Burnt Norton House
The turn-off to Mickleton is easy to miss while driving down from Aston Subedge over the B4035. All the attention is focused on the beautiful road, which climbs up the Cotswold-plateau to Chipping Campden.
It was a late afternoon in July 1991 just after the longest day. The sun still gave its warmth at this time of the day. The first road to the left directed to Attlepin Farm. The road festooned through the park-like landscape. A small ‘Private‘-sign was ignored as a consequence of the importance of the mission. For this was not a simple tourist outing. This was a visit to Burnt Norton House, a place of inspiration for the first poem in T.S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’.
Sometimes there was an occasional visitor, the caretaker of the house told me. He even kept a visitor’s book for the select adepts of T.S. Eliot, who found the road to the house and wanted to taste its atmosphere. I signed the book and went along ‘the door that never opened‘ – into the garden – that famous rose garden with the ‘huge tree with figured leaves‘. It was all still there, presumably in the same serene quiescence where Eliot found it in the thirties. Something strange was going on with the time: Time present and time past. Are both perhaps present in time future? And time future contained in time past.
These opening lines of Eliot’s poem (ELIOT, 1963) became reality. Look: on the heavy stone styles of the entrance to the rose garden were four squares, who (probably) provided the name of the poem. This was living history, at arm length (fig. 2).
Fig. 2 – Marten Kuilman at Burnt Norton House. Visit: 19 July 1991.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage
which we did not take
Towards the door
we never opened
Into the rose garden
(T.S. Eliot – Four Quartets, 1944)
To be honest: it wasn’t a seasoned T.S.Eliot-connoisseur, who trotted through the fields of the Cotswold. I had recently come across the title of the poem of T.S. Eliot in the library of Birmingham. And I didn’t even see the poem itself, but my attention was drawn to a reference heading an article of Eleanor SIMMONS GREENHILL (1954). She wrote over ‘The Child in the Tree‘ and used a quotation of Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ as an introduction. It was only this title, which put me on the trail of the four-parted poem and made me – in due course – an admirer of Eliot’s work.
That very moment on the edge of the Cotswold, in the last glow of the sun descending in the west, I knew – for a short, but momentous long instant – that Paradise still existed. That the ‘Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil‘ (fig. 3) was just a part of Paradise. Besides this crude division, there was a rose garden and other figured trees, who threw their shadows onto the grass.
Fig. 3 – The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Seven Deadly Sins is seen here in an illustration from Boccaccio’s ‘De Claris Mulieribus’ (Louvain, 1487). The symbolism of the (Judeo-Christian) creation-myth is strongly influenced by the two-fold way of thinking. Good and evil, God and Satan, man and woman are part of a world in which a division of incompatible opposites is highlighted (and in which, without saying the first item is good and the second is bad). The acceptance of this Christian imagery had a strong hold on the subsequent development of the cultural history of Europe.
HENINGER (1974) draws an interesting comparison between the world of Dante in his ‘Divina Commedia’ (1304 – 1321) and Eliot in ‘The Waste Land‘ (1922). The world view of Dante (1265 – 1321) is geocentric, within limits and based on order. This view is emphasized in the tripartite of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, recalled in hundred ‘cantos‘ and written in the ‘terza rima‘ (HARDT, 1973; LOOS, 1984).
Eliot (1888 – 1965) accumulates fragments, parts of personal memory. The parts do not seem to be ordered or bound by limitations. In the ‘Four Quartets‘ (1935 – 1942) is a certain order, but this is of a different character than in Dante’s poem. WHITMAN (1958/1963, p. 107) speaks of ‘some dross, a residue of unavoidable discursiveness which one may as well treat as frankly unpoetic.’
The four locations in Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ are Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages en Little Gidding. They can be viewed as four elementary stages in the communication with the world (GARDNER, 1978).
1. Burnt Norton is the Garden of Eden, the Paradise, the rosegarden.
2. East Coker is a village in Somerset near Yeovil. This stage is concerned with cyclical movement of the seasons and birth and dead (fig. 4).
Fig. 4 – East Coker, a village in Somerset near Yeovil. Photo: Marten Kuilman. Visit: 10 May 1994.
3. The Dry Salvages are to be found near Cape Ann (U.S.A.), where the incarnation took place (fig. 5).
Fig. 5 – The Dry Salvages are seen in the far distance between the the island and the mainland. Photo: Marten Kuilman. Visit: 8 Sept. 1998.
4. Little Gidding is a village in Cambridgeshire, where Nicolas Ferrar founded a Christian commune in the seventeenth century, close to the world’s end (fig. 6) (DRABBLE, 1979, p. 35):
There are other places
Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city –
But this is the nearest, in place and time
Fig. 6 – Little Gidding in Cambridgeshire (England). The fourth and last stage in Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’, described as ‘a place where prayer has been valid.’ Here the quadrilogue finds its end and beginning again. Photo: Marten Kuilman. Visit: 28 Sept. 1996.
For Eliot this is the place where personal history will be left behind and replaced by a cosmic being for which ‘history is a pattern, of timeless moments’. The quadrilogue ends with the disappearance of the elements and a return to the beginning:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
This is a picture of the human existence in a cyclic world view. Our presence is a continuous voyage to unknown lands. All we have to do is use our eyes and senses and get hold of some sort of map to lead the way. Or, like HARRIES (1983) put it: ‘Reflection on the facts alone does not suffice to let us understand these facts as parts of a meaningful whole. That requires a creative reading born of faith or love.’
ELIOT, T.S. (1963). Collected Poems 1909 – 1962 (Pp. 187 – 223: ‘Four Quartets’). Faber & Faber, London/Boston. ISBN 0 571 10548 3
GARDNER, Helen L. (1978). The Composition of Four Quartets. Faber & Faber, London/Boston. ISBN 10 0571110487
HARDT, Manfred (1973). Die Zahl in der Divina Commedia. Linguistica et Litteraria, 13, Atheneüm Verlag, Frankfurt/M.
HARRIES, Karsten (1983). Thoughts on a Non-Arbitrary Architecture. Pp. 9 – 20 in: Perspecta, 20. The Yale Architectural Journal. Inc., and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
HENINGER Jr., S.K. (1974). Touches of Sweet Harmony. Pythagorean Cosmology and Renaissance Poetics. The Huntington Library, San Marino, California. LCCC 73-78049
LOOS, Erich (1984). Der logische Aufbau der ‘Commedia’ und die Ordo-Vorstellung Dantes. Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, Mainz/Franz Steiner Verlag GmbH, Wiesbaden. ISBN 3-515-04191-5
SIMMONS GREENHILL, Eleanor (1954). The Child in the Tree. A Study of the Cosmological Tree in Christian Tradition. Pp. 323 – 371 in: Tradition: studies in ancient and medieval history, thought and religion. New York, Fordham University Press, Vol. X, 1954.
WHITMAN, Cedric H. (1958/1965). Homer and the Heroic Tradition. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts/W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. LCCC 58-7252/ISBN 0393003132