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...
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