Semicerchio XXXIX (2008/02) Waste Lands. Eliot & Dante. pp. 17-27
by C. Bradshaw Woelfel
Source-hunting scholarship can be a fruitful approach to the work of T. S. Eliot but, by turns, a rather facile one. Its usefulness was best summed up by the poet himself, decades after the publication of the (in)famous notes to The Waste Land that have sent generations of critics back to the library: it is «a waste of time, unless [...] secondary to ‘understanding’» (Gordon 485). With that caveat firmly in
The endpoint of this discussion is a re-examination of Eliot’s direct quotation from the Dante/Arnaut Daniel exchange of Purgatorio XXVI in the closing montage of
In her critical biography of Eliot, Lyndall Gordon relates a well-known and rather charming anecdote that, from his early twenties, Eliot would carry a pocket Italian edition of Dante with him everywhere (a Dantito), memorizing long passages as he lay in bed or rode on trains (85). The influence of Dante on Eliot’s formative years marks the early hints of a shadow that would not fully emerge until the mid 1920’s: Eliot came to understand the task of the poet in relationship to the model that he found in Dante, and he tracked the breakdown of modern society according to its dis-integration from a unity that he projected into the 13th century. The most important source for understanding Eliot’s view of Dante and Dante’s poetics is not the 1920 or 1929 eponymous essays, but the series of lectures on metaphysical poetry collected in the volume The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry.1 In these essays Eliot traces what he calls the «dissociation of sensibility» or, elsewhere, the «disintegration of the intellect», a gradual breakdown of the possibility of a totalizing schema for human experience as it is evidenced in three moments of poetry, the 13th, 17th, and 19th centuries (227).2 The breakdown implies a conception of poetry and the task of the poet that can be closely allied with that laid out in Tradition and the Individual Talent: «The task of the poet is to create art that serves as a source of shared meaning for their contemporaneous society, the greatest art being most comprehensive» (Sacred Wood 54-5).3 Dante is the perfection of the model; he takes the greatest possible range of human experience and integrates it into a coherent schema that gives meaning and value to the greatest possible range of human thought and emotion (for his particular historical moment)
In The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry Eliot explains how Dante’s «perfection» is the result of a consensus of meaning unique to the 13th century intellectual community, and the product of a pre-Cartesian conception of revelation. The real success of the Commedia is that it presents, synthesized and ordered, such a tremendous range of potentially dissonant (even contradictory) thought and emotion in a unified system. This is possible because both thought and emotion had been synthesized by longdeveloping traditions of philosophy and poetry (respectively), traditions that at Dante’s moment were in harmony (220-3). This synthetic whole was the product of a pre-Cartesian belief in the efficacy of revelation: the assumption that human consciousness was capable of perceiving
For Eliot, the modern crisis of meaning exists because people (over a long course of time) became increasingly aware of the fact that their thoughts, emotions, and interpretations of experience cannot be verified beyond their particular subjective selves. Once subjectivity imposes a filter between human consciousness and the perception of any objective reality, it becomes fundamentally impossible for the claim to «revelation» to serve as the basis for a unifying system of meaning.Any attempt to transcend subjectivity and perceive a potentially unifying objective reality can only be made by a feat of circular logic, a leap to the outside that is ultimately unverifiable (Habib 109-113). This means that even if transcendent religious experience is still possible, it is impossible to be conscious of it, to apply the experience to human thought or emotion (individual or collective), in any way that does not fundamentally undermine its claim to transcendence. Eliot calls this realization «a true Copernican revolution» in thought, one that leads to the modern crisis of meaning5: «Individuals become increasingly aware that there is no way to verify the validity of their own interpretations of experiences, thoughts, or emotions through an objective source» (Varieties…80, 222).6 Over time, they push against the formerly accepted consensus of meaning until it falls apart, leaving the impression of a former sense of shared meaning that has been irrevocably shattered (Varieties…207-28). In this context, shared experience itself becomes seen as nightmarish – against the appearance that one single experience has been shared in time and space by a pair or group of individuals comes an awareness that the meaning of that experience and its attendant feelings can only be individual, subjective, and multiple.7 Indeed, there is not even any way to verify that the experience has happened at all, or that the people who shared it are real. Unable to expand to any transcendent level of significance, human action becomes seen as wasteful.
