Copyright Jacqueline Pollard, 2005
Perpetual Angelus: Women in T. S. Eliot’s Verse of the 1920s
In 1925, Eliot refined his theory of the “dissociation of sensibility,” which he had previously defined as the seventeenth century split of thought and feeling, as a “disintegration of the intellect” that occurred after Dante’s death and the passing of the universalizing “mind of Europe” (VMP 158). This dissolution, according to Eliot, led to Western cultural fragmentation; philosophy was upended so that science was privileged over spiritual concerns (SP 184).1 As a result, people were forced to confront mortality on its own terms and without a foundational truth–a system of unified belief that informed all aspects of the individual’s life. In order to give ontological meaning to “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history” (Ulysses 177), Eliot sought to recapture a unifying philosophy in his 1920s poetry by filtering religious orthodoxy through Dante’s mythic vision, which, he asserted, “extend[ed] the frontiers of this world” so that it encompassed the divine (VMP 95). Eliot attempts to reconstruct a pre-Reformation religious unity, thereby providing his speakers with a hope of escape from the modern malaise, by evoking Dante’s spiritual ideals: the Virgin Mary and Beatrice.
When considering Eliot’s idealized female figure, critics typically focus on Ash-Wednesday. In several cases, critics read her as an extension of Eliot’s early treatments of degraded women who mirror cultural breakdown2 and reflect his own sexual unease. For example, Colleen Lamos describes the 1930 poem’s “virginal Lady” as an anxious reaction to female authority (78). Similarly, Laurie J. MacDiarmid explains the appropriation of a Marian or Beatrician figure as a result of Eliot’s “hysterical impotence in the face of the feminine” (90). Subsequently, Eliot merely removes the “women’s bodies [that are] sites of entrapment and pollution” (Lamos 82). By de-sexualizing the female, Lamos contends, Eliot’s erotic anxiety is defused, which permits spiritual association with, or sublimation to, a higher power. Other critics foreground the women in Eliot’s life, such as his friend Emily Hale, who, they claim, inspired the Beatrice image–the polar opposite of Eliot’s wife, the “dark muse,” Vivienne (Christ 36).3 Such readings, however, are reductive. Rather than exemplifying the poet’s misogyny or reflecting a shift in his love life, Eliot’s glorification of the feminine figure, in contrast with his early portraits of women, illustrates his transition towards a unified Christian philosophy. Rather than simply reducing feminine voice or physicality, Eliot uses Dante’s key emblems in his 1920s poetry to reach for religious unity.
Eliot recuperates the idealized woman with the mythical method; the literary application of myth to “manipulat[e] a parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity (Eliot, Ulysses 177). Conflating past and present beliefs orders experience and might provide “release from a merely repetitive history and from a perpetual present lacking in any hope of transformation” (Nicholls 253). Eliot draws on medieval Christianity’s structures to present his speakers with the potential for spiritual transcendence. The Marian and Beatrician figures represent passivity, emotional release, and self-sacrifice to the Absolute. Significantly, the women exist on two planes, as both “a celestial and a terrestrial phenomenon” (Guzzo qtd. in Pelikan 5). Consequently, the figures function as models for humans who seek spiritual rebirth. Although idealized souls, their historicity enables the women to mediate between humanity and God; the figures sympathize with the supplicant and lead him towards redemption. However, while they share a purpose, the women diverge in meaning. The Virgin Mary is “theologically and doctrinally defined as wholly unique and [remains] a model of Christian virtue” (Warner 334). Unlike any other human, her piety, obedience, and humility make her an archetype of self-abnegation to the Absolute. For this negation, she was, of course, rewarded with her maternity and later as Queen of Heaven. Similarly, Dante’s Beatrice epitomizes the reconciliation of spiritual and physical natures, a quality that Eliot praised in the 1926 Clark Lectures. While he declined to call Beatrice “heavenly,” Eliot claimed that Dante’s treatment of her “enlarge[d] the boundary of human love so as to make it a stage in the progress toward the divine” (VMP 166). In the 1929 essay, Dante, he elaborated that Dante “express[ed] the recrudescence of an ancient passion in a new emotion, in a new situation, which comprehends, enlarges, and gives a meaning to it” (43). Seeing Beatrice in Purgatorio reignited Dante’s earthly love, but his supernatural experiences forced him to reflect upon and redefine his emotion so that it became inextricably bound with the Absolute–“l’ amor che move il sole e l’ altre stelle” (“the / Love that moves the sun and the other stars”) (Par. 33.145).4 Eliot considered Beatrice the Commedia‘s focal point, for, he wrote, “The Beatrice theme is essential to the understanding of the whole [poem] because of Dante’s philosophy of it” (44).5 Beatrice signified temporal desire transfigured as a “higher love” that brought Dante into the Empyreal realm. Eliot’s poetry evokes these figures to fulfill much the same role; they are the speakers’ hope for metaphysical escape from modernity’s chaos into the divine light and timeless moment of the Absolute.
