Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled…

I’ve been for a couple of months already systematically reading the Comedy. Even though it has been hard work, I only regret not to have done it before. As an Eliot fan, reading Dante and discovering the references in their context and not as isolated quotes has been very enriching. It makes a lot of difference!

I know I can be very repetitive and have already been posting a lot on Dante and The Waste Land, but what can I do? I’m now reading Dante and like the Waste Land a lot, so for the time being I don’t foresee any substantial change of direction.

One of my recent ‘discoveries’ is related to a passage of “The Burial of the Dead”. Here is the text

Unreal City, 60
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. 65
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! 70
‘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?
‘Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
‘Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again! 75
‘You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!’

Now, if we try to make a sort of list of the elements of this passage , from the narrative viewpoint, we can find:

  • Description of the ‘Unreal City’. (60-61)
  • Description of the people (62-68).
  • Description of the impression the place makes on the traveller (63)
  • Recognition of Stetson and dialogue with him (64-76)

If you replace from this list “Unreal City” for “Ring of Hell”, “people” for “damned”, “traveller” for “Dante” and “Stetson” for whomever it is appropriate; this list could can perfectly be a description of the plan of many of the Cantos of Inferno. Of course this is nothing new, even Eliot in his notes tells us about the textual references to Inferno, so you it does not take a lot of effort to discover that. However, I think it is interesting to see that the relation to Inferno goes beyond mere references or even themes: Eliot is using Dante’s pattern to narrate! This, I think, is another element that points in the same direction of the previous post: The Waste Land is Hell.

I know some people dislike this way of approaching a text and would rather prefer to stay on a theme level. Why don’t you just talk about Dante’s damnation and Eliot’s modern life? Why do you have to use disgusting words like  ‘pattern’…? Is there anything less artistic than a pattern…? Probably not, but when I say pattern I’m trying to reflect on how the text is written not just on what it says -maybe the word is a poor choice-. Technique also is a element of art. Probably not the most important one, but it has a role to play.

Dante almost in all the Cantos of Inferno and in most of Purgatorio follows the pattern, but he always makes something new. Sometimes it is Master Virgil the one that reveals the identities of the suffering souls, sometime Dante, and others the damned themselves are the ones that ‘recognize’ Dante and engage in dialogue, like Farinata in the beautiful verses of Canto X:

O Tosco che per la citta del foco
vivo ten vai cosi parlando onesto,
piacciati di restare in questo loco
O Tuscan! You go through the city of fire
alive and speaking as a man of worth.
Come, if you will, and rest in this domain

So the seemingly rigid patterns does not constrain Dante’s creativity. On the contrary it serves him very well in his purpose. It provides him the blueprints in order to build, stone by stone, -and each one carved differently- an enormous monument.

This approach is not entirely my fault: When I was still a teenager a teacher asked me why I liked Dostoyevsky so much. I said I liked his stories, the problems he described in his books, etc… He then asked me if I liked the way he wrote… I did not have an answer. He suggested to read enjoying the stories, but also trying to see how they were written, what elements the author was using, to focus a little bit on formal aspects. He said it would help me to write better. It was a great piece of advise. I don’t know if it improved my style, but it definitely helped me to increase the joy of reading.

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