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Journal of Modern Literature 24.2 (2000/2001) 349-352

A Song for Virgil: Dantean References in Eliot's "A Song for Simeon"

Daniela Cavallaro
University of Auckland (New Zealand)

In his study of T.S. Eliot's Ariel poems, John H. Timmerman writes that after two decades of trying to locate the sources for Eliot's works, contemporary criticism has changed direction and that today "it is almost anathema to speak of the sources." 1 However, Timmerman continues, a different case can be made for the Ariel poems; in them, "[s]pecific echoes to literary antecedents diminish," and one finds traces of more pervasive literary influences, such as the Bible or Dante. 2 Thus, without incurring the risk of anathema, critics such as Timmerman, even in the new climate of Eliot's criticism, cite examples of key influences in the Ariel poems, most of which Eliot wrote between 1927 and 1931. 3

In his analysis of the second of the Ariel poems, "A Song for Simeon" (1928)--a poem based on a biblical character 4 --Timmerman stresses particularly the significance of the Lukan episode: the light that it sheds on Eliot's poetry as well as on his conversion. 5 Like Timmerman, most critics studying the sources of "A Song for Simeon," focus on Luke's 6 or Mark's Gospel. 7 Some, such as Leonard Unger, have connected the image of the stairs to the mystical ascent described by St. John of the Cross. 8 Yet the presence of Dante, or any Dantean influence in this poem, has apparently gone unobserved. An analysis of the Dantean [End Page 349] references in Eliot's "A Song for Simeon," however, reveals new parallels between the character of Simeon and that of Virgil.

The first example of the Dantean influence which can be found in "A Song for Simeon" is "the wind that chills towards the dead land." 9 This wind is similar to that created by the moving wings of Lucifer which freeze the waters of Cocytus (Inferno XXXIV). The "cords, scourges and lamentation," furthermore, recall the punishments of the damned in Hell. And the "stations of the mountain of desolation," besides their obvious reference to the martyrdom of Christ on the way to Calvary, can be associated with the various stations through which Dante, together with Virgil, had to pass on their ascent of Mount Purgatory.

Particularly evocative is a passage from the fourth stanza of the poem, in which Simeon lists those experiences of Christianity that "are not for him": "Light upon light, mounting the saints' stair./ Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,/ Not for me the ultimate vision." Several images in this passage resonate with the experience that is offered to Dante in Purgatory. In the course of his ascent of Mount Purgatory, Dante undergoes a series of purifications, which include dreams, ecstasies, and visions. In the third "cornice," images of the meek (Purgatorio XV, 85-114) and the wrathful (Purgatorio XVII, 13-39) appear to Dante "in una visione estatica di subito . . . tratto" [rapt of a sudden in an ecstatic vision] (Purgatorio XV, 85-86). 10 In addition, prayer--above all, collective prayer--is the most constant means of purification in Purgatory, as in the case of "Te lucis ante" of the Anti-purgatory (Purgatorio VIII, 13-18), or of the "Our Father," recited by the proud (Purgatorio XI, 1-24).

On the other hand, the martyrdom, the passage from light to light, the saints' stair, and the ultimate vision may have their source in Dante's Paradise. Martyrdom, for example, was the necessary passage for some blessed souls to reach that same peace which Simeon asks of God, as we see in the case of Boezio: "l'anima santa . . . da martiro e da essilio venne a questa pace" [the holy soul . . . came from martyrdom and exile to this peace] (Paradiso X, 125-129). Further on, in Paradiso XV, Cacciaguida repeats the same words: "venni dal martiro a questa pace" [and came from martyrdom to this peace] (l. 148).


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