Chaucer's Dante in Eliot's Waste Land & Other Observations
Murphy, Russell Elliott, Yeats Eliot Review
CERTAINLY it is possible by now to speak no longer just of T.S. Eliot's contributions to the practice and interpretation of poetry but more of his legacy to same, by which one would mean how modernist technique has permanently altered the study of poetry and therefore its very efficacy as a social and cultural medium.
Indeed, thanks to the likes, in English, of poets like Eliot, Ezra Pound, and the later W.B. Yeats, we can now summarize the entire modernist movement as one that was motivated by and, in many ways, only served to further generate a crisis of meaning. Hon global that crisis was in terms of the fields of human knowing affected, let alone what its causes and other consequences were and may still continue to be, will not be the subject of the following considerations. Limiting considerations here instead to Eliot's canon alone, we find that the caliber of the poet and critic that he was challenged not merely his readers but himself as well with what has to be the ultimate epistemological question, and that is whether the meaning of any human experience, however it may be expressed, can in any way, manner, or form be satisfactorily derived from the resources of language. While this philosophical posture may be a commonplace with which we the living now happily cope, such a withering prospect had not been anywhere in view, except perhaps among the very well-closeted few--the so-called advance thinkers--before the advent of the 20th century, and the prospect most definitely found a secure locale for itself in the burgeoning of that aesthetic and critical movement called modernism, which then inoculated popularculture with the germ of an idea best kept to oneself: That nothing may mean anything, and anything may mean everything
We have lost the security of certainties that we did not know we had, and replaced them with the subtleties of persistent contradicting, very much like an Eliot quatrain.
So, then, the most puzzling aspects of Eliot's poetry for his contemporaries are now for us their most obvious: His questioning the meaning of meaning, both as the significance of an experience and as the significance that one can assign to experience.
Philosophical idealism, according to which being is not knowing is not being, and a symbolist aesthetic, whereby all things are merely infinitely translatable signs obscuring a singularly inchoate mystery, both gripped his imaginative and intellectual instincts as a young man. His turn ultimately toward the window of the noumenal, darkened though that glass may be, in his quest for a satisfactory vision of a human life as an event that is purposefully directed makes sense therefore not as any socio-cultural strategy on his part, or as a neo-conservative reversion to traditional orthodoxies, but as one made on the basis of a personal intellectual and spiritual necessity that then, quite simply, became reflected in his poetry, a poetry which groped rather than ruminated, lurched rather than flowed. In starts and stops he sought coherence in incoherence, sense in nonsense, meaning in manner, as if the inaccessible core of understanding was a stone in his shoe, a thorn in his side, a wound in his heart.
If we start and end there--with the age-old given that the poet, no matter how objectified by allusion and other public considerations the resulting compositions may seem to be, can write out of nothing more or less than his or her personal experiences--we begin and end where Eliot himself started when he famously argued for a separation between the man who suffers and the mind which creates. A separation, after all, is not a sundering; rather, it is a distillation.
Whether it was Pound's images or Yeats's symbols or Eliot's allusions, they were all devices intended to serve one purpose and one purpose only, and that was to conceal personal pain and hopes and fears and feelings, beliefs, opinions, and dislikes, so that they, as poets, might not appear to be merely continuing to lament human unsuccess as all of the preceding generations of poets have only ever done. That perennial human lamentation reached such an insurmountable apex of justified complaint with poets such as the English Romantics that one cannot help but wonder how the modernists could have stumbled upon any other solution to such an impasse to any further eschatological agonizing than to skirt it with what, to many, seems to this day to be their rather cold, intellectual, stylized, and formal nonchalance. There is no problem because there is no meaning, at least not in poetry, except, of course, the meaning that there is none, a point which nonetheless must be demonstrated and proved if it is to be paid any attention.
And so, too, the criticism of their corpuses continues to pursue their vision elsewhere, in the obscurities of subtleties, as if its tone of a bitter disappointment with all previous modes of making sense were all too obvious to mean exactly what it seems to. If Byron and Shelley and Keats, Wordsworth and Coleridge, could not come up with any worthwhile meaning for it all, but at least decry their helplessly heroic efforts to nonetheless try to do so, and Tennyson only ruminate, Browning wear masks, what was there left for Eliot's generation to do but utter, for the unschooled, an elegant gibberish masquerading as a new poetry masquerading as social criticism?
