Sunday, December 31, 2006

Dante discussed in NYRB

Shaw emailed to point out an essay in the Jan. 11, 2007 New York Review of Books by Michael Dirda about Dante and Erich Auerbach's study of him entitled Dante: Poet of the Secular World.

According to Dirda,
Auerbach makes the seemingly paradoxical claim that it is in the poetry of Dante, supreme among religious poets, that the secular world of the modern novel first took imaginative form. An inspiring introduction to one of world’s greatest poets and a brilliantly argued essay in the history of ideas.
The full essay is available online for a fee, but Shaw has kindly offered to save the print version. A bit more about the book:

Dante: Poet of the Secular World
By Erich Auerbach
Introduction by Michael Dirda
Auerbach's study of Dante, a precursor and necessary complement to Mimesis, his magisterial overview of realism in Western literature, illuminates both the overall structure and the individual detail of Dante's work, showing it to be an extraordinary synthesis of the sensuous and the conceptual, the particular and the universal, that redefined notions of human character and fate and opened the way into modernity.
This is a book with all the freshness and excitement of new discovery. The excitement remains through all these years since it's writing. This account of Dante's poetry, from the moving springs of its style and the human presentness of its drama to the cosmic vision which produces and validates them both, an account based on history but shaped by a special sense of the issues, possesses a validity which no other book, past or present, can diminish.
— Theodore Silverstein, The University of Chicago

Auerbach offers the thought that for all its investment in the eternal and immutable, the Divine Comedy is even more successful in representing reality as basically human...The refinement of Auerbach's own writing about Dante is truly exhilarating to read, not just because of his complex, paradox-filled insights, but because of their Nietzschean audacity.

— Edward Said

Sunday, December 17, 2006

More on Virgil's Vision of Rome

A review of the Fagles translation of the Aeneid by Brad Leithouser which appeared in the Times - thanks Mussy!

Wars and a Man

There’s a moment in Virgil’s “Aeneid” when the Trojan forces are massed like “a cloudburst wiping out the sun, sweeping over the seas toward land.” It’s an image that evokes another army, likewise intimidating, although this one’s composed chiefly of sedentary men, white-haired and bespectacled. Their numbers, too, are unreckonable — those squadrons of scholars who have, over the centuries, translated the “Aeneid.”

Has any book been recast into English more times than this tale of Aeneas’ wanderings and the eventual establishment of the Roman Empire? Probably not, given both the poem’s venerability and the relative accessibility of Latin. When you further consider all the partial or complete versions in private manuscript — often the work of old classics teachers, shared with their students — we indeed confront something that looms over us like a cloudburst.

Robert Fagles, the poem’s newest translator, comes to the fray well armed. An emeritus professor of comparative literature at Princeton, he has already translated, with great success, Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey.” And his publisher for the “Aeneid,” Viking, has accoutered him handsomely, with a clear map, a useful pronunciation glossary, and a harmonious blend of layout and type font and binding.

For all its translations, the “Aeneid” erects sizable obstacles for anybody hoping to render it into satisfying English. Perhaps the most formidable of these is the tale’s diminishing narrative drive. Most of what lingers in the reader’s memory — the fall of Troy, Dido’s passion and ultimate suicide, Aeneas’ journey to the Underworld — unfolds in the first six of the poem’s 12 books; the epic’s second half largely documents a successful military campaign against the Rutulians in Italy.

I’ve conducted a little poll over the years, asking various fellow English professors to name Aeneas’ chief adversary — the warrior Turnus, leader of the Rutulians, who stands in relation to Aeneas as Hector does to Achilles. They frequently can’t, which I find reassuring. For who can fault them, given that Turnus is, as epic antagonists go, so blandly magnificent? (Or is it magnificently bland?) He’s stalwart, handsome and, when left to his own devices, peaceable. If he’s occasionally possessed by blood-lust, this is mostly the gods’ doing. When we initially meet him, he’s sleeping heavily — until awakened by a messenger of revengeful Juno, who goads him into rage and carnage.

