Study Guide

Four Quartets Burnt Norton, Section 5

By Eliot, T.S.

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Burnt Norton, Section 5

Lines 140-146

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 speaker opens Section Five of "Burnt Norton" by admitting that, even though words and music (and poetry) are important for talking about human spirituality, these are both things that "mov[e] / Only in time," which in the context of everything we've talked about, means that there's only so far that they'll take you. 
  • The "Music" and "words" of poetry are great, but they unfold in time and are part of our everyday living world. If living is all we're here to do, then dying is the only thing that waits for us: "that which is only living / Can only die." 
  • But moving in time isn't the only thing words do. Words "reach / Into the silence" because they never really capture what we're trying to say. Haven't you ever said to someone, "No, that's not what I meant at all"? Well, that's because words never perfectly capture the meaning we want them to, and for this reason, they're always reaching into a realm beyond our power of communication, a silent world that always dances away from our efforts to put it into words. 
  • That said, it is only "by the form, the pattern," says the speaker, that words can actually "reach / The stillness" (143-144). Now how could that be the case? Well if you think about it, things like form and meter in poetry aren't the same thing as words. (Check out "Form and Meter" here for examples.) They convey rhythms and ideas to us that words can't, and in this way, they might be getting to something more basic than the concepts that we try to get at with words.
  • Just imagine yourself looking out at a jungle and trying to name things. You can say "leaf," "tree," and "tiger" even, but these words don't even come close to capturing the physical experience of looking at the jungle. This is the "silence" of the natural world that goes beyond the power of our words and our speaking. There are primal rhythms and forms, says the speaker, that things like "form" and "pattern," the rhythm and meter of poetry, might be better at expressing.
  • The speaker is desperate to find a way to communicate his ideal of a "still point" to us. He wants to talk about something that's still and yet moving, the same way that "a Chinese jar still / Moves perpetually in its stillness" (145-146). Have you ever seen a Chinese jar? They're totally covered with really intricate designs that can make them look like they're constantly moving, even though they're just jars. Pretty awesome. 
  • This combination of stillness and movement in a single object is exactly what the speaker's trying to get us to think about. He doesn't want us to freeze the world, but wants us to find a sense of peaceful stillness even as the world keeps moving around us. 
  • Similarly, he thinks that poetry might be able to have this same effect, because even while our eyes are constantly moving over the words, these words stay totally fixed and still on the written page. The use of form and meter therefore has a way of making us feel movement even while the words on the page stay totally still. 
  • Anyone feel better about their life yet?

Lines 147-151

Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the coexistence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.

  • The still point that the speaker compares to a Chinese jar (or to the form and meter of poetry) is not the same thing as "the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts" or at least "Not that only." The reason is because the note lasting on the violin is still a temporary thing, something that'll fade after a few seconds. The still point that the speaker wants to talk about is more like the Chinese jar or poetic form, which remain still (on a table or on a page) forever if we let them, but they still keep their sense of movement when we encounter them.
  • This is what the speaker wants to get at with his "still point in the turning world." It's not something that just pops up for a second and is gone, like a note played by a violin. It's something that's constantly there, ready to be experienced even when we're ignoring it. This ain't no "tree falling in the woods" riddle. According to the speaker, the still point of spiritual fulfillment is out there whether we feel it or not, and it's a place where the beginnings and endings of all things (like the past and future) are mashed into one moment. That might still sound a little vague and conceptual, but it's as clear as you're going to get with in this poem.

Lines 152-155

And all is always now. Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

  • It's important for us to realize that all of the past and future is contained in the moment that we're living right now. The speaker admits that "words strain" to express what this sense of a stilled present is like. In fact, they often figuratively "Crack and sometimes break, under the burden" of trying to express something that is so profoundly beyond our ability to communicate. 
  • Words don't just break, though. They "slip" and "slide" over the things they try to describe. The word "leopard" might make us all imagine a certain type of animal, for example, but each of us still has a completely different picture of this animal in our heads, and so words try to cling to the things they represent without ever really latching on. 
  • For these reasons, words "decay with imprecision," since they can never fully capture what they're trying to say and "will not stay in place" (155). In this way, the speaker says that our knowledge of the world can never be a fixed and unchanging thing, since we only understand knowledge through language, and language is never quite up to the task of expressing what we want it to.

Lines 156-161

Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them. The Word in the desert
Is most attacked by voices of temptation,
The crying shadow in the funeral dance,
The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.

