The Poet and the Pope: Dante and Eliot.


In the works of these two men are two relationships between poetry and faith, between the soul as revealed in the body, and the spirit as revealed in intelligence. Two relationships more or less successfully guided by the teachings of Christ and his body in the world, the Church, and realized in thought, art and life. To caricature them, as the world is wont to do, we might characterize them as the Catholic and the Puritan. These relationships involve on the deepest level the relationship between the heart and the mind: between the words in which thoughts are formed and occur, the reason which guides these thoughts, and the images, ideas and experiences with which these thoughts are concerned.


For experience is emotional, feeling, sensible, a matter of sensibility, in the broad sense of being the subjective experience of physical states, of responses to situations which occur to us in the natural or social worlds in which our time is passed. And this social world includes the experience of relationships with people who no longer live, but whose lives have been recorded in words, whether as writers or characters, subjects or objects, in the various types of writing we call literature, or in the other arts. That our subjective experience, which we describe in terms of ideas, perceptions, emotions and feelings, is of mental and physical states reminds us that the relationship we are describing is that between the mind and the body: between the inner life of consciousness, the spirit, the soul, and the physical or outer, worldly, being.


It is at this mercurial interface between the inner and the outer that experience takes place, and, it might be said, that we actually exist, that we live our lives. Poetry, with its intellectual mode of dealing with emotion, is the voice of this relationship; but it is in music that this relationship is most apparent, between pure intelligence, emotion, and the physical medium in which it is made manifest as an art. But why this analytic excursus? Because when we are talking about the relationship between the faith, art and life of Dante and Eliot we must be clear that we are talking about what they did with their bodies as well as with their minds.


Dante married Gemma Donati and she bore him four children. They were betrothed when Dante was twelve but he had already fallen in love with another girl, Beatrice Portinari. Beatrice died when Dante was in his mid-twenties and he was separated from his wife for good when he was exiled in his mid-thirties. Dante went on to have a number of lovers before achieving a degree of spiritual peace and continence, which he describes as reaching the beatific vision in contemplation. His friend Guido Cavalcanti laments his way of life in this famous sonnet, translated here by Shelley.


Returning from its daily quest, my Spirit
Changed thoughts and vile in thee doth weep to find:
It grieves me that thy mild and gentle mind
Those ample virtues which it did inherit
Has lost. Once thou didst loathe the multitude
Of blind and madding men--I then loved thee--
I loved thy lofty songs and that sweet mood
When thou wert faithful to thyself and me
I dare not now through thy degraded state
Own the delight thy strains inspire--in vain
I seek what once thou wert--we cannot meet
And we were wont. Again and yet again
Ponder my words: so the false Spirit shall fly
And leave to thee thy true integrity.


A comparison with the translation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti shows just how far the cult of literary personality overwhelms that of technique. How inelegant and clumsy is the reversal of subject and object in the second line of Shelley’s poem, the failure to end-stop in line 4, and the Shakespearean archaism of “madding” in line 6, for example? Compare it with Rossetti’s simplicity and lucidity throughout.


I come to thee by daytime constantly,

But in thy thoughts too much of baseness find:

Greatly it grieves me for thy gentle mind,

And for thy many virtues gone from thee.

It was thy wont to shun much company,

Unto all sorry concourse ill inclined:

And still thy speech of me, heartfelt and kind,

Had made me treasure up thy poetry.

But now I dare not, for thine abject life,

Make manifest that I approve thy rhymes;

Nor come I in such sort that thou may'st know.

Ah! prythee read this sonnet many times:

So shall that evil one who bred this strife

Be thrust from thy dishonour'd soul and go.


As Rossetti says, “This interesting sonnet must refer to the same period of Dante's life regarding which he has made Beatrice address him in words of noble reproach when he meets her in The Garden of Eden.” (Purgatorio. C. xxx) Her “second age” in line 125 refers to her untimely death and the guide in 140 is Virgil, who showed Dante through Hell and Purgatory. He represents Philosophy, and Beatrice Theology, who leads him from the Garden of Eden to Paradise, but it is only St. Bernard, who represents contemplation, who can lead Dante through the last heavens, to the ultimate beatific vision of God.


115    "This man was so potentially endowed

          In his new life, that every fine ambition

          Would have been wonderfully fulfilled in him.


         "But how much more robustly rich the soil,

          All the more rank and wild can it become

120     When sown by bad seed and uncultivated.


         "I stayed him with my countenance a while;

          Showing him my youthful eyes, I led him

          Along with me turned in the right direction.


         "No sooner had I stepped onto the threshold

125     Of this my second age and changed my life,          

          But this man left me and sought after others.


         "When I leaped up from flesh and into spirit,

          And beauty and good favor grew in me,

          To him I was less precious and less pleasing,


130    "And he turned his footsteps to untrue ways,

          Pursuing false impressions of the good,

          Which never pay back promises in full.


         "Nor did it help me to win inspirations,

          By dreams and other means, to call him back,

135    So small was the attention that he gave them!


         "He plummeted so low that all the measures

          For his salvation by now fell far short

          Except to show him the people who are lost.


          "For this I faced the gateway of the dead

140     To visit him who guided this man up here

          And tearfully to offer him my prayers.


         "The laws on high of God would have been broken

          If Lethe should be passed and such a potion

          Tasted without there being paid some jot


145     "Of penitence by pouring out fresh tears."


Here she is referring to Dante bursting out into tears when he encounters Beatrice again. Boccaccio would later seal Dante’s reputation as a man with this assessment.


Amid all the virtue, amid all the knowledge, that hath been shewn above to have belonged to this wondrous poet, lechery found most ample place not only in the years of his youth but also of his maturity; the which vice, though it be natural, and common, and scarce to be avoided, yet in truth is so far from being commendable that it cannot even be suitably excused. But who amongst mortals shall be a righteous judge to condemn it ? Not I. Oh the infirmity, oh the brutish appetite of men ! What power cannot women exercise over us when they choose, seeing what great things they can do even when they choose not?


Eliot was puritanical about sex. He was most likely a virgin when he married at twenty-seven and the marriage was a disaster. They separated for good seven years later, his wife Vivien spending the rest of her life in a mental hospital in Stoke Newington. Eliot never visited her. She died when he was sixty and eight years later he married a woman thirty-seven years younger than him. He had never been happier but they had no children. His public “A Dedication to My Wife by T.S. Eliot” is beautiful, and characteristically unorthodox, not least in form.


To whom I owe the leaping delight

That quickens my senses in our wakingtime

And the rhythm that governs the repose of our sleepingtime,

The breathing in unison


Of lovers whose bodies smell of each other

Who think the same thoughts without need of speech

And babble the same speech without need of meaning.


No peevish winter wind shall chill

No sullen tropic sun shall wither

The roses in the rose-garden which is ours and ours only


But this dedication is for others to read:

These are private words addressed to you in public. 


Both men were deep believers and produced the very greatest Christian poetry, but neither seems to have been able to establish normative Christian relations with women, at least not for very long. Perhaps if they had then they would not have had the time or the energy to produce their master works? Perhaps they couldn’t because they were pre-occupied with their gifts? In fact what we see in their exemplary lives and works is the problem, at the level of the highest refinement, of the proper integration of the physical and spiritual aspects of man: a problem which may only have been solved very recently, by John Paul II, in his Theology of the Body. We see this disintegration throughout the history of vernacular poetry, from its emergence with the Troubadours, but we have not yet seen its true integration in literature. This is the work which lies before those artists who are inspired by his vision.


Copyright © Andrew Thornton-Norris, 2010. All rights reserved.