Eliot’s 1920s poetry associates Dante’s feminine ideal with flowers, sight, and illumination; for example, eyes, stars, and profound brightness typically indicate the figure’s presence as representative of supernatural promise. The brightness often contrasts with (and reinforces) the speakers’ existence in a “dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying” (A-W 4.6),6 where, as the living dead, they agonize over longing for change and a fear of action. The Waste Land‘s remembered moment, “when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden” (1.37) exemplifies this dilemma. Notably, the scene briefly describes the hyacinth girl’s wet hair and full arms, but it details her impact on the speaker:7
I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence. (1.37-40)
Both physical sensation and the ability to reason are nullified as the speaker experiences an apparently mystic moment. That his senses prove inadequate as he gazes into the “heart of light” mirrors Dante’s rendering of gazing on Beatrice in the Commedia; for example, her appearance “senza la vista alquanto esser mi fèe” (“made me remain / a while without vision”) (Purg. 32.11-2), and affects him so that “che passar mi convien senza construtto” (“I must needs / pass it unconstrued by”) (Par. 23.22-3).8 Like Dante, Eliot’s speaker is paralyzed because, “neither living nor dead,” he glimpses something both in and out of time. Robbed of reason, he is incapable of fully grasping, thereby resolving, the moment’s significance.
Eliot argued that Dante and his contemporaries believed “divine vision” was, in part, a rational exercise; “it was through and by and beyond discursive thought that man could arrive at beatitude” (VMP 99).9 The hyacinth man, who “knew nothing,” cannot process his experience as it occurs. Such inadequacy corresponds with Eliot’s thoughts on Dante’s experience. Dante only fully comprehended his adoration when he reconsidered it as an older man (Dante 59). Eliot characterized Dante’s “contemplation of the beloved” as a Platonic meditation on “absolute beauty and goodness partially revealed through a limited though delightful human object” (VMP 114). Dante’s deliberation of Beatrice as representative of the ideal directed him toward the final cause–“the attraction towards God” (Dante 59). In its published version, however, The Waste Land doesn’t offer such reflection, and, ultimately, completion.10
The hyacinth garden’s speaker, unable to move beyond paralysis, mourns for what he has lost, which is reinforced by citations from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde that frame the sequence. The first quotation, a sailor’s song, notes a lover’s melancholy: “Mein Irisch Kind, / Wo weilest du?” (“My Irish child / Where do you wait?”) (1.33-4). The second citation, “Oed’ und leer das Meer” (“Desolate and empty is the sea”) (1.42), closes the hyacinth garden episode with the dying Tristan’s words as he waits for Isolde. The allusions underscore the hyacinth garden’s speaker’s own sorrow for something briefly held but lost before it might be resolved. Because he only partially understands the moment’s significance, the speaker’s recollection only emphasizes the experience’s “defeating doubleness: this ecstasy annihilates ordinary sense, and afterwards it is its desolation which persists” (Moody 118). The hyacinth garden’s speaker remains locked, like his fellow waste landers, in an emotionally and spiritually sterile landscape in which love betrays–if it exists at all. Lil’s friend in the pub who threatens, “if you don’t give it him, there’s others will” (2.149), the typist, and the Thames Daughters, among others, illustrate earthly love’s futility. The redemptive emotion that holds transcendent potential eludes the hyacinth garden’s speaker (Saha 32). The failure to act on his intimation of the timeless leaves him emotionally, and spiritually, impotent. Like the poem’s other voices, this speaker is more inclined to experience life-in-death than break the tendency towards inertia.