As in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, the earlier sections of The Waste Land reference the hellish world of Inferno, symbolic of the problem of the modern isolated and subjective experience of life, and its consequences for human interrelations.8 However, as we approach the potential moment of revelation in «What the Thunder Said», Eliot’s referential world begins to shift from Inferno to the Purgatorio. This appropriately mirrors Dante’s own shift in the Commedia, as Purgatorio is the canticle that is most self-consciously concerned with the task of representing objective truth in poetry or art.9 However, as the referential world shifts, Eliot’s usage of Dante becomes increasingly problematic and ironic. In Part V of The Waste Land key moments of progress, revelation, and transcendence in
The presence of a purgatorial backdrop for Part V of The Waste Land is, I wish to argue, developed in part through Eliot’s evocation of a series of visions encountered by Dante-pilgrim on the mountain as the poem builds toward its climax. The relevant passage from «What the Thunder Said» reads as follows:
But here there is no water.
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
What is that sound high in the air
Eliot’s notes attribute the section to three sources: Luke Chapter 24’s journey to Emmaus, the story of Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition, and Herman Hesse’s Blick in Chaos (The Waste Land: A Facsimile… 73, 85).10 These sources, no doubt, are relevant. But, the section taken as a cohesive whole suggests a potentially more illuminating source, a series of visions encountered by Dante-pilgrim in the middle of Purgatorio XV. This series of visions resonates with the specific images and themes Eliot uses to present the crises of modern life throughout The Waste Land, as well as the potential solutions presented in words of the thunder god. A close analysis of Purgatorio reveals the centrality to Dante’s poetics of compassion, a confirmation of the transcendence of the individual. Eliot will deliberately invoke Dante’s conception of compassion in «What the Thunder Said» as a contrast to the modern moment, when such experience is depicted as impossible.
There it seemed to me I was caught up 85
And, at the door, about to enter, a woman,
Behold, your father and I have searched
Then there appeared to me another woman,
She said: «If you are indeed the lord of this city,
Avenge yourself on those bold arms 100
Offered gently and with tranquil look:
Then I saw people, aflame with burning wrath,
And I saw him sinking to the ground –
As from his deepest agony he begged
When my soul made its way back 115
Dante’s first vision is taken from Luke Chapter 2, and is a fascinating counterpart to the journey to Emmaus story in Luke 24 that Eliot cites in his notes: Mary and Joseph travel to Jerusalem with the 12-year-old Jesus for Passover. They leave Jerusalem, «supposing [Jesus] to be in their company», but later discover that although they thought Jesus walked with them, he is gone. They return to Jerusalem and, three days later, find him in a temple lecturing to rabbis. Dante’s quotation is Mary’s sorrowful words to Jesus. Jesus’ reply is to tell her that they should have known that he «must be in his father’s house», and the Biblical passage concludes by saying that «[Mary and Joseph] did not understand the saying which he spoke to them» (2:44-50).
