S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse A persona che mai tornasse al mondo, Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse. Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero, Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.
The epigraph of this poem is a six-line quotation from Canto 27 of the Inferno by the Renaissance Italian poet Dante Alighieri.
And no, Eliot doesn’t translate it out of the Italian, which is the kind of stunt that makes people think Eliot is a snob. We really can’t defend him on this charge, except to say that he was absolutely and totally obsessed with Dante and maybe he thought other people loved Dante as much as he did – enough to translate the quote for themselves.
Sneaky little references to Dante pop up everywhere in Eliot’s poems, but this one is more obvious – it’s a direct quotation.
The Inferno tells the story of how a guy (Dante) who has messed up his life badly enough to require some help from the nice folks in heaven. In order to scare him away from sin and other bad things, heaven sends another poet named Virgil to give Dante a guided tour through the horrors of Hell (known as "Inferno" in Italian). Along the way he meets a lot of evil and misguided people.
The quote from this epigraph is said by one of the characters in the eighth circle of Hell (which has nine circles), where some of the worst of the worst are stuck for eternity. This particular guy’s name is Guido da Montefeltro, and when Dante asks to hear his story, here’s what he says:
"If I thought that my reply would be to someone who would ever return to earth, this flame would remain without further movement; but as no one has ever returned alive from this gulf, if what I hear is true, I can answer you with no fear of infamy."
What does this quote mean? Well, Dante is really curious to know why Guido ended up so far down in Hell. But Guido is selfish. He’s afraid that people back on earth will find out about the horrible stuff he did – he’s concerned about his reputation.
On the other hand, Guido knows that no one has ever entered Hell and made it out again, so he figures that it's safe to tell his story because Dante is stuck here.
Unfortunately for Guido, Dante is the first human ever to be allowed to pass through Hell and "return to earth," so people do eventually find out about Guido’s sins…from reading the Inferno.
One other thing we should mention: Guido doesn’t even have a body in Hell – he’s not worthy of that – so his entire spirit is just a "flame" that "moves" when he talks. When he says, "this flame would remain without further movement," he means, "I would shut up and not talk to you anymore."
Last thing: What did Guido do? Essentially, Guido committed terrible atrocities in war.
But that’s not the worst part. The worst part is that he tried to have himself forgiven before he committed these atrocities. He basically thought he could out-smart God and get into heaven despite doing things that he knew were really bad. It’s like if before you broke your mother’s favorite lamp you asked her, "Mom, if I broke this lamp right now, would you forgive me? . . . Yes? OK." CRASH!
(Note to Guido: You can’t outsmart the creator of the universe.)
Why does Eliot choose this epigraph for his poem? Well, it suggests a couple of things. First, that "Prufrock" might not be a poem about good people, but about bad ones pretending to be good. The setting of the poem is a kind of hell.
Second, it tells us that this fellow Prufrock, who is singing his "love song," might be concerned about his reputation like Guido. In other words, Prufrock is going to tell us things because he thinks we won’t have a chance to repeat them to other people.