Poets and poetry in the Divine Comedy

The entire Commedia is enclosed in silence. We do not hear a human voice until the sixty-fifth verse of the opening canto. It is the voice of the Pilgrim, who pleads with the newly appeared shade of Virgil to free him from his terrible nightmare. The Pilgrim, not yet identified as Dante himself, has just had a vision of several wild beasts that prevented him from climbing a glorious mountain. This vision has occurred in a dark wood in complete silence. The resonant biblical tone of Miserere fills the void of the dream. Dante opens his mouth in humble song as the Psalmist had done before him, pleading for clemency, pleading to be released from the wayward path of sin:

Miserere di mi”, gridai a lui,

“qual que tu sii, od ombra od omo certo!” (Inf. 1:65-66)

Have pity on me whatever you are, shade or living man!

Virgil’s response is steady and authoritative though tainted with sadness:

Non omo, omo già fui, (Inf. 1:67)

No, not a living man,
though once I was.

Paradoxically it is the ‘shade’ of Virgil that releases us from the vision. Where does the fantasy end and reality begin? To view the Commedia in terms of three-dimensional space is a mistake. The Commedia is a void through which language is ciphered – a linguistic space, as it were, and one in which you will find ‘every register of the human voice’. Thus the eight syllables above encapsulate the nebulous figure of Virgil, Dante’s creation. The string of open vowel sounds creates a space, which only the character of Virgil can fill. The words form a linguistic equivalent to what in Dante’s economy of diction is always crucial; the first impression:

dinanzi a li occhi mi si fu offerto
chi per lungo silenzio parea fioco. (Inf. 1:62-63)

there appeared before me one who seemed faint through long silence

To understand more fully the nature of this silence, for I assume Dante is also making reference to his own silence, we must travel back to Dante’s early days as a poet in Florence at the end of the duecento.

The Vita nuova is a carefully designed compilation of poems delineating the love and loss of Beatrice. Here the young Dante describes a series of inspirations and crises he undergoes ending in the tragic death of his beloved, and in his temporary consolation in contemplating Lady Philosophy. The critical dispute concerning the real identity of Beatrice is, I believe, beside the point. What is important is that Dante treats of Beatrice as a real being and of the spiralling emotions he feels for her as real spiralling emotions. Here I would disagree with Erich Auerbach when he writes “it is hard to understand why so many critics regard an erotic experience accessible to all as a better source of inspiration than a mystical illumination carrying the force of reality…”. Such a ‘mystical illumination’ would have involved Dante believing the figure of Beatrice to be an ideal, immortal figure. In fact it is not until the very close of the Vita that the deceased Beatrice takes on this otherworldly aspect. Up till now, she is very much a real, albeit unattainable, presence. The fragility of her humanity and mortality is best exemplified in the exquisite sonnet beginning ‘Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare’, coming at a point when her death is immanent. Though perhaps the finest and most structurally sound sonnet in the collection, it is haunted by failure and fear of loss. In this sense it is prophetic; Beatrice will die and only the painful sospira, or ‘sigh’, of the closing verse will remain. In a real sense we are left hanging at the end of the Vita nuova with the weighty promise that Dante will ‘write in verse and rhyme, that which has never been written of any woman’,  or to apply cruelly one of Dante’s own metaphors from the Commedia:

Io fei gibetto a me de le mie case. (Inf. XIII: 151)

I made a gibbet of my own house.

Dante was forced to endure much silence and frustration between the writing of the Vita nuova and the incredible linguistic release of the Commedia. Firstly, his loss of Beatrice caused him to withdraw from the world (if we are to believe the Vita; and there is no reason why we shouldn’t) and to engage in a period of intense soul-searching. This led to an apparent loss of faith and a turning towards Philosophy and possibly one or a series of guilt-ridden love affairs. Secondly, there came the massive calamity of banishment and exile from his beloved Florence in 1302, caused by the recent upsurge of political infighting between the city’s Black and White factions. His deepening association, and later disillusionment with, the increasingly pro-Imperialistic Whites caused him to be politically isolated and rendered effectively voiceless in his appeal for reconciliation between the warring sides. Although he did not lose hope that one day he might be able to resume his life in Florence until after the disastrous failure of the Emperor, Henry count of Luxembourg’s campaign in Italy  (as his correspondence attests), his Aristotelian-influenced philosophical treatise, the Convivio, is fraught with an uncertainty as to how to proceed and ultimately ends unfinished in interrupted silence. However, this treatise (written between 1304-07), and also the earlier Vita nuova, contains the germ of what was to become the Divine Comedy. In his concerns with philosophy and theology in Books 2 and 3 of the treatise, we can discern the beginnings of the philosophical mode he is to employ in the last canticle of the great poem. There is much discussion of spheres, angelic bodies and light while in the final book, number 4, we see Dante address his most esteemed literary predecessors. We find here what is to be included either implicitly or explicitly in the textual fabric of the Commedia. Many of his laudatory salutes towards his preferred classical authors come side by side with references to the Holy Scriptures as though Dante were placing them on an equal footing or at least matching them as sparring partners. Many of these juxtapositions accrue towards the end of Book 4 where Dante talks about the ‘text’ of the Aeneid in a reverential tone usually reserved for biblical citations . What is strikingly absent is any sense of the linguistic fireworks of the Inferno . It is as though, still too preoccupied with the noble high style of classical literature and wanting to distance himself from ‘The little threshing-floor that makes us so proud” , Dante were looking down disdainfully upon the globe. “For the moment”, he says, “I shall remain silent”, quoting Solomon, in Ecclesiastes: ‘There is a time to speak, and a time to be silent’, but also giving warning of what is to come: “Had I not travelled this path, I should not possess this treasure nor should I have the resources to enjoy life in this, my own city, which I am now approaching.”  For this ideal city to become a reality he would first have to descend through the depths of Hell.

Singular words, in Dante, have a habit of acting as textual markers pointing in the direction of as yet unrealised forms. They crop up everywhere in the Commedia and can be diligently traced back to their source. Dante, in this way, develops his own highly complex system of reference, or etymology. Take the keyword of the above-mentioned sonnet; ‘sospira’, and notice how it again resurfaces fully crystallized in the opening cantos of the Inferno. This sound is used to convey the state of the souls in Limbo who, through no other fault but having worshipped pagan gods before the coming of Christ, must languish without hope in the nether world. Virgil’s sibillant lament best describes the nature of their plight:

semo perduti, e sol di tanto offesi
che sanza speme vivemo in disio. (Inf. IV: 41-42)

we are lost, and only so afflicted
that without hope we live in longing desire.