It may seem a strange fit with the lines cited by Eliot, but Mary and Joseph’s journey out of Jerusalem in Luke 2 is an inversion of the journey to Emmaus in chapter 24. Jerusalem as a site of divine teaching is the focus of both passages, and both turn on the issue of an absent divinity (in the Luke 2 story Jesus is absent for three days, as between crucifixion and resurrection). The critical difference is that while in the journey to Emmaus Jesus is possibly absent but revealed to be present, in the other story Jesus is presumed to be present but revealed to be absent. In a rare biblical moment, Mary is confused by the words of
Eliot replaces the absent Christ with a «murmur of maternal lamentation». This line links the reaction of Mary in Luke 2 to the «tears of grief» running down the cheeks of the central figure in the second vision in Dante’s series, the weeping wife of Pisistratus. Pisistratus was a tyrant who ruled Athens in the 6th century BCE, whose story Dante took from Valerius Maximus: Pisistratus’s daughter is raped. His wife (the girl’smother) comes to ask himto seek vengeance on the guilty parties, but Pisistratus spares them in a profound and uncharacteristicmoment of compassion (Hollander 337-8). Pisistratus’s compassion counters the potentially
Beyond Stephen’s death, the failure of the crowd to feel compassion without the aid of the divine has serious poetic implications that Dante makes explicit. Stephen’s call for an experience of compassion is linked, through the careful framing of the visions, to Dante’s own poetry. In the passages just preceding and just following the three exemplars Dante-poet intentionally frames them as a revelatory vision that Dante-pilgrim is experiencing on the mountain (Dante, Purgatorio XV, 85-6, 115-7). Dante-pilgrim’s revealed vision puts him in the place of St. Stephen, and transforms the representation of the vision in the poem into a potential source of «unlocked compassion» linking Dante-poet (who is actually re-presenting the vision in the form of the poem), God, and the reader. Dante-poet calls the visions «errors [...] not false» (non falsi errori), «errors» because they are not actually objects on the mountain, «not false» because they reveal an objective truth hidden to normal sense experience. The representation of the visions in the poem are like the look on Stephen’s face – they should be the occasion for an experience of transcendent compassion, but their success is contingent upon a transcendent basis beyond their sense experience, just as
A slight digression is necessary to fully explain how these visions can be said to emphasize, in myriad ways, the absolute necessity of a space outside of individual subjectivity in order experience compassion. In the second vision Dante-poet yokes the story of Pisistratus’s compassion to the story of the naming of Athens, which he took from Augustine, by first referring to the tyrant as the ruler of «the city / whose naming caused such strife amongst the gods». In the myth referred to, Athena and Poseidon both wish to name the city, so each offers a gift – Athena an olive tree, Poseidon a spring.Athena’s gift is deemed more useful, so she gets the honors (Hollander 338). The spring of water that Athens denies is linked to revelation through a broad referential system in the Commedia (see below on rain).12 The spring of Poseidon and the olive tree of Athena are symbols that mark two fundamentally different systems of thought, one rooted in the belief that human reason and sense are sufficient to perceive and understand objective truth (Pagan Ancient Greece), the other rooted in the Christian notion that revelation is fundamentally necessary to overcome faulty human reason and sense, which on their own are incapable of perceiving or understanding objective truth. Pisistratus’s compassion is a sign of his turn away from the system represented by Athens to that represented by the spring.
The inability of mankind on its own to overcome subjective limitation without an appeal to an act of faith – here to feel compassion, in the vision of St. Stephen to effectively represent transcendent meaning – is one of the central poetic statements of Purgatorio. Its special significance for the issue of poetry in Dante is revealed through the figure of Virgil, the symbolic acme of classical reason, virtue, and poetry. The poem progressively reveals that Virgil’s lack of faith makes it impossible for him to understand or perceive the coherent structure of the universe and, accordingly, to correctly interpret experience. This is present in Purgatorio XV, where Virgil’s reaction to Dante’s visionary experience reveals that the Pagan poet is excluded from the compassionate bond it is meant to «unlock». After the completion of the vision, Virgil mistakenly thinks that Dante-pilgrim has been hallucinating as someone who is drunk or asleep, signifying that he has not himself seen the revelatory visions. This reaction is based entirely on his misinterpretation of Dante-pilgrim’s face, a visible sign that echoes his inability to interpret the visions themselves (XV, 115-38).13Virgil is a more benign version of the crowd that stones Stephen to death in the third vision; unable to interpret the look on Dante’s face, he is prevented from the experience of compassion, just as he is excluded from any broader understanding of transcendent meaning.
