Criticism of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets has often acknowledged the text’s mystical sources, but critics have also detected a countercurrent within the wartime Quartets, one which resists the timeless in favor of time. This tension reflects a theological dialectic between the poem’s mystical deliberations and an anti-mystical impulse arising from the influence of Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth. Barth in particular was the dominant theological presence between the wars, and Eliot certainly knew of his work. Four Quartets is both an affirmation and an interrogation of such moments of transcendence as that in the rose garden in “Burnt Norton”--moments that Kierkegaard and especially Barth define as the transformative “Moment” of the human-divine encounter. The poem’s larger dialectic is not merely the Augustinian distinction between the Word and words; it is a debate over the proper response to the Moment, and hence the proper form of faith. “Little Gidding” attempts to resolve this dialectic. Eliot’s deployment of paradox and negation does not just echo mystics; it also reflects the discursive strategies of Barth’s dialectical theology, in which paradox and negation open linguistic spaces through which the divine may choose to make itself known from beyond the boundary of signification.


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