T.S. Eliot's Burnt Norton: Analysis & Explanation

Instructor: Katherine Garner

Katie teaches middle school English/Language Arts and has a master's degree in Secondary English Education

This lesson includes relevant background information on T.S Eliot, an analysis of the themes and motifs of Eliot's 'Burnt Norton,' and a short description of its relationship to the other poems of 'Four Quartets.' It also highlights key passages.

Background Information

Reading 'Burnt Norton,' and the 'Four Quartets' as a whole, can be a daunting experience. Understanding some details about T.S. Eliot's personal and professional life, highlighting some passages from the poem that illustrate central themes, and discussing 'Burnt Norton's' role within the 'Four Quartets' can clear up a lot of confusion.

Though Eliot is known as an important figure in the Modernist movement, the content of his poetry took a turn during the latter part of his career. From 1915 to 1925, Eliot's major poems, such as 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,' 'The Hollow Men,' and 'The Wasteland,' described the loneliness and frustration brought on by modern life. By the late 1930s and 40s when the poems of the 'Four Quartets' were published, he had become a British citizen (He was born in the United States), joined the Anglican church, and separated from his mentally and emotionally unstable wife. His later poetry reflected these aspects of his life by including intensely religious imagery and more meditative and abstract themes.

'Burnt Norton' and the other quartets (a set of four poems published together) are excellent examples of this change of tone and content. The titles of each of the quartets are locations that were spiritually significant to Eliot. They were published as a whole in 1943, and Eliot considered the 'Four Quartets' (as they were titled when published together) a masterpiece. These poems certainly contributed to his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948.

Themes and Motifs

There are several concepts and images that repeatedly appear throughout the poem. Because this poem is part of a quartet, which refers to a group of four and is often used as a musical term, it can be helpful to think of the poem as a song with repeating parts, sometimes changing a little with each repetition. Time and Redemption are recurring concepts, while the bird and the rose are recurring images.

  • Time:

Time is a major concern of Eliot's in this poem. He is constantly meditating about how humans can - or should - interact with time. 'Burnt Norton' illustrates Eliot's complicated concept of time, which allows one, in some moments, to escape or transcend 'time' as we understand it to achieve a sense of eternity or timelessness, or what Eliot calls the still point of the turning world (line 62). He believes that the past and future are contained within all moments. The opening lines illustrate this with:

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present/All time is unredeemable.

Many such mind-bending statements about time occur throughout the poem, aiming to illustrate Eliot's multidimensional understanding of how time operates.

  • The Rose:

The actual setting of the poem is in a rose garden outside of an English manor house (the real Burnt Norton). Roses are mentioned many times as symbols of beauty and perfection and the way time can manipulate our memories so that they become symbols of ideas. For example, a life event, such as moving to a new city, might seem much more significant later on as a memory because it represents a state of mind or big change. At the time of the event, one is probably more concerned with the day-to-day details of hiring movers and unpacking boxes, but time makes that event more symbolic.

Similarly, the actual visit to the rose garden was probably more mundane for Eliot than the symbolic moment he describes in the poem. This is illustrated when the speaker and his companion are looking into a pool of water and see the reflection of the roses behind them glittering. The image disappears with a cloud and the bird in the poem says: Human kind/ cannot bear very much reality (lines 42-43).

Many readers often associate the rose symbol with Emily Hale, a close friend of Eliot's who accompanied Eliot on his visit to Burnt Norton. The two met when they were young and remained friends for decades, exchanging letters from different continents. This memory of being in the rose garden with her may be significant to Eliot because it represents a time of beauty and simplicity that contrasted with the sour and complicated reality of his separation from his wife who had recently been committed to a mental institution.

  • Redemption:

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