Burnt Norton

A day off walking with poet Peter Larkin, dedicated rambler and longtime English subject librarian at the University of Warwick. Peter writes dense experimental prose poems with the kind of gnarly syntax that trees might use if they could speak. He reminds me a little of Wordsworth’s Matthew.

Our excuse was a site visit to Burnt Norton in Gloucestershire, a manor house whose garden is the setting of the first of Eliot’s Four Quartets. The house is two miles north of the Cotswolds town of Chipping Camden, where we started the walk after imbibing an underpowered latte at a cafe on the High Street.

The weather was typical for spring this year, cool and overcast. We climbed up Dover Hill, which holds the annual Cotswold Olimpicks in June (a day of ye sport and revels begun in 1612, shut down by C17 Puritans, revived, halted by C19 enclosures, re-revived, etc., etc.). Our plan was to trespass on the manor grounds from the rear through a coppice wood. On the way we spotted typical signs of this not-so-spring & all: partridges grazing in a tilled field, a yellowhammer in the hedgerow, buzzards looping overhead.

Dover Hill

Eliot wrote “Burnt Norton” in 1934 after a visit with his old flame from Boston, Emily Hale. The first part of the poem describes a slightly spooky experience of visitation and children’s voices in the shrubberies, culminating in a mystical moment of insight as sunlight fills a pair of dry pools in the garden:

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.

Dry pools

“As we get older we do not get any younger”

“As we get older we do not get any younger”

One story is that the pools were drained after a child drowned in one of them. Another is that the manor got its name when its owner, an C18 baron, went mad and burned it down. Or maybe he did it for the insurance.

Burnt Norton house

Into the rose garden

Later it was abandoned by the ancestral family, but now it hosts a center for the literary arts, with annual summer get-togethers. We looked around and then headed for the nearby village of Aston Subedge for a pub lunch before walking back to Chipping Campden past neolithic mounds and banks of wild garlic in flower.

Garlic path

I’ll always be conflicted about Eliot, and this poem in particular (parodied so well by Henry Reed’s “Chard Whitlow“). It’s remained a touchstone long after I became fully aware of the poet’s religious, cultural and political views. Maybe, like the narrator of Norman Rush’s Mating, “apparently my fate is to resonate against my will to representatives of certain elitisms I intellectually reject.” But then, in inverted form, this may have been Eliot’s own fate too.


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