The “Aeneid” is suffused with a fascinating, upending sense that most of what goes gravely wrong on earth isn’t imputable to human agency. There’s something comforting to Virgil’s conception of humanity, in which relatively little malice and unreasonableness and rapacity seem innate to our kind. And there’s something unsettling as well — a vision of a world that would be safer and more secure if only the heavens were emptied. (It’s a vision perhaps familiar to those of us who sometimes feel we’d be better off if our own gods, whose Mount Olympus is Capitol Hill, would all go away.)

Fagles converts Virgil’s hexameters into variable lines, long and flexible. The result is free verse, with the ghost of a hexameter serving as loose armature:

Wars and a man I sing — an exile driven on
by Fate,
he was the first to flee the coast of Troy,
destined to reach Lavinian shores and
Italian soil,
yet many blows he took on land and sea
from the gods above. ...

The issue of line length poses a fundamental and perhaps an irresolvable dilemma. Between the Latin hexameter and the standard English line for long narrative poems — iambic pentameter — lies an unbridgeable chasm. The Latin line simply contains more information than can reliably be packed into its English counterpart. The translator must then make a choice. Does he go with a long-line approximation of the Latin (at the risk of producing an ungainly English unit that tends to sag in the middle)? Or will he, in allegiance to English poetic traditions, adopt something shorter (at the risk of losing the feel of the expansive original)? It’s a question that every major translator of the “Aeneid” — a list that includes John Dryden, C. Day Lewis, Rolfe Humphries and Robert Fitzgerald — has confronted.

Fitzgerald’s translation, which appeared in 1983, has long served as my own standard edition, and to read him side by side with Fagles is fascinating. Fitzgerald employs a taut shorter line (iambic pentameter, with many truncations — a meter he subtly loosens and tightens as he goes along), and in moments of great lyrical intensity his version regularly seems tenser, richer. Here is the Trojan horse being hauled into the city:

. . . Everyone
Pitched in to get the figure underpinned
With rollers, hempen lines around the neck.
Deadly, pregnant with enemies, the horse
Crawled upward to the breach.


We breach our own ramparts, fling our
defenses open,
all pitch into the work. Smooth running
we wheel beneath its hoofs, and heavy
hempen ropes
we bind around its neck, and teeming with
the huge deadly engine climbs our city
walls ...


Here is Dido, at wit’s end, portrayed just before her suicide:

She prayed then to whatever power may
In comprehending justice for the grief
Of lovers bound unequally by love.


And then to any Power above, mindful,
who watches over lovers bound by unequal
Dido says her prayers.


And here — my favorite passage in the poem — is the moment when ever dutiful Aeneas, with his exhausted, despairing father at his side, balances the awesome burdens of past and future:

So I resigned myself, picked up my father,
And turned my face toward the mountain


So I gave way at last and
lifting my father, headed toward the


Yet if the blazing moments belong to Fitzgerald, there’s a capaciousness to Fagles’s line well suited to this vast story’s ebb and flow. Aeneas is a storm-tossed man — the epic opens with shipwreck on the coast of Africa — and Fagles renders the pilgrimage in cadences that are encompassing without feeling cluttered. As Fitzgerald surely would have agreed, the sea has many voices, and this is one of them.

You might say it’s Aeneas’ peculiar storybook fate to wander the seas for years, in “Odyssey” fashion, only to find landfall on the shores of the “Iliad.” In Book 7, when the extended campaign against the Rutulians begins, Aeneas’ private self basically drops away, as it must, for his military responsibilities as commander in chief eclipse all else. Inner voices are another casualty of the din of war.

As a literary creation, Aeneas is marvelous for the way this most powerful and influential of warriors seems the least free of men. He is laying the cornerstones for an empire without precedent, which will (a complement to the biblical fiat lux) impose a fiat lex across the earth: Roman notions of law and order will eventually prevail from the Irish Sea to the Caspian, from Russia to Morocco. Yet Aeneas himself evidently has little say in the matter. If left to his own devices, he would contentedly remain with Dido in Africa, where life is sheltered and the pleasures of the flesh are dizzyingly sweet. But his country calls him — which is to say, the gods have other plans.

