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It’s A Wonderful Life


This is a place where “past and future are gathered” (69). It’s the real moment in your present life that all time points toward.

Haven’t you ever been dancing and totally forgotten about all your worries? If not, our speaker feels bad for you.

Finally, he says that this “still point” is not a place where we rise toward the divine or fall into the mud of modern emptiness. It is only the still point for its own sake, and it’s very hard for us to describe it, other than the fact that experiencing it is similar to dancing for its own sake. In this place, says the speaker, “there is only the dance” (73)

Well if you think about it, the toughest thing about the speaker’s spiritual quest is the fact that he’s looking for a sense of permanent significance in a modern world that’s all about change, all about the endless movement from past to present to future.

This place can’t be something we’re moving away from “nor towards” (64). In other words, you can’t think of this place using the opposites that you usually use to make sense of your world (i.e., good-bad, close-far, fast food-healthy food). It needs to be a place that exists beyond opposites.

Another good image the speaker uses to describe this combination of opposites is the image of a “dance” (66). He’s definitely taking this image from W.B. Yeats, who closes his own poem “Among School Children” with the line “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

Maybe in reading Eliot’s poetry, you can actually catch a glimpse of something beyond opposites: a “still point in the turning world.” This is a place that is neither moving nor still. We can’t call it “fixity” or stillness, says the speaker, because we can’t stop the world around us from moving. Also, we can’t say that the ideal he’s talking about is a place of movement toward or away from anything specific, like a goal. Instead, it’s a place where movement happens for its own sake in the present moment, like what you get with dancing.


At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,

Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

suggests that there is a deep connection between the flow of our bodily fluids and the movements of the entire universe. This is the kind of cosmic spiritual meaning that Eliot never really gives to human life in “The Waste Land.” But here, our speaker seems pretty enthusiastic about it.

This connection between our bodies and the stars is what allows us to “ascend” from the autumn mud into the glorious “summer in the tree” (57). In the previous few stanzas, the speaker has implied that humanity is stuck in the dying days of autumn, like a dead leaf in the mud of spiritual emptiness. But now, he says that our connection to the stars brings our spirits back upward, turning us back into leaves (and souls) that are physically and symbolically un-fallen.

From this new place of spiritual enlightenment up in the tree, we can still look down and the see animals like “the boarhound and the boar” chasing and killing each other. But these actions don’t seem pointless from our new perspective, since we know now that this “pattern” of nature is “reconciled among the stars” (63). In other words, the speaker’s telling us that everything (especially the cycle of life and death) is connected to the universe in a meaningful way, and realizing this can allow us to connect with something higher than ourselves


The dance along the arteryThe circulation of the lymph

Are figured in the drift of stars

Ascend to summer in the tree

We move about the moving tree

In light upon the figured leaf

And hear upon the sodden floor

Below, the boarhound and the boar

Pursue their pattern as before

But reconciled among the stars.

This point carries on from Section One of “Burnt Norton,” in which the speaker has been describing how our minds make us bogged down in thoughts of the past and future, which keeps us from focusing on the present.

Also, don’t forget that, whenever the speaker mentions mud, he’s almost definitely referring to a battlefield. There was just too much of an association between mud and World War One during Eliot’s time for readers to ignore this. The speaker also wrote “Burnt Norton” just before the outbreak of World War Two, and actually wrote the later quartets while the Germans were bombing England.

“The trilling wire in the blood” seems to continue in the vein of the speaker’s war imagery, making us think of the razor wire and communication lines that spanned the battlefields of Europe in the early twentieth century. To say that this wire is inside our blood, though, also suggests that we modern folks haven’t really gotten over the anxiety and terror of war, and that we are still living with a fear of mass destruction


Garlic and sapphires in the mudClot the bedded axle-tree.

The trilling wire in the blood

Sings below inveterate scars

Appeasing long forgotten wars.

