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)

info@fondazione-delbianco.org

Author : Dr. David Summers

Paradise Tossed: The Truncated Dantean Pilgrimage in Eliot’s Major Poems


This study explores how the trajectory of Eliot’s major poems follows a Dantean arc, from the early Pruforckean and Waste Land with their allusions and overtones connected to The Inferno, though the purgatorial motifs of the Ariel poems, Ash Wednesday, and much of the Four Quartets. This trajectory suggest a promise of some modernist version of Paradisio as the culmination of those poems in the Eliot canon that seem part of a narrative of spiritual pilgrimage. While Four Quartets aim in that direction, the concluding lines of “Little Gidding” evoke only a hint of a Dantean beatific vision, and instead defer such a vision in favor of an ongoing, perhaps ceaseless, wandering. Pilgrimage gives way to endless exploration. How shall we account for this? The most inviting answer, perhaps, is to argue for the impossibility of a real beatific vision in a modernist context. And yet that argument would assume a degree of philosophical shaping of Eliot’s poetic canon that is own critical practice disowns. In his essay “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca” (1927), Eliot objects to thinking about Dante as a philosopher poet—the organic unity and depth of theo-philosophical thought of Dante’s Commedia results not from Dante’s own quality as a thinker, but because “it happened that at Dante’s time thought was orderly, strong and beautiful . . . the thought behind it is the thought is the thought of a man as great and lovely as Dante himself: St. Thomas.” Perhaps it is simply the shape of modernism that prevents Eliot from writing a “Little Gidding” that represents a more Dantean vision of paradise, or is Eliot’s own practice a more thorough blend of philosophical thought and poetic practice than his own critical stance would make room for? This essay argues that Eliot’s assessment of Dante as a non-philosophical poetic is undermined by Eliot’s own poetic practice, as seen in Four Quartets. Eliot’s attempt for separate Dante from Aquinas, assigning to one thought and to the other poetry, is belied by his own uniting of culture criticism, philosophy, and poetry in the Dantean trajectory and spirit of the late Eliot poetry.


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