The Hollow Men (1925) develops this idea further, as its spiritually paralyzed speaker refuses to act on his desire for transition. MacDiarmid argues that women are responsible for this paralysis (99). However, the poem implies that women, albeit idealized ones, represent the hollow men’s hope for transformation; the speaker alludes to several typically Dantean tropes, including star and eye imagery, to recall Beatrice and the Virgin, the “hope only of empty men.”
The poem’s setting, “death’s dream kingdom,” is an inversion of “death’s other Kingdom.” Fragmented images from Dante’s Commedia indicate the land’s sterility: Purgatorio’s sylvan fecundity becomes a single swinging tree (which also recalls Genesis’ Tree of Knowledge), and Paradiso’s heavenly choir changes into remote “voices [. . .] / In the wind’s singing” (2.6-10). Eliot also invokes Dante’s stellar imagery to reflect the hollow men‘s spiritual desert. Dante’s journey brought him to Paradiso’s starry realm; in contrast, the hollow men live “Under the twinkle of a fading star” (3.6), which indicates their distance from divine union and spiritual rebirth. Similarly, The Hollow Men alludes to Dante’s use of eyes. While Eliot neglects to identify the eyes as feminine, his use of them corresponds with Dante’s focus on Beatrice’s sympathetic scrutiny. In “death’s dream kingdom,” the gaze becomes “Sunlight on a broken column” (2.5). Eliot reduces Beatrice’s brilliance to a ruin’s spotlight, which, like the other fragments mirroring the higher world, suggests the speaker’s distance from a transcendent realm.
Locked in the “cactus land,” the speaker, like The Waste Land‘s personae, exists as “Shape without form, shade without colour, / Paralysed force, gesture without motion” (1.11-2). Immobilized by a lingering fear of death, he lives apathetically in a twilit, barren plane, “on the beach of [a] tumid river” (4.9) that recalls the Inferno’s landscape.11 Like Dante’s Trimmers, the hollow man “behav[es] as the wind behaves” (2.17) rather than staking his own moral ground. To mask his cowardice, he dons “deliberate disguises” (2.14)–a scarecrow’s dress–to hide himself in the dead land to avoid moral (and mortal) ultimatums.
The speaker reveals his paralysis as he considers the “Eyes I dare not meet in dreams” (2.1). His dread of them, however, is countered by a lament that “The eyes are not here” (4.1). The paradox recalls Dante’s mixed love and shame upon meeting Beatrice in Purgatorio. When they reunite, Beatrice chastises Dante for forgetting her, and the moral path, after her death. He even ignored visions she sent “in sogno ed altimenti” (“in dreams and otherwise”) (30.134). Having avoided those looks in dreams, Dante cannot face Beatrice, who demands that he confront her glance, “per che sia colpa e duol d’ una misura” (“so that sin and sorrow be of one measure”) (30.108). However, once he meets, and surrenders to, Beatrice’s eyes in Purgatorio, Dante initiates his salvation.12
Unlike Dante, the Hollow Men‘s speaker remains divided by thought and action (between which “falls the shadow” of death). He appears to realize that willfully avoiding the eyes, which might lead him toward the final cause, will leave him “Sightless,” in the “valley of dying stars” (4.3). Left with the other hollow men, who “grope together” in silence, the speaker acknowledges that their only hope would be for the eyes to “reappear” in a new form, and in the image of the Virgin Mary, the “perpetual star / Multifoliate Rose” (4.11-3). Dominic Mangianello and Marja Palmer, among others, have identified the Virgin Mary as the poem’s “Perpetual Star,” echoing Dante’s description of her as “viva stella” (“living star”) (Par. 23.92).13 “Multifoliate Rose” is more complex, for it refers both to the Virgin Mary (who, throughout the Commedia and Christian orthodoxy, is typed as a rose) and Dante’s Empyrean.14 Significantly, the Virgin Mary’s sympathy prompted Beatrice to arrange Dante’s journey, and her final intercession completed his salvation (Par. 33.40-51). If The Hollow Men’s speaker, like Dante, fears to meet the eyes he longs for, his only chance is that they will be replaced by the Virgin Mary’s, “the hope only / Of empty men” (4.15-6), who might act on his behalf.
