ELIOT AND CAVALCANTI

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Nov 17, 2018 01:14
ELIOT AND CAVALCANTI

Eliot`s poem ‘Ash Wednesday’ takes its incipit from Cavalcanti`s ballad ‘Perche` io non spero di tornar giammai’. Yet to my knowledge, up to now, no scholar has tried to give a precise account for this perfect calque. The questions that arise are vary; why does Eliot quote Cavalcanti? Why does he quote Cavalcanti in a context of a religious poem like that of ‘Ash Wednesday’? Also, another interesting question is about his unexpected preference of Cavalcanti over Dante. The choice of starting a poem, that has, as main themes, redemption and penitence, with the less religious of the stilnovisti poets, cannot be dismissed as easily as many critics seem eager to do. Instead, it needs to be taken very seriously and to be carefully investigated.
In their article, Camacho and Perez do not seem to have a clear idea of Eliot`s poetry. In analyzing the mix of doubt and hope that permeates ‘Ash Wednesday’, they swing between two quite different perspectives. On one side, they interpreter Eliot`s existential torment as a source of salvation: being damned to persistent doubting is a way to confirm the religious instance of the human soul; which it is seen to be as continuously and desperately seeking for metaphysics truth, through the guide of a divine impulse. On the other side, they do not miss to acknowledge the influence - over Eliot - of Dante; a poet who, in his work, has employed a perspective quite rooted in a theological and philosophical framework. The two ideas do not seem to converge in any possible way; unless we consider the relation between Eliot and Dante as that one of Cavalcanti and Dante. In this case, Eliot would identify himself with the doubts and metaphysics skepticism of Dante`s dear friend, Guido Cavalcanti.
If Eliot`s mind operates some sort of identification with Guido`s troubled vision of life and transcendence, the calque at the beginning of the first poem he wrote after his religious conversion, could possibly acquire a new interesting dimension. The whole poem could be seen as an attempt of rewriting Guido`s ballatetta from a different perspective. In other words, Eliot could be the friend who Dante has ever wanted; the one who tries his best to follow Dante`s lead through redemption to salvation. The American poet took the question of salvation very seriously; his relation with the Bishop of Winchester, Lancelot Andrews, has been the center of an intense debate. The bishop`s spiritual and intellectual influence over Eliot has proven to be decisive in his writing of ‘Ash Wednesday’. The passage from ‘Waste Land’ to the poem discussed here, is a passage of a spiritual rebirth. However, the first perspective that Eliot decides to employ is that one of the -supposed to be atheist- Cavalcanti. This makes clear that he is coming to terms to something that has to be very much relevant to him.
When Eliot writes ‘Because I do not hope to return again” is trying to find a reason for writing that is different from that one of Cavalcanti. The poeta fiorentino has a very materialistic reason for writing. He is writing to his woman; his ballad had the scope of reaching her. Conforming to the Occitan troubadour tradition, the form of transcendence is limited to the relation poet-his lady. Better said: in Occitan poetry tradition, the fin amor, the purer form of love, is not necessarily connected to lovers` spiritual religious safety. The woman is poet`s master and his life is constantly threatened by her; his salute literally depends upon her saluto. Especially in Cavalcanti, the only possible transcendence is that one guaranteed by the mystique vision of the poet`s lady. As obvious as it appears from a modern point of view, this is a perspective that very little implies of the Christian doctrine; God as ultimate scope is being replaced by a woman; she is still human in nature even admitting her resemblance to angels.
If Beatrice was for Dante both sign and way of a spiritual rebirth, which is also the reason he could write Divina Commedia starting off the Vita Nova`s conclusions, in Cavalcanti there is another kind of transcendental trajectory which begins and ends with the vision of the loved one. As for the courtly love tradition, his love is a feeling that starts from the eyes; however, the novelty in Cavalcanti is the way this sentiment ends. In his Ballatetta, the poet is about to die but his soul, literally instilled in the written words as it were blood, goes to the search of his woman with the purpose of staying with her forever, to adore her and to be honored by her; she is the only one who is gentle enough for such a task. For the first time it is showed how love ends: such a termination, however, is not a real conclusion for the feeling of love. Death seems to be not the end of the communication between the poet and his woman, but between the poet and his poems. The loved woman will continue to communicate with the poet`s soul through his writings; his ballads, made by the same substance of his soul, will remain with her forever; moreover, it will be honored by her forever.
Cavalcanti has a such modern point of view on transcendence and I am not referring to the fact that he doesn`t mention God and otherworldly life. The point is that he believes in language as the only means able to transcend physical life and reach a spiritual one. Where in Dante there is faith, and ultimately the convergence between reality and things (Thomas Aquinas called it ‘adaequatio rei et intellectus’) in Cavalcanti such a convergence is problematic, temporary, and continuously threatened by death and despair. It is not a task for the present analysis to investigate the philosophical point of view of Dante and Cavalcanti, it will be enough to see how for the latter there is no other way than words and writing to transcend the sensitive world and to reach an intellectual vision on reality. Language is the love that bridges the gap between the physical and the material world; if, in Dante, Beatrice`s death is the portal of new discoveries, in Cavalcanti ladies do not die. Woman and women are symbolic of eternal desire, and language is not the mean of this desire but a metaphor for desire itself. In his conclusion of his 'Vita Nova', Dante announces his intention to find new language means in order to be able to sing the experience of love; in Cavalcanti the language means are the experience of love.
The question now moves to Eliot, and on how he decides to position himself between the two poets. In the incipit of ‘Ash Wednesday’ he tries to go beyond Cavalcanti; he is in search of something ‘more’ than language itself. The Florentine poet`s motivation for writing is that language is the only way that permits him to stay with his lover, as much as being with his lover is the only reason for the existence itself. Our very soul is committed to find company in someone who can honor it the same as the ballad honors the poet who writes it; there is a sort of circularity in the process in which poetry is the principle metaphor for the loved woman. In the American poet, this circularity is rejected; the return of such circularity is the idea that hunts him the most. He tries to find an escape from the natural process of love, which has in its returning the most dangerous peril. This will be shown, in detail, farther along the paper.
The main clause to which the subordinate ‘Because I do not hope to return again ” should depend, remains unknown; the poet does not specify the most important reason for his writing. This may imply many reasons; however grammatically and logically, it remains this big whole, this empty spot that should be filled by the main information of the text. Cavalcanti writes his poem because he doesn`t know if he will see her lady again, thus he writes to send her his soul by the means of his words. In Eliot`s poem, there is not such a clear explanation. He writes for a mysterious reason and this reason is recursive; in fact, it repeats the word ‘because’ several times in the text, never succeeding in giving a reason for it. The word ‘because’ which echoes Cavalcanti`s quote, seems to be an attempt to discard, once and for all, any reason for doing or being anything. The prolonged desperate rejection of any reason, that recurs several time in the text, keeps returning as a dramatic whisper or a prayer, communicating dissatisfaction or even a kind of tension toward the unknown. Eliot perfectly understands the mundane transcendence of Cavalcanti love and tries to take a step further toward the unknown. He also decides to start his poem with the word ‘because'. Surely the love for a woman is not a solution for the poet`s life.