The previous post on the poem Burnt Norton may be found here
My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
It is a path “we did not take”. My words echo in your mind. We are entering into a profoundly private space, a space of shared memory such that as the poet thinks, he sees the memory as a shared space.
Then we come to the word “But.” We are entering into this shared memory. We have come to the door which was never opened at the end of the path which we never took. And as he is standing at the door, he stops short: Why am I doing this?
It is interesting that here the metaphor changes from a door at the end of a pathway to a bowl of rose-leaves so long undisturbed they are covered in dust. To open this memory is to open a door, but it is also to trouble something which has long been a peace.
The movement from a door – which is outside – to a bowl rose-leaves – which is inside makes for a dreamlike movement: it is a shift from one place to another, from one scene to another which have some sort of association which is not clear to one from the outside.
A pathway and a door have a certain usefulness and sturdiness which is completely absent from a bowl of rose-leaves. Someone has carefully placed the leaves in a bowl. They have grown dry and are so brittle that to touch them is to break them.
The image of the bowl of rose-leaves strikes me as something we would find in a house which has long been unoccupied, or at least a room so. If the door opens to a space we never entered, then the rose leaves are in a room to which we never returned.
And so he asks, Why? To what purpose am I disturbing this memory? I do not know.
When come to these memories, seemingly of regret: something undone, some place unvisited, what compels to visit them? The delicacy of the memory and the imagery together with the intimacy of the place seem to indicate a romantic regret so long undisturbed.
Since Eliot will not answer the question plainly, we are left with the question for ourselves: Why would, why does one disturb the memory, the speculation of what did not happen? Is it, If I had done that differently, I would be happier now?
He is also trying to awaken this memory in the other: My words in your memory are disturbing the dust.
The next movement in the poem is to advance into this “deception”, a land with “unheard music”, and phantoms that walk upon dead leaves “without pressure.”