiritual emptiness, because, once you've hit rock bottom and are "deprived" of everything, you've got nowhere to go but back up. Unfortunately for us, though, we're caught in a state of numbness that's dim, but not quite dark enough to make us start getting brighter again. We're just sort of stuck between good and bad, and this stuck-ness is what creates the numbness that the speaker fears most.

Lines 102-106

Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration

  • In his classic way of saying that modern experience is neither one thing nor the opposite, the speaker writes that we modern people have "neither plenitude nor vacancy," which reiterates his idea that we don't really have spiritual fullness or total emptiness. In this case, emptiness might be good because it might actually motivate us to change things. Unfortunately, we remain caught between the two extremes, totally depressed, but not depressed enough to do anything about it. 
  • So, if the modern world is so awful, why might we not feel it? Well, it turns out that we deal with the emptiness of the world by being "[d]istracted from distraction to distraction," or basically by keeping ourselves constantly distracted (i.e., shopping for clothes, watching reality TV, texting, etc.).
  • Ultimately, all of these distractions are "empty of meaning" for the speaker, and they create a deep spiritual numbness or "apathy" with no real purpose and "no concentration." That's because concentration would actually require some sort of effort, and the modern person's attention span is way more suited to distraction than concentration. After all, how far did you get through this summary before you checked your Facebook page? Hmm? The speaker rests his case.

Lines 107-110

Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.

  • In the spiritual blah-ness of the modern world, all we really find is "[m]en and bits of paper" (111). The bits of paper here could symbolize any number of things, like our obsession with money, thoughts that we try to keep track of by writing them down, or even little "to do" lists that lay out all the elements of our soul-crushing daily routine. In any case, it's basically impossible to think of anything spiritually uplifting in this "little bits of paper" image.
  • These schedules, receipts, bills, or what have you are blown around by the cold wind of people's anxiety about the past and future: "before and after time." This same wind makes us spiritually unhealthy, as shown in the phrase, "[w]ind in and out of unwholesome lungs." In other words, we're totally choking to death and blackening our spirit-lungs with our anxieties about the future and the past. That's right, folks. Spirit-lungs—we said it.

Lines 111-116

Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not there the darkness, in this twittering world.

  • Anyone know what "Eructation" means? Well, don't feel bad. Actually, you should giggle, because it's a really fancy word for burping. This is probably part of the "wind in and out of unwholesome lungs" The speaker mentions in line 113. Yeah, basically, the speaker makes his point about modern unhappiness even stronger by using personification (souls can't really burp) and talking about how we're all sitting around and burping like we've got spiritual heartburn. 
  • These weird soul-burps go into "the faded air," and all of us sad modern folks get blown around by the lame "wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London" (117). This symbolic unhappiness blows all over the place in London, through all the neighborhoods that the speaker lists in lines 118-119. It's not a really happy image, and it sort of makes us at Shmoop feel pretty lonely. Good thing you're with us on this, though.
  • Unlike in "The Waste Land," Eliot doesn't actually associate darkness with evil or sadness in this poem. This is because the thing our speaker hates most is the numbness he associates with the color grey, and he thinks that at least total darkness might actually give us something productive in the long run. 
  • When he says "Not here / Not here the darkness, in this twittering world" (119-120), the speaker isn't actually talking about people throwing up tweets on Twitter. But if he lived today, he definitely could mean it this way. Twitter is just another one of those distractions that keeps us numb to the deeper meaning of life, and the speaker wouldn't think much of anything that forces you to express yourself in 140 characters or less.

Lines 117-124

    Descend lower, descend only
Into the world of perpetual solitude,
World not world, but that which is not world,
Internal darkness, deprivation
And destitution of all property,
Desiccation of the world of sense,
Evacuation of the world of fancy,
Inoperancy of the world of spirit;

  • Compared to grey, maybe total darkness isn't so bad. At least it's something, right? The speaker tells us to start descending at this point, down into a world of "perpetual solitude." It's not clear why he wants us to do this, but it probably has something to do with acknowledging how empty our world is. Remember, the first step to solving a problem is admitting that there is one.
  • Maybe our speaker doesn't feel like modern people have reached this stage yet, since we're all so busy ignoring how empty the world is by keeping ourselves distracted all the time. 
  • The speaker wants us to strip ourselves of our distractions (and even our friends) and sink away from the material world into our own "Internal darkness," where we forget about all the stuff we own through a "destitution of all property."
  • Then he actually wants us to strip away or "desiccate" everything we get from our five senses. In other words, close your eyes, plug your ears, and stick a clothespin on your nose. 
  • In line 127, he tells us to empty out or "evacuate" the "world of fancy," which means get rid of all our personal "fancies" or dreams. And finally, when all of this is gone, he asks us to actually give up our "spirit."
  • This doesn't sound like the same guy who was telling us not long ago to celebrate the natural world with our five senses and live in the present moment. But maybe he feels now like we need to start from point zero if we're going to rebuild ourselves. 
  • In any case, he tells us to let go of "the world of spirit" by admitting that it's broken or stuck in "[i]noperancy." He's basically asking us to break ourselves down, to face the darkness of the modern world head-on and acknowledge it for what it is. No more distracting ourselves with pointless pastimes. We need to get our spiritual lives in order. You in? Yes or no, keep reading anyway. This thing's just getting good…

Line 125-129

This is the one way, and the other
Is the same, not in movement
But abstention from movement; while the world moves
In appetency, on its metalled ways
Of time past and time future.

  • It turns out that diving down into the darkness of our souls "is the one way" for the speaker to bring about spiritual reform.
  • There might be "the other" way, too, but it's "the same." For the speaker, it's not about moving toward a goal, but about letting ourselves be still for a second—kind of like that scene in Eat, Pray, Love when Julia Roberts can't stand meditating. 
  • Improving our lives isn't about getting up and exercising more. No, it's about learning to be comfortable with being still, with being nothing. We need to do this even though the world around us keeps moving. People keep going to work and "getting ahead" in the world. Do you have it in you to sit still while that's all happening? The speaker hopes so.
  • When he says that the world keeps moving "on its metalled ways / Of time past and time future" he uses the image of railway rails to talk about how modern life is kind of like being inside a train, always moving smoothly from the past into the future.
  • This might make us feel good, but what we don't realize is that we're stuck on a single, narrow track when we focus only on our daily routines and personal goals. 
  • The speaker wants to help us get out of this habit and think more deeply about our existence. And here, at the end of Section Three of "Burnt Norton," he suggests that completely stripping away everything that makes us who we are might be a good first step toward this kind of deep thinking.

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