The final ‘disio’ performs the same audial act as Dante’s ‘sospira’ did in the early poem, signifying desire and its physical effect: a longing sigh. Taken in the context of the fourth canto, this sigh becomes a longing to be released from the darkness of Hell’s antechamber; to find an outlet from the endless cycle of frustrated desire to which these souls, who shall never perceive the ultimate beauty of God, are damned. It is thus ironic that some of antiquity’s most revered poets, those who perceived aesthetical (though not spiritual) beauty with such keen eyes, should be found in the dull gloom of Limbo. This testifies to the precedence Dante places upon the moral integrity of Art  (and in the Middle Ages this automatically disqualified all non-Christian art). It also serves to reinforce the observation made by Barolini when of the use of classical authors in the  Convivio, she states, “they are [for Dante] providers of ethical insights, rather than rhetorical precepts”; and, indeed, this principle might also be applied generally to Dante’s attitude towards his classical models throughout the Commedia.

And so the contagious longing sigh enters the body of the Pilgrim, just as the earthly object of desire (Beatrice of the Vita nuova) enters the souls of men saying: Sospira! Dante takes his place in a pageant of his foremost classical authors in sixth position, but neither this honour nor the momentary pleasure of holding a secret discourse with his poetic mentors can alleviate the burden of the haunting sigh of his past. He thus carries with him this weight into the next canto where Hell proper begins.

The sheer tension of Canto 5 erupts in a crescendo of sighs and screams and wailing. The souls flit about terrifyingly like bats in a cave, or to use the first of Dante’s beautiful ‘bird’ similes:

E come li stornei portan l’ali
nel freddo tempo, a schiera larga e piena,
così quel fiato li spiriti mali.
(Inf. V: 40-42)

And as in cold weather, circling in serried groups, starlings are lifted skyward on their wings.

The passive sighs of the previous canto increase unbearably into an unmitigated groaning hurricane. As the Pilgrim and his guide take shelter from the storm, Virgil identifies the flying souls of half a dozen ill-fated carnal sinners who ‘subjected reason to desire’ (Inf. V: 39). Adulterers and seducers from history and legend are tagged, then dispatched. The Pilgrim is overcome with pity for ‘le donne antiche e’ cavaliere’ so that he is ‘quasi smarrito’ (dazed and confused). The foulest blow is yet to fall. Two lovers entangled in an adulterous embrace catch his attention; their circular flight fixates him as though he recognizes them and feels a violent urge to speak with them. The incessant pace of the canto relents somewhat as he awaits their passing. However, his desire to speak to the pair overwhelms him and he shouts:

………………O anime affannate,
venite a noi parlar, s’altri nol niega! (80-81)

O tormented souls
come and speak with us, if Another forbids it not!

The souls heed his cry and make their way over to him ‘like doves!’ from the ‘troop where Dido is’.  Here it is necessary to perform a slight epicycle or periphrasis of my own.

Dido is the queen whom Virgil’s eponymous hero abandons in order to fulfill his fate as founder of Rome. It is at this point that the role of Virgil and his hero, Aeneas, are codified into the text along with another ‘epic’ hero, Ulysses. Auerbach defines the ‘classical epic’ character as “a man on the way to his doom, squandering and exhausting his store of vital energy, which can no longer bear fruit.”  Virgil’s Aeneas, in his rejection of Dido in order to fulfill a higher command, has subjected desire to reason. His departure from the ruined city of Troy in order to found the ‘new-Troy’ of Rome is a template for a regenerative cycle freed from the sterile implications of Auerbach’s definition. The first epic hero comes down to us through Homer as one who also stayed loyal to his higher purpose; an act of defiance most acutely rendered in the episode of the Sirens. However if we move forward to Inferno 26, we discover not the Ulysses that we are accustomed to but one who allowed his thirst for knowledge in the absence of God to overcome his reason. Dante appends a unique parable to the epic of Ulysses. Dante’s creation does not return to Ithaca in order complete the regenerative cycle but forsakes his homeland to sail beyond the realms known to mankind. His bold defiance of divinely prescribed Order sees him catch a momentary glimpse of his goal (the land as yet uninhabited by the souls of mankind; Mount Purgatory) before his boat is sucked into the depths of the sea.

Tre volte il fé girar con tutte l’acque;
a la quarta levar la poppa in suso
e la prora ire in giù, com’altrui piacque
infin che ‘l mar fu sovra noi richiuso.
(Inf. XXVI, 139-142
my italics)

Three times it whirled her round with all the waters
and the fourth time it lifted the stern aloft
and plunged the prow below, as pleased Another,
till the sea closed over us.

The use of ‘altr[u]i’ or ‘Another’ in both this stanza and the previous one quoted is no coincidence;- coincidences of this kind do not occur in Dante. The salt sea closing over the wayward Ulysses becomes an emblem for the sterility of his voyage and also makes a mockery of his inordinate thirst for enlightenment;- though not the true enlightenment of Revelation. Ultimately, he is damned to the fiery pit of Hell, consumed eternally in the flame of his desire. Aeneas, on the other hand, achieves his epic regenerative cycle, redeeming himself and his ancestors by establishing them in a new land. This he does without compromising his virtue, and while this does not ensure him salvation, his fate in Limbo exacts no active punishment.  If now, having realized this connection, we return to the lovers of canto 5 we see that Dante, having projected forward his ultimate design, maintains a backward look on his own poetic awakening as a lyrical love poet and resolves both future and past in the immediate creation of the present. Francesca da Rimini opens her cantilena with words so disarming in their suavity and rhetoric that both the reader and the Pilgrim are drawn under their spell: “O anima grazioso e benigno…” (O gracious and benevolent soul) (Inf V: 88). She continues in this vein with an impromptu description of her native lands that washes over us like her imagined paradise of the river Po, “discende per aver pace co’ seguaci sui”(V: 99). We are seduced by the anaphoric sweetness of ‘Amor…Amor…Amor’, opening each terzina like a quickened heartbeat. The watchwords of the stilnovisti poets (Dante among them) leap up at us out of the text; ‘dolce’; ‘gentil’; ‘disio’ and then a word slipped between the rhymes ‘martiri’ and ‘disiri’ rises to the surface triumphantly: Sospiri! The Pilgrim now stands accused before this tortured symbol of desire and listens swooning as she retraces the literary path that led her astray. Dante’s own carnal past is revealed to him objectified in the form of a trembling Francesca who now embodies the sigh he has borne for so long; he literally expires as this breath of desire is drawn from his soul:

Io veni men così com’io morisse.

E caddi come corpo morte cadde

(Inf. 5: 141-142)

I almost died there on the spot,
and fell as a dead body falls.

In Canto 5 the role of Virgil as the legitimate guide of the Pilgrim is copper-fastened. It is astonishing, given the fact that this canto has received, and endured, such a welter of critical attention that, to my knowledge, the significance of ‘Gallehault’ has not been pounced upon.  I will quote an excerpt, at length, from Charles Singleton’s commentary on the Inferno to introduce my hypothesis concerning the neglected status of this hapax legomenon in the Commedia.

