not directly related to the subject at hand, though
Dante as Guide to Eliot’s Competing Traditions
By Dr. Randy Malamud
Several years ago I published an essay called ‘Shakespeare/Dante and Water/Music in The Waste Land’; in Florence I want to
extend the consideration begun in that earlier discussion. My intent was (and remains) to show how Eliot’s poetry invites a reader-response approach: s/he who most clearly sees and hears Dante amid the poem’s cacophony of voices and songs, and who chooses Dante as the guide through this terrain, will be the better reader; other allusions and myths are, in large part, red herrings – wrong choices. I believe that what I posited about The Waste Land holds true across Eliot’s poetic oeuvre. I will apply Eliot’s extensive (and, we all know, strongly self-reflexive) commentary on Dante to illustrate how he wants us to hear, and use, and respond to Dante’s resonance throughout his own poetry.
What precisely is ‘Eliot’s European tradition’ that this symposium proposes to explore, and how does it involve Dante? How does his European sensibility relate to (and diverge
from) his English sensibility? His American sensibility? His Eastern sensibility? His Christian sensibility?
I am especially interested in the extent to which Eliot’s European tradition resists, even excludes, an English tradition. The tension of Dante vs. Shakespeare as described in my previous essay, indeed, more generally plays out as Europe vs. England. I will explore how and why the poet who worked so devoutly to transform himself from an American into an Englishman in the 1910s and 1920s worked, seemingly paradoxically, to venerate a European tradition in his poetry in a way that, frequently, pointedly excluded England.
Throughout his career (even years before he arrived in London) Eliot was writing ‘English’ poetry, ensconced in the voice, the temperament, the topoi and topography, the
aesthetic and history of his adopted country; so whence this Anglophobia? Eliot fled England when the Margate airs proved unable to cure his emotional ailments, finding refuge and healing in continental Europe. So, too, his poetry, both before and after The Waste Land, enacts a recurrent dismissal of Englishness in favor of Europe. Perhaps, given that Eliot’s poetic is one of alienation, it makes sense that it is chary of the English tradition at the same time that it is so firmly planted in England, and so it strains for a foundation elsewhere – in the textuality of Europe, and Dante.