Meditating Four Quartets: Burnt Norton (II)

Second Movement

Garlic and sapphires in the mud / Clot the bedded axle-tree.

I am no longer in the garden; but the scent of roses lingers on. The poet now presents me with a number of indecipherable images.

5812198769_bf6b71fa55_zps7a3daaf0.jpg~original.jpeg“Garlic and sapphires in the mud.” I thought immediately of wild garlic, no doubt growing throughout the unattended garden of Burnt Norton. But sapphires? Clearly Eliot wishes us to think of the beautiful blue gemstone. What brought sapphires to his mind? I did a Google search for wild garlic and found images of garlic, with white flowers, alongside bluebells. Garlic and sapphires—it’s a curious, unexpected combination. But so is everything.

“Clot the bedded axle-tree.” I had to do yet another Google search (I suspect I will be doing many such searches during my reading of the Quartets). “Axle-tree” denominates the wooden axis of chariots and coaches. Are we to think of a vehicle that has sunk into the mud, right up to the axle, or are we to think of the axle by itself? Is it just laying in the mud or is it standing straight up, like a tree?

Does Eliot intend the axle-tree as a symbol of the Cross? Given that the axle-tree is the crossbeam about which the wheels of the chariot or coach revolve, perhaps we may not unreasonably think of the crossbeam upon which Christ hung for the sins of mankind: “Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). The Crucified God is the center around which the universe revolves.

But the Christian interpretation feels a tad strained. Perhaps we are just to think of ourselves as stuck in the confusing, contradictory muck of life.

The trilling wire in the blood / Sings below inveterate scars / Appeasing long forgotten wars.

My thought runs to the addictive British TV crime drama “Wire in the Blood.” In this show the protagonist, Dr Tony Hill, taps into his own darkness in order to sympathetically understand the pathology of serial killers. Robson Green, the actor who plays Hill, proposes that the phrase “wire in the blood” suggests a genetic kink, something impure and unusual in the blood, that creates pathological murderers. Val McDermid, the author of the Tony Hill series, comments: “Who knows what Eliot really meant by that line? Robson’s explanation is as good as any … For myself, I’ve always taken it to be a metaphor for the thrill of adrenaline surging through the bloodstream. But we’ll never know for sure.”

Like everyone else, I have been injured, damaged, marred by the wars of life, whether forgotten or not. The wounds may scar over but they do not heal. Memories clamor for obsessive attention. I am a psychologist’s dream-client. Decades later I still dwell upon the injuries, losses, and griefs, failures and sins of my life. In a perverse way they energize me. I seem unable to heal the wounds, no matter how many hours I pray, no many how many times I partake of the sacred Body and Blood, no matter how many sessions of psychotherapy I endure. All I can do is appease the voices of the past, “the trilling wire in the blood.”

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 above 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.

The poet introduces the image of the dance for the first time. This figure will become increasingly important in the Quartets. The dance is manifested throughout creation—in the human body’s lymphatic system, in the movement of the stars, in the royal hunt for the boar. When I think of dance, I think of the beauty and grace of the waltz.

“The celestial song composed the universe into melodious order,” writes Clement of Alexandria, “and tuned the discord of the elements to harmonious arrangement, so that the whole world might become harmony” (Prot. 1). Every being participates in the universal choreography of the cosmos.

The poet glimpses in the various dances of creation a reconciliation of contraries, a reconciliation that occurs at the still point where eternity and time meet.

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. 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.

