I have a terrible memory for some things. I can watch whole movies without remembering that I have already seen them. I don’t remember the names of causal acquaintances, and lots of times I can’t remember the names of my immediate loved ones. But there are other things, the kinds of things you wish you could forget, stupid or awful things I did or said, that sit in the back of my mind and occasionally haunt me.
In “Little Gidding,” the last poem of The Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot writes, “With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling/We shall not cease from exploration/and the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time”(25-9).
In the middle of the poem, Eliot meets the ghost or soul of Dante: “the first-met stranger in the waning dusk/I caught the sudden look of some dead master/Whom I had known, forgotten, half-recalled”(35-7). Eliot recalls to our minds the moment in Dante’s Divine Comedy when Dante meets his own ” dead master” Virgil, the poet who leads Dante through Inferno and to the top of Mount Purgatory, beginning a psychological and spiritual journey wherein Dante visits the corruption of his soul and then seeks to reorder his desires so that he might only will and love the good. Virgil, however, lives in Infeo and he doesn’t understand the highest truths of Mount Purgatory let alone Paradiso, and so he fades backwards, leaving Dante in the Garden of Eden momentarily without a guide or friend.
At this point Dante has completed the arduous task of climbing the mountain and ordering his loves according to the various terraces he visits. He has even walked through a wall of flame, thus tempering the strength of his will such that his newly ordered soul might be firmly fixed in place. And now, leaving Virgil behind, he arrives “at the place where we started” – the Garden of Eden. And just as Adam and Eve, who, even in their original and so perfect forms are tempted, so is the newly ordered Dante – for the garden is tended by the beautiful Matilda, a woman who Dante compares to Venus. All of his hard work, all of that time travelling through Inferno and then trekking the mountain, only to return to the beginning and fall prey to an illicit love.
Dante who has “arrived at the place we started”, is then made to “know it for the first time.” For Beatrice, the love of his life and the woman for whom he has made this trek is also here and she is no wilting violet. Instead, having come upon Dante ready yet again to betray her, she calls him to task and demands that he recognize his faults and confess. “We are …we are Beatrice,” she ominously begins (Purgatorio, XXX, 73-4) .
Before he can ascend to Paradiso, Dante, whose loves have been perfectly ordered such that he should now know and love the good, is made to revisit his failings, and to know his absolute dependence on the love and forgiveness of another, for at this moment he needs Beatrice to love and forgive him. In “Little Gidding,” Dante, who we assume has now ascended to Paradiso, warns Eliot that this moment of reckoning still awaits him: “the rending pain of re-enactment/Of all that you have done, and been; the shame/Of motives late revealed, and the awareness/Of things I’ll done and done to others’ harm/Which once you took for exercise of virtue”(Little Gidding, 85-9).
The ghosts of my memories are akin to Beatrice calling out Dante, and Dante seeking out Eliot. Silly things done on a playground, more serious things done when I didn’t have the excuse of childishness. We might be tempted to ignore these memories. Done is done, as they say. Dante and Eliot suggest instead that the past is always present and cannot be ignored or excused.
However, neithe Dante nor Eliot suggests that these memories should be a cause of unrelenting guilt and despair. Instead, if we can “arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time”(25-9), we might know that after all of our failings and betrayals, love and forgiveness await, if only we are willing to accept them. For as Eliot says, “All shall be well and/All manner of thing shall be well”(Little Gidding, 42-4).