There’s a sort of naïve innocence in focusing totally on the present. After all, adults have to think about their jobs, mortgage payments, etc., which usually involves a lot of scheduling and planning for the future. Isn’t this always the first thing your parents tell you once you hit your teenage years? “Well, you’ve had your fun as a kid, but now it’s time to think about the future.”

In the first section of “Burnt Norton,” the speaker might be suggesting that this attitude plays a big part in the general unhappiness of the modern world.

Now it sounds like the “them” that the bird has been telling us to find are a bunch of children playing and laughing in the autumn leaves. This image gives us a sense of childish innocence, which might actually be a good guideline for helping us with the task of focusing more on the present moment. Unlike adults, children totally live in the moment when they’re playing and laughing, and this is the quality we lose when we get older and start thinking more about the past and future.


Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind

Cannot bear very much reality.

Time past and time future

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.

More specifically, the lotus rising out of the mud traditionally symbolizes the human soul climbing out of its dirty obsession with material possessions, and up toward the spiritual goals of peace and enlightenment. 


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.

At this point, you’ve got the speaker giving you two options when it comes to existing in the world. One is a life where you always worry about a past and future that you can’t really change, and spend your whole life never paying attention to what’s in front of you. The other is a life where you do pay attention to what’s in front of you and enjoy the peacefulness and happiness that comes from that. But hey, if enlightenment were that easy, you wouldn’t have three more quartets to read…


If you’ve come across Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” you know that a lack of water always symbolizes infertility and a spiritual thirstiness that never gets satisfied. Just like the pool, the spirits of modern people are totally drained. The case is similar here in “Burnt Norton,” where the beautiful setting of the rose garden seems to change into an empty alley, a lame party, and finally a drained pool. 

If you’ve come across Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” you know that a lack of water always symbolizes infertility and a spiritual thirstiness that never gets satisfied. Just like the pool, the spirits of modern people are totally drained. The case is similar here in “Burnt Norton,” where the beautiful setting of the rose garden seems to change into an empty alley, a lame party, and finally a drained pool. 


There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,

Along the empty alley, into the box circle,

To look down into the drained pool.

 The only way that roses can have “the look of flowers that are looked at” (31) is for us to concentrate on really looking at them without letting our minds wander to other things, like what we’re going to do on Friday night. 

According to the speaker, there’s an “unheard music” in the shrubbery. We might wonder how we know the music is there if it’s unheard, but he’s talking about the music of nature itself. He’s talking about actual noise here but is calling it music, because music is something we’re supposed to appreciate, just like nature. Just like we’re supposed to listen to the noises that a bird makes, the speaker suggests that we should listen to the noises of the natural world carefully in order to root ourselves more firmly in the present moment. 

Whatever or whoever “they” are, the speaker likes to link them with autumn, the time of year when the leaves on the trees start to die. Along with the image of Burnt Norton, the speaker’s use of autumn brings up ideas of death and the coming of winter, both in the physical sense and the spiritual sense. Just as the leaves are dying and falling from the trees, the human spirit (or more specifically, your spirit) is starting to die.


There they were, dignified, invisible,Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,

In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air, 

And the bird called, in response to

The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,

And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses

Had the look of flowers that are looked at.

To see “them,” we need to go “Through the first gate” (22) and “Into our first world” (23). It’s not easy at first to realize what our “first world” is supposed to be. But if you look closely at how much the speaker focuses on the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings of nature in these passages, you realize that the “first world” is probably the world we face directly through our five senses, instead of the “second world” of our abstract thoughts, which takes us away from our five senses and the present moment in a way that the speaker doesn’t really like. ……….


Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,Round the corner. Through the first gate,

Into our first world, shall we follow

The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.

the speaker shows us that the purpose of his poetry is to remind us that our idea of happiness is nothing compared to the true bliss of spiritual peace, the same way that a dusty bowl of rose leaves isn’t the same as walking through an actual garden.


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