A place of disaffection

19 Aug 2020 1:14 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)

By 4 February 1936, Eliot has written and set up in proof all of "Burnt Norton" except the last lines, but he does not send the poem to Hale until March 24 (just a week before its publication in his Collected Poems 1909-1935), telling her on 17 February he does not want her to see it until he is satisfied with his work. Meanwhile, several letters discuss the obscurity that he jokingly boasted of in his 13 January letter. Unintentional obscurity is a weakness, he explains on 5 March, but intentional obscurity may be justified if the poet can achieve his effects no other way. The experience that “Burnt Norton” deals with is obscure, and so the poem must be too. On 19 March, responding to her prompting to be more intelligible, he provides a fascinating explanation of some of the poem's more difficult lines. The passage beginning “Garlic and sapphires in the mud” (BN II) expresses a feeling that does not lend itself to rational description, he says. The feeling is of two beings together—not in an embodied way—for whom the world has the appearance of patterned sunlight (“We move above the moving tree/In light upon the figured leaf”). Life’s horrors, like war, continue unabated: “Below, the boarhound and the boar/Pursue their pattern as before.” There is a feeling of triumph (“the trilling wire in the blood”) after wounds (“inveterate scars”). The poem in general evokes an experience of temporarily escaping time through a feeling of unmoving, transcendent love—not the yearning of desire. He is particularly proud of the line “The crying shadow in the funeral dance.” The “funeral dance” is a primitive funeral ritual in which a hooded and robed figure performs a “loud lament”; the “disconsolate chimera” is drawn from Flaubert’s Temptation of St. Anthony, and the passage pertains to the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness and the temptation of despair. He hopes he has clarified the poem a little for her (although he has not yet sent her the text).

Eliot may have delayed sending her the love poem he promised in January not only because he was tinkering with the final lines, but also out of reluctance to show her passages whose obscurity does not conceal their pessimism, such as part III: “Here is a place of disaffection….Descend lower, descend only/Into the world of perpetual solitude…” This side of his thinking comes out clearly enough, however, in pained passages to Hale on the impossibility of marrying her. He broaches the subject on 21 February in a cold tone that contrasts with his previous love letters, telling her that they cannot hope to be united and ought to live as if it is an impossibility. They should not live for a future that probably will not come to pass. He would take any lawful opportunity to divorce Vivien, and he reassures Hale that he has never loved anyone but her, nor is he capable of loving anyone else. On 3 March he goes into further detail about the legal obstacles to divorce and loftily forgives her for not appreciating the Christian perspective on marriage. He hopes one day for her baptism. On 11 March, responding to something she has written, he worries that her love for him has been based on a misunderstanding. He will always continue to love her, but the thought that he may have harmed her causes him pain. On 13 March, he answers her forlorn letter by wishing that he could comfort her (she is struggling to find a job and short on cash, so there are plenty of reasons why she might express unhappiness). On 24 March, in a letter enclosing the corrected proofs of “Burnt Norton,” he objects to her characterization of his views as intolerant and oppressive. A Christian must believe in the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. He does not elevate himself as a better Christian than herself: Unitarians are not Christians. This is an impersonal matter of doctrine. Along the side of the text of “Burnt Norton,” Eliot types a comment to the effect that people believe they can all have their own philosophies of life, but the Word of God is universal. He also annotates the text lightly, indicating that “a place of disaffection” is the Piccadilly Railway Tube Station, and the “world of perpetual solitude” is the Dark night of the Soul.


  • 20 Aug 2020 3:47 AM | Paul Keers, TS Eliot Society (UK)
    The reference to the Piccadilly Railway means that the “place of disaffection”, where “Men and bits of paper” are “whirled by the cold wind”, is almost certainly the deep level now Piccadilly Line platform at Eliot’s local Gloucester Road underground station.
    Eliot was churchwarden at St Stephen’s, Gloucester Road, for 25 years; he lodged with the vicar of St. Stephen's in the period 1933–40, first at the nearby clergy house at No. 9 Grenville Place, and then around the corner at No. 11 Emperor's Gate.
    The original Piccadilly Line entrance building (https://images.ltmuseum.co.uk/images/max/34/9857434.jpg) still stands, but is now turned over to shops, and its booking hall (https://images.ltmuseum.co.uk/images/max/zs/i0000kzs.jpg) is no longer used; entrance today is via the larger District Line building, whose own platforms are at surface level. But the deeper Piccadilly Line platforms have been restored (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gloucester_Road_tube_station#/media/File:Gloucester_Road_Picadilly.jpg)
    with the tiling etc – and the cold wind – that would have existed in Eliot’s day.
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    • 20 Aug 2020 9:33 AM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)
      Thank you for these links, Paul; they really bring this place to life for us. Eliot mentions the Gloucester Road station several other times in his letters, once referring to a conversation he and Hale had on the station platform where she said that they would become more and more alike. This was one of their "moments." But since he would have gone there often, the passage in the poem may not refer to that "moment."
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