Places mattered to T S Eliot. For each of his `Four Quartets’, a specific, named place figures as their title, and plays a considerable role in their content and orientating their meaning. Going to these places has become a major part of my reading, reception and understanding of the poems. Somehow, the experience of having visited East Coker, where Eliot is buried, and Little Gidding, where he went while a visiting fellow at Magdalene College in early 1940s, did change the way I viewed these works, even though I have been familiar with them for many years. The `Dry Salvages’ is less accessible – of the coast of New England. `Burnt Norton’ was the outstanding location in Britain I hadn’t got to. So in a visit to the Cotswolds I thought I would track it down.
This whole exercise proved to be a journey somewhat different to how I had expected. To me, up until a day or so ago, the first of the `Four Quartets’ has always been somewhere I have associated with a neat, well-tended garden – the garden with the pool that figures in its first section, where there are roses, lotus leaves, a sort of still, isolated peacefulness. Around this, Eliot’s meditation on time and memory weaves itself calmly. The lines are too well known to need requoting. But they often go through my mind when I go into gardens, particularly if they are highly decorative, and almost empty, and pervaded by peacefulness and serenity. These places figure to me as ones that typify a sort of mythical Englishness of the kind that it seems Eliot refers to a lot, not directly, but in the way he adopted the character and assumed habits of someone very English, despite himself being American.
In my imagination, Burnt Norton was going to be an archetypically well mannered, gorgeous Cotswold place – walled gardens, roses in many colours, well-tended grass, the sound of running water, gentle, into a pond with water lilies on its surface, and birds gently singing in the background. Precisely the kind of place, in fact, I had found the day before, in the Abbey grounds next to the main church in Malmesbury – carp in pools, nicely cut grass, the competing smells of flowers nestled kindly against each other. A place to tend and heal ones mental scars, and wind time down to nothing. And indeed the online searches for Burnt Norton, the manor house and its estate near to Chipping Camden, showed a place not unlike that – but from this point, everything unravelled.
First off, the visit with Emily Hail, the woman he had a long term, somewhat tortuously intense but probably Platonic relationship during a walk in 1934 when she was staying at Chipping Camden and he came to visit, was when the estate was run down, the house deserted, and they were trespassers into a forgotten and derelict location. The pool he looked into, the gate he went through, the plants he saw – which figure in the poem – were not neat. They had long since fallen into neglect. No doubt weeds prevailed. The gate would have been rusty. The pool water dirty and clogged with plants. The place would not have been remotely domesticated or aesthetic. It would have been impressively evocative, of former glories and departed wealth.
Secondly, though Eliot did not know this, the place had been the site of tragedy – of the main house, built by the owner a century and a half before for his lover which had then burned down, and of tales of other family tragedies, even of people being drowned in the pool Eliot looked down into . Norton House bore the name `Burnt’ because of this. There was a reason why it had fallen into disuse. There were heavy, deep memory traces here.
Thirdly, today, despite the fact that there must be many other people that come here, it is not remotely an easy place to find. I had three goes. It is not visible from the road – indeed, it is not clearly visible as far as I can find anywhere. A wall of trees on the escarpment close it in. This is odd for a building that, even in its reduced state, was meant to be looked at or at least looked out from. There is something deeply unsettling, but also moving, about dealing with somewhere that so clearly does not want the world to come in. Nothing as crude as `Private – Do Not Enter’ signs. But winding private roads that make you feel uneasy and wary as you travel along them, waiting for someone to crop up and start ordering you to clear off. This didn’t happen. But the house made its inaccessibility clear, and did it well enough that the most I got to see was the side buildings. It has, in recent years, been renovated. Its gardens are now no longer in such a sad state. But I certainly failed to get sight of them.
What I did get though was a far better understanding of what Eliot was writing about – memories that sit, static, but which when they are reawakened can come alive in the present, unsettling, accusing, and troubling; a garden long forgotten where intruders seem to find things that speak to them of what once was, in the present, into the future, coming part of their lives, reawakening their own sense of places in themselves which were neglected, secluded, forgotten, troubled by turbulent memories. And this notion of a secret love that wanted to remain secret – which was very much the case with Eliot and Hail. Only recently have her collection of letters been released, years after the death of both of them.
Eliot is a ghostly, disturbing figure when you come to Burnt Norton – sort of looking out from within the trees at you, doing all he can to evade and conceal. The poem `Burnt Norton’ is a far more disturbing one now I have come to the place that inspired it. No doubt if I had had easy access to the nicely refurbished and tended gardens that apparently exist behind the lines of trees that guard them the experience wouldn’t have been so unsettling. But I am glad that it was this way. Burnt Norton, the place, clearly didn’t want me to get into it. `Burnt Norton’, the poem, has, however, opened up like never before. That really is the reason why one makes journeys like this. They always reveal something. They always leave remnants, after you have gone.