Ultimately, the poem suggests that the hollow man both desires and resists escape from “the dead land,” for actually meeting the eyes “calls for strength and an endeavour to seek forgiveness, which is impossible to the ‘sightless’ hollow man [. . . .]” (Palmer 222). Rather than confront the eyes and “truth,” the speaker’s paralysis blunts any opportunity to escape, and he reacts much like The Waste Land‘s speaker in the hyacinth garden (Mangianello 64). As the hollow man fails to act, the poem ends not with salvation, but with the specter of death, which dully ends an impotent world.
If The Waste Land and The Hollow Men feature the speakers’ passive rejection of the female figure, the speaker of Ash-Wednesday (1930)15 shows determination to welcome it. The speaker has moved beyond the earlier poems’ apathetic souls as he strives to reject the temporal world’s envy and avarice (1.4-5). He prays for mercy–that “the judgment not be too heavy upon” him (1.33), and he turns to the feminine image to mediate between himself and the Absolute. Ash-Wednesday’s Virgin Mary and Beatrice figures are similar; they “convey like attributes of merciful intercession” and can be said to blend into one figure by the poem’s end (Matthiessen 116).16 Rather than specifying identities, the poem focuses on the woman’s virtues as, in reverential tones, the speaker appeals to the figure’s role as divine mediator.
The woman initially appears in the poem’s second part; the speaker, having been sacrificed to three leopards, has become a pile of bones offering praise to “the goodness of this Lady” for whom they “shine with brightness” (2.8-11). The speaker acknowledges the lady’s virtues as he lays “dissembled” and aspiring to “forgetfulness” so that, having shed material concerns, he might leave temporality to join the Absolute. To this end, his bones sing to the “Lady of Silences,” into whom Beatrice and the Virgin merge as one idealized figure identified, as in The Hollow Men, with the rose. The Virgin manifests as the “Exhausted and life-giving / Worried reposeful” flower (2.30-1). The mother of God, fatigued from aiding humanity and anxiously watching them re-offend, remains key to rebirth as “she continues to offer hope and life to mankind” (Gordon 45). However, Eliot invokes Beatrice as the “Rose of memory / Rose of forgetfulness” (2.29); at Beatrice’s death, Dante forgot her and fell into sin; re-experiencing his love for her ultimately led to Paradise. Yet it wasn’t merely love’s reawakening that prompted Dante’s salvation, but his renunciation and refiguring of that former emotion into a “higher love” that occurs in Purgatorio‘s Garden of Eden.
Eliot refigures the rose as “the Garden / Where all loves end” (2.33-4), which alludes to Dante’s Earthly Paradise. Dante bathed in the garden’s River Lethe to remove memories of his own sin (Purg. 31.85-99), thereby preparing him to join Beatrice and enter Paradise. No rivers appear in Ash-Wednesday, yet the garden “terminate[s]” all previous loves and “inconclusible” concerns. Temporal loves, having been renounced, become transcendent (Maxwell 143). In gratitude, the poem’s speaker honors the woman: “Grace to the Mother / For the Garden” (2.45-6). He blesses her for the garden where earthly love enlarges to embrace the divine love that resides at Paradise’s center, which Dante only glimpses after redefining his earthly love for Beatrice. Similarly, Eliot’s Lady beckons Ash-Wednesday‘s speaker toward purgation.
