I'm reading Burnt Norton by T.S. Eliot. I have read its background (that manor house theme) and a few months ago read Murder in the Cathedral (as Wikipedia says says, "He created it while working on his play Murder in the Cathedral"). Despite these things I find the poem to be not making the ordinary and perceptible sense. If we look at these lines

Time present and time past.
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present.
All time is unredeemable

It may mean that, "present" and "past" is contained in "future" and "future" is contained in "past" and if all the "time" is present "now" then everything is going to be wicked. But it feels like I have not understood it, it should feel like something else.

Can someone tell me how this poem ought to be understood? (I know everyone gets their own meaning out of every work of literature but I should at least be able to get my own meaning.) For example, how did Ezra Pound see this poem? (If no records or mentions are available then an answer will also be accepted).

  • 1
    I honestly do not think that "how this poem ought to be understood" question can be answered in the format of Stack Exchange. This is a very, hmm, sophisticated poem. There are loads of analysis attempts, some of them can surely be found on the Net.
    – tum_
    Aug 16, 2020 at 20:41
  • Have a look at this attempt, for example. The author is not a professional (in the field of literature), so it's just his personal understanding. OTOH, the fact he's not a professional makes his article easy to understand))
    – tum_
    Aug 16, 2020 at 21:32
  • @tum_ If you don’t mind terribly, can I invite you to a chat room where I can ask some little questions? As you have read the poem, and the analysis of the link (that you gave) that you have given suggests that you spent a good amount intellect in this poem. So, my request is reasonable but after all, it’s only a humble request. Aug 17, 2020 at 13:20
  • oh, no, no - looks like my comments gave a wrong impression )) Yes, I have read the poem in a couple of translations, and, once I saw your question, I read it in English. I never, said, however, that I understood it, let alone could explain it :) I've googled for an hour or so yesterday and browsed through a number of commentaries and analysis articles (again, mostly in my language) - and all this combined led to form my opinion that the poem can hardly be explained in the format of the SE. Sorry if my comments were not clear about this - they have to be short, so I had to cut corners.
    – tum_
    Aug 17, 2020 at 20:30
  • So, whatever little questions you have, I suggest you add them to your original question by using the Edit link and let the whole community have their say. Not much activity here so far on this one but at some point someone more knowledgeable might step in.
    – tum_
    Aug 17, 2020 at 20:32

1 Answer 1


I think my answer here should give you a pretty clear idea of what Burnt Norton is about.

Although some minor details (for that matter analytical tools as well) might be open to interpretation, the major motifs and themes are pretty well known and well discussed. It is about Christianity, clearly, unambiguously. Even in Eliot's time, a lot of commentaries and criticisms focused on the religiosity of the poem.

George Orwell comments on the poem:

So long as man regards himself as an individual, his attitude towards death must be one of simple resentment. And however unsatisfactory this may be, if it is intensely felt it is more likely to produce good literature than a religious faith which is not really felt at all, but merely accepted against the emotional grain... Eliot's escape from individualism was into the Church, the Anglican Church as it happened. (All Art Is Propaganda: Critical Essays)

Let's look at your cited lines

And time future contained in time past.

The reason the future is contained in the past is that the choice has been made and our path has been chosen for us. He is talking about the one most critical moment in human history, according to Christian cosmology: the fall of man. Of course you could interpret this part also as a mediation on our mundane life. Sure that is not a problem. But it should be noted the poem was written right after Eliot converted to Anglicanism and at a time when he was waxing religious.

Both the past and the present may be present in the future because the present is viewed by Eliot as a fixed point onto which both the past and the future fold. Also later in the poem he goes

Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.

Time is continuous, and the past and the future cannot be separated from the present. To be conscious does not give us enough to be in time, because by being in time, immersed in time, we need to be aware of the past and the future. And only by achieving that can we call to mind, understand, and appreciate the moment we had in the Garden of Eden, a moment "in the arbour where the rain beat", and a "moment in the draughty church at smokefall". A total recall, if you will. Thus "Only through time time is conquered".

  • I have read other analysis and explanations but none of them are as clear and “seemingly true” as yours. Aug 22, 2020 at 14:16

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