Dante Alighieri-From the ‘Inferno’: The Meeting between Dante And Virgil
‘Dante and Virgil’, a bronze sculpture by Baron Henri de Triqueti (French, 1804–1874). Modeled 1861; cast 1862. In the collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Another sharing for the day from the Blue House of HYGEIA, is the telling by Dante Alighieri in the ‘Divine Comedy’ of his encounter with Virgil at the opening of the poem. We added before a little introduction for context by professor Ernst Robert Curtius, the German philologist. The two excerpts, Canto I and II are in the 1888 English translation by Henry F. Cary.
Introduction by Ernst Robert Curtius
Curtius saw European literature as part of a continuous tradition that began with the Greek and Latin authors and continued throughout the Middle Ages; he did not acknowledge a break between those traditions, a division that would separate historical periods from each other and support a set of national literatures without connections to each other. Greatly interested in French literature, early in his career he promoted the study of that literature in a period in Germany when it was considered the enemy’s literature, a “humanist and heroic” stance that earned him the criticism of the nationalist intelligentsia in Germany. (Wikipedia)
‘The conception of the ‘Commedia’ is based upon a spiritual meeting with Virgil. In the realm of European literature there is little which may be compared with this phenomenon. The “awakening” of Aristotle in the thirteenth century was the work of generations and took place in the cool light of intellectual research. The awakening of Virgil by Dante is an arc of flame which leaps from one great soul to another. The tradition of the European spirit knows no situation of such affecting loftiness, tenderness, fruitfulness. It is the meeting of the two greatest Latins. Historically, it is the sealing of the bond which the Latin Middle Ages made between the antique and the modern world. Only when we are once again able to comprehend Virgil in all his poetic greatness; of which we Germans have lost sight since 1770, shall we wholly appreciate Dante. Dante’s Virgil is a medieval, hence unclassical, Virgil, in contrast to Tasso’s or Milton’s. He is the mouthpiece of the temporal and the eternal Rome whose name can be symbolically applied to Paradise (Purg., XXXII, 102). At the same time he is adept and mouthpiece of the otherworld. The sixth book of the ‘Aeneid’, the poem’s solemn center, is the august model for the ‘Commedia’. Aeneas and Paul (II Cor. 12:2) are the only two mortals whose journeys into the beyond Dante considers authenticated (Inf., II, 13-33)’ Both are figures of world history: the Father of Rome and the Apostle to the Gentiles. If Dante makes himself a third in their company, it implies a claim to an analogous historical mission-only comprehensible from the fact that Dante felt himself to be a reformer and a prophet.
To cite Dante’s hundreds of imitations of the ‘Aeneid’, and especially of Book VI; to point out his taking over of Virgilian persons and otherworld localities; to pursue the transposition of Virgil’s verses into Dante’s lines (Aen., IV, 23 = Purg., XXX, 48; Aen., VI, 883 = Purg., XXX, 21 )-these tasks cannot be attempted here. Whoever undertakes them will need the most delicate tact, together with intensive scholarship. He would have to raise the question of which elements of the ‘Commedia’ were borrowed from the Aeneid or based upon it, and how they were modified. How was Virgil’s vision of the beyond divided among Dante’s three realms? Ripheus, we saw (supra, p. 61), could be placed in the heavenly eagle-a touching tribute to Virgil. For his Elysium, to be sure, there was no place to be found either in the Mount of Purgatory or in Heaven-but neither could it be sacrificed.
By a bold stroke Dante transformed it into the “nobile castello” of Limbo. It is from Virgil’s consigning the “pious poets” (“pii vates et Phoebo digna locuti”) to his Elysium, and singling out Orpheus and Musaeus among them, that Dante drew the suggestion for the “fair school” of the antique poets, and he saves their patron Phoebus and two-peaked Parnassus for the invocatio of the Paradiso. So the entire ‘Commedia’ bears witness to the spiritual presence of the ‘Aeneid’.’
Argument: The writer, having lost his way in a gloomy forest, and being hindered by
certain wild beasts from ascending a mountain, is met by Virgil, who promises
to show him the punishments of Hell, and afterward of Purgatory; and that he
shall then be conducted by Beatrice into Paradise. He follows the Roman poet.
‘Midway the path of life that men pursue
I found me in a darkling wood astray,
For the direct way had been lost to view.
Ah me, how hard a thing it is to say
What was this thorny wildwood intricate
Whose memory renews the first dismay!
