Dante in T.S. Eliot, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Flannery O’Connor

Ten years ago, I participated in an NEH Summer Institute at Grambling State University on teaching the Western classics at HBCUs. There, I read, for the first time I might add, Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Christine De Pazan, and others. During the institute, I learned about the connections between African American authors and some of the classics, specifically from Patrice Rankine, author of Ulysses in Black. While I have constantly thought the way I would construct a course that explores those connections, I want to focus on the ways that some recent authors I have taught use references to Dante to illuminate their texts. (I will post a preliminary syllabus on how I would connect the classics and African American texts at some point in the future.)

Many artists and authors since the Divine Comedy‘s appearance in the fifteenth century have referenced Dante’s work and used it as jumping off point for their own creations. Bands like Sepultura and Radiohead allude to Dante, Sepultura doing it specifically with Dante XXI. (I have written about how Dante’s descriptions of music make their way into Sepultura’s album.) Numerous authors, on top of the ones I will discuss today (T.S. Eliot, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Flannery O’Connor) also draw upon Dante in their creations.

interior_dante_divinecomedy_inf_26_245For the epigraph to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Eliot uses lines from Canto XXVII of the Inferno. After speaking with Ulysses in the previous canto, Dante and Virgil encounter Count Guido da Montefeltro, a man condemned to eternal damnation or proving Pope Boniface with treacherous advice. Gudio relates his story to the travelers only because he thinks, like him, they will exist in hell for eternity and never be able to return to the world of the living and retell his story. He tells Dante,

“If I thought my reply were meant for one
who ever could return into the world,
this flame would stir no more; and yet, since none–
if what I hear is true–ever returned
alive from this abyss, the without fear
of facing infamy, I answer you.” (61-66)

Dante, of course, betrays Guido’s trust because we, as readers, hear what the Count says about his actions. This correlation applies to Prufrock as well.

In the poem, we hear Prufrock’s voice as his narrates his journey through the hellish confines of the city in the fog. However, we must consider the poet as the transcriber of Prufrock’s voice and narration. The epigraph leads us towards this interpretation. If this is the case, it would appear that Prufrock does not want us to read about his journey or his (mis)adventures with the ladies who occupy the city. Pufrock’s word, as some critics have argued, is a psychological hell, much like the myriad punishments that reflect the perpetrator’s worldly actions in Dante’s construction of hell in the Inferno.

Judith P. Saunders makes a compelling case about the similarities between “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Gwendolyn Brooks’The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith.” She writes about Brooks’ acknowledgment that Eliot served as an artistic inspiration and about the countless similarities between both poems (length, content, etc.). One difference, of course, comes in the form of the poem’s point of view.

Instead of a first person point of view like “Prufrock,” Brooks tells Satin-Legs Smith’s poem in third person. Saunders notes that Brooks must serve as an intermediary between the reader and Smith. In this way, she performs the same role as Dante does with Guido. Dante conveys Guido’s actions to the reader and serves as a go between. We do not know, unlike Guido, rather or not Satin-Legs Smith wants his story told, but we get his story anyways through Brooks. She tells us about Smith’s travails through the urban hell he lives within as he tries to find some light in his surrounding environment.

Another brief example of Dante appearing in perhaps an unexpected place is in Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation.” This time, instead of referencing Inferno, O’Connor references Purgatorio during Ruby’s vision at the end of the story as sees the train of people ascending towards heaven. Jacky Dumas and Jessica Hooten Wilson suggest that this scene references Canto XXVII in Dante’s Purgatorio. As he prepares to enter the “Earthly Paradise,” an angel says to Dante,

Then: “Holy souls you cannot move ahead
unless the fire has stung you first: enter
the flames, and don’t be deaf to the songs you’ll hear
beyond.” (10-13)

Before entering Paradise, Dante and the other souls must experience a cleansing, a burning away of their past transgressions and worldly sins. In a similar manner, Ruby Turpin envisions herself undergoing a fiery purification on her way towards heaven.

dante2_gobAt the end of the procession of those who Ruby views as lesser than herself and Claud, she sees herself and her husband singing on their way to paradise: “They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away” (emphasis added, 929). As they ascend, “their virtues” get “burned away,” signalling a purification from the judgmental “virtues” that Ruby and her husband live their lives by on earth. Taken ironically, Ruby does not exude virtues; rather, she perceives herself as being virtuous when in actuality she is far, far from it.

These are only a couple of instances where Dante pops up in literature, and these are only examples that I have seen recently when teaching this semester. What are some other places where see Dante in contemporary (20th-21st century) literature? What do we make of these allusions to the Italian poet’s work? What does knowing these allusions add to our understanding of the works’ and their messages?

What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

O’Connor, Flannery. “Revelation.” American Literature Vol. 2 Eds. William E. Cain, Alice McDermott, Lance Newman, Hilary E. Wyss. 2nd Ed. Boston: Pearson. 913-929.

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