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)



Mafruha Mohua
PhD Candidate
Department of English and Drama
Queen Mary, University of London

T. S. Eliot and Dante: The Anxiety of Romantic Contamination

In 1925 when T. S. Eliot was invited to deliver the 1926 Clark Lectures he confessed to Middleton Murry that he was going through the ‘blackest moment of [his] life’. It appears that it was during this period that Eliot underwent a profound religious crisis, and, therefore, it is not surprising that the Clark Lectures convey more than a trace of that personal turmoil. But as is always the case with Eliot, ever conscious of the need to transform the personal into the impersonal, the Clark Lectures are not simply an account of his personal problems of faith; instead questions of religion and belief are addressed within a larger social, cultural and historical context.
This paper demonstrates that although the purported aim of the lectures was to present a theory of metaphysical poetry, Eliot also examines in the lectures the idea of the European tradition, represented by Dante and the poets of the Italian trecento, and the disintegration of that tradition, represented by Donne and the seventeenth century. Dante’s generation, balancing the classical tradition of Plato and Aristotle and the Catholic tradition of St. Aquinas and Richard of St. Victor, is portrayed by Eliot as representing the apex of European civilization. The seventeenth century, on the other hand, is presented as a chaotic period that marks the beginning of the disintegration of European civilization. This disintegration appears to be the result of a non-classical and non-European influence from the Islamic tradition of Al- Andalus. The paper shows that Eliot’s conception of the superiority of Dante and the trecento is derived from his belief in the importance of a unified and common religio-philosophical system which is wholly classical and, consequently, European. The seventeenth century, under the influence of the ‘Mohammedanized’, and romantic, Society of Jesus, produced a generation of writers who, according to Eliot, colluded in the ‘destruction of European civilization’. The paper suggests that Eliot’s approval of Dante and his disapproval of Donne reveal a politics of reading which contains more than a trace of neo-imperialist attitude towards the ‘other’ and the fear of a contamination of European culture through an Eastern strain.

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