AD 1302 – Dante Alighieri is exiled from Florence amidst political tumult, settling in Ravenna to construct his epic. Dante’s displacement among his statesmen catalyzes the formation of The Divine Comedy, as he inserts his contemporaries–even the pope–amongst textual fire and brimstone and himself as a special, panoramic-sighted, nearly omniscient narrator, identifying both social and ethical issues and placing its representatives in their respective spiritual spaces, relative to Dante’s biases (of course). Nonetheless, Dante’s readers were never able to read themselves basking in heaven, struggling in purgatory, or scorching in hell; The Divine Comedy would not be published for another 150 years.
T.S Eliot was not escaping political conflict, but like Dante, his geographical movement, all-seeing transcript, and subsequent moral high ground seeps through this (much shorter) epic poem. While Eliot attempts to equalize himself with the reader, and therefore takes a stab at humility with lines like “You! Hypocrite lecteur!--mon semblable,--mon frere!” (Eliot 76), Eliot’s frequent integration of Dante’s epic suggests harmony with the dismissed poet; Eliot’s apparent dismissal of both low-culture and capacious sexuality seals this relationship, too. However, Eliot’s contemporaries need not wait 150 years to imagine themselves chasing the banners in hell, publication of The Waste Land in both the Criterion (England) and later the Dial (U.S) ensured, much like Dante and Eliot’s movement, the poem would act as a circulatory, transatlantic staple.
So, with this moral and geographical framework in mind, I posit the following questions for this week’s discussion:
1. How did the publication of The Waste Land both mirror and depart from The Divine Comedy? What does Eliot’s reliance on such a text/author suggest about his own movement?
2. Considering both texts’ overtly spiritual schema, how did readers, and more specifically religious sects, on either side of the Atlantic respond differently to critiques of social/moral issues?
3 With Eliot later renouncing his American citizenship (1927), how might reading of The Waste Land change some years after publication for U.S readers?
4. What other allusions in Eliot’s piece might parallel moral shifts with physical movement? How do these speak to the modern situation?