Virgil openly pays tribute to Homer, in both imagery and incident. (It seems there is nothing, not even the will of the gods, so inescapable as literary convention.) If the “Aeneid” can hardly match the “Iliad” as a portrait of war, in some regards the successor excels the model. The “Aeneid” hauntingly captures the psyche of a weathered soldier who has had enough — but who cannot declare he’s had enough until a lasting peace is secured. By the time battered Aeneas reaches the shores of Italy, he’s the least bloodthirsty of men, praying his people can cohabit tranquilly with the Rutulians. Down the centuries, the “Aeneid” has doubtless spoken with special poignancy to veteran commanders all over the world, who can read their own lives in an ancient poem composed when bows and arrows were the cutting edge in aerial warfare.

The “Aeneid” contains two significant passages of prophetic outreach, when the present vanishes away and neighboring centuries reveal themselves like sunlit valleys in a clearing fog. The first arises when Ae neas, visiting his father in the Underworld, beholds the ramifying glories of Rome’s coming empire. The second occurs when Vulcan forges him a shield on which centuries of triumph are chronicled:

He knows nothing of these events but takes
in their likeness, lifting onto his shoulders
the fame and fates of all his children’s

Virgil also looks backward, reminding us how the Trojans and their city, gleaming on the dawn-struck outskirts of Asia, eventually came to dust. And how even the victorious Greeks came to dust. But Rome — he assures his readers — will never fade.

Virgil was wrong, and it’s one of the most gorgeous ironies of the “Aeneid” that while it celebrates the political — the founding of an empire, by the young and potent and brave — as the summit of human achievement, its greater and more durable feat lies elsewhere. The triumph is ultimately literary, of course, and also collective — since it belongs in part to those white-haired translators who have brought such well-seasoned judgments to a timeless tale. Theirs is the prevailing army, among whose ranks Robert Fagles emerges as a new and noble standard-bearer.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

A footnote to our discussion of cantos 10 & 11

The evening of our discussion of cantos 10-11, I happened to watch Francesco, giullare di Dio, the 1950 film directed by Roberto Rossellini and written by him and Federico Fellini. The English title is known either as Francis, God's Jester, or The Flowers of St. Francis, and the DVD was released last year by the Criterion Collection.

Rossellini is an acquired taste for many. This film, which is a series of vignettes that explore aspects of medieval notions of simplicity, folly (the "sacred fool") and humility, was shot with actual Italian monks playing Francis of Assisi and his band of followers, shows the influence of Fellini's imagination. (It is available for rental at Video Renaissance, 2243 Bee Ridge Rd.)

The reason for the mention: If you do happen to get hold of the DVD, don't miss the English Prologue that is part of the extras on the disk. It was apparently created to introduce the world of Francis through art of his time, and was later removed. It contains stills and details from the works of Cimabue, Giotto and Orcagna -- including several images of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso which are clearly indebted to Dante's visibile parlare.
Triumph of Death in the Pit of Hell, Orcagna, 1348

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Stamp of Rome

At Mussy's suggestion, here's a piece on the Aeneid from the NY Times' Connections - posted in full because the Times tends to limit access after a few days:

Out of Epic Wars, Another Epic Is Born, the One Called Civilization


Aeneas, as far as we can see, is spared the trauma of a hero’s death, the kind of prophesied calamity that brought Achilles down at the height of his powers. Instead, Aeneas is last seen, at the close of Virgil’s Aeneid, triumphantly planting his iron sword “hilt-deep in his enemy’s heart.” But has there been a time in recent memory when Aeneas’s literary corpse has not been wrestled over, when this Trojan warrior, brought to such vivid life by Virgil, has really been able to rest in peace?

Read now Robert Fagles’s new pulsing, lyrical translation of the Aeneid (Viking), with its eloquent mixture of high rhetoric and conversational ease, and see too if — as arguments rage over war and peace, civilization and barbarism — Aeneas stands a chance.