Virgil’s limited understanding in Purgatorio XV sets up his contrast with the most important figure in Purgatorio, Statius. In what cannot be a coincidence, Statius’s identity is introduced to Dante andVirgil in Purgatorio by allusion to the same story used by Eliot in Part V of The Waste Land, the journey to Emmaus. Indeed, when seen in comparison, Eliot’s passage seems an obvious intentional reference (XXI, 1-13).14 In Purgatorio, Statius plays the role that Eliot omits from his version, the revealed Christ, and he appears in order to interpret for Dante and Virgil the climactic event of Purgatorio, an earthquake that shakes the entire mountain (Canto XX, especially XX, 124-51). It turns out, Statius explains, that this earthquake signifies the completion of a soul’s purgation, and the subsequent
In Dante’s poetics, the act of correctly interpreting a transcendent, compassion-inducing meaning out of human experience – whether it be the crowd interpreting Stephen’s face, Virgil interpreting Dante’s face, or Statius’s act of reading poetry – is not determined by the signifier itself, or by sense experience. Rather, it is determined by a consciousness experiencing a miraculous transcendence, one that then interprets all signs according to a revealed truth that is always already accepted. This kind of transcendent consciousness, though, is precisely what Eliot felt was impossible to accept once Cartesian doubt is posited. Both the modern poet and the modern audience are at best a kind of Virgil, whose ignorance can be usefully aligned with the questioning speaker(s) of Eliot’s half-version of the journey to Emmaus – the signs may be present all the time, but when seen, heard, or felt, they cannot be consciously recognized in a transcendent manner, nor understood in anything but a private, subjective manner.
To return more directly to The Waste Land, perhaps the most striking means that Eliot uses to contrast his conception of modernity with the pre-Cartesian conception present in Dante is through the symbol of water or rain, central to both «What the Thunder Said» and Purgatorio. The image of the «fountain» which Athens denied in favor of the gifts of Athena is linked to Purgatory’s insistent repetition of an unquenchable thirst experienced by the purgatorial souls and by Dante himself. Purgatory, like the desert of The Waste Land, is dry and calling for water. For Dante the water needed is ultimately linked to revelation. In Paradiso Dante calls faith a «rain» that overcomes all individual thought and provides understanding that precedes (and directs) thought and feeling (XXIV, 91-96).16 In Part V of The Waste Land, the repeated reference to the miracle of water from the rock at Meribah in lines 331-5 signals that water is potentially related to revelation, as it is also linked to the potential reunification or regeneration of society through the Weston grail legends. But, just like with the potential Christ figure of Eliot’s journey to Emmaus reference, Eliot uses the expected or hoped for revelatory significance of water in Dante to expose the way that, in modernity, it can no longer serve that function. In the water-song section that immediately precedes the journey to Emmaus reference, water is signified through onomatopoeia (lines 346-58). This onomatopoeia mimics the experience of sound without or before the interpretation of its meaning. It is potentially unifying (everyone hears the same sound), but necessarily calls attention to the need for
Throughout Part V, Eliot repeatedly uses onomatopoeia to create situations where an expected revelation of transcendent meaning is replaced by a sound without meaning. The shared experience of the sound points to the absence of the real function of revelation, which is to facilitate shared feeling and shared meaning. Onomatopoeia occurs again in the co co rico of the rooster, a sound traditionally meant to signal the coming of dawn, and therefore another evocation of Christ and revelation (391-2). The cock-crow does mark the coming of rain, but after the long buildup to the expected moment the thunder itself speaks only in meaningless pure sound, the triple «Da» (400, 410, 417).18 Once again, onomatopoeia allows the simultaneous experience of a sign, now one which is explicitly supposed to serve the role of revelation, without an explanation of its meaning. The meaning-giving move of transforming the sound into three different words, Datta, Dayadhvam, and Damyata, enacts a reversal of the supposed purpose of revelation by separating a single sound into multiple signifiers that are unrecognizable to Eliot’s contemporary audience, alien by the ‘otherness’ of their
