Burnt Norton is one of four T.S. Eliot’s poems in The Four Quartets. It was the first one which was written and published. The other three, East Coker, The Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding, followed only several years later. All four poems are related to each other through the idea of man’s attitude to time and life. Burnt Norton, being the first in the quartet, introduces the theme from the very beginning with philosophical speculations about the interconnectedness between present, past, and future.
In her lecture devoted to Eliot’s Four Quartets, Belinda Jack points the three main themes covered in Burnt Norton. They are regret, intellectual anguish, and sense of loss with accompanying melancholy (Jack). The theme of regret is all about the past and things which could have happened, but did not:
What might have been and what has been Point to one end, which is always present (Eliot).
The poet reflects philosophically that everything “what might have been is an abstraction” (Eliot) and that is why it is just a possibility and will always remain like this.
The whole poem creates a feeling that you are in an exile, somewhere between present, past, and future. Like in an exile, you feel lonely and lost getting into “the world of perpetual solitude” (Eliot). That feeling of loss and frustration is strengthened by the poet’s constant use of negations and oppositions. The poem abounds with negative particles ‘not’ and constructions ‘neithernor’:
Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement (Eliot).
In addition to negations, the idea of indecisiveness and uncertainty is emphasized by numerous juxtapositions of completely opposite things, such as ‘dance – no dance’, ‘a new world – the old’, ‘heaven – damnation’, and many others.
So, Burnt Norton is about uncertainty and relativity of time, both importance and insignificance of it. That loss in time creates a feeling of solitude which triggers further reflections and makes the poem a deeply philosophical one.
Eliot, Thomas S. “The Four Quartets.” Cold Bacon. Cold Bacon, n.d. Web. 7 Apr. 2016. <http://www.coldbacon.com/poems/fq.html>
Jack, Belinda. “Poetry and Exile.” Gresham College. Gresham College, 13 Oct. 2015. Web. 7 Apr. 2016. <http://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/poetry-and-exile-t-s-eliot-four-quartets>