He suffers the fate of having an unsettled place in the pantheon of heroes because Virgil gives him a far grander role to play than Homer’s supra-human figures had in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Aeneas is not just a godlike tempestuous warrior like Achilles, who is gradually inducted into human culture with all its constraints and demands. He is not just a brilliant schemer like Odysseus, who simply wishes to return home after years of war and is buffeted by the tricks of gods and Fates and men.

Aeneas, the Trojan hero who carries his aged father on his shoulders out of his burning city, has a mission that reaches across history and stretches centuries into the future, a task that the gods remind him may not be avoided or shirked and that Virgil, writing in the third decade B.C., was beginning to see come to fruition. Aeneas’s task was to lead his fellow survivors of the great Trojan War onto the shores of Italy, where — after terrible battles — his descendants would eventually found Rome itself.

Aeneas was brought to epic life by Virgil at a time when a century of Roman civil war had come to an end, when Augustus’s leadership promised the establishment of the Roman Empire. And Aeneas is imagined creating a nation that, as Jove suggests, would “bring the entire world beneath the rule of law.”

That is what is at stake in the Aeneid. The individual hero must fulfill an imperial destiny. The goddess Juno, nursing an ancient grudge, strives to keep Aeneas from landing in Italy, then tries to keep him from surviving there, but his destiny is greater than any god’s mischief. It also forces Aeneas to jettison the love of Dido and lead the Trojans into yet another horrific war. This is a founding myth, resembling those of other ancient lands: there is a chosen people who must endure hardships and defeats for the promise of future glory. The trials test their leader, who himself will never see the new world established, though he makes it all possible.

But this is more than a national epic. It is not just about the founding of a country or the establishment of a people out of a ruinous past. Rome, the Aeneid implies (and we can imagine Virgil nodding to his patrons), will be more than a light unto the nations; it will establish a new form of governance. Aeneas is the founder of something we now call civilization.

That, though, is where his posthumous trouble begins. Perhaps the Romans saw in Virgil’s meticulously described battles forerunners of Julius Caesar’s victories. (Caesar imagined, after all, that he was a descendant of Aeneas.) Perhaps in later eras Christianity could see hints of its own vision latent in the Aeneid. (Aeneas’s journey to the realm of the dead, after all, inspired Dante to make Virgil the experienced guide in his “Divine Comedy.”)

But in recent decades, when even the notion of civilization has come under challenge for its claims of ethical and social superiority, Aeneas has sometimes been portrayed as a kind of patsy for imperialism, mouthing higher goals while succumbing to reckless fury as he spills the bowels of his enemies on the earth. The argument has been made that Virgil’s project was actually ironic, anti-Augustan: he showed how civilization itself is drenched in blood, with self-celebratory history being written by the victors.

While Aeneas is supposedly held up as an embodiment of familial piety, he is so vulnerable to fury that he loses sight of things. As Troy burns, he glimpses the beauteous Helen, the root cause of the city’s destruction; “what joy, to glut my heart with the fires of vengeance,” he thinks, and he is about to take revenge on her when his mother, the goddess Venus, must remind him that his own family needs rescue.

Then, as he carries his father to safety, he forgets to look back and care for his wife, who is slaughtered. And at the very close of the epic he rejects a civilized appeal for restraint by his enemy Turnus and gives way to “savage grief” and “rage,” sending Turnus “down to the shades below.”

Glutting one’s heart with savage fires is not precisely something we imagine as a sign of civilization. And these battles for the future unfold with almost pornographic horror. Even Aeneas’s men, in the midst of recreational games, can whine for prizes, their vanity and passions stronger than any visions of communal good.

And yet, on his courageous descent into the Underworld, Aeneas is shown the unfolding of history, past and present. The shade of his revered father, Anchises, speaks of the future, specifying precisely what Rome’s achievement will be. Other civilizations he says, will “draw from the block of marble features quick with life” or “chart with their rods the stars that climb the sky.”