“During Gallehault’s residence at King Arthur’s court a warm friendship developed between him and Lancelot, who confided his love for Queen Guinivere. Gallehault arranged for the two to meet.
In the course of this interview, Gallehault urged the queen to kiss Lancelot—and so began the guilty love between those two. From the part he played on this occasion, the name Gallehault (“galeotto”),
like that of Pandarus (“pander”), became a synonym for “go-between.”

Francesca da Rimini pinpoints this exact scene from Medieval Romance as the catalyst for her undoing. Its raunchy content, she suggests, was the “Galeotto” that led her into the adulterous embrace of Paulo and to her doom. Given the means in which this canto functions as a corrective over moral and poetic malpractice, is it not conceivable that this proverbial use of the word “galeotto” is intended to reflect upon the character of Virgil as go-between in reuniting the legitimate “lovers”, Dante and Beatrice? Dante is, after all, aspiring to be the perfect lover, who shall rise to meet with his ‘queen’ ne ‘l corte del cielo, ‘in the court of heaven’. The scathing attack upon the decadence and immorality of amor cortois, and indeed Dante’s own affiliation with this courtly tradition is to be triumphantly rewritten with Virgil playing a central part as the ‘corrected’ Gallehault who brings about its consummation. If this hypothesis is accepted it is not too difficult to replace the ‘debased’ medieval epic of the offending Lancelot du Lac (which led Francesca and Paolo astray in the first place), with another from the golden-age of Roman literature – the Aeneid. Dante, not for the last time, invests Virgil’s poem with legitimate salvific properties.

Virgil is of course eminently qualified to act as the Pilgrim’s guide through Hell. The full extent to which Dante drew upon Book 6 of the Aeneid, where Aeneas travels to the underworld, to furnish his own conception of the Inferno is too complex an area to do full justice to in this essay. However, several of the clearer strands of connection can be disentangled and examined separately. The myth of the Golden Bough is a useful indicator:

The Cumaen Sibyl, inspired by Apollo’s oracle, commands Aeneas to go in search of the Golden Bough. This he shall find in a dark wood and must successfully pluck if he is to descend to learn the secrets of the underworld.

Virgil of course acts as a Golden Bough between Beatrice and Dante; but we have already dwelt adequately  upon Virgil’s role as a go-between . Another episode in the Commedia where this myth is revamped is in Canto XIII of the Inferno where the circles of the suicides and the profligates overlap. Here light is thrown upon my second hypothesis (that of the rôle of Virgil’s text as an equivalent to revealed truth). On reaching the Wood of the Suicides having crossed the burning river of Phlegethon, the Pilgrim is bewildered by the sound of wailing issuing from the trees. Noticing the distress of his charge, Virgil decides to ‘test’ the Pilgrim’s knowledge of his text. He tells him to pluck a bough from the nearest shrub if he wishes to dispel his doubts. The Pilgrim does as he is commanded but drops the branch in fright when the shrub squeals “Why do you break me?” His astonishment is turned to horror when he sees blood oozing from the wood ‘like sap from a burning branch’. Virgil, obviously enjoying the fun, excuses himself to the thorn-bush, claiming that had Dante had more faith in ‘ciò c’ha veduto pur con la mia rima’ (XIII: 48) (what he had never seen save in my verses), he would never have stretched out a hand to harm him. The ‘rima’ he refers to is to be found in Book 6 of the Aeneid where Aeneas plucks the Golden Bough and is astonished “when the first bough is torn off, [that] a second grows again” Is it surprising that Virgil would have expected the Pilgrim to accept his poetry so literally? Perhaps not. Virgils’ myths, of all the classical references laced throughout the Commedia, are treated more literally than any. The bestiary of the underworld as found in Book 6 of the Aeneid is well represented. Briareus (Inf. XXXI, 99); the Furies and Medusa (Inf IX); the Harpies in the canto mentioned above (Inf. XIII); the three-headed Cerberus whom Virgil placates in Canto VI, as does the Sibyl with honeyed cakes in the Aeneid (417-23):

These regions echo with the triple-throated
bark of the giant Cerberus, who crouches,
enormous, in a cavern facing them.

Cerbero, fiera crudele e diversa
con tre gole caninamente latra
sovra la gente che quivi è sommersa. (Inf. VI: 13-15)

Other aspects too are strikingly similar. One is tempted to suggest that Book 6 was the text that coaxed Dante down into the Inferno from the sober heights of the Convivio in the first place. Aeneas, like the Pilgrim, is insatiable in his desire to know the inner workings of the infernal regions; he pesters the Sibyl (his guide) for more information concerning its structure. We have Virgil’s prototype to thank for giving the impulse to so much of Dante’s design. The system of rivers found in Virgil are replicated by Dante with inevitable alterations; the Acheron is a swamp in the Commedia and a river in the Aeneid (presumably to facilitate a longer journey in the infernal ferryman, Charon’s, skiff); the ‘rapid flood of flames’ in the Aeneid (Phlegethon) is in the Inferno a boiling river of blood where the Wrathful are punished for having spilled hot blood. Dante’s ninth circle of Hell, where the most vile sinners (including Satan) are frozen in the pool of Cocytus, is of course sui generis in its conception. Lethe, or the River of Forgetfulness, is not to be found in the Inferno but flows alongside the Eunoë through the Garden of Earthly Delights atop Mount Purgatory. For Virgil, no such realm existed; Dante would have to invent it.

The Golden Bough is in fact used as a motif variously throughout the Inferno and Purgatorio. It is, I believe, a perfect literary exemplar, as Dante would have defined it; that is, if we are to accept the authenticity of the famous Letter to Can Grande della Scalla. (In this famous letter Dante outlines his use of four different yet interlinked categories of meaning in the Divine Comedy to his patron and friend Can Grande: literal; allegorical; spiritual and anagogical. This, he says, makes the work “polysemous, that is, endowed with many meanings”).  To return once again to the well-trodden territory of Canto 5, we notice again the strange comparison made between the souls of Francesca and Paolo to ‘a troop of doves’ in conjunction with the name of Dido. By striking ‘coincidence’, in Book 6 of the Aeneid it is a pair of doves who uncover for Aeneas the mysterious Golden Bough. Aeneas cries out to them:

Be my guides
If there is any passage, strike across the air
To that grove where the rich bough overshadows
The fertile ground

Thus Virgil, the ‘Golden Bough’, is brought to our attention by the two ‘doves’, just as doves were instrumental in enabling Aeneas to enlist the Sibyl as his guide through the underworld. This is the Golden Bough in its first guise. Its second function is that of a ‘verghetta’, or wand, in the hands of an angel of God who comes to open the gates of the infernal city of Dis, the entrance to which has been denied its first holder, Virgil, much to his bewilderment. This is not the last time Virgil is seen to lose his talismanic qualities. So in the possession of the angel of God in Inferno IX it is a ‘magic’ wand that opens the Gates of Dis:

Ben m’accorsi ch’elli era da ciel messo,

Well did I perceive that here was a messenger from Heaven
Venne a la porta e con una verghetta
l’aperse, che non v’ebbe alcun ritegno.
(Inf. IX, 85, 89-90)

He came to the gate,
and with a little wand he opened it,
and there was no resistance.

