Category Archives: Italian Literature

Full of Delights, of Pleasure, Of Tenderness: The Poets’ Dante

I have been reading some of the essays from The Poets’ Dante which arrived in the mail yesterday. It is a collection of writing from some of the most prominent 20th century poets who reflect on how Dante has shaped their own verses. I offer here a few passages from some of my favorite essays so far:

Ezra Pound comments on the genre and classification of the Divine Comedy:

The Divine Comedy must not be considered as an epic; to compare it with epic poems is usually unprofitable. It is in a sense lyric, the tremendous lyric of the subjective Dante; but the soundest classification of the poem is Dante’s own, ‘as a comedy which differs from tragedy in its content,’ for ‘tragedy begins admirably and tranquilly,’ and the end is terrible, ‘whereas comedy introduces some harsh complication, but brings the matter to a prosperous end.’ The is, in fact, a great mystery play, or better, a cycle of mystery plays.

Jorge Luis Borges on the intensity and gentleness of Dante:

Carlyle and other critics have observed that the most notable characteristic of Dante is intensity. If we think of the hundred cantos of the poem, it seems a miracle that that intensity never lets up, except in a few places in the Paradiso which for the poet were light and for us are shadow. I can’t think of another example, except perhaps Macbeth, which begins with the three witches and continues to the death of the hero without a weak moment.

I would like to mention another aspect: the gentleness of Dante. We always think of the somber and sententious Florentine poem, and we forget that the work is full of delights, of pleasure, of tenderness. That tenderness is part of the structure of the work. For example, Dante must have read somewhere that the cube is the most solid of volumes. It was a current, unpoetical observation, and yet Dante used it as a metaphor for man, who must support misfortune: ‘ben tetragono ai colpi di fortuna,’ man is a good tetragon, a cube. That is truly rare.

And Seamus Heaney’s personal reflection on his experiences with the Divine Comedy:

What I first loved in the Commedia was the local intensity, the vehemence and fondness attaching to individual shades, the way personalities and values were emotionally soldered together, the strong strain of what has been called personal realism in the celebration of bonds of friendship and bonds of enmity. The way in which Dante could place himself in an historical world yet submit that world to a scrutiny from a perspective beyond history, the way he could accommodate the political and the transcendent, this too encouraged my attempt at a sequence of poems which would explore the typical strains which the consciousness labours under in this country. The main tension is between two often contradictory commands: to be faithful to the collective historical experience and to be true to the recognitions of the emerging self.

This is only a very small sampling of the book and I will, no doubt, spend some time with this volume as I pick my way through the variety of essays it contains.

Earlier today my husband noticed, with a wry comment and smirk, that I had acquired yet two more books on Dante. The intensity with which I throw myself into things has become a bit of a family joke—books, blogging, gift wrapping, acquiring the best coffee/teas, fashion/shoes, etc. (a small selection of my “obsessions” that my husband has pointed out, for which he claims he loves me dearly). And, yes, I have applied the same intensity to reading Dante and everything I can get my hands on about Dante. I have, I think, one final post left in me—a wrap up of sorts with a list of various books, essays, and translations I have acquired along the way. The journey from Hell, to Purgatory to Heaven has been a truly rich, rewarding and intense reading experience for me—an intense book, indeed, to match the intense person I can be. If you’ve enjoyed my posts then thanks for paying attention; if you are sick of me going on about the Divine Comedy then I promise the end is nigh and I will be reading different authors this week!

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Open Your Eyes and See What I am Now: Beatrice and Dante in Paradise

Beata Beatrix. Dante Gabriel Rossetti Oil on Canvas. 1864-1870.

This has already proven to be a long, tough week but I have been elevated by reading Dante’s Paradise. My favorite experience in reading this final book in the Divine Comedy has been the interaction between Dante and Beatrice as they journey through heaven.  The respect and awe the poet has for Beatrice, his muse and inspiration, even when she is scolding him, is moving. One of my favorite passages of Paradise is Canto XXI where Beatrice explains to him that she can’t smile at Dante because he would burst into flames, like Semele did when she looks at the god Jupiter in all of his celestial splendor (trans. Mandelbaum):

By now my eyes were set again upon
my lady’s face, and with my eyes, my mind:
from every other thought, it was withdrawn.
She did not smile. Instead her speech to me
began: “Were I to smile, then you would be
like Semele when she was turned to ashes,
because, as you have seen, my loveliness—
which, even as we climb the steps of this
eternal palace, blazes with more brightness—
were it not tempered here, would be so brilliant
that, as it flashed, your mortal faculty
would see a branch a lightning bolt has cracked.

Dante follows Beatrice’s guidance through one stage after the next of heaven and takes her chiding seriously because he knows it is for his benefit. His reward is that, in a few spheres later, he is able, through his ordeal and his learning, to bear her smile:

Open your eyes and see what I now am;
the things you witnessed will have made you strong
enough to bear the power of my smile.

