Eliot and Dante
April 6, 2005

A discarded fragment from a paper:

Virtually any passage of Eliot, even the briefest, would serve for hours of source-checking. Let me offer a brief interpretation of the closing lines of Part I of The Waste Land. The whole section is entitled ‘The Burial of the Dead.’ The final section, following on and growing out of a scene in a Tarot-reader’s parlor, describes a city, an ‘unreal city.’ Eliot writes,

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: ‘Stetson!
You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
‘O keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
‘Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
You! Hypocrite lecteur! - mon semblable, - mon frere!

The poet is describing people streaming across London Bridge on the way to work in the business and financial district around King William Street. St. Mary Woolnoth, a church once designated for demolition but eventually saved, tolls out the hours. But this is not a medieval scene, where the streaming crowds are being summoned for prayer. The church has become a timekeeper for the capitalist modern city, striking nine not with the announcement of resurrection or life, but with a ‘dead sound.’

Eliot’s notes to his poem draw our attention to two lines drawn from Dante. As the poet observes the crowds in London, he laments ‘I had not thought death had undone so many,’ echoing Dante’s words in Inferno 3.55-57: ‘si lunga tratta/ di gente, ch’io non avrei mai creduto/ che morte tanta n’avesse disfatta’ (‘So long a train of people, that I should never have believed death had undone so many.’ These come at the end of Dante’s description of the souls in the vestibule of Hell, where Dante observes the souls chasing ‘a kind of banner/ rushing ahead, whirling with aimless speed/ as though it would not ever take a stand’ (ll. 52-54). Virgil explains that ‘this wretched state of being/ is the fate of those sad souls who lived a life/ but lived it with no blame and with no praise’ (ll. 34-36). Heaven rejects them to ‘keep its beauty,’ while Hell itself shuts them out lest ‘the damned might glory over them’ (ll. 40, 42). Dante watches ‘wretches, who had never truly lived’ who ‘went naked, and were stung and stung again/ by the hornets and wasps that circled them,/ and made their faces run with blood in streaks’ (ll. 63-67). They are in such a state of meaninglessness that they envy even those being tortured in Hell, who at least have the dignity of being held responsible for their sins (ll. 46-48). Such, Eliot suggests, are the inhabitants of modern London, neither hot nor cold, moving like creatures from the Night of the Living Dead to their deadening jobs listening to the ‘dead sound’ of the tolling bells.

The overt allusion to Dante casts light all the way back to the beginning of the poem, and it becomes clear that Eliot has been describing the condition of modern man by as one of ‘accedia.’ In the epigram to The Waste Land, he invokes the Sibyl of Cumae who, suspended between heaven and earth, between death and life, longs only to die. In reaching back to the Sibyl, Eliot’s allusions to the Comedy also forge a link with the Aeneid, in which the Sibyl’s cave is the gateway for Aeneas to enter the underworld. Eliot thus weaves the original intertextual linkages between Dante and Virgil (and thence to Homer) into the texture of his own poem. Further, the state of living death that Eliot describes at the end of ‘The Burial of the Dead’ links with the opening lines, in which various voices dread the coming of spring ‘as a cruel disturbance of their emotional hibernation or buried life.’E A further allusion layer is added by the hint in Inferno 1.22-29 where the slothful, those in the grip of accedia, are identified with the Israelites who refused to enter the land of promise, preferring, out of fear, to remain in the liminal wilderness. London is thus simultaneously the vestibule of hell, the wilderness of Israel’s exodus, and the living death of the Sibyl.

Eliot’s description of the living dead is also taken from Dante. ‘Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,/ And each man fixed his eyes before his feet’ comes from Inferno 4.25-27: ‘Quivi, secondo che per ascoltare,/ non avea pianto, ma’ che di sospiri,/ che l’aura eterna facevan tremare’ (‘Here there was no plaint, that could be heard, except of sighs, which caused the eternal air to tremble’). In Canto 4, Dante has entered Hell proper, and is observing the souls in the first circle, Limbo, the habitation of virtuous pagans and unbaptized infants. These are the ‘sighs of untormented grief.’ These souls have not sinned, yet ‘they did not know Baptism’ and ‘did not worship God the way one should’ (ll. 35, 37).

In addition to these overt references to Inferno, Eliot’s description of the ‘brown fog of a winter dawn’ points ahead in the Comedy to the final canto of Inferno where weak light comes through a putrid fog around the ice-encased traitors (34.4-6). Eliot’s description of the Londoners as those who walk ‘eyes before his feet’ is also reminiscent of the sinners in the ninth circle, who are bent double in the ice (34.13-15). Eliot thus links together the vestibule of Hell to the lowest circle, suggesting that there is an inner connection between the two regions. Eliot, in short, not only enriches his own poetry by these intertextual echoes of Dante, but creates a new insight that is not present in the original text, but which is consistent with Dante’s vision. Eliot makes explicit what is never made explicit in Dante: Those who refuse to choose either good or evil, the lukewarm who inhabit the vestibule, are traitors, traitors to life.

We could go on and on, which is just the point. As Eliot said of Dante, a poem can have an impact even before the reader understands it. Certainly, the unreal city of Eliot’s poem would be recognizably dejecting for any English-speaker, even if he had never been in London, never read Dante or Baudelaire, and never participated in a fertility rite. But there is much missing, and the reader who does not have Dante would clearly be missing part of the author’s intended meaning.

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