‘Messo’ in this case means messenger with overtones of the classical depictions of Mercury and his virga. Robert Hollander has given considerable space to this aspect in his essay ‘Dante and Divination: The Tragedy of Divination in Inferno XX’. Hollander sees the hesitant opening of this canto as being indicative of Dante’s own uneasiness regarding ‘the disturbing closeness of poets and poetry to divination’. He perceives the roots of this misgiving in ‘Virgil’s invocation, which precedes Aeneas’s entrance into Pluto’s kingdom’ ending,

pandere res alta terra et caligine mersas

which he sees faintly echoed in the word ‘sommersi’ from the opening terzina of Inferno XX, i.e. ‘things buried in the dark and deep of earth’ (Aeneid, VI, 355). Given the fact this invocation is addressed to“gods who hold dominion over spirits/ you voiceless Shades”, this can easily lead to the conclusion that Virgil had made “an unlawful attempt to enter into the process of revelation” and thus could be liable to the charge of necromancy (a reputation he indeed held in the Middle Ages). Suddenly the Golden Bough takes on more sinister implications and this is why it is, I think, a good barometer through which to gauge Virgil’s oscillating influence on the poem. In Canto 5 he himself is the benign messenger – the embodiment of reason and an expert on Hell. This gift remains undiminished right through to Canto IX. We see Virgil exercise its power on several occasions; for instance, when he and the Pilgrim are confronted by various guardians of Hell (guardians with whom Virgil is already familiar in his own writings) he utters the password

vuolsi così cola dove si puote
ciò che si vuole, e più non dimandare

thus it is willed there where that can be done
which is willed; and ask no more.

or a variation on this theme. It is only in the presence of Divine Justice that Virgil loses his function;  reason being useless where faith is required. The next time the Golden Bough emerges it is quite unexpectedly found girdled around the Pilgrim’s waist. This has been variously interpreted as a proof that Dante was a member of the Franciscan Order or that it is symbolic of ‘confidence’. Whatever the value of these interpretations, what is interesting is the awesome transmutability of this poetic symbol. The girdle is used by Virgil as a coiled ‘cenno’, to coax up from his cave another Virgilian beast, the triple-bodied Geryon. “Surely” says the Pilgrim “a strange sign heralds a fantastic response”. And surely enough our imagination is not disappointed. The Golden Bough is now the generator of incredible poetic matter as symbolized by the beast Geryon who:

come torna colui che va giuso
talora a solver l’àncora ch’aggappa
o scoglio o altro che nel mare è chiuso
che ‘n sù si stende e da piè si rattrappa.
(Inf. XVI: 133-136)

even as he returns who sometimes goes down
to loose the anchor that is caught on a reef
or something else hidden in the sea,
who stretches upwards his arms and draws in his feet.

Once again we are brought forward to the passage of Ulysses who was ‘nel mare chiuso’. Virgil and the Pilgrim are about to embark on their own ‘mad flight’ on the back of Geryon as Ulysses does in his own ill-fated craft. God sanctions one flight just as he cancels another. Dante’s invocation of Phaëthon and of Icarus in the following canto only serves to emphasize this distinction.

The last occasion on which Virgil uses the Golden Bough is almost ceremonial. Virgil, now on unfamiliar terrain, invests the Pilgrim with the bough in its latest incarnation; a reed plucked from the shores of Mount Purgatory. On the shore, he washes away the grimy tears of the Pilgrim with dew from the grass, having been commanded to do so by Cato (the guardian of Mount Purgatory) and girdles him around the waist with a magical reed.  In a glorious tribute to Virgil, we are reminded that while the voyage of Ulysses ended in vain, Virgil’s Aeneas has been vindicated in the Pilgrim’s triumphant renewal:

Quivi mi cinse sì com’altrui piacque
oh maraviglia! chè qual elli scelse
l’umile pianta, cotal si rinacque
subitamente là onde l’avelse. (Purg. 1:133-136)

And as he girt me round the waist, as pleased Another,
I marvelled, that culling the plant it should again
spring up suddenly there where he’d uprooted it.

With Virgil’s function as a guide coming to an abrupt close, his stature in the Commedia diminishes radically until he resembles again that shade in the ‘selva oscura’ and eventually vanishes. Barolini puts this viewpoint succinctly when she writes “the Purgatory works less at gradually undermining Virgil than at gradually replacing him”. The stern rebuke Cato deals him for having assumed to gain his favour by flattery “effectively shatters his authority”. In it we see the reign of reason and guile draw to a close and a new language devoid of deceit and filled with expectation take precedence. Virgil’s failure to realise this is also his failure as a pagan who omitted to listen to the ‘word of God’.

Purgatory is the canticle of song. The song of Casella, a companion from the heady days of Dante’s youth in Florence, is an earthly canzone that stands blatantly in opposition to the psalm sung by the newly arrived souls to Purgatory. The psalm, In exitu Israel de Aegypto, we are told, is sung in its entirety whilst the canzone is cut short by an iracund Cato. Apart from what this relative tolerance clearly indicates, we have only to trace the canzone back to its source in the Convivio to realise its total inappropriateness. The canzone in question is the second of three canzoni discussed in the Convivio. ‘Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona’ is a poem concerning Dante’s discovery of Lady Philosophy as an alternative to the love his soul desires; i.e., ‘the lady in the court of heaven’- Beatrice. This ‘doctrinal poem’ is punctuated with all the hallmarks of Dante’s early love lyrics: the Lady enters through his eyes and through his hearing (i.e. she does not talk to him directly through his soul) ‘causing his intellect to go astray’. And if this were not damning enough in itself, and had Cato not cut short this ‘siren song’ before the 33rd verse (as I presume he does) the Pilgrim would have become again the swooning soul of Inferno 5. In fact, the Pilgrim is saved on this occasion by Cato from the contagion of ‘sospiri’.

