Explaining “Into the Rose-Garden”

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.
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. My words echo
Thus, in your mind (Burnt Norton, 1-15)

Burnt Norton (Rose Garden) - P7040004

The “Burnt Norton” manor house in Cotswold, south central England that T.S. Eliot drew his inspiration from. These are some of the beautiful rose-gardens.

If you have been following my blog, you might have noticed I changed its name. I decided this was best. My previous title The Popular Front seemed to outlive any meaning I had attached to it initially. This blog has changed from what I had originally intended it to be — from a (loosely) Marxist commentary on history, to a medium where I can write about the other humanities. All of these many topics intersect and the name The Popular Front, I feel, carries too much historical weight. It corners me to uphold certain political beliefs I had when I created it, some of which I do not hold now. I needed something more amenable, a title that didn’t signify an exact political ideology, and also one that was more curious than definitive. This isn’t to say that the bases of my politics are drastically different of course, but I am saying that the way I view my interests in relation to one another has changed, for the better. This has led to me to rename my blog to what it is now: Into the Rose-Garden, taken from the first part of T.S. Eliot’s poem Burnt Norton. 

Burnt Norton by T.S. Eliot is undoubtedly one of the greatest pieces of work I have ever read. It is part of a greater set of poems titled Four Quartets. Part I, especially, evokes a certain feeling (which I’ll get to in a bit) that I have yet to see captured in other literature so brilliantly. In the opening stanza of this poem (cited above the image), Eliot is merging two very crucial movements in intellectual history to reach an understanding of Truth. One is the European tradition of Romanticism which centered on ideals and realizing them. It was a very uplifting interpretation of human progress and historical necessity and was captured probably most famously in Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Casper David Friedrich (you’ve likely seen it before; if not, here is a link). One of the problems of Romanticism, however, was that in a finite world, how can you capture the fullness of all experiences and all we can achieve (i.e. the infinite)? The early romantic poet Novalis writes of this:

Time originates with displeasure. Thus, all displeasures [are] so long and all joy so short… displeasures are finite like time. Everything finite originates out of displeasure [1].

In other words, finality becomes the ultimate limitation to the Romanticist dream: time and eventual death are the ultimate equalizer. As it is said, “whether rich or poor, [all are] equal in death.”

The second school(s) of thought that are also at play here are also some elements of Buddhism. Eliot was clearly familiar with Buddhist thought because it’s outright mentioned in his other poem The Waste Land. Eliot’s conception of time in the first above-mentioned stanza of the poem is extremely similar to Buddhist conceptions of dependent origination — the idea that everything which exists, all beings, are intrinsically related to one another. Eliot applies this idea of dependent origination to also include time itself; a moment captures either all of time or none of it because all temporality is intimately linked together. These concepts of “past, present, and future” are merely our own abstractions and the only real reason we can make these distinctions is because of the present experience. Time can thus be viewed as a metaphorical “hall of mirrors” — where the present encapsulates all that has occurred and all of what is to come. It is through the reflection of the present that we can see all time. As the Buddhist philosopher Dogen rhetorically wrote in the 13th century:

Just reflect: right now, is there an entire being or an entire world missing from your present time, or not? [3].

The present is thus the most important moment there is. This makes all of our choices immediately relevant and if you read further down in the poem, T.S. Eliot writes:

Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate…

The poem goes on to describe what the bird (symbolic of Truth) leads Eliot to sees in his Manor. He moves from one thing to the next, following the bird, showing the continuity of all experience. Finally, the second section closes with:

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.

What exactly is this “rose-garden?” — I view it as the greatest manifestation of the Romantic ideal, where language breaks down into what we cannot ever describe; it is the infinite, the most perfect, and an encapsulation of all time; it is also the metaphorical escape from the limits of materialism. However, the irony is that the rose-garden, despite being the greatest manifestation of the infinite, must still be viewed through time. This is because we have no choice. It is “only through time [that] time [be conquered]” and thus it is only through the finite that we can step into, or even glimpse, the rose-garden. Therefore, I do not view entering the rose-garden as an actual choice between one event or another. The choice isn’t to go into the rose-garden or not. We can never fully comprehend this splendor (i.e. actually go into the rose-garden) because we are bound as finite beings. Because of this, we are forced to view it through time itself — which, if we understand what T.S. Eliot said in the beginning of the poem and its Buddhist origins — encompasses virtually everything we can conceive of. The rose-garden is thus present in virtually every situation, we just need to make the conscious choice to be aware of it and capture whatever part of it that we can. The bird even hints at this in these excellent lines where the “hidden” (a crucial word, here) laughing children in the leaves are comparable to the rose-garden itself:

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.

This symbolic potential for transcendence — the rose-garden– is present everywhere; held together by a radical conception of the present, the rose-garden is the interpolation of all time, of every possible narrative, and a symbol of infinitude. It captures a feeling that can be grasped but never fully realized, and as such its poetry more often resembles fervent religiosity rather than just an elaborate illustration of what life could be. 

I highly recommend reading the entire poem. I have only broken down this small portion of a greater masterpiece, but it definitely deserves a very detailed read. Regardless, this was the inspiration that brought me to alter the meaning of my blog, and even to reconsider all my writing in new light — my own literature should reorient itself to this end. And on that note, after a long hiatus on this blog, I would like to make it active again.

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