Scarcely in death is bitterness more great:
But as concerns the good discovered there
The other things I saw will I relate.
In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct: and e’en to tell,
It were no easy task, how savage wild
That forest, how robust and rough its growth,
Which to remember only, my dismay
Renews, in bitterness not far from death.
Yet, to discourse of what there good befel,
All else will I relate discover’d there.
[1: “In the midway.” The era of the poem is intended by these words
to be fixed to the thirty – fifth year of the poet’s age, A.D. 1300. In this
Convito, human life is compared to an arch or bow, the highest point of which
is, in those well framed by nature, at their thirty – fifth year.]
How first I enter’d it I scarce can say,
Such sleepy dulness in that instant weigh’d
My senses down, when the true path I left;
But when a mountain’s foot I reach’d, where closed
The valley that had pierced my heart with dread,
I look’d aloft, and saw his shoulders broad
Already vested with that planet’s beam,
Who leads all wanderers safe through every way.
[2: “That planet’s beam.” The sun.]
Then was a little respite to the fear,
That in my heart’s recesses deep had lain
All of that night, so pitifully past:
And as a man, with difficult short breath,
Forespent with toiling, ‘scaped from sea to shore,
Turns to the perilous wide waste, and stands
A gaze; e’en so my spirit, that yet fail’d,
Struggling with terror, turn’d to view the straits
That none hath passed and lived. My weary frame
After short pause recomforted, again
I journey’d on over that lonely steep,
The hinder foot still firmer. Scarce the ascent
Began, when, lo! a panther, nimble, light,
And cover’d with a speckled skin, appear’d;
Nor, when it saw me, vanish’d; rather strove
To check my onward going; that oft – times,
With purpose to retrace my steps, I turn’d.
[3: “The hinder foot.” In ascending a hill the weight of the body
rests on the hinder foot.]
[4: “A panther.” Pleasure or luxury.]
The hour was morning’s prime, and on his way
Aloft the sun ascended with those stars,
That with him rose when Love Divine first moved
Those its fair works: so that with joyous hope
All things conspired to fill me, the gay skin
Of that swift animal, the matin dawn,
And the sweet season. Soon that joy was chased.
And by new dread succeeded, when in view
A lion came, ‘gainst me as it appear’d,
With his head held aloft and hunger – mad,
That e’en the air was fear – struck. A she – wolf
Was at his heels, who in her leanness seem’d
Full of all wants, and many a land hath made
Disconsolate ere now. She with such fear
O’erwhelm’d me, at the sight of her appall’d,
That of the height all hope I lost. As one,
Who, with his gain elated, sees the time
When all unawares is gone, he inwardly
Mourns with heart – griping anguish; such was I,
Haunted by that fell beast, never at peace,
Who coming o’er against me, by degrees
Impell’d me where the sun in silence rests.
[5: “With those stars.” The sun was in Aries, in which sign he
supposes it to have begun its course at the creation.]
While to the lower space with backward step
I fell, my ken discern’d the form of one
Whose voice seem’d faint through lond disuse of speech.
When him in that great desert I espied,
“Have mercy on me,” cried I out aloud,
“Spirit! or living man! whate’er thou be.”
He answered: “Now not man, man once I was,
And born of Lombard parents, Mantuans both
By country, when the power of Julius yet
Was scarcely firm. At Rome my life was past,
Beneath the mild Augustus, in the time
Of fabled deities and false. A bard
Was I, and made Anchises’ upright son
The subject of my song, who came from Troy,
When the flames prey’d on Ilium’s haughty towers.
But thou, say wherefore to such perils past
Return’st thou? wherefore not this pleasant mount
Ascendest, cause and source of all delight?”
“And art thou then that Virgil, that well – spring,
From which such copious floods of eloquence
Have issued?” I with front abash’d replied.
“Glory and light of all the tuneful train!
May it avail me, that I long with zeal
Have sought thy volume, and with love immense
Have conn’d it o’er. My master thou, and guide!
Thou he from whom alone I have derived
That style, which for its beauty into fame
Exalts me. See the beast, from whom I fled.
O save me from her, thou illustrious sage!
For every vein and pulse throughout my frame
She hath made tremble.” He, soon as he saw
That I was weeping, answer’d, “Thou must needs
Another way pursue, if thou wouldst ‘scape
From out that savage wilderness. This beast,
At whom thou criest, her way will suffer none
To pass, and no less hinderance makes than death:
So bad and so accursed in her kind,
That never sated is her ravenous will,
Still after food more craving than before.
