A friend sent me this short article on the TWL hyacinth garden scene that
made a connection to Dante that I hadn't seen before. Perhaps it will be of
interest to the list.
-- Steve --
.................. I could not 38
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither 39
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, 40
Looking into the heart of light, the silence. 41
In The Waste Land, the lines quoted above follow the famous "hyacinth girl"
lines, and the entire passage, framed as it is by the verses from Wagner's
Tristan und Isolde, is clearly suggestive of the paralysis of love. After
Eliot's death in 1965, many comments appeared in print, suggesting a
homosexual interpretation of the hyacinth girl passage, specifically claiming
that the hyacinth girl lines are a veiled reference to Eliot's affection for
a young Frenchman, Jean Verdenal, who was killed in a naval battle in 1915.
(In 1917 Eliot dedicated his first book of poems to the memory of Verdenal.)
Other critics have tried to refute this interpretation, and it seems to me
that in the debate an important point has (to the best of my knowledge) been
overlooked so far.
Lines 38-41 are a conflation of lines or images from the last cantos of
Dante's Inferno and Paradiso. In his essay on Dante, too, Eliot focused on
these two cantos simultaneously by suggesting that the ending of Paradiso
"repairs any failure" of the ending of Inferno. He also claimed that the last
canto of Paradiso is "the highest point that poetry has ever reached." Some
of the specific links between Eliot's and Dante's lines follow: "I was
neither / Living nor dead" is the exact equivalent of "lo non mori, e non
rimasi vivo" (Inferno, XXXIV, 25). The Italian line represents Dante's sense
of fear and paralysis when he sees Lucifer, and this terrifying vision at the
end of Inferno needs to be related to the luminous vision at the end of
Paradiso: ". . . ficcar lo viso per la Luce eterna, / tanto che la veduta vi
consunsi!" (Paradiso, XXXIII, 83-84). ["I fixed my gaze on the eternal fight
so deeply that my entire vision was consumed in it."] "I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light" is the equivalent of Dante's vision being
consumed in the eternal light, and the overall notion of suspended being in
"I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed" is the counterpart of "Cosi la
mente mia tutta sospesa, / mirava fissa, immobile ed attenta . . . "
(Paradiso, XXXIII, 97-98) ["Thus with wholly suspended mind, 1 stared
fixedly, motionless and intent . . . "] The notion of subdued speech and
vision is also present in the same canto (11. 56 and 61-62).
Paradiso ends with the famous last line: "l'Amor che move il sole e l'altre
stelle" ["the love that moves the sun and the other stars"]. In the overall
scheme of The Divine Comedy, the vision at the end of Inferno, representing
the ultimate failure of love as personified by Lucifer, and the vision at the
end of Paradiso, focusing on the redemptive power of love, jointly indicate
the polarities of love and its transcendent potential.
By conflating Dante's concluding visions in the opening section of his own
poem, Eliot may be suggesting that the hallmark of the modem waste land is
indeed the paralysis of love. Whether the love is homosexual or heterosexual
is not the crucial issue. The crucial point is that the images of the waste
land that appear after lines 38-41 are a consequence of the breakdown of love
in all its different meanings.
If lines 38-41 are viewed exclusively as a statement by a modem voice, they
may remain bogged down in controversy involving Eliot's personal fife. Seen
as an allusive conflation of lines from The Divine Comedy, they take on a
universal significance that enhances our understanding of The Waste Land.
P. K. SAHA, Case Western Reserve University