Further blurring the image’s identity, a veiled woman appears, dressed in white and “blue of Mary’s colour” (4.4) and, like Beatrice in Purgatorio and The Waste Land‘s hyacinth girl, encased in “White light” (4.15). The poem’s penitent says the Lady talks “in ignorance and knowledge of eternal dolour” (4.6). But he asks her to pray for souls tormented “between season and season, time and / time” (5.22-3). Paralyzed in the temporal moment, people both “choose” and “oppose” the “veiled sister” and the authority she signifies because they “are terrified and cannot surrender” (5.32). These figures recall Dante’s Trimmers and The Waste Land‘s population, the living dead and hollow men, for whom the Lady weeps.
The woman’s “bright cloud of tears” echoes Beatrice’s “gli occhi lucenti lagrimondo volse” (“bright eyes weeping”) at Dante’s immorality (Inf. 2.116). After hearing of her tears, Dante commits to the otherworldly expedition and, finally, salvation. Like Beatrice, Ash-Wednesday‘s Lady’s tears might help to “Redeem / The unread vision in the higher dream” (4.19-20). Eliot defined the “higher dream” as the grandeur associated with “serious pageants of royalty, of the Church, [. . . .] and the splendour of the Revelation of St. John” (Dante 225). According to Eliot, Paradiso exemplifies the “higher dream” (225).17 The rituals that enact belief and reaffirm faith, such as the Empyrean’s Mystic Rose, reveal mysteries average humans aren’t otherwise privy to. Paradiso‘s pageantry culminated with God’s presence. Desiring a similar encounter with the divine, Eliot’s speaker pleads “not to be separated” from the Absolute (4.35). Caught in a “dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying” (4.6) that anticipates the timeless moment, he prays to the Lady, the “Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, and spirit of the / garden” (4.25-6), that he might surrender himself to find “Our peace in His will” (4.31). The penitent’s plea signifies the figure’s value, for with her mediation, he might discard temporality and achieve rebirth in divine union.
Eliot’s use of the feminine figure waned in his poetry after Ash-Wednesday, with the exception of a prayer to the Virgin Mary in The Dry Salvages. The poem’s speaker asks “figlia del tuo figlio / Queen of Heaven” (4.9-10) to “Pray for all those who are in ships,” women left behind, and the dead who cannot hear “the sound of the sea bell’s / Perpetual angelus” (4.14-5).18 Although he calls on the Virgin, Eliot’s focus has shifted; rather than indicating a speaker’s longing for transcendence, he invokes the Virgin so that she might comfort others; she need not mediate for him any longer. But in transitioning between skepticism and committing himself to a consciously conservative Christianity, Eliot reached for Dante’s mythic structure, which provided a scaffolding over which Eliot might construct his own imaginative vision as he reworked tradition so that it might give order–spiritual and philosophical unity–to a shattered post-war civilization and might provide an escape from modern relativism and chaos. In his poetry of the 1920s, Eliot reinvented Dante’s Virgin Mary and Beatrice as contemporary models of mercy, transcendence, and as answers to modern skepticism–the hope only of modern men.
1 Nineteenth century rationalism considered religion, as it is based in emotion, unverifiable and empiricism questioned fundamental scientific bases. Eliot, raised in a Unitarian environment that stressed rationalism, discovered that he was “unable to find or believe a sustaining faith, religious or scientific [ . . . .]” (Skaff 9).
2 Tony Pinkney, Sandra M. Gilbert, and Susan Gubar, among others, have written critical studies of Eliot’s misogyny. Teresa Gibert, provides an overview of such criticism in T. S. Eliot and the Feminist Revision of the Modern(ist) Canon.