That spine tingling, lover’s gaze which occurs over and over; a lover who not only teaches, but challenges you to become a better person. How could this not be a love story?  It is, I think, an ideal love towards which it is nice to aspire.

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Let Mortals Never Take a Vow in Jest: Dante Paradise Canto V and Catullus

Illustration of Beatrice explaining divine wisdom to Dante from the Mandelbaum translation.

No, I haven’t lost my mind, you read that title correctly. I wrote a post at this time last year discussing the similarities I noted between Catullus’s love poems and Dante’s Vita Nuova. As I was reading the final book in the Divine Comedy this afternoon, I was surprised to see in Canto V of Paradiso what I believe are some parallels, similarities, perhaps even influence from the Roman poet Catullus. In this Canto, Beatrice is instructing Dante about the seriousness of a vow—at first she is, of course, talking about religious vows and nuns and how they cannot be broken unless one makes a promise of something loftier. But the conversation, I think, moves into more general matters of faithfulness and agreements that anyone is capable of making over the course of his or her life. Beatrice tells Dante (trans. Mandelbaum):

Let mortals never take a vow in jest;
be faithful yet circumspect, not rash
as Jephthah was, in offering his first gift;
he should have said, ‘I did amiss,’ and not
done worse by keeping faith. And you can find
that same stupidity in the Greeks’ chief—
when her fair face made Iphigenia grieve
and made the wise and made the foolish weep
for her when they heard tell of such a rite.
Christians, proceed with greater gravity:
do not be like a feather at each wind,
nor think that all immersions wash you clean.

Even I was surprised when reading this Canto to have thoughts about Catullus flash across my mind. In Carmen 76 and 70 Catullus is admonishing his former lover Clodia (Lesbia) for holding out vows and promises to him which, in the end, she could not keep. Catullus uses the language of vows, pleasure, faith, wind and water to describe his staying faithful to a promise of love and companionship and Clodia’s breaking of those same promises. It is also evident that the words Catullus uses in his poems have religious, spiritual and legal connotations. Poem 76 begins (Latin translations are my own):

If there is any pleasure for a man in remembering previous good deeds, when he knows for a fact that he has been dutiful, and that he has not violated a sacred vow, and that he has never, in any agreement, abused the gods for the purpose of deceiving his fellow man, then many joys remain for you throughout your long life, Catullus, even though these joys have resulted from a thankless love.

And in poem 70 Catullus writes:

My woman says that she prefers to marry no other man over me, not even if Jupiter himself were to ask for her hand in marriage. She says this: but what a woman promises to an eager lover should be written on the winds or the swift flowing rivers.

As I mentioned above, Latin words like pius (dutiful, pius), fides (promise, vow), foedere (agreement, contract) all have religious connotations. Catullus takes the vow he has made to his beloved as seriously as if it were a religious or a legal contract. And we can likewise view the passage from Dante as not only bearing religious meanings, but also romantic ones—especially since the words are spoken between Dante and Beatrice. It also struck me that the example of a broken vow that Dante uses is that of Iphigenia who was promised by her father, Agamemnon, a wedding but instead was sacrificed at the altar of Artemis—a myth with both religious and marital references. I haven’t been able to find a reference or footnote in any of the Dante commentaries about Catullus. But can you see, fellow readers, why Dante reminded of these carefully composed elegiac meters from Catullus?

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A Sense of Expectation and Agonizing Impatience: Some Thoughts on Dante’s Purgatory

Aeneas and the Shade of Creusa. Giuseppe Maria Mitelli. 1663. Engraving

Osip Mandelstam’s essay on the Divine Comedy, “Conversation about Dante” is a magnificent work of art in and of itself.  The Russian poet uses the most sublime language to describe the complexities of Dante’s poetic speech,  rhythm and structure; he compares various parts of the Divine Comedy to the intricate workings of a beehive, the elaborate geological structure of granite and marble, and the rich timbre of a cello:

Dante’s cantos are scores for a special chemical orchestra in which, for the external ear, the most easily discernible comparisons are those identical with the outbursts, and the solo roles, that is, the arias and ariosos, are varieties of self-confessions, self-flagellations, or autobiographies, sometimes brief and compact, sometimes lapidary, like a tombstone inscription: sometimes extended like a testimonial from a medieval university; sometimes powerfully developed, articulated and reaching a dramatic operatic maturity, for example, Francesca’s famous cantilena.

