Raids on the Inarticulate

Eliot’s “Four Quartets” is an autobiographical poem of experiences the poet had at four locations, told over four seasons and in reference to four elements: earth, wind, water and fire, all of which helps to situate the poem somewhere between prospective experience and the seal of meaning the poet has chosen to place on his religious life. The attempt is complicated by the poet’s own seeming admission of language’s inefficiency to capture what has been, is, and will be. Eliot attempts then to mediate between language and the world through the rhetoric of negative theology. In this way Eliot’s Four Quartets engages in aphophatism, the rhetoric of negative theory, which is the discourse of unsaying, in a linguistic effort to speak not of the past, and not of the future but of the eternal; to grasp his being, yet unbeing; to speak of mystical union of creature with creator, which requires detachment from all that constitutes a creation differentiated through language. The poet does this by a process of affirming the presence of his experiences, his self, his faith; negating the language or images used to embody them and finally by detaching himself from adoring the absence as a conclusion. In particular, Eliot comes to accept inarticulation of his spiritual consciousness and as a result accepts a poetic form mystics since the fifth century have employed to express the ineffable, of differment and oscillation: the apophatic “this nor that”; “neither this nor that”; the seemingly contradictory statements like, the voiceless voice. Critical appraisal of Eliot’s Four Quartets speaks to this adoption; this present exploration moves the argument a step further. The adoption of a theological viewpoint that posits God and spiritual experience unknowable, demands that all that language allows must be dropped; all that consitutes being must be given up. The way forward must be stripped of all creaturely attributes. In Four Quartets Eliot takes this route and detaches from all in the verses of Four Quartets saving for last the mechanism of memory, knowledge, to record the sojourn. This makes Eliot’s apophaticism a particular kind, not of affectus apophaticism where love is the last to go, but of intellectus apophaticism where the intellect is the last visage of being.

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