Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1412
First published: 1929
Type of work: Critical essay
In his poetry T. S. Eliot experimented with a number of techniques, one of the best known of these being the persistent use of direct and indirect allusions to other poets and poetry. These allusions are from an impressively wide range of sources, but one of the most important sources is the poetry of Dante.
The epigraph of Eliot's first volume of poetry, PRUFROCK AND OTHER OBSERVATIONS, is from the PURGATORIO, while the epigraph to the poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," is from the INFERNO. There are a number of allusions to these sections of THE DIVINE COMEDY in THE WASTE LAND, and Eliot himself identifies them in his "Notes on 'The Waste Land.'" One of the central images of "The Hollow Men" is the "Multifoliate rose," which had been for Dante a symbol of Paradise, and which for Eliot represents the only hope of the hollow man. There are allusions to Dante's poetry scattered throughout Eliot's work. In "Little Gidding," the final section of Eliot's last great work of poetry, FOUR QUARTETS, the long concluding passage of Section II is, as Eliot himself said, intended to be as close an equivalent as possible to a canto of the INFERNO or the PURGATORIO.
The point need hardly be stressed: there is value in this study of Dante, not only for the student of Dante, but for the student of Eliot as well. In the preface to DANTE, Eliot writes that this work is an account of his own acquaintance with the Italian poet's writings. Eliot himself acknowledges that the acquaintance has been, for him, a fruitful one because he had found no other poet to whom he could refer so frequently and for so many purposes in his own work. His essay is in no way, he emphasizes, to be considered as a definitive statement on Dante; he did not regard himself as a scholar. Instead, his intention is to deal with Dante's importance as a master poet and as a figure of interest to anyone concerned with modern poetry.
The first point Eliot makes about Dante is that he is, even for non-Italians, surprisingly easy to read because of his universality, even in the modern languages. But that is not to say that he is the greatest poet, or the poet who has dealt with more that is common to all men. Dante's universality, in the sense that Eliot is using the term, is a result of his particular time and place, and of the language and poetic traditions afforded him by that time and place.
The Italian language of Dante's day was the product of the universal language, Latin. Medieval Latin was universal in that in it men of various lands and languages found a common means of communication. And in the Italian vernacular that Dante used such universality is also evident. Other languages are more localized: the associations of words belong more to a particular culture or race. But Dante's culture is not so much Italian as it is European, and his language is equally universal (meaning European). The language of Shakespeare was more localized; he had no way to express himself other than in a local fashion.
Europe, in Dante's time, was intellectually more closely joined than we realize, and its unity was not simply a matter of a universal language. Dante's method and thought were commonly known and generally understood throughout Europe because of the common culture of medieval times. That method, that poetic tradition, was allegory, and allegory makes for simplicity and lucidity of style.
Because allegory, as Dante used it in THE DIVINE COMEDY, is in itself one great metaphor, Dante employed few metaphorical images within the work itself: his effort was chiefly to make us see. What few metaphors he employs, therefore, enable us to visualize a given scene; they are explanatory and intensive. Shakespeare's metaphors, by way of contrast, are expansive and even decorative; they add to what we see rather than making us see more clearly.
So far Eliot bases his statements on his understanding of the INFERNO, and the point he draws from his reading of that work is that great poetry may be written with strict economy of words, figures of speech, and elegance of style. The point he wishes to make about the PURGATORIO is that great poetry can also be made from direct philosophical statement.
The PURGATORIO is, says Eliot, the most difficult of the three parts of THE DIVINE COMEDY, and there are several reasons for this. Not only is it true that damnation is more dramatic than purgation; it is also true that the allegory in the INFERNO is more visual, more rooted in the concrete, than is that of the PURGATORIO. The INFERNO can be enjoyed by itself; the PURGATORIO cannot. It can only be fully understood and appreciated as a part of the whole work.
The greatest difficulty with the PURGATORIO, for the modern mind, is accepting the terms of Dante's philosophical and theological beliefs. But we must accept them if we are to understand and accept the whole of Dante's vision. We can no more ignore the philosophy and theology than we can the allegory. But Eliot distinguishes between philosophical belief and poetic assent, and it is the latter that we need. He says that what is needed in appreciation of the PURGATORIO is not belief, but willing suspension of belief. One must enter, in effect, the world of thirteenth century religious faith, and we cannot enter that world, we cannot appreciate the poem, unless we accept as given the philosophy and theology which are essential to it—literally, of its essence.
The point Eliot wishes to make about the PARADISO is that the state of beatitude, though rarefied, can also be the substance for great poetry. Our age finds it difficult to appreciate the PARADISO because of the prevailing prejudice against beatitude as material for poetry. For Dante, the difficulty in treating this sort of subject matter was the necessity of allowing us to apprehend it sensuously. That, from Eliot's point of view, Dante succeeded in overcoming this difficulty is obvious. The secret of Dante's power and success lies in his ability to express the almost inapprehensible in concrete, visual images.
In this study Eliot continually measures Dante's stature as poet against the usual standard, Shakespeare. His comparison of the two poets results in the conclusion that Shakespeare shows breadth in the variety of human life and passion he presents, but that Dante achieves greater depths and heights of degradation and exaltation. THE DIVINE COMEDY gives us the complete range of human emotion.
The last section of DANTE is on the VITA NUOVA, which Eliot describes as a series of poems connected by a "vision-literature" prose. This youthful work is important to Eliot chiefly because it aids in an understanding of THE DIVINE COMEDY. Paradoxically, however, it is THE DIVINE COMEDY that we should read first because it introduces us to the world of medieval imagery, thought, and dogma. The VITA NUOVA, on the other hand, introduces us to the medieval sensibility. It is constructed of materials which are generally acknowledged to be based, in some degree, on Dante's own experience, but these materials are transformed by being placed in a larger perspective than the merely personal one. On reflection, the attraction of the poet toward Beatrice is seen as a manifestation of something greater; the attraction toward God. From an understanding of Dante's method in the VITA NUOVA we can come to a clearer understanding of Dante's method, on a far greater scale, in THE DIVINE COMEDY.
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