Dante and Eliot - A Match Made in Purgatory (3/8)

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never able to read themselves basking in heaven, struggling in purgatory, or scorching in hell; The Divine Comedy would not be published for another 150 years.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? 



This is a great set of questions. You do a nice job of tying together the spiritual structures of the Divine Comedy and The Waste Land. I'm also intrigued by how both poems have bases, however direct or tangential, in the authors' own movements and comparative exile. Let's think about that tonight (questions #1 & #4).

#2 & #3 are research questions that might be worth discussing as a possible project topics.


A British writer calling upon an older Italian writer for wisdom. T.S, Eliot has many Transatlantic calls to other European writers and even Eastern writers (Buddist Fire Sermon) for guideposts in writing this poem. Why does he use some of their words and meanings to anchor his poem rather than trying to write a totally original poem? Some modern writers/artist want to totally reject the past, but Eliot doesn't let the past go so easily. Is the past a shadow that humanity can never flee from? Or is it something we must accept and carry into the present? Is it a burden or a guidepost as Eliot uses in his poem?