- "At the still point":T. S. Eliot, Dance, and Modernism
T. S. Eliot's "Burnt Norton" initially appeared in 1936, but eventually this poem became the first of the Four Quartets (1943), a cycle expressing the poet's most mature meditations on time and the timeless. The Quartets confirmed Eliot's already well-established position as a modernist poet, but they also suggested a new sense of spiritual resolution, in part reflecting his journey from religious doubt to newfound faith through his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927.1 Throughout his work Eliot had described moments of sublime spirituality, but these do not usually endure within the framework of the early poetry.2 In "Burnt Norton," however, he embarked on a sustained exploration of time and transcendence. In a striking invocation of this theme, the speaker alludes to dance as representative of the human experience of timelessness:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,There would be no dance, and there is only dance.I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.(Eliot 1952, 119)
Eliot's definition of dance seems paradoxical, claiming that it is neither still nor in motion, yet both. Its spatial and temporal locations are indefinable and unfixed; the place to which Eliot refers cannot be named—the still point is simply there—but the speaker cannot say where. It is both of the body and bodiless, and as such seems not to exist in language nor [End Page 31] within the limits of human teleology. It is only to be experienced during an atemporal moment of refined physical and mental activity. The speaker of the poem and his companion ("we") have experienced such a moment fleetingly, but in his struggle to articulate it he can only define it negatively by telling us what it is not. Its very constitution resists definition—the action associated with dance suggests a moment of existence outside time.3
Eliot here distinguishes his use of dance from those of his immediate literary predecessors and contemporaries who tended to fall back on dance as a means of metaphorizing poetry, as in Mallarmé's claim for dance as "poésie par excellence" (2003, 207)4 or Yeats's explorations of the creative act ("How can we know the dancer from the dance?" [1982, 245]5). Instead, Eliot takes into consideration the very material of dance itself, saying something about its constitution as corporeal form and its internal properties. Yet he goes further than this. He equates the activity of dance with a finely poised equilibrium of physiological and intellectual states that most closely resembles the modernist sublime he gestured toward throughout his poetry. Using this passage as a focus for discussion, I shall explore Eliot's use of dance to illustrate a modernist perspective on the sublime, examining the ways in which he transformed his firsthand spectatorship of performance dance into literary material and into an expression of transcendence in this poem. I not only show the importance to Eliot of the work of the Russian dancer and choreographer Léonide Massine but also suggest the ways in which the processes of composition of Eliot's late work may have been inspired in part by the work of the British choreographer Antony Tudor, whose innovations in dramatic ballet were performed in London in the 1930s. Turning finally to the transatlantic nature of Eliot's work, and with reference to Martha Graham, I suggest a reciprocal relationship, showing some of the surprising ways in which Eliot's advocacy of a "still point" contributed to choreographic innovations in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century.
Eliot's knowledge of dance has been extensively outlined by critics such as Nancy Hargrove (1997), Terri Mester (1997), and Amy Koritz...