Thoughts on T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton”
This week we offer in worship a part—a fragment, really—of T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton, the first of what came to be called his Four Quartets. Eliot wrote Burnt Norton in the mid-1930s while working on his play Murder in the Cathedral, wrestling as he was not only with what it meant to stand for the Gospel and to have sacrificial integrity in faith, but also with the limitations of our understanding of the divine and our means of expression through language.
This admission of the inescapable imperfection of our knowing does not leave Eliot in despair, but leads him instead to fall upon his trust that this “weakness” leads him into relationship with the Author of such a complicated, confusing and mysterious Creation. Only a few years later, author Helen Gardner offered this summary: “[T]he virtue to which Burnt Norton points us is the virtue of humility: a submission to the truth of experience, an acceptance of what is, that involves the acceptance of ignorance. . . . If we pass then to the use of theological terms we may say that mystically the subject of Burnt Norton is grace: the gift by which we seek to discover what we have already been shown.”1 Certainly this is the essence of both science and theology: to try to understand and express—to discover—what we have already been shown in the world and in Scripture.
But seventy years on, are we as attuned as was Eliot to the partialness of our understanding and—more critically—the necessity of humility in our relationship to God, our relationships with each other? Whether used to describe physical properties of the cosmos or the meanings in Genesis, words are impotent, says Eliot (no small admission for a poet and playwright); yet they still retain the power to point us towards eternal things. Moreover, outside of a compassionate touch, they are the most direct means of sharing with each other the realness of the presence of our Savior.
But, alas, this is often not the power of language that we choose to use; instead we yield to the temptation to wound—to “chatter,” “mock” and “attack.” When we assail each other with our words, though, we assail the one Word who was tempted, tested, and ultimately broken for our sake. Whether motivated by the dark, hard conviction that there is nothing beyond the funeral dance, or by anger that no one seems to give proper attention to the fantastic creatureliness of which we are so proud, we demand that Christ serve us and our ideas of who he should be, rather than serving Him by loving both neighbors and enemies with our words as well as our hands. As worship begins with humility and repentance before the Lord, let us always acknowledge the imperfection of our knowledge and speech and offer praise that the one Word has grace and power sufficient to redeem and perfect our stuttering.
From Eliot's Burnt Norton
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.
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. 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. 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.
1. Helen Gardner. The Art of T.S. Eliot. Copyright © 1949 by The Cresset Press.