To many an animal in wedlock vile
She fastens, and shall yet to many more,
Until that greyhound come, who shall destroy
[6: This passage has been commonly understood as a eulogium on the
liberal spirit of his Veronese patron, Can Grande della Scala.]
Her with sharp pain. He will not life support
By earth nor its base metals, but by love,
Wisdom, and virtue; and his land shall be
The land ‘twixt either Feltro. In his might
Shall safety to Italia’s plains arise,
For whose fair realm, Camilla, virgin pure,
Nisus, Euryalus, and Turnus fell.
He, with incessant chase, through every town
Shall worry, until he to hell at length
Restore her, thence by envy first let loose.
I, for thy profit pondering, now devise
That thou mayst follow me; and I, thy guide,
Will lead thee hence through an eternal space,
Where thou shalt hear despairing shrieks, and see
Spirits of old tormented, who invoke
A second death; and those next view, who dwell
Content in fire, for that they hope to come,
Whene’er the time may be, among the blest,
Into whose regions if thou then desire
To ascend, a spirit worthier than I
Must lead thee, in whose charge, when I depart,
Thou shalt be left; for that Almighty King,
Who reigns above, a rebel to His law
Adjudges me; and therefore hath decreed
That, to His city, none through me should come.
He in all parts hath sway; there rules, there holds
His citadel and throne. O happy those,
Whom there He chuses!” I to him in few:
“Bard! by that God, whom thou didst not adore,
I do beseech thee (that this ill and worse
I may escape) to lead me where thou said’st,
That I Saint Peter’s gate may view, and those
Who, as thou tell’st, are in such dismal plight.”
Onward he moved, I close his steps pursued.
[7: Verona, the country of Can della Scala, is situated between
Feltro, a city in the Marca Trivigiana, and Monte Feltro, a city in the
territory of Urbino.]
[8: “A second death.” “And in these days men shall seek death, and
shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.”
Rev. ix. 6.]
[9: The spirits in Purgatory.]
[10: “A spirit worthier.” Beatrice, who conducts the Poet through
[11: The gate of Purgatory, which the Poet feigns to be guarded by an
angel placed there by St. Peter.]
Argument: After the invocation, which poets are used to prefix to their works, he shows that, on a consideration of his own strength, he doubted whether it sufficed for the journey proposed to him, but that, being comforted by Virgil, he at last took courage, and followed him as his guide and master.
Now was the day departing, and the air,
Imbrown’d with shadows, from their toils released
All animals on earth; and I alone
Prepared myself the conflict to sustain,
Both of sad pity, and that perilous road,
Which my unerring memory shall retrace.
O Muses! O high genius! now vouchsafe
Your aid. O mind! that all I saw hast kept
Safe in a written record, here thy worth
And eminent endowments come to proof.
I thus began: “Bard! thou who art my guide,
Consider well, if virtue be in me
Sufficient, ere to this high enterprise
Thou trust me. Thou hast told that Silvius’ sire,
Yet clothed in corruptible flesh, among
The immortal tribes had entrance, and was there
Sensibly present. Yet if Heaven’s great Lord,
Almighty foe to ill, such favor show’d
In contemplation of the high effect,
Both what and who from him should issue forth,
It seems in reason’s judgment well deserved;
Sith he of Rome and of Rome’s empire wide,
In Heaven’s imperial height was chosen sire:
Both which, if truth be spoken, were ordain’d
And stablish’d for the holy place, where sits
Who to great Peter’s sacred chair succeeds.
He from this journey, in thy song renown’d,
Learn’d things, that to his victory gave rise
And to the papal robe. In after – times
The Chosen Vessel also travel’d there,
To bring us back assurance in that faith
Which is the entrance to salvation’s way.
But I, why should I there presume? or who
Permits it? not Aeneas I, nor Paul.
[1: “Silvius’ sire.” Aeneas.]
[2: “The Chosen Vessel.” St. Paul.]
Myself I deem not worthy, and none else
Will deem me. I, if on this voyage then
I venture, fear it will in folly end.
Thou, who art wise, better my meaning know’st,
Than I can speak.” As one, who unresolves
What he hath late resolved, and with new thoughts
Changes his purpose, from his first intent
Removed; e’en such was I on that dun coast,
Wasting in thought my enterprise, at first
So eagerly embraced. “If right thy words
I scan,” replied that shade magnanimous,
“Thy soul is by vile fear assail’d, which oft
So overcasts a man, that he recoils
From noblest resolution, like a beast
At some false semblance in the twilight gloom.