The density of the cello timbre is best suited to convey a sense of expectation and of agonizing impatience.  There exists no power on earth which could hasten the movement of honey flowing from a tilted glass jar.  Therefore the cello would come about and be given form only when the European analysis of time had made sufficient progress, when the thoughtless sundial had been transcended and the one-time observer of the shade stick moving across Roman numerals on the sand had been transformed into a passionate participant of a differential torture and into a martyr of the infinitesimal.  A cello delays sound, hurry how it may.  Ask Brahms—he knows it.  Ask Dante—he has heard it.

Mandelstam uses Inferno, Canto XXXIII and the description of the death of Ugolino and his sons by starvation at the hands of Archbishop Ruggieri of Pisa to prove his point about music and the cello.  But the scene in Purgatory, Canto II, of Dante’s attempted embrace of his beloved friend Cascella is, to me, equally “encased in a cello timbre, dense and heavy…”: (trans. Robin Kirkpatrick)

And one drew forward now, I saw to me
to take me in his arms with such great warmth
it moved me, so I did the same to him.
Ah shadows, empty save in how they look!
Three times I locked my hands behind his back
As many times I came back to my breast.
Wonder, I think was painted over me.
At which the shadow smiled, and so drew back,
while I, pursuing him, pressed further on.

Any good commentary will explain that these lines are an allusion to Aeneid 6 where Aeneas has traveled to the Underworld and sees and tries to embrace the spirit of his beloved father, Anchises: (All translations of Latin and Ancient Greek are my own)

Aeneas speaks to his father: “You, oh father, and the sad image of your spirit appearing to me so often are what drove me to seek out these thresholds. My ships wait on the Tyrrhenian sea. Allow me to grasp your hand, father, allow me father, and do not shrink away from my embrace. Speaking thus his face was soaked with large tears. Three times he tries to embrace his father’s neck with his arms; but three times the shade, grasped in vain, escapes his hands, similar to light winds or a winged dream.

As I was reading this Canto, however, what came to my mind, before the scene with Anchises, was a similar encounter earlier in the Aeneid between Aeneas and his lost wife Creusa in Book 2.  For me this double allusion increases the pathos of the futile attempts at embrace that occur in the Roman underworld and in Dante’s Purgatory.  As he is trying to escape Troy that is burning down around him, Aeneas loses his wife and tries to go back to the city to save her.  But he only finds Creusa’s spirit whose parting words to him are to continue loving their son and as a final gesture Aeneas tries to embrace her.  The lines in Latin are exactly the same as those in Aeneid 6:  “Three times he tries to embrace his wife’s neck with his arms; but three times the shade, grasped in vain, escaped his hands, similar to light winds or a winged dream.  The additional knowledge of the exchange between Aeneas and Creusa (it’s a shame that most commentaries don’t mention it)  makes a greater emotional impact when reading Dante’s reunion with Cascella and creates what Mandelstam describes as “a sense of expectation and agonizing impatience.”

The volucri somno—winged dream—is specifically Homeric and is Vergil’s allusion to Odysseus’s encounter with his mother in the underworld of the Odyssey.  Mandelstam’s concept of that delay of sound as applied to the Divine Comedy seems especially appropriate for these images of shades that reach back to Homer.  Homer and Ancient Greek were not available to Dante so it is only later generations of readers of Purgatory that truly hear the echoes from Book 11 of the Odyssey as Odysseus describes his attempts to embrace his mother, Anticleia:

After she spoke to me I was anxiously wishing to embrace the soul of my mother.  Three times my soul stirred me to embrace her, and I approached her, but three times she escaped from my hands like a shadow or a dream.  And the pain in my heart became even sharper to me.

The number three is often used in Ancient epics but I have always found it particularly fitting for this trope—three embraces are the perfect amount before a person becomes fully and painfully aware of loss and grief.  Any fewer than three would lessen the agony of each of these scenes and any more would make them melodramatic and overwrought.   The first is a naïve attempt to reach out and touch the person that was, in life, so important; the second attempt highlights a sense of denial and disbelief of the loss; the third and final attempt and failure to embrace brings about the painful reality of a physical absence.  This seems like a fitting metaphor for the grief one experiences with death or with any other loss we go through in life.  Cue the heavy, slow music of the cello…

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To Reach the Opposite Side of the Shore: Dante’s Inferno

Dante’s Inferno Canto 3 lines 107-108, drawn by Gustave_Doré 1861-1865

Reading Eliot’s Daniel Deronda recently has inspired me to do a complete reread of Dante’s Divine Comedy which she brilliantly alludes to in her novel. It has been far too many years since I have looked at any part of that Italian masterpiece and I felt I ought to revisit it. I had three immediate, intense reactions to the first few Cantos of The Inferno, in Robert Kirkpatick’s translation, which I will share here. There is nothing new or earthshattering in my thoughts, these are simply my gut, instinct reactions to a text which I have come back to after many years.