Others, that is, will be masters of the arts and sciences. Anchises says:

But you, Roman, remember, rule with all your power
the peoples of the earth — these will be your arts:
to put your stamp on the works and ways of peace,
to spare the defeated, break the proud in war.

The arts of rule: that is where Virgil himself says the triumph will be; the “rule of law” is how Jove puts it. As Virgil shows again and again, that rule is no small matter. It may be won by the sword; Aeneas, though, shows how much more is required. He displays compassion, delicacy, courage, insight into the vanquished, desire for an “eternal pact of peace.” These are all elements of civilization.

But can the sword ever be put aside, even with civilization’s triumph? Aeneas’s own frailties suggest that it cannot: he can “break the proud” but not always “spare the defeated.” The “works and ways of peace” are always vulnerable.

Jove himself, envisioning a Rome in which the Gates of War are welded shut, portrays the “frenzy of civil strife” as a live being, shackled, “monstrously roaring out from his bloody jaws.” Even when all intentions are good, there will be that persistent roar: misunderstandings, flaws, eruptions of desire, assertions of power — the mischief of the gods and the treachery of the heart.

This vision makes the Aeneid strong and somber and prescient, which is how Mr. Fagles’s English renders it. The Aeneid, he has suggested (thinking, he had said, of contemporary events), exhorts empires to behave. But it does not dismiss the ideal of civilization or the labors demanded or the persistent dangers faced; it offers a realist prophecy of war and peace, heralding civilization along with its discontents.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Bibliophilic and gryphonic

A book-loving friend sends a link to LibraryThing, a site for books and those who care about them. People enter titles of books they own, like, or hate, and can then find others who share the interest. Just tabbing across the top of the home page brings forums for discussion, a "zeitgeist" of users' current choices, favorite authors, etc., a blog and much else. (Perhaps too much else -- one can get lost in there for extended periods of time!)

LIbraryThing is the creation of a fellow named Tim Spalding, a webmaster who has another site rich in literary lore, Isidore of Seville, named after the famed medieval collector of knowledge and author (c.560-636 AD) of the Etymologies. There's much there about oracles, Cleopatra, Herodotus, Noah's Ark, and Griffins, among other things. More about Isidore here.

As we'll be encountering a griffin, or gryphon, at the top of the mountain, I'll put a few links here: Griffins in art -- a literary history of griffins -- and a description of the fabled lion/birds, from which the above illustration comes.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Notes on Purgatorio 12

Canto 12 completes the tripartite structure begun in Canto 10 which will be the pattern for each of the seven terraces of the deadly sins:
  1. Entering each Terrace, the pilgrim sees the “goad” – the depiction of the countervailing virtue that is the cure for the vice being purged.
  2. He meets the souls being purged.
  3. Leaving, he encounters the “check” – a representation of the vice that was just being addressed.
Here as he leaves off discussing human artistry he encounters 12 panels involving stories of pride, six from the Hebraic Old Testament tradition and six from the Greco Roman myths.

"Pride of place" goes to Satan. There was a lively discussion in the middle ages about how long it took Satan to fall once he was created. Any wagers on Dante's view?

Briareus, we remember from Hesiod's Theogony, was one of the hundred-handed (Hecatonchires) late offspring of Ouranos and Gaia:
Soon after they were born, their father, Uranus, threw them into the depths of Tartarus because he saw them as hideous monsters. In some versions of this myth, Uranus saw how ugly the Hecatonchires were at their birth and pushed them back into Gaia's womb, upsetting Gaia greatly, causing her great pain, and setting into motion the overthrow of Uranus by Cronus. In this version of the myth, they were only later imprisoned in Tartarus by Cronus.

The Hecatonchires remained there, guarded by the dragon Campe, until Zeus rescued them, hoping they would serve as good allies against Cronus. During the War of the Titans, the Hecatonchires threw rocks as big as mountains, one hundred at a time, at the Titans.
The emphasis upon the mimetic power of the images is evident from the anaphoric repetition of Vedea...Vedea...Vedea etc. What emerges from the 13-tercet description of the panels is on the one hand a balanced structure of vivid images of destruction and decapitation, and on the other an acrostic that spells the name of humanity - UOM - which apparently hid unnoticed by commentators until 1898.

