T.S.Eliot argued that the biographical details of the poet were irrelevant to the understanding of the poetry, and yet his own poetry is so deeply personal that it often remains obtuse until illuminated by an understanding of his personal life. Eliot’s masterpiece—The Four Quartets—are the perfect example, and Burnt Norton—the first of the four—reveals its profound and beautiful meaning as Eliot’s own pilgrimage is unveiled.Eliot’s great tragedy was his precipitous and disastrous marriage in 1915 to the vivacious, but unstable Vivienne Haigh Wood. In 1933, after eighteen years of torture for both of them, Eliot travelled to the United States to accept the Charles Eliot Norton professorship at Harvard. When he returned to England, he effected a formal separation from Vivienne.
During his year-long visit to the United States in 1932-33, Eliot spent time with an old college friend who had written to him a few years previously. She was a college drama teacher named Emily Hale. During his Christmas break he traveled to California where she was teaching at Claremont College. Eliot did a few lectures, visited with the college folk, went sailing with Emily, and renewed their friendship. In every respect, Hale was the perfect match for Eliot. From the same Boston Brahmin background, she was unstuffy, intelligent, pretty, and witty. Eliot biographer Lyndall Gordon chronicled Eliot’s relationship with Hale and agrees with Helen Gardner that Hale’s influence and inspiration was as vital to Eliot’s later, hopeful poetry as Vivienne’s haunted hysteria was to The Waste Land.
Eliot returned from the United States and separated from Vivienne. The next year Emily Hale visited Europe for an extended period. During her visit, Eliot took her to visit the site of an ancient manor-house in the Cotswold hills named Burnt Norton. The original manor-house was burnt down by its owner, Sir William Keyt, who died in the fire. Eliot’s visit to the site with Emily Hale sparked his reflections on time, choice, and the designs of providence. Burnt Norton was composed in 1935—the year Hale returned to the United States without her friend T.S.Eliot. Knowing the timing and background of his visit makes his words resonate with poignancy:
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
The rest of the poem is Eliot’s sad musings on what might have been, but which now never can be. Did Eliot see the tragic Sir William Keyte as a symbol of his own plight? The great manor-house was burnt and the owner consumed. Eliot’s own fateful choice to marry Vivienne was similarly self-destructive. Furthermore, Eliot could not marry Emily Hale because a few short years before the renewal of their acquaintance, Eliot had been baptized, and with his acceptance of the Anglo-Catholic faith he had also accepted the church’s marriage discipline. Knowing that he can never marry Emily as long as Vivienne was alive, he ponders nostalgically what love might have been, but which now never can be.
The moment in the rose garden becomes an Eden of innocent love that might have been with Eliot and Emily, and from the contemplation of this possibility he moves into the deeper reality of contemplation, in which time is suspended, the desire for human love is subsumed into a higher mysticism, and the loss of earthly love is compensated by the chaste sublimity of immersion into the present moment.
Eliot’s poetry defies smug explanation or easy moralizing, but if a message can be wrenched from the poetry of Burnt Norton it is this—that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that awaits us. The loss, regret, shame, and humiliation that we suffer because of our bad choices are gathered up into the radiant reality of the present moment. In that moment the power of providence is realized, and the grittiness of grace is vouchsafed. Despite “the expense of spirit in a waste of shame,” despite the wrong choices, the tragic regrets and the good path that was never taken, the Divine Providence is more powerful, and in the contemplation of that reality—alive in the present moment—the small, white bird of hope alights and waits.
When Emily Hale returned to the United States without a commitment from Eliot, she suffered a nervous collapse prompting him to visit the United States to see her. They corresponded over the coming years, and when he unexpectedly married Valerie Fletcher in 1957, Emily Hale’s breakdown was so profound that she had to be hospitalized. She kept her letters from Eliot, and they are preserved in the Princeton University library, not to be made public until the year 2020.
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