Burnt Norton and the Box Circle


Reading Thomas Howard's Dove Descending and finding the insights helpful in opening up Four Quartets. Obviously in so short a work it is impossible to be exhaustive, but I thought I'd share an insight that came as I was reading the explanation of the "box circle" that occurs in the first division of "Burnt Norton."

Howard offers a very fine explanation of the significance of the box circle, including it as both the hedge and the "box seats" of a theatre performance. But, perhaps because of space, he left out some details that I think add to the density and texture of the poem.

The lines in question refer to a movement in the poem to a garden:

from Four Quartets--Burnt Norton
T.S. Eliot

So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light. . .

We have been called into this "first garden" by the singing of a thrust. Entering we have found it filled with "presences." Now we are moving deeper into the mystery of time encompassed in the garden. The box circle refers to the hedge of boxwood in a formal garden--a formal designed essence. But what Howard fails to mention, and what I believe to be critically important is that the "box circle" often occurs at the center of the formal garden. It is set so that the person looking from the upper story of a house overlooking the garden will seen at it's exact center a circle inscribed in a square, usually with four entrances in the center of the side of the square.

Also, I think there is reason to believe that this "box circle" is an oblique reference to "squaring the circle." That is, using the primitive instruments of geometry (straight-edge and compass) attempting to construct a square that has exactly the same area as a circle of given radius. This is an impossibility unless we cheat and use a rational approximation of pi. And what Eliot is telling us in this box circle is the impossibility of abiding in this perfect garden for reasons that he will go on to articulate. One of which is eerily reflected in The Haunting of Hill House:

"Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality."

So, I add this little aside to a really fine and interesting study of the poem. Using Howard's insights as a leg up, I'm finding passage through this poem a much more reasonable proposition that it was some years ago. Also, I think this is one of those poems that you have to have lived to begin to understand. This pining and nostalgia cannot make a lot of sense to most twenty-year-olds.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on March 30, 2006 9:38 AM.

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