Although he was friends with Groucho Marx, T.S. Eliot is not usually considered a comedian. His appearance was described as “liturgical.” He was buttoned up. So much so that Virginia Woolf once quipped about him, “Tom will be here in his six piece suit.” Nevertheless, Eliot was capable of real buffoonery. Writing ribald verse for the entertainment of drinking buddies, he also enjoyed making others uncomfortable by playing a morose clown—overdoing his own starchy persona on purpose. He used to attend Bloomsbury parties, for example, wearing green pancake makeup to look more cadaverous. It is not this form of comedy, however to which I am referring. Instead I mean that T.S. Eliot—consciously or not—echoed the Commedia of his great mentor Dante.
From his earliest years as a poet Eliot revered Dante, considering him to be the great master. In a speech to the Italian Institute in 1950 he said, “I do not think I can explain everything [about my debt to Dante] but I regard his poetry as the most persistent and deepest influence upon my own verse.”
Dante’s progress through the Inferno, the purgation of Mount Purgatorio and the final bliss of Paradise is reflected in the complete oeuvre of Eliot. The poetic pilgrims’s progress was conscious in Dante. He created a complex, structured, three-tiered universe representing not only a Christian cosmology, but a map of the individual Christian soul-journey. As Dante leaves this world in a dark wood to travel down into the dark, so the true start of the soul’s journey is into the dark. Then realizing our need for purification we move through the purgatorial fires to find a final peace.
Eliot’s hell is, of course, The Waste Land. The most famous quote from Dante in The Waste Land is in the section “The Burial of the Dead.” Contemplating the city of London, the poet calls it an “unreal city” and muses, “… 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.” In a note Eliot points the reader to Dante’s work in lines 55-56 of Canto III of The Inferno.
The poet also hears from the crowds flowing over London Bridge “sighs, short and infrequent were exhaled.” Eliot points to Canto IV of The Inferno where from the unbaptized no complaint was heard “except sighs, which caused the eternal air to tremble.” Jennifer Bertrand has observed that the sinners are ambivalent about belief and yet long to believe. At the heart of The Wasteland is the despair and emptiness of non-belief. Eliot’s own life at the time is characterized by financial insecurity, estrangement from his family, the inescapable horror of his marriage to the mentally unstable Vivienne Haigh Wood, and his own emotional breakdown.
If The Wasteland reflects the hell of Eliot’s own life and the emotional and moral emptiness of modern Europe, the poet’s Purgatorio can be seen in the poems which come after The Wasteland. Eliot’s 1925 poem The Hollow Men is a transition from The Wasteland to a place of reconciliation. Echoing the despair and emptiness of The Wasteland— The Hollow Men reverberates with a kind of Christian longing. While there is talk of the dead lands, death’s twilight kingdom, the hollow valley and dying stars, there is also the thumping reminder, increasing like an insistent echo, of the words of the Paternoster….“For Thine is the Kingdom.” The Hollow Men also reflects the state of Eliot’s own pilgrimage. He was on his way from his own hollowness to the fullness of Christian belief.
Eliot was baptized in the June of 1927, and it was for Christmas 1927 that he began writing what would eventually be called his Ariel poems—Journey of the Magi, A Song for Simeon, Animula, and Marina. In these poems the poet is intentionally Christian. As “Thine is the kingdom” pounds at the end of The Hollow Men, so liturgical phrases, Biblical allusions, and Catholic imagery reverberate through these poems. More importantly, the theme of the Ariel poems are penitential. The Magi going on their long hard journey to meet the Redeemer, the old man Simeon sighing with grief and relief at the coming of the child king, the straining to understand in Animula and the sighing of the sorrowful sailor in Marina all sing of a soul that has begun the joyful but harrowing ascent of Mount Purgatory.
The great poem Ash Wednesday, written in 1930, completes what might be seen as his Purgatorio cycle of poems. In a study for Penn State University Press Audrey Rodgers explicates Eliot’s use of Dante’s structure in Ash Wednesday but the structure is secondary to the themes of the two great poems. From the opening lines, Eliot’s poem is about turning. He will turn away from ambition, away from the search for power, away from base desires. Only slightly shorter than The Wasteland, but much sounder in invention, construction, intention and completion, Ash Wednesday is the more powerful poem and one which deserves wider understanding and appreciation.
Eliot’s Four Quartets complete his comedy as Paradiso completed Dante’s. Four beautifully structured and sublime poems of the spirit, Four Quartets move beyond poetry as Beethoven’s final quartets “move beyond music.” Structured around four significant places in Eliot’s life, these places evoke memorial moments when the bondage of time lifted and the boundaries of place were broken. Eternity seeped into Eliot’s life through these moments, and he captures the essence of the ephemeral eternal moment as a wizard might capture starlight in a crystal phial.
In Burnt Norton Eliot recalls a visit to the garden of a ruined country home with his college friend and possible spouse Emily Hale. Burnt Norton burns with the sweet nostalgia of what might have been, and this possible life sparks a meditation on the mystery of time, choice, and the suspension of time through the mystery of contemplation. In East Coker Eliot draws more deeply into the past and visits the Somerset village of his ancestors. Eliot’s ashes lie in the ancient church of East Coker and his visit looks forward to his end as he contemplates his beginning. Mortality and the whisper of eternity echo through the poem and lead to The Dry Salvages.
The third poem of the quartet re-visits Eliot’s childhood on the Mississippi and sailing off the coast of Massachusetts. Memories of his early years merge with the mystery of the sea and the fragility of life swamped by the surging of the cosmos. In Little Gidding Eliot visits a tiny church around which a simple Christian community once centered. This visit takes the reader to the point of contemplation to “kneel where prayer had been valid.” Taking flight, the poet ends in a mystical point of reconciliation and peace. As the climax of Paradiso comes with an apprehension of love at the heart of all things, so Little Gidding leaves us with “a condition of complete simplicity (Costing not less than everything)” where at last “all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well, When the tongues of flame are enfolded in the crowned knot of fire, And the fire and the rose are one.”
A comedy is a story with a happy or just ending, and Eliot’s comedy thus enjoys the happiest of endings. Written at the end of his own long journey—“the ways deep and the weather sharp” Eliot, like Dante, reminds each reader that the quest for beauty, truth and goodness demands a descent into the dark, a purifying climb and peace at the last.”
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