  • Continuing with his smack-talk about how badly words do their job, the speaker says that words "Will not stay still," since they keep sliding away from the things they try to capture. The physical world has a way of mocking our attempts to capture it in language or in knowledge, always assailing language with its "shrieks," "scolds," "chattering," or what have you. Then the speaker talks about the "Word in the desert," which is "attacked by voices of temptation." The speaker's definitely getting Biblical on us here, which you can tell from the second he capitalizes "Word," traditionally a reference to the living word of God.
  • Saying that words are tempted in the desert adds something to the speaker's earlier points about the failure of words. Here, he suggests that words are imperfect because people are imperfect, always giving into temptation and all of our lame everyday concerns. 
  • It's not totally clear what the last two lines of this stanza mean, although the "crying shadow in the funeral dance" might signify how our spiritual emptiness makes us incapable of finding anything but sadness ("crying shadow") in the transformation (or dance) of death.
    The "chimera," on the other hand, is a mythical Greek beast with the body and head of a lion, another head of a goat, and tail of a snake. This compilation of animals into one could represent how all of us modern folks are constantly trying to be different people in our lives. We might act one way to one person, another way to another, and this alienates us from our true selves.
  • That's why we can't help but send out a "loud lament" and feel awful about the fact that there's nothing really grounding who we are in the modern world. We've lost touch with the still point at our cores, and the speaker wants to help us rediscover this.

Lines 162-171

     The detail of the pattern is movement,
As in the figure of the ten stairs.
Desire itself is movement
Not in itself desirable;
Love is itself unmoving,
Only the cause and end of movement,
Timeless, and undesiring
Except in the aspect of time
Caught in the form of limitation
Between un-being and being.

  • The speaker continues in talking about how "the detail" of visual and musical patterns (like we saw with the example of the Chinese jar) is able to combine the seemingly opposite principles of stillness and movement.
  • Next, the speaker gives us an example of this kind of movement "in the figure of the ten stairs." If you feel like the speaker's making a reference here, you're right. So how are we supposed to know what he's talking about? Never fear, Shmoopers. We've got your back. 
  • "The figure of the ten stairs" is specifically a reference to a text called The Dark Night of the Soul by Saint John of the Cross.
  • And no, it's not the inspiration for the latest Batman movie. It's a discussion of religious faith in which Saint John says, "there are ten steps on the mystical ladder of divine love." These stairs therefore symbolize the uphill journey we face on our road to spiritual salvation. 
  • "Desire," says the speaker, is a type of movement that isn't always that pleasurable. After all, desire is that sense of emptiness that keeps you striving after things in your life. Was the last pair of shoes you bought the final pair you'll ever buy? We didn't think so, because life (like Apple products) has a way of throwing something new in front of us and tricking us into thinking that once we have that new thing, we'll finally be happy.
  • "Love," on the other hand, "is unmoving." It's not about going out and chasing after something. It's about feeling totally comfortable in your own skin and feeling loved for exactly what you are. Love might cause people to have desire, since these people might crave love, but love itself is unchanging, like the still point in the turning world. 
  • Sound good? Well just in case it does, the speaker again undercuts what he's been saying here, and says that love is "timeless" except "in the aspect of time / Caught in the form of limitation / Between un-being and being" (169-171). So what in the world does that mean? Well, the speaker might be saying here that love is never a thing that we totally capture once and for all, but neither is it a thing that's just a fancy idea in our heads. It's real, but we can't touch it. It's an ideal, but there's more to it than just an idea. Again, the speaker tries to talk about a spiritual ideal, only to admit that it's a really tough thing to talk about.

Lines 172-178

Sudden in a shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always –
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

  • In these lines, the first of Eliot's four quartets wraps up. After all the speaker's talk about the spiritual ideal of "the still point in the turning world," it's pretty reasonable for us to expect some sort of uplifting ending here. But hey, this is Eliot we're talking about.
  • In this final sequence, we find out that children's laughter fills our ears and comes to us "Sudden in a shaft of sunlight" (172). We might all feel tired and worn out "while the dust moves" on our souls, but the innocent laughter of children cuts through this tiredness. 
  • The speaker is referring back to lines 43 and 44 of "Burnt Norton," revisiting his image of innocent children who play in the leaves and haven't been corrupted by the schedule-driven, shallow thinking of modern adults. He wants us to focus on the image of these children in the present moment, just like the bird told us: "Quick now, here, now, always." This chain of words like "here" and "now" is supposed to focus our minds completely on the present moment, and to connect this present moment across all times "always." This is the kind of innocent spiritual moment the speaker wants to show to us modern folks.
  • But then… What the? Why does he call it "Ridiculous the sad waste of time / Stretching before and after"? Well he's talking about the concerns about past and future that completely take up our mental lives, and reminds us that our lives are pretty pathetic and ridiculous if we spend them worrying about everything except the present moment. You might think it's a shame that the speaker doesn't end "Burnt Norton" on the happy note of line 176, but hey, there are still three more quartets to go, and our guy's just getting warmed up…

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