I adore these lines. I speak them aloud over and over again. Eliot draws us through the dances of the world into the eternity that sources the dances. We call it the still point, but it is a stillness that transcends both inactivity and movement, for it is dance itself, the perichoretic communion of the Father, Son and Spirit who is the wellspring of all created dances. Eliot does not explicitly identify the still point as the Holy Trinity, but surely the Christian reader may take this liberty. The Triune God is not a static thing but, as C. S. Lewis expresses it, “a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.” And there is only the dance, the dance that transcends ascent and descent and all movement. Thomas Howard elaborates on the Eliotean still point:

“At the still point of the turning world.” We have all been told by the mathematicians and physicists that there is an unmoving point at the exact center of any wheel, or axle, that is not moving. The whole thing moves around that point. So. The world, in the sense of this globe upon which we find ourselves, and the world in the sense of the totality of human experience, has at its center that point around which it turns. The point is still. It is “neither flesh nor fleshless”: that is, we are not excluding either the physical world (which most of us suppose, in our lesser moments, to be the “real” world) or the nonphysical, that is, the world of spirit, or of theory, or of fancy. And “from” and “toward” won’t help us, since they belong to the world of measurement, or geography. No. It is the still point around which the entire dance (Eliot does not capitalize it yet) moves. In a highly compressed sense, it is the dance, since from it emanate all the movements there are. It is not itself movement: but “arrest” or “fixity” won’t do, since these words imply—well, just that: arrest or fixity. But this is a vibrant point, the wellspring of all movement. And it is here that past and future are gathered. (Dove Descending, pp. 44-45)

There is only the dance.

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, / Erhebung [elevation, exaltation] 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.

Eliot here describes the spiritual state that characterize the saints who have experienced theosis—freedom from all compulsion, awareness of the divine light and the world redeemed and made new, the integration of personhood within the still point of the eternal dance.

I have only experienced the still point a few times in my life. United to my beloved, looking deep into her eyes, into the depths of eternity. In those rare and precious moments I rested, and the words of the psalmist were fulfilled: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10).

But the purification of soul of which the ascetics speak remains a goal beyond my desire, though life itself brings its own measure of suffering and privation.

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.

Howard suggests that these four lines might well “serve to crown the whole of the Quartets” (p. 47). We are imprisoned in time, yet it is precisely our temporality, the fact that we live in journey, that protects us from both the beatific and infernal visions. We are prepared for neither. “The point is,” Howard explains, “we cannot ‘endure’ these titanic ultimacies. We are ready for neither yet, and we may give fervent thanks for the limitations that belong to our flesh, since if Reality (either heaven or damnation) were suddenly to loom upon us, we would be destroyed altogether. Our true and proper way lies via time and the flesh, not by a flight from them, as the Gnostics and transcendentalists and Platonists would have it” (p. 48). Humankind, as the poet told us in the first movement, can only bear limited revelations of the truth. Ours is the way of purgation and continuous transformation.

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.

“The only reason for time,” remarked Albert Einstein, “is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” Our experience of existence is fleeting and episodic. We are not conscious of the whole but only as it presents itself to us, one moment at a time. Only God is fully conscious. (I need to re-read Book XI of St Augustine’s Confessions.) Only as we exist in time can we experience the revelations of existence. Yet each revelation, once received, now exists only in memory. What are memories?

There is only the dance … the dance of life, the dance of eternity, the dance of the Holy Trinity.

(Go to third movement)

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1 Response to Meditating Four Quartets: Burnt Norton (II)

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I cannot remember where I read it (and have not tried to go searching), but I recall Eliot acknowledging a debt to the image of the Fool in Charles Williams’s novel, The Greater Trumps, where golden figures wonderfully move in perpetual intricate dance on a unique table which alone gives the Tarot cards real depth and value, except for the mysterious still figure of the Fool – except again, one person simply sees the Fool moving in the intricacies of the dance like all the other figures. Perhaps this quartet movement is the place (or one of them) where it comes into play.

    I think, among other things, the “axle-tree” relates to the images of the axis of the earth – and universe (imagined geocentrically), and the mythological ‘world-tree’.

    And perhaps just to ‘associate freely’, wires trill and sing in the wind, telegraph and telephone wires, and the wire strings of an Aeolian harp. And the circulation of the blood is a sort of rhythmic singing. Scars have been bloody wounds which have ceased to bleed, their ‘lines’ in some sense ‘paralleling’ the vessels below pulsing with blood, going about their business while life endures.

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