Tellingly, Part V of The Waste Land contains two other Dantean references that, coming from Inferno, reinforce the insoluble nature of the problem of subjectivity by denying the possibility of compassion. The first is the reference to the famous adulterers Paolo and Francesca from Inferno V echoed in «[t]he awful daring of a moment’s surrender / [w]hich an age of prudence can never retract» (402-3). On one level this is a simple condemnation of failed human relationships, evocative of «A Game of Chess». However, in the Commedia, the story is also about language and interpretation. Paolo and Francesca give in to their adulterous desires because they are overcome with lust while reading a story about Lancelot. The line that marks their fall is evoked later in the Paradiso, to serve as a contrast to Dante-pilgrim’s moment of conversion while in contemplation of «the point which had overcome him». The point is part of a vision through which Dante understands God’s unifying presence in all multiple created things, and the line itself references Augustine’s conversion in the Confessions. Dante-poet introduces the line by saying that Beatrice, not Dante-pilgrim, is «looking fixedly at the point which had overcome [Dante]», and the scene is thus an instance of perfect compassion between Dante and Beatrice, founded directly in experience of the divine through the signifying image of the point. Immediately afterward Beatrice reads Dante’s mind, confirming their perfect sharing of consciousness (XXIX, 12).19 This transcendent intersubjectivity is the goal of the «awful daring of a moment’s surrender», but Eliot evokes only Francesca’s failure, not Dante’s success. This impossibility of intersubjectivity is reinforced in the second Inferno reference, that to «the key» that locks «each in his prison». As Eliot explains in his notes through the reference to F. H. Bradley, the image of the isolated prisoner is symbolic of human subjectivity, the privacy of experience that cannot be transcended and, thus, makes actual compassion impossible (411-4).20
Rather than presenting an interpretive key for human thought and emotion, the moments of revelation in The Waste Land offer no possibility for an experience of compassion that might repair the modern sense of isolation and the consequence of wasted human action. Eliot signals this by contrasting Dante’s ascent to redemption in the journey up Mount Purgatory with the lack of perceivable progress in «What the Thunder Said». The moment of revelation is preceded with the hellish images of «hooded hordes swarming / [o]ver endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth / [r]inged by the flat horizon only». This hellish desert plain culminates in the list of decayed and Unreal cities distant from the idealized «city over the mountains». After the moment of revelation, we find that the mountain,
What is remarkable about Dante’s series of visions, themselves evocations of a broad series of literary and historical reference, is the way that their meaning is connected through a single source of meaning that builds throughout the entire poem. There is a single poetic voice rendering a single coherent picture of all of existence, as we follow a single protagonist. It cannot be understated that for Eliot (and for Dante), this is the direct result of Dante’s notion of revelation, seeing the essential oneness of what we would otherwise experience as multiplicity. Eliot gives us, on the other hand, a series of images and references without the unifying, systematizing base. The images themselves are fragmented and disjointed, the voice deliberately jumps from speaker to speaker with no discernable connecting voice, and the poem maintains no obvious protagonist whose coherent view of society we are meant to share. The fisher-king that finally appears at the end is a symbol of the modern poet himself, hoping to redeem society but only able to construct a vision of society whose potentially transcendent meaning is excluded or obscured, like the play of «mad» Hieronymo.
The presence of Purgatorio XV as a direct source is debatable, but my goal has been to suggest the way that Dante’s deliberate engagement of issues of language, representation, and revelation can serve as an important interpretive
The case is the same for the exchange with Arnaut in the Dantean source. Arnaut is the last soul that Dante encounters before passing through the ring of fire and entering the earthly paradise (Eden) on top of Mount Purgatory. He occasions the summary of a long discussion of poetics and Italian poetry that has run throughout the canticle, dealing primarily with a definition of the scope and purpose of Dante’s own poem and its exhibition of Dante’s dolce stil nuovo. This summarizing begins before Arnaut Daniel, in Dante-pilgrim’s encounter with the soul of the poet Guido Guinizelli. As an anonymous soul in the circle of fire Guido explains the nature of lust’s corruption of love (the central lesson of the terrace of the lustful) to Dante-pilgrim. Then, in one of the most emotional scenes of Purgatorio, Guido names himself to reveal his identity:
«About myself, indeed, I’ll satisfy your wish. 91
[. . .]
when he gave me his name and I knew he had been 97
[. . .]
