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This report is taken from PN Review 150, Volume 29 Number 4, March - April 2003.

Poets in Paradise: Chaucer, Pound, Eliot Michael Alexander

In the fourth canto of the Inferno Dante has Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan welcome Virgil and then invite him, Dante, to join them. This immodesty is not unjustified: Dante is the first major poet in the new literatures of Europe who can stand comparison with the great ones of antiquity. His work has a greater scope than that of Horace, Ovid and Lucan, and his style has all the terseness of Horace and more authority even than Virgil's. Of subsequent European poets I can read, only Milton has an ambition and stylistic command comparable with Dante's. But Milton's epic suffers at times from the author's egotism and the controversialist nature of his Christianity. Mediaeval Catholicism offered a grand structure strong enough to resist Dante's fierce sense of grievance; which is one reason why his humility seems more genuine than Milton's. Shakespeare is both greater and more humane than Milton, by reason of his profound interest in all sorts of other people and their predicaments, and his ability to forget himself. As befits a dramatist, Shakespeare is also more varied and accessible than the epic poets; though The Odyssey is more varied than Racine.

Varied, humane and accessible are words which apply also to Chaucer, who is the first English poet to place himself in the European tradition. Towards the end of his Troilus and Criseyde, he instructs his `little book' to `kiss the steps whereas thou seest pace / Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan and Stace'. He imitates Dante here (adding the name of Statius), and he ends his poem with a stanza translated from the Paradiso. He learned a great deal from `the wise poete of Florence'. But Chaucer was a king's man, flexible where Dante is unappeasable. Even in his earlier work, Chaucer is consistently more pleasing than austere. Any study of Chaucer's use of Dante issues in a sense of difference, a difference of character as well as of milieu and life-history. One cannot imagine the Florentine at the Tabard Inn. Dante's proud independence of his audience is inimitable to so social a poet as Chaucer. Geoffrey borrows striking or beautiful images and impressive epic furniture from Dante, and at his best transforms them into his own relaxed medium. From Dante he gained also a sense of ambition, grandeur and scope and added some theology to his philosophy. But unlike Dante, Chaucer is chatty. Pound speaks well of `the Chaucerian chuckle'. Yet the unassuming entertainer can be economical, even deadly - like his own smiler with the knife under the cloak. He makes us smile and lower our guard; we may not notice the steel in his throwaway lines. Even at its most graceful or rarefied, the Divine Comedy is all steel.

Passing over 1400-1900, and English poetry, we arrive at two Americans. Eliot and Pound were beneficiaries of the century's rediscovery by the Anglo-Saxons of an Italian author known to Chaucer and Milton. Cary published his complete Divina Commedia in 1819. Richard Garnett wrote in the Dictionary of National Biography that Cary had made Dante an Englishman. A good knowledge of Dante is assumed by Tennyson in his `Ulysses'. But Dante had a more vital impact across the Atlantic. Americans can take naturally to Comparative Literature, having had less of their own, and not being exclusively of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant descent. The Wasp Eliot and the slightly less Wasp Pound were both struck by the unfavourable balance of high culture between the US and Europe. They moved.

Pound used Dante for two purposes: as a source of striking scenes (Bertrans de Born's severed head; Paolo and Francesca) and as an analogical model for the Cantos. Pound's title itself may come from Dante, but Dante's poem is not `a poem of some length'. He knew how long it was going to be: 33 + 33 + 33 + 1 = 100 Cantos, written in terza rima, not in improvised and open forms. The Commedia tells a story, whereas Pound's poem presents a history with an unforeseen end and an undisclosed secret. Pound's poem invokes hell, purgatory and paradise, especially and with great effect towards the end. The title of Thrones is taken from Dante. But Pound knew that his journey was a journey without maps, like that of Columbus, or of Ulysses in Dante's version of Odysseus' last voyage. There was no `Aquinas map'. Heaven, hell and purgatory are accessible to Pound in a cyclical and unpredictable rather than a progressive and ordered way. There is an ascent through the moral virtues in later Cantos, but there is no ladder, no ordered system of belief, and heaven is an earthly and an intermittent paradise lit by a neo-Platonic / Gnostic light, a light symbolic of a principle which Pound does not usually call God, being wary of monotheism and of a personal God. He speaks of the Divine Mind. Goddesses and nymphs can be glimpsed among the temples and trees, and in the Mediterranean. The final visions of the Cantos are among the best things in that great neglected work. (Modern British academics seem to have put the Cantos on the Index of Prohibited Books; they wallow in Finnegans Wake). Pound, then, found Dante a challenge rather than a model which he could imitate. In modern conditions, where Pound thought that the only filing system was the alphabet, the Commedia was an example of what couldn't be done. The Hell Cantos and the Cantos in Italian are not the best Cantos.

Eliot's encounter with Dante seems more thoughtful and considered, less romantic. There is little sign in him of the tendency to reduce Dante to the lover of Francesca da Rimini: the poet of doomed love implied by Browning, but flaming in many a European poem and opera down to D'Annunzio. This Dante is visible in Pound's identification with Bertrans de Born, who loved and wrote and fought and brought division. The most famous thing said about Pound and Dante was said by Eliot: Pound's hell is for other people. After Pisa and St Elizabeth's it became less true. But Eliot's remark implies that he himself knew what hell was from personal experience. Those who read his poetry can sense that knowledge and the unforgiven-ness. In the mid-Twenties, Dante rather than Donne or Baudelaire became Eliot's avowed model. And in the climactic encounter with the `familiar compound ghost' in `Little Gidding', Eliot succeeded at last in combining his two great admirations, writing like Dante and Shakespeare at the same time, if not quite so well.

The great thing Eliot eventually mastered from his imitation of Dante was allegory: to write on two levels simultaneously. The broken king at nightfall in `Little Gidding' is both Jesus and Charles I; the `one who dies blind and quiet' is both John Milton and John the Beloved Disciple. This allegorical writing is attempted painfully in `Ash Wednesday' but is the ruling mode in Four Quartets, which is partly about how life may be both lived temporally and experienced imaginatively sub specie aeternitatis. I once asked Pound if he liked Four Quartets. `If you can take your pleasures sadly enough...' was his weary reply. The allegorical mode of writing goes beyond local symbolism and local ambiguity to a more systematic double narrative or sustained double vision. It is already incipient in the opening of the fifth section of The Waste Land. It is not to everyone's taste. Leavis, for example, couldn't stand the Dante in Four Quartets - an opinion I regard as wrong but stimulating.

To sum up, the example of Dante (to put it at its lowest) lent a discipline and direction to Eliot's natural penetration, a choreography to his agony. To Pound, whose work quotes Dante so often, Dante seems to have been a heroic example of what could be done in another time, but is now available only `in fragments, some of them excellent'.

This report is taken from PN Review 150, Volume 29 Number 4, March - April 2003.

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