Dantean themes are at work on a deeply significant and formative level in the aesthetics of The Waste Land. Let me introduce a few of the ghostly allusions to Dante. The opening reference to the cruelty of April “mixing / Memory and desire” (lines 2-3), for example, recalls the lament of Francesca, caught with her lover Paolo in Hell’s whirlwind of lust in Inferno, Canto V. The allusion is relevant to Eliot’s aesthetic in the way that it suggests a relationship between the Hell of desire experienced by Dante’s lovers and the poet’s Hell of desire, which imprisons creativity. In Dante’s text, the pilgrim addresses Francesca, asking her to revisit the doloroso passo or “painful/sorrowful passage” (which is also the
“fateful moment” of which their current predicament is the result) when the lovers succumbed to their desires, and a connection to the art of poetry is suggested in Francesca’s reference to Virgil. Francesca begins: Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice ne la miseria; e ciò sa ‘l tuo dottore (Inferno 5:121-123), or “There is no greater pain than to remember a happy time in misery, and this your teacher knows” (my translation). While the doloroso passo also echoes the dangerous pass from Canto 1 which the poet has just nearly escaped, il suo dottore refers to Virgil, implicating the vocation of poet; and, because he is writer of the destroyed love between Dido and Aeneas, the passage also suggests the poet’s familiarity with the maggior dolor of memory and desire with which Aeneas leaves Carthage and the poet’s familiarity with the doloroso passo of love, in general, as a preliminary passage that encourages the transformation of the poet along the trajectory of the adventure narrative.
Great glory to you, critic, for bringing up this argument. I must ponder it awhile before I proceed.