In Purgatory XI Dante reveals best how he stands in relation to his contemporary poets and precursors. Under the pretext of denouncing the vanity of fame, Dante in fact exalts himself above both of the contemporary poets with whom he was most closely associated in terms of style and content:

….ha tolto l’uno a l’altro Guido
la gloria della lingua; e forse è nato
chi l’uno e l’altro caccerà del nido.
(Purg. XI: 94-99)

Dante is he who shall “chase the former two Guidos from the nest”. The second Guido is Cavalcanti with whom Dante formed an uneasy personal and poetical relationship during his younger years in Florence. Ten years his senior, the irascible Cavalcanti taught Dante to be critical of the poetry of his contemporaries and predecessors and encouraged an increased refinement, clarity and simplicity of poetic language. He introduced to him the concept of love as a psychological battle. Poems such and the sonnet beginning:

My soul is broken lost and wasted
By the battle that rages through my heart.

are whetstones on which Dante sharpened his own talent. Cavalcanti’s influence is prevalent throughout most of the Vita nuova; which, incidentally, is informally dedicated to the older poet as Dante’s ‘primo amico’. However, due to the increasing approximation in Dante’s poetry between ethical standards and an aesthetic ideal, it would be more accurate to say that Cavalcanti’s influence is purely on the surface i.e. in style and use of vocabulary rather than in thought and sentiment. Their relationship appears to have cooled somewhat in the last few years of the 13th century with Cavalcanti admonishing Dante for the wayward direction (‘vile vita’) he believed the younger poet’s thought and life was taking. Cavalcanti earns the dubious honour of being the only contemporary poet of Dantes’ to be mentioned in the Inferno when the Pilgrim encounters his father, Cavalcante di Cavalcanti in Canto X. Even here Cavalcanti junior is portrayed as one who would have held the Pilgrim’s poet-guide, Virgil, in disdain (presumably for stylistic as well as selfish reasons). In a further snub, Dante carefully exploits the knowledge he has of Cavalanti’s death (which occurred in 1300, the fictional year in which the Commedia is set) in order to place doubts in his father’s as well as well as the reader’s mind as to the ultimate providence of Cavalcanti’s soul.

forse cui Guido vostro ebbe a disdegno (Inf. X: 63)

[he whom] perhaps your Guido held in disregard.

The use of the preterite, ‘ebbe’, effectively seals the passing of Cavalcanti. All these factors combine to cancel out any favourable impression we might like to take from the above-quoted verses from Purgatory XI (lines 94-99).

Dante seems more willing to accept the even earlier poet, Guido Guinizelli, as a legitimate poetic father. Many of Dante’s earlier lyrics were written in the Guinizellian mode. Guinizelli’s poem Al cor gentil rempaira sempre amore was to have a decisive influence upon the poets of Dante’s generation whom we have conveniently categorized as the stilnovisti.  Barolini observes a subversive conflation of two verses from this poem in Francesca’s cantilena and notes that its singular importance stood as “a manifesto for the poets of the dolce stil novo” , or  ‘new sweet style’. However, on the whole Guinizelli emerges from the Commedia far less tainted than Cavalcanti does. His encounter with the Pilgrim in Canto XXVI of the Purgatory sees him hailed as:

Father of mine
And those older than I who rhyme sweetly
And lightly on the theme of Love…
(Purg. XXVI:97-99)

In a snub worthy of Dante himself, Auerbach makes an uncharacteristic slip when he writes, “after 1300 Guinizelli lost his purity and Cavalcanti his expressive lyricism, and the circle disintegrated”. I think what he means is that the latter lost his life, (Cavalcanti died in August 1300); or does it, in Dante, amount to the same thing? It appears that that fatal preterite has all the polysemous qualities that Dante would have desired of it.

Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore represents a radical new departure in Dante’s poetic journey. The first canzone of the Vita Nuova, it achieves a purity of diction that is clearly unlike the rhetorical modes employed by Dante’s mentors. If Tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare is the finest aesthetical achievement of the ‘little book’ then this canzone is its most prophetic; herein lies the path to poetic salvation. That Dante strayed from this path is obvious to any reader of canzoni such as Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona or, indeed, almost any passage of the Convivio. That the latter canzone is treated so unfavourably in Canto 2 of the Purgatory in comparison with the psalm ‘In exitu Israel de Aegypto’, only serves to emphasise the favourable comparison made here (Purg. XXIII) with the line from psalm 50 found on the terrace of the Gluttons:  ‘Labia mea, Domine’ and the canzone that opened Dante’s lips for the first time in praise of his Lady, Beatrice, symbol of Divine Grace. The direct antithesis which cantos XXIII/XXIV supply in the ‘correction’ of Canto 2 is unmistakable. In the earlier canto Casella, erstwhile friend of Dante’s, comments on the affection he still feels for him:

Così com’io t’amai
nel mortal corpo, così t’amo sciolta.
(Purg. 2:88-89)

Even as I loved your mortal body,
so I love your soul set free.

while in Canto XXIII another earthly companion is encountered, only this time it is Dante who expresses his affection towards him:

La faccia tua, ch’io lagrimai gìa morta,
Mi dà di pianger mo non minor doglia.
(XXIII: 55-56)

That face I wept for when already dead
Gives me for weeping now no lesser grief.

The feeling expressed is the same though the rôles are reversed. The first, mistakenly, rejoices in Dante’s casting off of his earthly body, while the second laments the distortion of the features of Forese Donati caused by the same. Dante comes face to face with a symbol of his own decadent  past; he sees his own twisted face in the emaciated features of his companion, Forese. Nobody in the Commedia seems so personally involved in the fall of Dante’s past than does Forese. The intimate words between them make them accomplices in the same transgressions. Dante’s conscience is pricked; he reacts with words loaded with self-disgust and recrimination:

Se tu riduci a mente
qual fosti meco, e qual io teco fui,
ancor fia grave il memorar presente.
(XXIII: 115-117)

If you bring back to mind
that which I was to you, and you to I,
the present memory shall torture me still.

And so we are transported back to the dark wood where Virgil assumed his salvific rôle, reminding the Pilgrim of his debt to Beatrice. At this stage, once again confronted directly with his past (here in Purgatory where past time is redeemed) a literal advance has been made in the psalm from that first desperate cry of Miserere to the song of praise ‘O Lord, open thou my lips’ (ps. li. 15). Confirmation of this progress is affirmed in the Pilgrim’s re-encounter with his own poetic awakening in the next canto and the re-affirmation of his promise to sing the praises of the one he loves in his soul.

Bonagiunta da Lucca is, in Dante’s eyes, associated with a poetic movement directly antithetical to his own and this renders him a suitable negative commentator on the reasons for this failure and a perfect foil for Dante’s own ‘sweet new style’. Also, by putting in his mouth a prophecy concerning Dante’s future, a parallel is drawn between poetry and foresight. His singling out of Dante as the forger of ‘nove rime’, tells us much about the radical break represented by ‘Donne ch’avete’. Here, it is a poem that stands out in defining a new poetic school; just as Guinizelli’s ‘Amor che sempre’ did. In the following terzina Dante creates his own poetic maxim; one that sheds much light on the nature of his canzone’s genesis as delineated in the prose-commentary of the Vita Nuova: “And so my tongue spoke out these words of its own will: Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore

I’ mi son un che, quando
Amor mi spira, noto, e a quel modo
ch’e’ ditta dentro vo significando.
(XXIV: 52-54)

I am one who whenever
Love inspires me, takes note, and in this way,
listening to the dictates of that inner voice, sings out.

