Monday, September 24, 2007

Dante's Third Dream

"If anyone should want to know my name,
I am called Leah. And I spend all my time
weaving garlands of flowers with my fair hands,
to please me when I stand before my mirror;
my sister Rachel sits all the day long
before her own and never moves away.
She loves to contemplate her lovely eyes;
I love to use my hands to adorn myself:
her joy is in reflection, mine in act."
(Purgatorio xxvii, 101-08, [Musa trans.])

The third prophetic dream of the Purgatorio offers Dante the pilgrim a vision of Leah and Rachel, coming in the pre-dawn at the moment Venus (here called Citerea, recalling the birth of Aphrodite) appears.

The motif of the wives of Jacob had long been a key figure of medieval interpreters of the Bible. Here is some background on four of them (Philo, Origen, Augustine, and Gregory). The comments of Augustine are seen as most relevant for Dante. As the author succinctly puts it,
the Leah/Rachel pair offers an image for the active and contemplative lives in which they are successive and necessary stages, the second of which is the superior, more beloved, and more divine.
Mussy has suggested we consider all three dreams of the Purgatorio together. It might well reward "contemplation" to do so. For ease of reference:
  • Canto 9: First Dream, of the eagle that caught up the sleeper, like Ganymede, nearly to perish in the sphere of fire (between earth and the moon). Set in Valley of the Princes; Lucy carries sleeping pilgrim to entrance to Purgatory proper.
  • Canto 19: Second dream - the "femmina balba" turns into the seductive siren who claims to lead all mariners astray. Set between 4th and 5th terrace (Sloth and Avarice).
  • Canto 27: Third dream -- Rachel and Leah. Set on steps after the wall of fire, before entrance to Garden of Eden.
There are linguistic echoes as well as some intriguing differences among not only the content of the dreams, but also in the relation of the poet to his dream. How does Virgil's role change?

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