'MY parents didn't understand it,' says Lord Harrowby, tottering to his feet. 'They thought it was dreadful,' says his wife, Jeannette, 'and couldn't understand a word of it. They were terribly Victorian.'
The Earl and Countess of Harrowby have agreed to show me around their garden at Burnt Norton in Gloucestershire. As for the poem by T S Eliot which the garden inspired, Lord Harrowby admits he doesn't understand it any more than his parents did. Modern poetry isn't really his thing. The Countess finds it 'absolutely fascinating', however. As we set off, she is quoting the poem aloud to get us in the mood.
Skirting the big house - a modest Jacobean farmhouse - we arrive at a rolling lawn, rising up to meet a circle of tall yew trees. The head gardener, John Izod, is waiting for us, leaning on his walking stick. A fat cat rubs itself against his legs. We set off to the right, past the ruined orangery and settle on a low brick wall with a panoramic view. 'You can see for 40 miles from up here,' says Mr Izod. 'We call this the poop deck.' A discussion breaks out about which of the gates T S Eliot used one August afternoon in 1934 when he wandered in for a spot of creative trespassing. Lord Harrowby argues for the woodland gate. 'We get coachloads of Japanese visitors to the garden,' reports the Countess. 'They mill about all over the place, holding their poetry books.' In a gesture which the feline-loving poet would have enjoyed, the cat jumps on to the wall and waves its bottom at us.
Walking uphill past a carpet of vivid bluebells, we arrive at the woodland gate. Mr Izod sucks his teeth at a bed of deer-nibbled shrubs. At least the famous roses are safe - neatly pruned and ready to burst into bloom:
. . . for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at
There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
Back in 1934, Eliot had been staying as the guest of American friends in the nearby village of Chipping Campden. In his biography, T S Eliot (Penguin pounds 7.99), Peter Ackroyd suggests that the poet was accompanied by Emily Hale, a close friend, when he stumbled across Burnt Norton. Some of her friends believed the couple to be unofficially engaged. Unfortunately for Eliot, he was still married to Vivien, his first wife, at the time. Vivien was either mentally ill, as some experts believe, or suffering from a hormone imbalance and the effects of living with Eliot - as the film Tom and Viv posits. In any case, Eliot was keeping out of her way at the time. Having decided to end 18 disastrous years of marriage by letter, he was keeping his new address from his wife. His great fear was of her turning up on his doorstep for an emotional showdown.
It is tempting to speculate upon his frame of mind as he investigated Burnt Norton's mysterious and semi-wild garden. Guilt at his abandonment of Vivien perhaps, mixed with gratitude for his hosts and musings from his new-found religious faith. Wandering in and out of the rose garden, he must have noticed the giant Acer pseudoplatanus variegatum, a variegated sycamore with 'light upon the figured leaf'. His path must then have taken him along a steep bank overlooking the pond:
So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
Eliot's pool is still dried up. We stand on the edge, looking down into cracked and mossy concrete. This bizarre garden feature, Lord Harrowby says, was the brainchild of his grandfather, who cherished the illusion that it might teach his children to swim. 'It was never a success; the sides of the pond were too sloping and the children couldn't cling on while they were learning.' We ponder what Eliot meant by the dry pool being suddenly 'filled with water out of sunlight', and then:
. . . a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.
Go said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Some critics have pointed out an echo here from Eliot's American childhood. At the age of six, a lonely Tom Eliot would listen to the laughter of the girls in the playground of the school next door to his home in St Louis. 'Burnt Norton was used as a holiday home by our family for years,' says the Countess. 'It has always been full of children. As a highly tuned poet, Eliot would have picked up those vibes.'
We move on, rabbits scattering at our footsteps, the cat following behind. We enter a glade of trees with rough grass underfoot. 'There were more trees here in 1934,' murmurs Lord Harrowby. 'We lost a lot to Dutch elm disease.' In Eliot's day, too, there was no wire fence bisecting the garden. It doesn't improve the view of the Classical temple, but Mr Izod insists it is necessary to keep out the deer. We gaze at the temple with its elegant Corinthian columns behind a curtain of steel mesh.
It is a remnant of Burnt Norton's past glories. In 1741, the temple stood in the landscaped grounds of the dissolute aristocrat Sir William Keyt. One night, deserted by wife, family and servants, Keyt went on one last drunken bender. As a grand finale, he burnt down Norton House, the Classical mansion he had built to impress his mistress, incinerating himself in the process. Gleeful locals looted pillars and pediments (the local post office has a particularly fine facade) and renamed the estate Burnt Norton. Ten years later it was bought by an ancestor of the Harrowbys. At the time of Eliot's visit, the Harrowbys had let it out to the Dowager Lady Lincolnshire. It was just as well that Eliot didn't ring the bell. Lady Lincolnshire was an elderly lady with a short fuse. Vagrant poets would not have been welcome.
Eliot seems to have been left in peace, though, as he explored the yew alleys and gazed at the flowers:
Time and the bell have buried the day,
The black cloud carries the sun away.
Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis
Stray down, bend to us; tendril and spray
Clutch and cling?
Fingers of yew be curled
Down to us?
At least here Eliot could escape the clutching fingers of real life and the dependent Vivien. He was free to ponder the mournful mysteries of time, memory and infinity.
Does anyone really know what Eliot was driving at in Burnt Norton and the rest of the Four Quartets? Lord Harrowby's mother, the Countess reminds me, thought it was 'a bit of a cheek' for a strange man to trespass in her garden and then publish a poem about it.
By this time we have arrived at a clearing in the woods. A scattering of low fruit trees - apples, cherries, a gnarled old mulberry - surrounds what looks like a stone wellhead. Mr Izod prods a tree with his stick and declares it to be 350 years old. We wait for the cat to catch us up and stumble down a steep bank leading back to the house.
Looking at the clock tower at the back of the house, we wait for it to chime. Time and the bell have buried the day again. The Harrowbys think it is time for tea and biscuits. Will there be time before my train? There will. Even Eliot admitted:
. . . human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
These are chocolate biscuits, after all.
Burnt Norton, near Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire. Garden visits by arrangement. Ring John Izod first on 0386 840162. Entrance pounds 2, reductions for parties, children and OAPs.
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