The central discussion within the poem is on the nature of time and salvation. Eliot emphasizes the need of the individual to focus on the present moment and to know that there is a universal order. By understanding the nature of time and the order of the universe, mankind is able to recognize God and seek redemption.
The connection between the poem and “Murder in the Cathedral” is deep; many of the lines for the poem come from lines originally created for the play that were, on E. Martin Brown’s advice, removed from the script. Years later, Eliot recollected:
There were lines and fragments that were discarded in the course of the production of Murder in the Cathedral. ‘Can’t get them over on the stage,’ said the producer, and I humbly bowed to his judgment. However, these fragments stayed in my mind, and gradually I saw a poem shaping itself round them: in the end it came out as ‘Burnt Norton.’
The poem was the first of Eliot’s that relied on speech, with a narrator who speaks to the audience directly. Described as a poem of early summer, air, and grace, it begins with a narrator recalling a moment in a garden. The scene provokes a discussion on time and how the present, not the future or past, really matters to individuals. Memories connect the individual to the past, but the past cannot change. The poem then transitions from memory to how life works and the point of existence. In particular, the universe is described as orderly and that consciousness is not found within time even though humanity is bound by time. The scene of the poem moves from a garden to the London underground where technology dominates. Those who cling to technology and reason are unable to understand the universe or the Logos (“the Word”, or Christ). The underworld is replaced by a churchyard and a discussion on death. This, in turn, becomes a discussion of timelessness and eternity, which ends the poem.