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. Irakli Tskhvediani

Dante, Eliot and Joyce: Creating Order out of Chaos


Dante’s influence on James Joyce and T. S. Eliot remained important throughout their writing careers. This influence pervades all Joyce’s and Eliot’s writing. Even though both writers frequently adopted an ironic attitude to some of Dante’s ideas and passages from his works, they were never completely dismissed.
T. S. Eliot’s poems might be thought of as intricate collages, crafted from fragments recalled from the work of earlier authors. Some of the appropriated scraps are unmodified. Others are altered in large or small ways. Critics usually assume that Eliot selected scraps he “liked” but sentiment cannot be the whole story. Many of Eliot’s poems are largely free-wheeling and often comical improvisations on episodes from Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia. Usually, this is by an intricate path that wends its way through many other literary works, a literate variation on stream-of-consciousness. Woven into Eliot’s poems are borrowings from both the chosen passage in Commedia and the secondary work, or chain of works, to which it led. This tendency of combining non-homogenous associations and borrowings from extremely divergent sources alongside with montage-like layering makes it necessary to transform all the elements into an ordered aesthetic whole, in a word, to create order out of chaos. Eliot may have meant to ‘apprentice’ himself to Dante in this sense, to absorb everything possible from the master who intended to place events and details within the framework of carefully designed and tightly woven fabric of the texture, to establish close interconnection between parts, on the one hand, and parts and the whole, on the other.
Like Eliot, Joyce, in the first place, admired Dante as a first-rank craftsman. Dante is the greatest of Catholic poets, the verbal architect of the hierarchical edifice of the church but he was to Joyce what may be termed a ‘committed’ writer, who is never cowed by authority, whose Hell teems with popes and cardinals and bishops displaying every kind of mental aberration. There is nothing saintly or benign about Dante that could make him a useful member of ‘the Church’. Whatever he sees, he describes and judges in its uniqueness, and only then does he place it within the framework of his premeditated system. Concrete instance and general plan seem to be in balance. This could technically be learned from Dante by any writer willing to look for himself rather than relying on the guidance offered by the schoolmen. Thus, far from discarding tradition but equally far from adhering to it in the spirit that was expected from him, Joyce ‘rescued’ from Dante those things that could make him usable for a modern writer.
Dante appealed to Eliot and Joyce as the elegant stylist, erudite poet and careful builder of structures. In Dante they met with writing as composition: each part was interrelated with the others in the totality of the construction. Dante’s Commedia may have provided the germ of Eliot’s and Joyce’s constructive principle.

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