That is not to say that the many products of modernism are gibberish, far from it. But readers from their times to ours most generally regard them as such, and unless we leave a critical record acknowledging that serious cultural problem as a serious cultural problem, we will not have done them--in this case the poets as much as their works--the justice that we, among the last of a generation that could still somehow somewhat appreciate the source of their despair, a despair that engendered a cultural nostalgia from which it seems to be impossible to awaken, must do them for our own sake, as well as for the future's.
In an effort to explore the titillation that a poet like Eliot was able to arouse in readers by forever hinting but never ever really saying (even when, in the poetry from Ash Wednesday and beyond, he, in fact, finally did have "something to say"), the remainder of this present excursus will attempt to explicate two hitherto unrecorded and apparently unrelated allusions in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. The first, from Chaucer, is literary in nature, the second, regarding the pedigree of Phlebas, is historical. Each seems to point towards some common meaning still to be discovered but apparently intended, as if the poet's aim is to point his readers in a direction they cannot go but cannot either ignore, rather like the essential nature of experience itself, a circle that only seems to be continuously repeating itself, because we cannot hope to turn, but must turn because we will, whether we wish to or not. The hope is that the attempted explicaltion will not reveal Eliot's meaning but rather his effort not to conceal it so much that it is hidden. Instead his aim seems to have been to have left it accessible to discovery so that, rather like experience itself again, the reader comes upon it not as the poet's, but as his own.
Whether or not that was Eliot's conscious agenda is not the issue, nor should it be. That it was a positive result of the modernist agenda--the hope that if there is meaning, it does not require rendering, only revelation--may be a way for us now to reconstruct poetry and the study of poetry on the foundation of the elegant ruins of Western culture that the modernists, in their relentless public search for personal truths rendered in wholly private terms, left behind. Knowing that the past could not be known in terms of itself, modernists such as Eliot, Yeats, and Pound sought to know it in terms of themselves, not as scholars or archaeologists but as individuals who, if they had been themselves alive then in the midst of those past deeds, would see it, without abandoning a mind shaped by those very values they would be seeking to know and comprehend as if firsthand. To be and not be, know and not know, have and not have, were the stresses upon which the only apparently fragmentary edifices of modernism relied for their continued stability, and no one perfected that tenuous line stretching between the living moment and dead values than T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land, an objective mind traversing the murky landscape of subjectified bewilderments, hoping to find somewhere in all those hesitant steps the tracery of the persistence of meaning not as something knowable, but as something longed for.
So, then, to begin at the end, in late May 1959, T.S. Eliot was awarded the Dante Gold Medal at London's Italian Institute on behalf of the people of Florence.
Any devotee of this celebrated modernist's achievements would not have been surprised by the respect being paid Eliot by these representatives of the Italian people. It was itself reciprocal for the honor and respect that he had consistently paid Italian culture, through the person of Dante, in both his poetry and his prose criticism from virtually the start of his literary career.
In an earlier lecture delivered at the same Italian Institute in London on July 4, 1950, entitled "What Dante Means to Me," Eliot would convincingly admit to regarding Dante's poetry "as the most persistent and deepest influence upon my own verse." Even had he not happily admitted as much, the extensive record of Eliot's debt to Dante would have made the argument in any case.
Going as far back as to the famous, and unattributed, epigraph from the Inferno that introduces The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, first published in 1915, and continuing on through the allusion to Piccarda di Donati from Canto V of the Paradiso in 1919's "A Cooking Egg"; to the multiple references to the Inferno and the Purgatorio in 1922 in The Waste Land, including its allusion to Dante in the dedication to Ezra Pound as il miglior fabbro; to the allusion to the "multifoliate rose" in 1925's The Hollow Men; to Eliot's loose translation of the passage on l'anima semplicetta from Canto XVI of the Purgatorio that virtually comprises the whole of Eliot's "Animula" in 1929; to Piccarda's reappearance, as well as allusions to La vita nuova, in Ash-Wednesday in 1930; to the crowning homage that Eliot pays the Master, in 1943, in Part III of Little Gidding, in a purgatorial passage in which Eliot replicates the tone, mood, and terzarima of the Commedia, one might almost be led to imagine that the sole purpose of Eliot's corpus was a lifelong celebration of Dante's achievement, that poet who, along with Shakespeare, defined for Eliot what mode of vision and expression constitutes poetry for the modern world. Between those two, Eliot could boldly assert in the late 'twenties, "there is no third."