Once my eyes were satisfied,
He answered: «All that I hear you tell
but if your words just now have sworn the truth,
And I to him: «Your sweet verses,
«O brother», he said, «that one whom I point out» – 115
Dante-poet alludes to an immediate feeling of brotherhood with Guido, and summarizes his connection by saying that he «knew [Guido] had been / father to [him] and to others, [his] betters, / who always used love’s sweet and graceful rhymes».What Dante is alluding to is the fact that Guido is the father of Italian love poetry, the basis of Dante’s early poetic education. The mention of «love’s sweet and graceful rhymes» is there to name sweet style that Dante opposes to his own «sweet new style» (dolce stil nuovo). Dante has explained this distinction just one canto earlier: what separates Dante’s new style from the sweet verse of the other Italian love poets in his tradition is that he was the first to expand love unto a theological dimension. The difference is the basis in revelation, accessed
Dante’s reply to Guido is a kind of backhanded compliment. He says that Guido’s «sweet verses», will be valued «as long as modern custom lasts». It is this allusion to custom, signaling the changing nature of language and the fleeting nature of poetic fame, that prompts Guido to turn and point out Arnaut Daniel. Guido calls Daniel «a better craftsman of the mother tongue» (the source of Eliot’s dedication to Pound, il miglior fabbro), and says that «in verses of love and tales of romance / he surpasses them all» (XXVI, 114-20).Arnaut, then, the last poet Dante-pilgrim encounters in Purgatorio, is the acme of poetic achievement in the Romance languages without the transcendent basis in revelation that defines the poetics of the Commedia. The relationship between the poets Dante and Arnaut can usefully be seen as sharing in the contrast between Statius and Virgil evoked earlier in the canticle:Arnaut may be the superior exhibitor of human ability, here the manipulation of language, but his poetry is void of the key to its potential to transcend the limits of language and thought. In other words, in the context of The Waste Land, Arnaut is the most a poet could hope to accomplish. Arnaut was known for making poems that were «brilliantly difficult», challenging to the reader but highly complicated and deliberate in their craftsmanship of difficulty – surely a description Eliot identified with. 23
Eliot cites only Dante’s closing comment after Arnaut vanishes back into the fire. His notes provide the final three lines of the speech itself, but the entire speech is significant. Dante-pilgrim asks Daniel his name, to which the latter
«Your courteous question pleases me so much 140
I am Arnaut, weeping and singing I make my way.
Now I pray you, by that power 145
The broader context elicits the true focus of Arnaut’s speech, which is lines 142-4. The «past follies» which cause him grief are not only his lustful encounters on earth − Dante could have chosen any lustful person to sit in for that role – but his past poetic efforts. His overwrought and technically perfect love poetry is contrasted, here on Purgatory, with the «weeping and singing» which all souls perform as part of their penance. What they sing are hymns and prayers, verses turned toward God («the joy I hope is coming»), and free from the overwrought and language-dependent poems of Arnaut himself. Guido’s praise of Daniel as «the better craftsman of the mother tongue» echoes Daniel’s reputation as a superlative technical poet. Daniel’s actual speech sticks out immediately because it’s in Provencal, rather than Latin or Italian. Far from representative of Daniel’s poetry, though, the critic Nathaniel Smith has pointed out that eight-line speech is actually pastiche of Provencal lyric, one in which Dante seems to have deliberately dumbed down the language in order to contrast with reputation that Guido highlights (Hollander 593-5).24
The result is that Daniel’s words take on special significance in terms of the issues of language and revelation that are central to the canticle. His admonition to ‘be mindful’ is both a solicitation of prayer to potentially shorten his time on the mountain (Guido makes the same request earlier), and a warning to Dante about writing poetry. Both senses amount to a lesson on the proper usage of words, and suggest the prayer of shantih shantih shantih that ends The Waste Land. What Dante is doing in the passage is once again drawing attention to the difference between poetry from revelation and all other poetry (except Scripture, with which he aligns his own work).
