T.S. Eliot, Dante, and the European Tradition: An International Symposium
January 19th - 25th , 2008
  Promoted by:
Romualdo Del Bianco Foundation
Palazzo Coppini Via del Giglio, 10
50123 – Florence (Italy)


Author : Prof. Stephen Tapscott

“Another Way of Saying Whitman”: Dante, Influence, Iconicity

I’m intrigued by how often contemporary translations of sections of Dante’s Commedia rely on a back-formation. Lines from a 20th-century poem, which Eliot or another poet had appropriated or adapted from Dante’s original, are reclaimed in the newer translation as if Dante were quoting Eliot (or another contemporary). The effect is odd, as if the earlier poet were ‘learning from’ the later poem. The effect resembles what Harold Bloom would call the “apophrades” revisionary ratio, the “return of the dead” stage of influential adjustment-- if indeed “influence” is what’s at stake here. I’m more inclined to think of the effect as an instance of what Douglas Archibald famously spelled out as a dynamic of literary “encounter”: what’s at stake in the “retrieval” of the Dante line in the contemporary poem has more to do with an “echo” of the contentious literary appropriations of Dante early in the 20th-century. For Ezra Pound and for William Carlos Williams after the publication of Eliot’s early poems, the name “Dante” has little to do with Dante Alighieri, his work or aesthetics or achievement; it has more to do with a response to Eliot, triangulated against Dante [specifically, against a reading of Dante’s achievement that Eliot proposes and comes to represent for the other Modernists. I think it’s slightly misleading to call such appropriations “influences.” The question is complicated, of course, because of the congruence of vocabulary: different poets arguing about the cultural implications of divergent aesthetic positions, by means of an icon of “Dante,” although what values each poet advocates by that icon are radically different.

“Dante” becomes an iconic cultural referent, one version of which William Carlos Williams and others (especially in the US) use to define a nativist aesthetic in counter-relation
to another version by the ”cosmopolitan” Eliot. The Modern poets are contesting
rival theories of an American Sublime by claiming Dante as a part of a “usable
past.” The process involves not simply the psychodyamics of personal jealousy and
aesthetic disagreement and sibling rivalry (although those are the dimensions that recent
criticism has taken to describe the ways in which the “sons” are competing for control
of the memory of the “father.”) The complication derives from mutually-contradictory values different Modernist poets ascribe to the icon “Dante.”

This paper looks at several such freighted characterizations. I’d like to
look briefly at the question of the “authoritarian” argument of Pound’s “Hell Cantos”
[XIV and XV]; they seem to owe less to the Inferno than to St. Peter’s indignant attack on inadequate leaders like Boniface VIII, early in Paradiso XXVII– and so associate the
scatological accusations of St. Peter with a fundamentally conservative argument about the need for a strong central authority [the Emperor for instance, in the case of 14th-century Italian politics.] I’d like to compare that belief in the need for a centralized cultural authority to the reactive uses of the icon “Dante” that William Carlos Williams devises in Kora in Hell (1920).
In Kora and in other texts Williams responds to the “challenge” of Eliot’s aesthetic, to defend the use of a local idiom for the “American Sublime.” In his vehement aversion to Eliot’s culturally-conservative icon “Dante,” Williams invents “counter-icon of Dante. In the process, he rediscovers issues of cultural authority and demotic language –implicitly the relation of vernacular idioms to time, and the relations between the historical authority of democratic cultures and the pressures of historical change. It’s no coincidence that Dante himself had discussed related issues – especially the relation of the “illustrious vulgar” to time and change –in De Vulgari Eloquentia (ca. 1305). “Dante,” Williams concludes in 1917, “can only be another way of saying Whitman.”

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