Indeed, for young English literature students to this day, the attention that Eliot lavished on Dante serves only to enhance the reputation that Dante thus enjoys as a world poet of the very first order. If literary renown is a cultural currency, what greater claim to fame could Dante have for English speakers, after all, than that the man who had made erudition in poetry a standard to be upheld should cite a passage from Dante in the original Italian and not feel the need to identify the source of the passage or its author? That dismissive daring on Eliot's part spoke reams to this writer at least of what a learned person in our time should be, and of how that sort of a consciousness of and abiding respect for the human past was a moral, not an academic, responsibility, if not indeed an unavoidable obligation.
What the Eliot epigraph to Prufrock does to this day, is say that every educated English speaker knows Dante, or at least ought to.
The irony, however, is, while it may be the case now that everyone knows Dante, or at least ought to, it was hardly the case, at least among English speakers, back in 1911 when the twenty-three-year-old Eliot first made such a bold presumption while he was in the process of crafting his Prufrock.
Indeed, nothing could be further from the truth than that Dante enjoyed such an unparalleled celebrity among Eliot's likely readers back in 1911 that Eliot should have felt free to allude to him without attribution.
If anything, there is instead up to that time a rather dismal history of a relative obscurity for Dante among English-language readers that runs for well nigh the length of half a millennium, and as a figure of any genuine literary eminence among English speakers Dante had only just begun to come into vogue within less than a century of the time that Eliot penned the first drafts of Prufrock.
From 1382, when Geoffrey Chaucer first began incorporating his own translations of some 100 lines of Dante in and among his various works, including Troilus and Cressida and the Monk's Tale, until 1528, those one hundred lines were the sum total of translations from Dante in English.
Even then, through the sixteenth and into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the sum was increased by the addition of a line or two here, a line of two there, until 1761, when the first translation of the Inferno, in prose, was accomplished, in England, by Charles Barney, 440 years after the Florentine bard's death in 1321.
It would not be until 1802, nearly five hundred years since the completion of the Commedia in 1321, that Henry Boyd would then publish the first complete translation of Dante's masterwork into English. Of that long overdue accomplishment, Paget Toynbee would later observe that it "is not so much a translation as a paraphrase, in which, to adopt the translator's own phrase, he has introduced 'characteristic imagery' of his own" (xxxv). Thus, honors for the first truly worthy rendering of Dante's La Commedia Divina in English go to the Rev. Henry Francis Cary, whom Toynbee in Dante in English Literature from Chaucer to Cary (1909) identifies as "the connecting-link between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries."
Inspired by translations of lines from Dante by the poet Thomas Gray, "the one man in England in the eighteenth century who appears really to have known and appreciated Dante," according to Toynbee, Cary began a translation in blank verse in 1799:
The Inferno was published in two volumes, together with the Italian text (now for the first time printed in England) in 1805-6; and six years later Cary completed the translation of the whole, which he published at his own expense, in three diminutive volumes, in 1814. The work was received with indifference, and lay neglected and forgotten until 1818, in which year it was highly praised by Coleridge in a lecture on Dante, and was favourably reviewed in the Edinburgh Review. In less than three months a thousand copies of the book were disposed of, and a new edition was called for, which was published in three handsome octavo volumes in the following year. A third edition, also in three volumes, was issued in 1831, and a fourth, in a single volume, in 1844, the year of Cary's 'death. (xxxvii-xxxviii)
It would be worthwhile to isolate for further review a salient feature of Toynbee's observations here, particularly in view of his having noted earlier that it was "[d]uring the eighteenth century [that] the position of Dante in the world of letters began slowly to win recognition in [England]" (xxx). Notice, then, that not only was Dante's Comedy not available in English in a complete and faithful translation until Cary's in 1814, but an edition of Dante's Comedy in Italian had not been published in England till then either. Pressures of the marketplace aside or else front and center, that one must needs purchase his Dante abroad till 1814 or at least see it imported from the Continent bespeaks a provincialism that post-Enlightenment Europeans must have long since themselves outgrown even in the England of figures as cosmopolitan as Lord Byron. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that Dante was clearly not regarded as being of sufficient importance to garner anything more than the passing interest of a poet here, a scholar there.
