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 : Dr. Fabio L. Vericat

The Lady of the Window is not Beatrice: Philosophic Consolation and Allegorical Impersonation in T. S. Eliot’s Reception of Vita Nuova.
Fabio L. Vericat
Universidad Complutense de Madrid

That in 1919 T. S. Eliot tells us that in The Divine Comedy “we are not here studying the philosophy, we see it, as part of the ordered world” (‘Dante’: 144-145) is of particular poignancy in the context of his failure, three years earlier, to secure his PhD degree in Philosophy. He had been unable to cross a U-boat infected Atlantic to attend the oral examination at Harvard, even if he had managed to successfully finish the thesis: “The Division of Philosophy has accepted your thesis without the least hesitation. Prof Royce regards it as the work of an expert” (The Letters of T.S. Eliot: 142). But the fact is that Eliot had laboured through the writing-up stage at Oxford almost to the point of despair with philosophy itself. In his own words to a fellow retainer of the Sheldon Travelling Fellowship
For me, as for Santayana, philosophy is chiefly literary criticism and conversation about life; and you have the logic, which seems to me of great value. The only reason why relativism does not do away with philosophy altogether, after all, is that there is no such thing to abolish! There is art, and there is science. (The Letters of T.S. Eliot: 81)
Just as Eliot chooses not to pursue an academic career in philosophy, he turns, instead, to literature to find in Dante the very consolation required to hold on to philosophic thought. The advantage is obvious; rather than study it, one needs only see it. Here allegory becomes the enabling medieval hermeneutic, which Eliot embraces as a way out of the abstraction of modern philosophy altogether, but also as a working alternative to philosophic theories of perception which, ironically, he never quite managed to see – namely, F.H. Bradley’s Immediate Experience and Degrees of Reality. Such vindication involved, for Eliot, the reconfiguration of allegory within the tradition of scriptural exegesis as well as dissociating it from mere personification. In the late 1920s, Eliot does exactly that with particular reference to Dante’s Vita Nuova – in ‘The Clark Lectures’ (1926) and Dante (1929). Vita Nuova’s suitability for Eliot’s purposes lies in its being Dante’s own practice ground in the development of his allegorical technique: for its success as allegory – so the scholarly debate goes – depends on whether Beatrice is a true allegory or merely a personification of Philosophy masquerading as a real person. That Vita Nuova’s allegorical success is debatable attests for Eliot’s preference for the critical enlightenment of partial failure in literature, as Dante’s work may not offer a clean break from the abstraction of philosophy after all. The question is: who is the Lady of the Window?

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