Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
I, lines 11-14.
Having raised the question of “what might have been” (from line 6), Eliot takes us into that “might have been”. In these lines he traces out how we get from “the present.”
Since we are traveling there, his description of this place here takes on a new depth of meaning. In line 7, it is an “abstraction”; thus it has some substance as an idea. In line 8, it is remaining and “a perpetual possibility.” At first read, it is easy to take “remaining a perpetual possibility” to be
Thus, there is a reality to the “might have been.”
Here, beginning in line 11, there is a movement from the present to this “abstraction” which is remaining perpetually.
We can confirm this is the event which did not happen in verse 12, “Down the passage which we did not take.” This is the thing which did not happen.
The passage creates a hurried movement: It begins with “footfalls echo”. There is a sense of someone walking, but only as heard. That would intimate the walking is taking place nearby but out of sight.
That place is then defined as “Down the passage”. Next comes “towards the door”. The use of “towards” rather than near, creates the sense of movement.
The door opens onto a rose-garden.
The speed is created by the inability to ever see who is walking. We hear the sound and move to the passage. But when we get to the passage, the sound is now moving toward the door. And as soon as we recognize the door, it has opened onto a rose garden. The effect is mesmerizing.
The place of all of this is the memory: There was a place we did not go, a door we did not open, a garden we had not visited.
This then makes for a bit of a paradox: If it is a memory it is something which did happen. But, this never happened. Memory could be, “I remember seeing a passage I did not take.” But the memory cannot hear footfalls which never echoed.
This would then, (1) this is a memory of a constructed event. There is a place which he has returned more than once: he thought of what would have happened had he opened the door to the rose garden. He is now remembering his “speculation.” (2) “Memory” is a trick: he is experiencing this construction as if it were a memory. By constructing what never happened, he is pretending that it did happen in fact.
My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
The plot becomes stranger: The footfalls which echoed are now the words which echo – not in my memory, but your mind. We have now entered into an extraordinarily intimate space: His memory of this door never opened are words – were these words never spoken? Are these words now being spoken? Was there an event which did not happen and of which they both spoke?
Does this mean, “You remember our conversation, when I told you of how I did not go into the rose garden?” For the poet, the memory is of the walking through the door. For “you” (whoever that might be), it is my words about that.
It is unclear what words are issue: Is the poems the words which now echo in memory, but stirring up memory?
Whatever is happening, the rather abstraction discussion of time in the first lines has moved the most intimate of spaces, a shared memory of what did not happen.
Since this memory of not happening is being rehearsed, it seems to anticipate a regret.