Significantly, Eliot presents Dante-poet’s closing comment on the disappearing Daniel free of context or explanation – the poem speaks a reminder of Daniel’s failure to the reader through the admonition to remember his «pain», but leaves the actual speaker, or the lesson that might lead to the proper use of language or the purification of his pain, present only as an absence. Eliot also omits a direct explanation of the problem, and withholds Dante’s explanation (and presentation) of the solution through the discussion of the dolce stil nuovo, and all that it implies. One is reminded of Eliot’s usage of the same speech in part IV of Ash Wednesday, where it will similarly mark the failure of language and the necessity of revelation.
The final barrage of juxtaposed references that ends Part V can be seen a kind of parody of the coherence of Dante’s unified use of reference. The juxtaposition of different languages reinforces the confusion of Babel, a symbol linked to the society of contemporary London through «London bridge is falling down», recalled in «Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie».Whereas Dante’s poem can (and does) move seamlessly between Latin and vernacular Italian (or, here, pastiche of Provencal), Eliot’s poem uses jarringly juxtaposed language shifts to reinforce the impossibility of shared meaning. «Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe» might usefully be seen as an ironic comment on the call for revelation – spoken as much to the poet-figure shoring fragments against his ruins (and symbolized by le Prince who lords over a broken tower) as to the broader society for whom that poet is meant to recover meaning – I’ll give you the poem you ask for, including the signs of revelation, but it will not mean the same for each of us. The result is that the entire effort amounts to waste. All speech in fact is waste when, as Arnaut Daniel reminds us, it is disengaged from the possibility of transcendence.
Because it revolves so closely around the issue of transcendence and the necessity for revelation, a discussion of Eliot’s use of Dante in The Waste Land runs the risk of seeming overdetermined by his conversion in 1927. I would like to close by suggesting, on the contrary, the way that the conception of revelation as effectively impossible present in the 1922 poem might be used to illuminate how
For several generations, we have been told by philosophers
The influence of Dante assured that Eliot could not forget, but he saw no way that it could be real for the modern subject in the way that it was for Dante. The very conception of reality had been irrevocably altered. The problem, as Eliot understood it, was not seeing the importance or value of belief, but seeing how you could ever think or feel that you believe without subjective doubt – in other words, how you could have any kind of belief of value. In The Waste Land Eliot is not calling for a religious conversion of society. Rather, the poem suggests that there may be no way that even genuine religious experience could be realized within the subjective consciousness, even less chance that it might again form the basis of a new kind of poetry or the construction of values for society. The great irony, as the publication of The Waste Land would prove, was that Eliot’s poetry of doubt and despair struck both an intellectual and emotional chord that resonated throughout the society he felt irrevocably isolated from.
1. These were the Clark Lectures at Cambridge in 1926 and, later, the revised Turnbull Lectures at Johns Hopkins in 1933.
The analogy was that of the catalyst. When the two gases previously
The platinum catalyst functions as a sort of magnet, which draws in both the absorbed tradition and the emotions and feelings of the contemporary moment (the «historical sense» in both of its
The natural thirst that never can be quenched
Note also the presence of water/thirst immediately surrounding both references to the Emmaus story, discussed in the context of revelation below.
Bibliografia–, Purgatorio, Trans. and comm, Jean and Robert Hollander,
NewYork: Random House, 2003.
Eliot, T. S., Inventions of the March Hare. Ed. Christopher
Ricks, NewYork: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1996.
–, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, in The Complete Poems
and Plays, 1909-1950, NewYork: Harcourt Brace & Company,
–, The Sacred Wood, London: Metheun & Co. Ltd, 1974.
–, The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry. Ed. Ronald Schuchard,
NewYork: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1993.
–, The Waste Land, The Complete Poems and Play, 1909-1950,
NewYork: HarcourtBrace & Company, 1980.
–, The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original
Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound, Ed.Valerie
Eliot, NewYork: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1971.
Gordon, Lyndall, T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life, NewYork:W.W.
Norton & Company, 1998.
Habib, M. A. R., The Early T. S. Eliot and Western Philosophy,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Hollander, Robert, Notes, Purgatorio, By DanteAlighieri, New
York: Random House, 2003.
Manganiello, Dominic, T. S. Eliot and Dante, New York: St.
Martin’s Press, 1989.
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