At the heart of this terzina is the ‘significant’ word ‘noto’. It preempts the admission of guilt by Bonagiunta that “ il nodo/ che ‘l Notaro e Guittone e me ritenne/ di qua dal dolce stil novo ch’i’ odo!” The “knot” holding back a school of poets Dante disparages for their ‘municipal style’ in his treatise on the vernacular De Vulgari Eloquentia is that which his ‘sweet new style’ has loosed. The old mantle is figuratively cast off – the scoglio Cato refers to- and a new language takes flight. The ‘penne’, as though suddenly becoming aware of its own etymological significance as a quill or bird’s feather, takes its cue from the ‘dittator’ (declaimer) of verse 59:

Come li augei che vernan lungo ‘l Nilo
alcuna volta in aere fanno schiera,
poi volan più a fretta e vanno in filo;
(XXIV: 64-66)

Even as the birds that migrate towards the Nile
in winter, make a few turns together in the air
then fly in greater haste, and go on in file.

By Canto XXVI Dante takes the unprecedented step of placing in the mouth of the soul of Arnaut Daniel (troubadour par excellence) 8 lines of Provençal poetry. This is done, I think, to emphasize to us the readers that souls are saved, not on account of the style of their poetry but on account of its ethical content. Arnaut, we are informed, is here given plenty of shriving time in the cleansing fires of Purgatory in which to refine both his poetry and his morals:

Much it pleases me your courtly demand,
That I cannot refuse my name to you.
I am Arnaut, who sings through his tears
Considering the heady days long gone,
And joyfully awaits the days to come.
But  I ask you, when by the hand of that High power
you reach, with His aid, to the stairs’ top,
There remember me, if you find the time.

Poi s’ascose nel foco che li affina.
(XXVI: 140-148)

Then he hid himself in the refining fires.

The language of love becomes the speech of repentance, which is, in the context of Purgatory, the only true prayer.

Purgatory, where this prayer occurs, is also the realm in which Dante’s own language is refined. If the language of the Inferno represents the Tower of Babel caved in upon itself;  interruptive, non-sensical – the Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe! of Canto 7;  tortured and impure – the pained eloquence of Count Ugolino in Canto 33 – then the  language of Purgatory is characterized by a subtle courtesy, even diplomacy:

O Mantovano, io son Sordello
della tua terra!

(Purg VI: 4/5)

O Mantuan, I am Sordello
a son of your country.

where Virgil and the Pilgrim encounter the poet, Sordello, in ante-Purgatory. This simple gesture of patriotic brotherhood heralds a lengthy periphrasis by Dante on the absence of such displays of loyalty among his Italian ‘brethren’. Sordello is thus chosen as an exemplar of such sentiments –  a champion of the vernacular – most notably in his ‘political poem’, the Planh for Blacatz, satirizing the princes of Europe.

Another obvious example where ‘diplomatic’ language is used is in Canto IX. Virgil, this time adhering to the ‘protocol’ of Purgatory, makes clear his intentions  to the angel-guardian at the Gate:

Donna del ciel, di queste cose accorta,
ripuose il mio maestro a lui ‘pur dianzi
ne disse: “Andate là: quivi è la porta.
(Purg IX: 88-90)

“A lady of heaven, conversant with such things,”
replied my Master, but even now indicating
to us, continued: “Go that way: there’s the door”.

This time, however, Dante signifies to us that an elevation of language is here appropriate given the ‘height’ of his theme.

Lettor, tu vedi ben com’io innalzo
la mia matera, e però con più arte
non ti maravigliar s’io la rincalzo.
(IX: 70-72)

‘Reader, you see well how I exalt my theme, and if I continue in this vein, don’t think it strange.’

and so the warder replies in kind:

Ed ella i passi vostri in bene avanzi, (IX: 93)

Come forward then unto these stairs of ours.

The promise made in Inferno 2 is, it seems, to be fulfilled. We are recalled to the description given by Virgil of Beatrice descending from ‘the court of heaven’ (II: 125), where faith is restored in the power of the ‘Word’ as a means to salvation:

O anima cortese mantoana,
di cui la fama ancor nel mondo dura,
e durerà quanto ‘l mondo lontana,

O courteous Mantuan spirit,
whose fame still lasts in the world,
and shall last as long as the world.
Or movi, e con la tua parola ornata
e con ciò ch’a mestieri al suo campare
l’aiuta sì ch’i’ ne sia consolata.
(Inf II: 58-60; 67-69)

Go now, with your fair speech
and with whatever is needful for his deliverance,
assist him so that it may console me.

When next Virgil’s rôle is put into relief we see with increasing intensity the “closeness of the Aeneid to Scripture in Dante’s mind.” Here we see the diplomatic language of the Purgatory reach its apotheosis, as one poet-guide replaces another. Statius’s arrival on the scene is heralded by a mighty shaking of the mountain as his soul is released from its purgation. The souls on the mountain cry out exultantly “Gloria in excelsis Deo”, to mark the ascent of a fellow sinner. Statius’s first words to the Pilgrim and his guide in the following canto, Purgatory XXI, are resolutely Christian: ‘O frati miei, Dio vi dea pace.’ (13), and so our first impression is oxymoronic: that of an extremely devout pagan poet. But surely any number of instances up to now in which Dante adulterated the facts have prepared us for such a fantastic rewriting of literary history. Take, for example, Dante’s placing in the mouth of Virgil a ‘true’ account of the founding of Mantua in Canto XX of the Inferno, (one that distances Virgil from the suspicion of necromancy by explaining away the role of the prophetess Manto). We know from the Aeneid that Virgil regarded Ocnus, son of the Theban prophetess, as the true founder of Mantua (the city most associated with Virgil) and that he had named this city accordingly (Aen. X: 198-200). Dante, wishing to play down the reputation his chosen author had acquired as a necromancer, and to emphasize his role as a prophet of Christian Truth takes the radical step of ‘improving’ Virgil’s text. The version given by Dante’s Virgil has the founders of Mantua build their city upon the bones of Manto ‘without other augury’ (XX: 93). No mention is made of Ocnus.

The extraordinary events that precede Statius’s appearance serve then to give us forewarning of the discovery we are about to make. The central rôle that Virgil assumes in Canto XXI of the Purgatory directs our attention once again towards the venerable guide. His words form a negative response to the righteous words of Statius:

Nel beato concilio
ti ponga in pace la verace corte
che mi rilega nell’etterno essilio.
(Purg XXI: 16-18)

May the blessed council
who banished me into eternal exile
reserve for you an everlasting peace.

What follows is an extended meditation on the prophetic power of poetry. The long periphrasis occupying half of Canto XXI detailing the miraculous nature of Mount Purgatory, though addressed explicitly to the Pilgrim, sees Virgil silenced before the inscrutable process of Divine Justice. Statius’s unwitting words in praise of Virgil become a long diminuendo accompanying the fall of a universally revered poet:

Al mio ardor fuor seme le faville
che mi scaldar, della divina fiamma
onde sono allumati più di mille;
dell’Eneïda dico….
(Purg XXI: 94-97)

The seeds of my ardour came from the sparks
of that celestial flame, enlightening the hearts
of thousands; I speak of the Aeneid …

Virgil, unable to respond, merely signals to the Pilgrim his wish to remain anonymous. Statius’s rôle in the Commedia, however, is to bring into relief the flawed nature of Virgil’s character and so when he realizes too late the unintended irony of his words, he blunders an apology. Virgil’s closing words are, despite their explicit attempt at identification, a tragic acceptance of his fate:

non far, chè tu se’ ombra e ombra vedi.