First—how can I even put this–*Vergil. Yes, Vergil. I knew he was lurking everywhere in The Inferno but when I was younger and less experienced in translating The Aeneid I had no real appreciation for Dante’s reworking of and allusions to that Roman poet and his Epic. As I was slowly making my way through the Cantos, I kept thinking that—and I truly do not mean to offend with this statement—it is just not possible to have a deep appreciation for Dante without reading The Aeneid, or at least reading Books 1, 4 and especially 6 of The Aeneid. I highly recommend the Fagles, Fitzgerald or Ferry translations; or better yet, find a friend, neighbor, colleague, long lost family member or a lover who knows Latin and make them translate it for you from the original. Trust me—it will enhance your admiration for and understanding of the Divine Comedy like nothing else.

Secondly, as Vergil is showing Dante around the place before they get to the circles of Hell proper, they come upon a kind of limbo in which all of the important ancient authors dwell. This is Vergil’s own resting place (if you can call it that) and Dante specifically points out four other names he thinks are worthy of Vergil’s company: Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan. Yes, Lucan! I think that when I read The Inferno for the first time that I had no idea who Lucan was. But now that I am older and more experienced (certainly not wiser, just more experienced) his named jumped out at me and gave me such joy to see. Anyone who knows me well knows that I have a serious soft spot for Silver Age writing, especially Seneca and Lucan. I don’t think it’s necessary to read Lucan’s De Bello Civile to understand Dante’s references to this Roman epic, but I encourage you to read this masterpiece anyway. Dante has inspired me to pick up my Latin texts of Lucan and translate my favorite sections once again. More on Lucan in another post…

Finally, I was moved by Dante’s reworking of one of my favorite passages in Aeneid Book 6. When souls are lined up on the shores of the Styx, waiting for Charon to take them to their final resting place, Vergil describes them as a countless mob, desperate to reach the other side of the river where either the Elysian fields or Tartarus awaits them (3.305-312-translation is my own):

Here this entire, sprawling mob was rushing to the riverbanks—mothers and men and the bodies of great heroes devoid of any life, boys and unmarried girls, and young men placed on the funeral pyre before the very eyes of their parents: the number of souls standing there can be compared to the vast number of leaves in a forest, sliding from their places during the first frost of autumn, that fall to the ground; or to the many flocks of birds that are gathered on the land from the deep ocean, when the cold part of the season drives them across the sea and sends them to warmer climates. These souls stand there praying to be the first to make the crossing and stretching out their hands in great desire to reach the opposite side of the shore.

In Vergil’s underworld, however, an incalculable number of these souls will not be allowed to make the journey across the Styx and are doomed to roam about in a type of limbo; those whose bodies were never properly buried and any person that has committed suicide must tragically accept this fate of nothingness. Dante applies Vergil’s metaphor to his version of Hell in Canto 3 as Charon, too, is waiting to bring across a vast number of souls onto his raft to cross a black swamp. What I found chilling and brilliant and fascinating about Dante’s version is that these souls will all make it across, eventually, but this immense number of spirits are waiting to gain their entrance into The Inferno; this is not limbo, this is not a state of nothingness, this is a place where countless souls are waiting to enter into a state of pain, and suffering, pure Hell (106-118):

And then they came together all as one,
wailing aloud along the evil margin
that waits for all who have no fear of God.
Charon, the demon, with his coal-hot eyes,
glared what he meant to do. He swept all in.
He struck at any dawdler with his oar.
In autumn, leaves are lifted, one by one,
away until the branch looks down and sees
its tatters all arrayed upon the ground.
In that same way did Adam’s evil seed
hurtle, in sequence, from the river rim,
as bird’s that answer to their handler’s call.
They off they went, to cross the darkened flood.

I will conclude with a quote by George Steiner who says in his book Real Presences about the tradition of these epic masterpieces: “Virgil reads, guides our reading of, Homer as no external critic can. The Divine Comedy is a reading of The Aeneid, technically and spiritually ‘at home’, ‘authorized’ in the several and interactive senses of that word, as no extrinsic commentary by one who is himself not a poet can be.” Nothing has enhanced my reading of and awe for Vergil more, in recent memory anyway, than making my way slowly through the Divine Comedy.

*The Roman poet’s full name is Publius Vergilius Maro, so this name in English his name becomes Vergil. Gilbert Highet in The Classical Tradition, discusses the popularly of the misspelling, Virgil, which began early, possibly as the result of Vergil’s nickname Parthenias which was based on the poet’s sexual restraint. In the Middle Ages, the name Virgil was thought to refer to his magical (as in the virga magic wand) powers. For whatever reason, Virgil seems to be the popular way of spelling his name even today but I only use the original spelling of Vergil. I put this note here to stop anyone from correcting me on the spelling of his name which irks me to no end. I mean, come on. How can a classicist be accused of misspelling the name of one of antiquity’s most important authors! (It’s happened more times than I care to discuss.)

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