Sunday, September 25, 2011

Burnt Norton and the pool of light - T. S. Eliot

A part of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets sprung up in my mind as I was reading "The glass of water" by Wallace Stevens. In the poem by Stevens the glass is at one point referred to as a pool, fed upon by the light with "frothy jaws".

Eliot's Four Quartets, quite a literary (and philosophical) masterpiece, can be said to have sprung from one experience he had in a once grand, then rather forlorn rose garden. In a garden with a kind of lost, old beauty Eliot passed through a hedge of tightly growing rose bushes and came upon an empty pool in the grounds.

The genesis of the Quartets reminds me of the incident in Proust's Remembrence of things Past, where his dipping a madeleine cake in a cup of lukewarm lindenflower tea made his whole childhood whoosh back to him in a split-second, bringing with it what developed into the twelve volume modernist novel.

The pool in Burnt Norton
 Eliot put his birthing experience into writing:

So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.

This is from Burnt Norton, the first of the Quartets. Burnt Norton is a real life garden belonging to an estate of the same name in England.

The experience of the dry pool that briefly filled with sunlight expanded in Eliot into an outstretched, timeless moment of stillness, beauty and a sense of the "heart of light" as he put it in a draft of this poem.

"Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged, / And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight, / And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly / The surface glittered out of heart of light". This is the heart of this part of the quartet, maybe even of the whole of the quartets themselves. Without this experience the Quartets probably would not have been written; at least not in the form they now exist. We see that the empty, dry pool is filled with sunlight, an ethereal and brilliant water substitute - or rather, a sunlight-water, existing in a dimension of its own. The surface, he says, "glittered out of heart of light" - somehow the essence of light seems to have presented itself to him in that brief, timeless moment. A silence of a sort, revealing itself to a present and observant onlooker.

The lotos is an interesting feature here. This flower has many properties and meanings in several Eastern cultures. It has a pure white blossom on the surface of waters, be they dirty or clean. Their roots go deep into the mud in rivers and lakes, which makes it stretch from the dirt through the water and flower in this pristine whiteness, making itself a symbol of the possible transformation from dirt to purity; from ignorance to enlightenment and so on. Eliot knew at least the Eastern philosophical tradition quite well, and also had a knowledge of Sanskrit, the classical language in India; the language many of the old Buddhist texts are written in. The lotos seems to represent a lot of things in this poem written by an American turned British, in something as British as a rosegarden belonging to a stately home. Simplicity, beauty, something deeply real, something mystical, a touch of the Eastern mindset - all in all a whiff of simple elegance incorporating a mystery which is almost making itself completely accessible to us. We only have to enter a quiet state of mind to sense its direct presence and have revealed whatever it might be presenting to us.

All these words to describe a quiet moment which brought a poet a deep stillness and a connection with something he called heart of light, which again brought him to write the section overhead. But this is really part of my fascination with thought/experience and language/art/poetry. From a tiny moment, a flash of insight, can spring a whole novel, a movie, a painting, a theory, a haiku. "Moments in and out of time" Eliot calls these kinds of experiences another place in the Quartets. The intersection of the timeless with time.

"The still point of the turning world, there the dance is". This about sums up the Four Quartets. And makes me come back to it again and again.

1 comment:

Graham Fletcher said...

I'm not too sure about the 'birthing experience' interpretation of Burnt Norton. Undeniably TS Eliot was deeply connected with his mother, and she served as an archetype of all he admired and loved in women. His first marriage was a denial of his hopes, and his second a reconciliation.

His allusions and images are drawn from 'emotion recollected in tranquility' - much as one might look at a photograph of the empty pool in an evening with one's album of memories - and a complex synthesis of Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and Quantum Physics views; all of which were familiar to him in considerable depth.

Throughout the Quartets there are many approaches towards the still point of the turning world, and both congruent and paradoxical notions of the significance of the components he assembles. He was deliberately constructing images which would give access to people from a wide range of belief systems, so that people approaching from as disparate directions as religious fundamentalism and sceptical atheism could find something useful in his vision of the universe(s).

Perhaps turning back to birth might betray Eliot's unconscious sense of the material imperfection of incarnation, but he seems more to strive to express the transcendent value of understanding oneself as being merely an insignificant part of a greater 'reality' (of which human kind cannot bear very much)which is both humbling and exalting at the same time.

The experience of being gives us cause to rejoice at having become a part of the 'divinity' of time, space and matter, but also to see that we are, individually, and as a species, no more important than any other assembly of charged particles.

Birth is a moment of connection and disconnection - especially for a man, since men do not have the umbilical connection to their children as they did to their mothers and foremothers.

Samuel Beckett is good at addressing these issues, and is far more likely to say useful things about birth (from a male viewpoint) than Eliot. My personal reading of the pool is more concerned with the womb as a place of conception than of birth, and I believe that TS Eliot meant that too, since he longed for union far more than for separation.