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T.S. Eliot is a poet who requires slow, careful consideration. His poems in the small volume Four Quartets are fascinating. I have had some realization from this or that part, but I have never taken the time to truly understand the poems. And thus, I will parade my ignorance as I think this through, beginning with the opening lines of Burnt Norton.

The title itself refers to an English Manor. It seems that it got its name “burnt” due to the drunken depression of a former owner. William Keyt married Anne. However, a dalliance with Anne’s maid Molly, resulted in Keyt losing his wife. It seems he built quite a house nearby for Molly. According to a story in the Daily Mail (which includes some fine pictures of the house), “In 1741, abandoned by Molly and after days spent drinking, he set fire to the new house, which was destroyed, killing him with it. The fire was so powerful that one side of the original house was also scorched, hence the property became known as Burnt Norton.”

Mr. Eliot spent time at this property and named this poem after the same. The poem begins:

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.

He starts here with these abstractions on time as if time were a substantial thing that could segregated: First, there is time present. Now time is a curious thing because it has no existence as just their: rather it denotes a relationship between things. And just like space, I can only occupy one “time” at a time. 

So we have now. 

We also have past, that is what has gone on before. But in what way to do we have past time: as a memory? In its present effects?

And if the past is affecting the present, then it must be true that the present – when we come to the future — will then be past and will then have its effect upon the future (which will then be present). 

Note the use of the word “present” in the second line: It denotes a certain relationship: Object X is present with Object Y: there is a proximity to it. Past and present time are there each in proximity to time future. 

But as soon as they are in proximity to time future, the future is no longer “future”, it is now the “present” and the present we began with is now past. .

And so when present and past are “present” with the future, the future is now present and the present is now past. 

We need also consider, in what way are the past and present “present” with the future? Does he mean that they are somehow substantial entities that can in this or that place, as if there were a box labeled “time present” which was carted to time future? 

But as soon as a moment is past it is unretrievable. 

Or does he mean that the movement of time is the movement of potentialities or causation over time? I drop a ball in the present which then bounces in the “future”: without the present action of dropping there would be future action of bouncing. 

There is also a tentativeness of the whole, “perhaps present”: has not necessarily arrived at his conclusion, just a potentiality. 

Then he turns the analysis around: If the past and present are “present” with the future, is the future already there in some manner in the past? When I drop the ball, the falling and bouncing – both in the future – are already in a manner determined. The future is already contained in the past: it is there present, even though not fully unpacked:

And time future contained in time past.

Then if the future is already there in the past, has there been any movement? There then is no real past or future, since each is present in the other. This leaves us with an eternal present:

If all time is eternally present

This whole movement of thought is ambiguous on a point of the word “present”.  Things may be present, because they are substantial proximity to one-another. My dog is present with me: my dog is in proximity to me. 

These categories of time may be present in one another as a matter of potential and expression: The ball bouncing was already ‘present’ when the ball was dropped. 

He seems to move between these various uses of the word “present” (right now, proximity, potential-expression) which creates the oddness of the language.

But he concludes then with the possible conclusion that there is actual movement of time: there is only a constant “present,” because the future is the outworking of the past and the past contains the future. 

This brings us to our final point:

All time is unredeemable.

Redemption: what could be meant by this. A clue may come from noting that Eliot’s consideration past, present, future seems to be developed from Augustine’s notes on time in Confessions. For instance:

I know it to be time that I measure: and yet do I neither measure the time to come, for that it is not yet: nor time present, because that is not stretched out in any space: nor time past, because that is not still. What then do I measure? Is it the times as they are passing, not as they are past? 


Who therefore can deny, that things to come are not as yet? Yet already there is in the mind an expectation of things to come. And who can deny past things to be now no longer? But yet is there still in the mind a memory of things past. And who can deny that the present time hath no space, because it passeth away in a moment? But yet our attentive marking of it continues so that that which shall be present proceedeth to become absent. The future therefore is not a long time, for it is not: but the long future time is merely a long expectation of the future. Nor is the time past a long time, for it is not; but a long past time is merely a long memory of the past time.

Augustine of Hippo, St. Augustine’s Confessions, Vol. 2, ed. T. E. Page and W. H. D. Rouse, trans. William Watts, The Loeb Classical Library (New York; London: The Macmillan Co.; William Heinemann, 1912), 269 & 277.

The temptation would be to try to explain Eliot by Augustine as if the poem were merely putting the Confessions into verse. But Eliot is not trying to recite Augustine, but rather to think through a problem. He may conclude as Augustine, but will do his own thinking. Note again the “perhaps” line 2: he is stating nothing with certainty. 

He is thinking about a problem raised by Augustine concerning time. What then does Eliot mean by the question of time being redeemable? At the least, there is an issue here of change: to redeem a thing is to change its state. It was in one state and then comes to a new state. 

What precisely Eliot means by redemption in this instance is not yet clear.