Toynbee's preliminary review of the slow progress that Dante studies in England in the eighteenth century experienced is worthy then of an equally exacting attention, for it confirms that inference. "In art as well as in literature the influence of Dante began to make itself felt in the eighteenth century in England," Toynbee states, and then continues:
... [A]n artist, Jonathan Richardson ... at the beginning of the century (1719) first translated into English the Ugolino Episode; .. and it was this same episode which some fifty years later furnished the subject for the first picture painted by an English artist from the Divina Commedia. This was the famous oil-painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds of 'Count Ugolino and his Children in the Dungeon, as described by Dante in the thirty-third Canto of the Inferno,' which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1773. So great was the admiration and interest excited by this picture, the subject of which is said to have been suggested by Burke, and which was marked at the time by Horace Walpole in his copy of the Academy catalogue as 'most admirable,' that a writer in the Quarterly Review at the beginning of the next century (1823) declared that 'Dante was brought into fashion in England by Sir Joshua Reynolds' Ugolino.' (xxxv-xxxvi)
So, then, this increasing interest in Dante among the English was not inspired by Dante's literary achievement per se, it would seem, so much as by the lurid tale of Ugolino that is found within the many pages and intricate narrative detail of the Inferno. Toynbee himself expresses a stunned amazement by the relatively universal neglect that Dante suffers nonetheless among English men of letters, despite this popular fascination with the grotesque and the horrible that his name apparently evoked otherwise:
It is somewhat surprising to find that of the most eminent men of letters of the eighteenth century, only two, besides those already referred to [i.e. Horace Walpole and Edmund Burke], so much as mention the name of Dante. These are Johnson and Gibbon. Johnson casually refers to Dante in his Life of Gray in order to controvert a statement of Gray's, and he is reported by Boswell to have remarked upon the similarity between the beginning of the Pilgrim's Progress and that of Dante's poem; while Gibbon has one solitary reference in the sixth volume of his Decline and Fall. Neither Swift, nor Hume, nor Fielding, nor Richardson, nor Sterne, we believe, anywhere mentions Dante, nor, strangest of all, does Burke, in whose Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful (1756) one would certainly have expected to meet with some reference to the Divina Commedia. Boswell was so ignorant of Dante that in his Life of Dr. Johnson he actually quotes three lines from the Inferno at second hand from Redi, as 'by an Italian writer,' without knowing who was the author, though Redi calls him 'divinus poeta.' (xxxvi-xxxvii)
Of course, Toynbee is writing as a Dante scholar of considerable repute to this day, so his amazement is more likely the expression of an embarrassed bewilderment over why individuals of substantial intellect of a preceding generation should be as ignorant of Dante as they indubitably were.
As much to the same point, aside from Thomas Gray's translation of some 77 lines from the Inferno in 1737 and lines from Dante scattered here and there among the poetry of Byron and Shelley, from the time of Chaucer no poet of any truly enduring significance and reputation in English-language literature cared to approach Dante until the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow included some hundred lines from the Purgatorio in 1839 in his Voices of the Night.
Leigh Hunt would translate piecemeal, in 1846 and largely in prose, and other notable versifiers in English such as James Russell Lowell in America and the Rossettis in England would check in again with piece-meal translations in 1859 and 1861 respectively. Longfellow's complete translation of the Commedia, in blank verse, is finally published between 1865 and 1867, marking the passage of nearly 550 years before Dante is rendered fully in a credible English-language translation by an accomplished poet.
That present-day readers of English would not, without some arcane research, be aware of those preceding