3 Lyndall Gordon popularized this perspective in her critical biographies of Eliot; Carol Christ and M. Teresa Gibert-Maceda are but two scholars who cite her view that the female figure is a glorification of Hale.
4 All translated citations from the Commedia have been taken from the Temple Classics version that Eliot consulted.
5 Dante wrote “the purpose of the whole [Commedia] is to remove those who are living in this life from the state of wretchedness, and to lead them to the state of blessedness”(Oelsner and Wicksteed 607, n. 11). Such aims clearly echo Beatrice’s literary role.
6 Leonard Unger noted that “intimations of the [timeless moment] are always characterized by a dreamlike, twilight atmosphere” in Eliot’s poetry (78). However, he only discusses such moments in Ash-Wednesday.
7 Eliot’s treatment recalls Dante’s “attempt to suggest the beauty and dignity of the object contemplated by stating the effect of that beauty and dignity upon the lover in contemplation” (Eliot, VMP 107-8).
8 Dominic Mangianello’s T. S. Eliot and Dante addresses the hyacinth garden’s correspondences with the Commedia, yet he neglects discussing the feminine figure’s overarching significance in Eliot’s work.
9 Eliot also described this process as “divine contemplation, and the development and subsumption of emotion and feeling through intellect into the vision of God” (VMP 103-4).
10 In “A Game of Chess’” manuscript, the speaker appears to note the moment’s missed potential. After an hysterical woman asks, “Do you know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember / nothing?” The speaker reaches for his timeless moment, and he awakens to its significance as he replies that he remembers, sees, and knows: “I remember / The hyacinth garden. Those are pearls that were his eyes, yes!” (2.49-50). The speaker links the hyacinth garden with transformation, evidenced in the allusion to Ariel’s song from The Tempest and the emphatic “yes!.” Eliot cut these verses from the poem’s final draft.
11 This line refers to Dante’s Trimmers, those “tengon l’anime triste di coloro / che visser senza infamia e senza lodo” (“dreary souls of those who sustain, who lived with- / out blame, and without praise”) (3.35-6). These shades wait, fruitlessly, for Charon to take them across the river Acheron into “Death’s other kingdom”-Limbo and Hell proper.
12 Eliot’s minor poem, Eyes that I Last Saw in Tears, initially opened The Hollow Men (Mangianello 63). He excised the fragment but published it in Collected Poems, 1909-1935. The two stanzas rely on eye imagery, as well as the implication that those eyes, desired yet feared (they provoke the speaker‘s “affliction”), must be confronted if the speaker is to pass through “the door at death’s other kingdom” (11). As in The Hollow Men, the eyes are scornful but also offer release.
13 In the Commedia, it is the Virgin Mary who initially takes pity on Dante and requests that Beatrice seek Virgil. Once Dante approaches Paradise, St. Bernard advises him to redirect his attention from Beatrice to the Virgin Mary, “on whom his progress now depends” (Musa 569).
14 The speaker might also be referring to the Empyrean’s rose-shaped choir, which is lit with the “Living Flame” of divine love–the “heart of light.” Here, the Virgin Mary holds the center, highest seat (Par. 31.132-4).
15 Eliot wrote Ash-Wednesday between 1927-1930; prior to 1930, he published parts of the final version as independent compositions (Schuchard 150).
16 Matthieson asserts that the figures’ interchangeability is because “readers to-day [sic] who no longer believe in the elaborate hierarchies and gradations of Dante’s system, the figures of the Lady and the Virgin, though distinct, have similar connotations” (116). There is no longer a divine hierarchy, so contemporary readers cannot distinguish between the images as an earlier reader, or Eliot himself, might have done.
17 According to Eliot, “the modern world only seems capable of the low dream” (Dante 225).
18 Devotees sing the Angelus, a meditation on the Virgin, three times daily “as a memorial of [Christ’s] Incarnation” (Cross 55).
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Copyright 2005, Jacqueline Pollard