(Purg. XXI: 131-32)

do not: a shade you are and a shade
you see before you.’

The failed attempt to embrace Virgil is a testament to this marked distinction.

We are informed that Statius, who lived during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian, sympathized with the plight of early Christian martyrs, and that he had been baptized secretly, thus accounting for his present state of grace. Virgil’s writings, he claims, were instrumental in yielding this conversion, though he was to remain during his life a ‘closet Christian’.  We see in Statius a poet whose private convictions were subjected to outward demands. For this moral cowardice he was to spend over four hundred years on the Terrace of the Slothful. In this respect he serves as a foil more to Dante than to his model, Virgil. Dante too, as we have shown, allowed his inner convictions (his love of Beatrice) to fall subject to unworthy desires and lusts. The acuity with which this episode points to Dante’s own dishonest past will be heavily suggested in the next two cantos, XXIII and XXIV. I have already commented adequately on this aspect above, but suffice it to say that the words uttered by Statius to Virgil in everlasting gratefulness:

Per te poeta fui, per te cristiano.

You made a poet of me, and a Christian.

could just as well have been applied  by Dante to his chosen poet as to his Lady, Beatrice. Thus Statius is a bridge between the primary forces of Dante’s poetic and spiritual impulses. The latter – Beatrice – awaits him in paradise ; the former – Virgil – has been unfailingly true to his word but cannot ultimately participate in the rebirth of Dante’s soul.

A martyr of his own prophesies, Virgil, in the elegiac words of Statius’, was:

come quie che va di notte,
che porta il lume dietro e sè non giova,
ma dopo sè fa le persone dotte

(Purg XXII: 67-69)

like one who goes by night
holding a candle behind him, which helps him not
but lights the way of those in his train.

If Purgatory is the canticle of song, then it is light that dominates in the third and final part of the poem. This transition from the concordance of song is preempted by Statius in Canto XXV of the Purgatory, a canto replete with images of light and reflection. What is also much in evidence in this canto is the propagative rôle Dante assigns to Divine Light. Statius, having completely superseded Virgil as the Pilgrim’s mentor, is now a reflection of the true light, as the latter had been a source of the light of reason. His calling of Dante, ‘figlio’, or son,  is also indicative of this new dispensation:

se le parole mie,
figlio, la mente tua guarda e riceve,
lume ti fiero al come che tu die.

(Purg XXV: 34-36)

Son, if your mind
contemplates and receives these words of mine,
they will light you to the heaven you speak of.

The thematic of birth and rebirth awakened by the ‘Gloria’ of Canto XX are here infused with light-inspired metaphors of creation. A long and technical explanation by Statius of the process involved in forming individual souls ends with an image that suggests the Creation itself; of word becoming flesh:

E perchè meno ammiri la parola,
guarda il calor del sol che si fa vino,
giunto all’omor che della vite cola.

(Purg XXV:76-78)

And to better understand my words,
place before your mind the sun that becomes wine
mingling with the juices of the vine.

The soul’s earthly journey completed, it falls ‘mirabilamente all’una delle rive’ (86) ‘on one shore or the other’; that is, if it is damned it falls to the shores of Acheron and if saved it gathers with the rest of the souls at the Tiber’s mouth, ready to be ferried by an angel to the foot of Mount Purgatory. It is in lines 88-99, however, where we are to catch our first glimpse of the state of souls in Paradise as light-infused shades. Surely the comparison made here between the radiance of these ‘shades’ and the sunlight illuminating the air ‘full of rain’ projects forward to the encounter between the Pilgrim and Adam, the first created soul, in Canto 26 of Paradise.

Dante, having temporarily lost his sight due to the unbearable radiance of things revealed to him in heaven, is gradually reawakened (with the aid of Beatrice) to a new spectrum of light far exceeding the radiance of the sun:

E come a lume acuto si disonna
per lo spirto visivo che ricorre
allo splendor che va di gonna in gonna

(Par XXVI: 70-72)

And as harsh sunlight startles one from sleep
by reason of the visual spirit that runs
along its spectrum, shimmering.

But as is so often the case in the Commedia, we are required to make a full circle and so look back to the Inferno at the canto that corresponds exactly with Canto XXV of the Purgatory. Taking Inferno 1 to be an introductory canto, this will be Canto XXVI, in which the burning shades of Ulysses and Diomedes are encountered. The description of the souls of Ulysses and Diomedes as consumed inside a single flame prepares us for the explanation of the soul’s creation ‘that follows the fire wherever it shifts, following the spirit in its new form’ (Purg XXV: 98-99); and as we move closer towards our encounter with Adam this process is revealed to be intimately connected with Dante’s conception of fiction. We move from the awesome sterility of Ulysses’ fable in Inferno 26, where the salt sea leaves no trace of the seafarer or of his crew, to the graphic explanation of a generative process by the converted poet Statius (poetic son of Virgil), and finally to Adam, father of thousands, ‘a cui ciascuna sposa e figlia e nuro’ (Par XXVI: 93) ‘to whom each wife is daughter and daughter-in-law’.

When Dante enters the Garden of Earthly Delights atop Mount Purgatory he does so as a new Adam. He enters through the Purgatorial flames with Virgil assuming a leading rôle for the last time, coaxing him on with a fatherly smile: ‘come al fanciul si fa ch’è vinto al pome’ (Purg XXVII: 45), ‘[as one smiles] at a child who is won over by an apple’. Dante is to enter the Garden of Eden, purged of the seven sins that had been symbolically scored upon his forehead by Statius. He enters as Adam ‘[come] pomo che maturo…fosti’ (Par XXVI: 91/92), ‘the apple that matured alone’ and is blinded by a light so strong, accompanied by the words from the Gospel of Matthew, “Venite, benedicti Patris mei”, that he is forced to avert his gaze. That these words are taken from the New Testament, moreover, serves to heighten the distinction between his entry into Eden and that of the Hebrew Testament Adam. All shadows are effaced as he reaches the summit of the mountain and Virgil makes a final speech which ends with him conferring upon the Pilgrim the freedom of individuality just as the Christian God confers upon humankind the freedom of the will.

per ch’io te sovra te corono e mitrio

(Purg XXVII: 142)

‘over your own head I place a crown and mitre!’

