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. Anthony Cuda

By the Light of Virgil’s Lantern

The well-known 1929 volume seems to be the most substantive of T. S. Eliot’s three essays on Dante, but many might be surprised to discover his claim, in an unpublished letter sent to theologian Paul Elmer More a few years later, that the volume “is not literary criticism” at all but rather “a simple account of my own experience.” His most original contribution to Dante studies, Eliot suggests, is “possibly a few hints about the Vita Nuova, which seems to me of capital importance for the discipline of the emotions.”
In my research on modernist passions, I have found that the theory of affective discipline that Eliot adapts from Dante is directly related to his thinking about creativity and aesthetics. This essay explores how Eliot turns to the opening scenes of the Vita Nuova and to the famous lantern simile in Purgatorio XXII [“‘Facesti come quei che va di notte,’” Statius says to Virgil, “‘che porta il lume dietro’”] to understand the artist’s visionary blindness, the ways that the poet’s creative passions paradoxically bar him from a full understanding of his own work. Drawing from Eliot’s intensive work on Dante’s predecessors—Richard of St. Victor, Thomas Aquinas, and the Pseudo-Dionysius—I show how he transforms the medieval notion of the soul as instrumentum into a modern theory of disciplined creativity and poetic personality. My findings challenge contemporary misunderstandings of modernist “impersonality,” reveal several unaddressed points of convergence between Eliot and W. B. Yeats, and demonstrate that Eliot’s most compelling insights into the Commedia pertain not only to conscious emotional discipline but to the ways that creativity relies upon largely unconscious forces, what he calls the “deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being.”

Anthony Cuda
Assistant Professor
University of North Carolina, Greensboro
(404) 783-2536

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