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 : Mr. Craig Woelfel

Title: The Waste Land and Dante’s Poetics of Revelation

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.’” It is with this caveat firmly in mind that I wish to offer a closer examination of what is already a known source for The Waste Land, Dante’s Purgatorio, in an attempt to show how it can better our critical understanding of Eliot’s poem and its self-conscious representation of Eliot’s poetics.

My examination is focused first on a particular section of Part V of The Waste Land, that which begins with the reference to the journey to Emmaus and ends with the list of “Unreal” cities (lines 359-376), and its relationship to a series of visions encountered by Dante-pilgrim in Purgatorio XV. The discussion of this earlier section of Part V is meant to contextualize an analysis of that section’s possible revelatory moment, centered on a deeper understanding of Eliot’s reference to the Arnaut Daniel speech of Purgatorio XXVI in the closing montage of references that finishes The Waste Land. The reference to Arnaut’s disappearance back into the refining fire has previously been somewhat speciously interpreted as a reference to the decay of ideal love into modern lust. However the broader contexts of Purgatorio indicate that the reference is more substantially concerned with a long discussion of poetics that makes up one of the most important threads of the middle of the Commedia. Eliot’s reference to the passage, seen against the Dantean context, plays a key role in understanding what The Waste Land has to say about the efficacy of revelation in modernity and modern poetry.

Dante’s poetics, as Eliot correctly understood, were grounded firmly in an appeal to a transcendent base for the interpretation of all human experience, including language. For Eliot, though, the modern consciousness of subjectivity precluded the possibility of such a transcendent base, making the kind of unifying system of thought and emotion presented in Dante’s Commedia impossible. In The Waste Land Eliot repeatedly invokes Dante, in an almost masochistically negative fashion (as he did in “Prufrock”), to illustrate the consequences of this impossibility – the modern absence of compassion or sympathy, the subjective privacy of the act of interpretation, and the radical inability of the poet to construct a redemptive vision of society.

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