This recalls to us the words of Dante’s political treatise De Monarchia concerning mankind’s original state and the consequences suffered at its loss: ‘if man had continued in the state of innocence in which God created him, he would not have been in need of such directions’ [i.e. the ordering powers of Church and State]. We are brought back then to the idea of the City, or New Jerusalem, and also to the idea of a lost Golden Era symbolized in the ‘Old Man of Crete’ (Canto 14 of the Inferno), the material composition of whose body represents the successive ages of man from the golden age of innocence to the fractured decadence of the present.  The tears wept by this symbolic figure, embedded within Mount Ida on the ‘Island of Crete’, are tears of sorrow for the loss of mankind’s innocence. At the foot of the giant accumulate the waters that feed the three infernal rivers of Acheron, Styx and [Phlegethon], that flow eventually into the frozen pool at the very bottom of the pit, Cocytus. The golden head of this allegorical giant remains, however, untarnished. The tears, though they flow down through the successive ages of corrupted mankind, are nevertheless pure at their fount; and I surmise that the two eyes of the Old Man allegorically represent the twin rivers of Eden as construed by Dante: Lethe, ‘the River of Forgetfulness’ and Eunoë, that of  ‘Remembrance of good deeds’. The tears of sorrow are therefore the true tears of repentance that mankind, as symbolized by the Pilgrim, must shed in order to end its exile from the Civitas Dei, or the ‘heavenly city of Jerusalem’.

If we turn then finally to the Convivio where Heaven is equated with the Supreme Knowledge – that is to say, a vision of God – and recall the prophesy uttered by Dante referred to above, that a new City was approaching, we can see in the Paradiso an embodiment of this prophesy – an ideal ‘linguistic’ city – just as the Inferno is a Tower of Babel containing the scraps of European languages and, more specifically, the language of Dante’s beloved  (though fallen) city, Florence. Dante knew that as the right of citizenship comes at the expense of personal freedom, so too does the will to be consummated in the Divine Love of Heaven, here given a concrete form in the figure of Beatrice. But having made the long journey to the city sung in Psalm 50:18 by ‘the humble Pslamist’ (King David of the Old Testament) who was ‘più e men che re era’ (Purg X: 65-66), ‘both less and more than a king’, the old words no longer suffice to glorify the Eternal Being.

Thus in Paradiso VIII we see the accession of a new language where the last vestiges of the old are cast off. In the sphere of Venus, the final canzone of the Convivio; Voi che ‘ntendendo il terzo ciel movete, is swept aside as a product of folle amore (crazy love) identified with the myths of ‘le genti antiche nell’antico errore’ (Par VIII: 6) ‘the ancient people living in their ancient erroneous ways’. It is the last canto in which sound is given precedence over light; and so a new voice is seen to emerge literally as sparks emerge from inside a fire:

E come in fiamma favilla si vede,
e come in voce voce discerne

(Par VIII: 15-16)

And as within a fire a spark is seen,
as within a voice a voice is discerned.

Its rhythm and cadence is of course circular and regenerative, (as have been all the terza rima of the Commedia up to this point), only now it mirrors the descending dance of the Seraphim; a movement so foreign to the grating rhythms of the Inferno as to be almost unidentifiable with it, and one that is only suggested in the swaying consonance of the Purgatory:

Noi ci volgiam coi Principi celesti
d’un giro e d’un girare e d’un sete
ai quali tu del mondo già dicesti:
“Voi che ‘ntendendo il terzo ciel movete”

(Par. VIII: 34-37)

We turn around with the celestial Princes
turning with one turn and with one thirst
towards her to whom you once said:
“You in whose intelligence the third heaven moves.”

The essential circularity of the Commedia’s structure and the novelty and boldness of Dante’s linguistic venture is here perfectly displayed in the counterpoint of earthly verse with the sublime new music of Paradiso. The singularity of his fate is revealed to him by his holy forefather, Cacciaguida, in Canto XVII of the Paradise, ‘without dark sayings….but in plain words and express terms’. Terms, we might add, like Dante’s own. Experience has taught him to trust no voice but the voice that speaks to him in his soul. And though the certainty of exile and isolation, as prohesied by Cacciaguida, shall see him become an outcast ‘parte per se stesso’ (Par XVII: 69), ‘a part unto himself’, a line echoing his worthy beginnings in the Vita nuova, his poetry shall rise above ‘lo mondo sanza fine amaro’, ‘the ever-bitter world’.

He has supplied his vision of an ideal Love and realises, without bitterness, the essential ineffability of his goal:

If all the tongues of Polyhymnia
And her sisters were to sound
In unison to aid me, I could not
Express the most infinitesimal part
Of  what was There revealed of Truth.
(Par XXIII: 54-59)

But, modesty aside, to reveal even the ‘infinitesimal part’ of God’s glory in ‘the sacred poem’ it was necessary to ‘make a leap like one who sees his path cut off’ (Par.XXIII: 62-63). Here we return to the ‘selva oscura’ of the opening canto of the Inferno, where the Pilgrim questions his fitness, as a sinner, to take such a leap:

Io non Enëa, io non Paulo sono (Inf. II: 32)

I am neither Aeneas, nor am I Paul.

and find he has surpassed the former to emulate the latter. In the 100th canto of the poem we see the approach of  a vast and ineluctable silence as we drift into the ineffable glory of his vision:

Qual è colui che somnïando vede,
che dopo il sogno la passione impressa
rimane, e l’altro alla mente non riede,
cotal son io, chè quasi tutta cessa
mia visïone, ed ancor mi distilla
nel core il dolce che nacque da essa.

(Par. XXXIII: 58-63)

As one who sees in a dream,
and after dreaming the imprinted passion
remains, and to his mind the rest is lost,
so was it was for me that my vision almost
ceased, and yet my heart distils the sweetness
that was born of it.

His vision fades like an imprint in the sun and dissipates like the scattered leaves of Sibylline prophesy. We are left to contemplate the stars in perfect silence.

– Rua Breathnach


Charles S. Singleton (tr.), The Divine Comedy, Inferno 1:Text (Princeton 1989)
Inferno 2: Commentary (Princeton 1989)

Mark Musa (tr.), The Divine Comedy, Volume 1: Inferno (Penguin 1984)
Vol. 2: Purgatory (Penguin 1985)
Vol. 3: Paradise (Penguin 1986)

John D. Sinclair (tr.)  The Divine Comedy, 2: Purgatorio (OUP 1961)
3: Paradiso (OUP 1961)

Fredi Chiapelli (ed.), Vita nuova-Rime (Milan 1971)

Christopher Ryan (tr.), The Banquet: a Translation of Dante’s Convivio
(London 1989)

Osip Mandelstam ‘Conversation about Dante’ in The Poets’ Dante, eds. Peter S.
Hawkins and Rachel Jacoff (New York 2001)

Teodolinda Barolini, Dante’s Poets: Textuality and Truth in the Comedy
(Princeton 1984)

Erich Auerbach, Dante: Poet of the Secular World trans. Ralph Manheim
(Chicago 1969)

Allen Mandelbaum (tr.), Aeneid: a Verse Translation (California 1978)

Robert Hollander, ‘Dante and Divination: The Tragedy of Divination in Inferno XX’,
Chapter 7 in his Studies in Dante (Longo: Ravenna 1980)

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