Meditating Four Quartets: Burnt Norton (V)

Fifth Movement

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.

chinese-ming-dynasty-exhibition-world-arts-events_web_image_zpsa8d35693.jpg~original.jpegPerhaps the artist—poet, musician, potter, painter—can best express the mystery of time and eternity. Perhaps especially the poet and his words. But not words alone. Words must be shaped and brought into syntactical relationship with each other to communicate meaning. The poet is no mere wordsmith. He creates a concrete linguistic form that is itself the meaning of his utterance, just as a composer brings together sounds that become a symphony played on a Friday evening in Carnegie Hall. The poem once spoken (and poems are meant to be spoken, for how else can one hear the music of the words) seek the silence of eternity, seek to become a Chinese jar—action frozen yet always in movement. Do not call it fixity.

Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts, / Not that only, but the co-existence, / Or say that the end precedes the beginning, / And the end and the beginning were always there / Before the beginning and after the end. / And all is always now.

Eliot returns to the meditation of the first movement on the mystery of past, present, and future. Think of that moment when the violinist lifts his bow from the strings, yet the last note continues. Stillness and music together. But that image does not quite seem to capture what Eliot is straining to express. The making of the music is behind us, even though the sound briefly continues. Past, present, and future remain unreconciled. Perhaps “coexistence” signifies what Eliot wants to say; but no, that doesn’t quite work either. The prefix “co-” simply brings two different things together into the same place, as it were. Unhappy husband and wife might co-exist under the same roof but they are hardly united. Only a poet can say what needs to be said: but what does it mean to say that the end precedes the beginning, to suggest a “before” the beginning and an end “after” the end?

Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, / Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, / Will not stay still.

How can our words, words born in time, intending the movement and things of time, signify that which transcends time? How can we speak of eternity? Perhaps we might think of what it is not; but even the via negativa may mislead, as Eliot warned us in the second movement. Our language is inadequate. Our words slide, crack, and break under the weight of a task too great for them. They resist the patterning work of the speaker.

At this moment I am reading a poem that was written decades ago. Do the words mean what Eliot meant? The meanings of words are constantly changing—but not just their dictionary meanings. A sentence can be spoken in different ways. How it is spoken will change the meaning. I try to understand. I re-read the poem multiple times. I listen to Eliot’s recording. I do my best to interpret, but I cannot call the poet on the phone and ask him if my interpretation even begins to approach the meaning he intended. Like his words, the poet has passed from time into death. His historical life is complete. But our lives are ill-equipped to bespeak eternity. They crack and break under the burden.

And yet the printed words of a dead poet are generating new meanings in my life. Even if my interpretations of “Burnt Norton” are critically incorrect, are they therefore incorrect?

Shrieking voices / Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering, / Always assail them.

Whose voices? The voices of the past? The twittering voices in the London Underground? The voices of the fragmented soul? Or perhaps Eliot is thinking of literary critics who take up the compositions of poets and then subject them to minute analysis and withering critique. Eliot himself was both poet and critic. The journey towards eternity is always under threat, both from ourselves and from others.

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.

Finally Eliot introduces the One for whom we have been waiting, the One of whom all of his words have been straining to invoke. Who else can redeem time but the eternal Logos who has appropriated time?

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. … And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. (Jn 1:1-3, 14)

Thinking of the manifold threats to the work of the poet in speaking his word, the poet thinks of the threats to the Word in the desert as he prepared to live out his mission in time.

The last two lines of the stanza befuddle me. Who is the crying shadow and disconsolate chimera?


Perhaps I am totally misreading the poem, but let me offer this tentative suggestion—Satan. Satan is the tempter in the desert; Satan is the one who sought to undermine the ministry of Messias; Satan is the one who entered into Judas and engineered the condemnation and crucifixion of the Son of God. The poet immediately take us from the desert to the consummation of Christ’s word-making on the cross. Why is Satan lamenting? Because the very death he so meticulously arranged has become his fatal undoing. St Gregory of Nyssa puts it imaginatively thusly:

The opposing power could not, by its nature, come into immediate contact with God’s presence and endure the unveiled sight of him. Hence it was that God, in order to make himself easily accessible to him who sought the ransom for us, veiled himself in our nature. In that way, as it is with greedy fish, he might swallow the Godhead like a fishhook along with the flesh, which was the bait. Thus, when life came to dwell with death and light shone upon darkness, their contraries might vanish away. For it is not in the nature of darkness to endure the presence of light, nor can death exist where life is active. (Orat. cat. 24)

The death of Eternity in time liberates all trapped in the turning world. The chimera who has ever sought to destroy humanity becomes a mere crying shadow.

Only the Word slain before the foundation of the world poet can compose a poem that effectively, definitively, and poetically resolves the problem of mortality and time. Pascha is this poem. The resolution cannot be violently imposed by the Creator. It must come from within, through enfleshment, through entemporalization, death, and resurrection. “Only through time time is conquered.”

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.

Humanity is created for Eternity. Not an impersonal Absolute that swallows up all creaturely distinctions and identities. That would be not a reconciliation but abolition. The Eternity toward which the Quartets directs us is the One who is both utter stillness and yet source of movement and dance. He is the One of whom St Augustine could sing: “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” All human desire, no matter how warped and distorted, ultimately seeks for the One who is humanity’s ultimate Good, the Good who transcends desire, the Good who is both cause and consummation of desire, the Good who is eternal Love within the perfect and eternal communion of the Father, Son, and Spirit.

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.

We are back in the rose-garden. The words of the poet have done their work. The dust of the petals move in our consciousness. We hear the laughter of the children, perhaps our own laughter in a lifetime that no longer seems to have been our own. It can only be remembered … yet perhaps more than remembered.

(Return to first meditation or  go to “East Coker”)

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2 Responses to Meditating Four Quartets: Burnt Norton (V)

  1. John Farrell says:

    Just a quick note to say how much I have enjoyed reading your posts on Four Quartets, poems I have become intimately familiar with over the past few years. In performing Eliot’s poems I sometimes think of myself as “the violin, while the note lasts,” while the poetry itself is the music, pointing, I suppose, towards the stillness. You have a wonderful way of attending to the cycling of details, noticing the little links which reach backwards and forwards through the poems. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you so much for your kind note, John. I’ve been wondering if anyone has been reading these meditations. I know that I have not even broken the surface of these profound poems. I suspect one could spend a lifetime with them.

      I would love to attend one of your performances! Do you have any plans to record them?


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