Strangers and Pilgrims

Season 1 – Death of the Prophet Joseph Smith

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T.S. Eliot and a passage from Dante

Section 3 of T.S. Eliot's poem Ash-Wednesday was originally published as a stand-alone poem in Autumn 1928.  When it was published by itself, it was given the title "SOM DE L'ESCALINA".  This translates to, roughly, "Summit of the Stairs."

The narrative of the poem is about someone walking up a set of stairs.  The title of the poem comes from a line in Dante's Divine Comedy:

Ara vos prec per aquella valor
'que vos guida al som de l'escalina,
'sovegna vos a temps de ma dolor.'
Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina.

This passage translates to:

"Now I petition you, by that kind Power
Escorting you to the summit of the staircase,
At the appropriate time, recall my pain.”
Then he hid himself in the refining fire.

That last line of that poem, Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina, is found untranslated in the last stanza of T.S. Eliot's poem The Wasteland -- line 427.

Eliot referenced that last line in a critical essay he wrote titled Dante.  Regarding that last line he says:

. . .the errors of Arnaut are corrected - Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina.

He led up to this quote by saying:

A variety of passages might illustrate the assertion that no emotion is contemplated by Dante purely in and for itself. The emotion of the person, or the emotion with which our attitude appropriately invests the person, is never lost or diminished, is always preserved entire, but is modified by the position assigned to the person in the eternal scheme, is coloured by the atmosphere of that person’s residence in one of the three worlds. About none of Dante’s character is there that ambiguity which affects Milton’s Lucifer. The damned preserve any degree of beauty or grandeur that ever rightly pertained to them, and this intensifies and also justifies their damnation.

This commentary on the completeness of Dante's characters in his Divine Comedy reminds me of Shakespeare's success with characters -- that he created whole men and women. Independent of themselves.  Whose emotions are 'preserved entire'.