That from this terror thou mayst free thyself,
I will instruct thee why I came, and what
I heard in that same instant, when for thee
Grief touch’d me first. I was among the tribe,
Who rest suspended, when a dame, so blest
And lovely I besought her to command,
Call’d me; her eyes were brighter than the star
Of day; and she, with gentle voice and soft,
Angelically tuned, her speech address’d:
‘O courteous shade of Mantua! thou whose fame
Yet lives, and shall live long as nature lasts!
A friend, not of my fortune but myself,
On the wide desert in his road has met
Hindrance so great, that he through fear has turn’d.
Now much I dread lest he past help have stray’d,
And I be risen too late for his relief,
From what in heaven of him I heard. Speed now,
And by thy eloquent persuasive tongue,
And by all means for his deliverance meet,
Assist him. So to me will comfort spring.
I, who now bid thee on this errand forth,
Am Beatrice; from a place I come
Revisited with joy. Love brought me thence,
Who prompts my speech. When in my Master’s sight
I stand, thy praise to him I oft will tell.’
[3: The spirits in Limbo, neither admitted to a state of glory nor
doomed to punishment.]
[4: “Beatrice.” The daughter of Folco Portinari, who is here invested
with the character of celestial wisdom or theology.]
“She then was silent, and I thus began:
‘O Lady! by whose influence alone
Mankind excels whatever is contain’d
Within that heaven which hath the smallest orb,
So thy command delights me, that to obey,
If it were done already, would seem late.
No need hast thou further to speak thy will:
Yet tell the reason, why thou art not loth
To leave that ample space, where to return
Thou burnest, for this centre here beneath.’
“She then: ‘Since thou so deeply wouldst inquire,
I will instruct thee briefly why no dread
Hinders my entrance here. Those things alone
Are to be fear’d whence evil may proceed;
None else, for none are terrible beside.
I am so framed by God, thanks to His grace!
That any sufferance of your misery
Touches me not, nor flame of that fierce fire
Assails me. In high Heaven a blessed Dame
Resides, who mourns with such effectual grief
That hindrance, which I send thee to remove,
That God’s stern judgment to her will inclines.’
To Lucia, calling, her she thus bespake:
‘Now doth thy faithful servant need thy aid,
And I commend him to thee.’ At her word
Sped Lucia, of all cruelty the foe,
And coming to the place, where I abode
Seated with Rachel, her of ancient days,
She thus address’d me: “Thou true praise of God!
Beatrice! why is not thy succour lent
To him, who so much loved thee, as to leave
For thy sake all the multitude admires?
Dost thou not hear how pitiful his wail,
Nor mark the death, which in the torrent flood,
Swoln mightier than a sea, him struggling holds?”
[5: “A blessed Dame.” The Divine Mercy.]
[6: “Lucia.” The enlightening Grace of Heaven; as it is commonly
Ne’er among men did any with such speed
Haste to their profit, flee from their annoy,
As, when these words were spoken, I came here,
Down from my blessed seat, trusting the force
Of thy pure eloquence, which thee, and all
Who well have mark’d it, into honor brings.’
“When she had ended, her bright beaming eyes
Tearful she turn’d aside; whereat I felt
Redoubled zeal to serve thee. As she will’d,
Thus am I come: I saved thee from the beast,
Who thy near way across the goodly mount
Prevented. What is this comes o’er thee than?
Why, why dost thou hang back? why in thy breast
Harbour vile fear? why hast not courage there,
And noble daring; since three maids, so blest,
Thy safety plan, e’en in the court of Heaven;
And so much certain good my words forebode?”
[7: “Three maids.” The Divine Mercy, Lucia and Beatrice.]
As florets, by the frosty air of night
Bent down and closed, when day has blanch’d their leaves,
Rise all unfolded on their spiry stems;
So was my fainting vigor new restored,
And to my heart such kindly courage ran,
That I as one undaunted soon replied:
“O full of pity she, who undertook
My succour! and thou kind, who didst perform
So soon her true behest! With such desire
Thou hast disposed me to renew my voyage,
That my first purpose fully is resumed.
Lead on: one only will is in us both.
Thou art my guide, my master thou, and lord,”
So spake I; and when he had onward moved,
I enter’d on the deep and woody way.’