The final panel is a vision of the abasement of Troy:

Vedeva Troia in cenere e in caverne;
o Ilïón, come te basso e vile
mostrava il segno che lì si discerne!

Any thoughts on this combination of mimesis (the images on the panels) with the emergence of this other kind of sign?

The canto ends with an angel coming to meet the pilgrim, the lifting of the first "P," and an unusual glimpse of Virgil smiling.

What do the various elements of the canto - the elaborate artifice, the actions of the characters - have to do with the nature of pride? If moral education is going on here, how is it occuring?

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Canto 11 note

The canto ends with another character, the illuminator, Oderisi,

l'honor d'Agobbio e l'onor di quell'arte
ch'alluminar chiamata e in Parisi

predicting that Dante will soon know the pain of exile and want. The hint of what is to come is elaborated on later, by Cacciaguida, Dante's noble ancestor whom he encounters in Paradiso. There in simple, stark terms, Dante gives us his experience of exile:

Tu lascerai ogni cosa diletta
piu caramente; e questo e quell strale
che l'arco de lo esilio pria saetta.

Tu proverai si come sa di sale
lo pane altrui, e come e duro calle
lo scendere e 'l salir per l'altrui scale.

Paradiso 17.55-60.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Canto 10: a few elements

This is the first terrace of Purgatory proper, with three images -- Dante calls them visibile parlare, speech made visible -- of antitypes of Pride: Mary, King David, Emperor Trajan.

Mary to the angel: "I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her.

12 Now King David was told, "The LORD has blessed the household of Obed-Edom and everything he has, because of the ark of God." So David went down and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing. 13 When those who were carrying the ark of the LORD had taken six steps, he sacrificed a bull and a fattened calf. 14 David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the LORD with all his might, 15 while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouts and the sound of trumpets.

16 As the ark of the LORD was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD, she despised him in her heart.

17 They brought the ark of the LORD and set it in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and David sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings [f] before the LORD. 18 After he had finished sacrificing the burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD Almighty. 19 Then he gave a loaf of bread, a cake of dates and a cake of raisins to each person in the whole crowd of Israelites, both men and women. And all the people went to their homes.

20 When David returned home to bless his household, Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet him and said, "How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!"

21 David said to Michal, "It was before the LORD, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the LORD's people Israel—I will celebrate before the LORD. 22 I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor."

23 And Michal daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her death.
Trajan and the widow:

There was storied the high glory of the Roman prince whose worth moved Gregory to his great victory; Of Trajan the emperor I speak: and a poor widow was at his bridle in the attitude of tears and grief.

Round about him appeared a trampling and throng of horsemen and the eagles in gold above him moved visibly in the wind. The poor creature among all these seemed to say: 'Lord, do me vengeance for my son who is slain, whereby my heart is pierced.'

And he to answer her: 'Now wait until I return.' And she, like a person in whom grief is urgent: 'My Lord, if thou do not return?' And he: 'One who shall be in my place will do it for thee'. And she: 'What to thee will be another's good deed if thou forget thine own?'

Wherefore he: 'Now comfort thee, for needs must I fulfil my duty ere I stir: justice wills and pity holds me back

At the conclusion of the three scenes:

Colui che mai non vide cosa nova
Produsse esto visibile parlare
Novello a noi perche qui non si trova.

The canto ends comparing the encumbered proud souls to corbels - stone brackets, sometimes in the form of human figures, that support a cornice or arch, often in a cathedral:

Monday, November 13, 2006

Points to ponder in Canto 9

The canto presents some unusual interpretive challenges beginning with the very first terzina:
La concubina di Titone antico
Gia s'imbiancava al balco d'oriente
Fuor de le braccia del suo dolce amico

The concubine of ancient Tithonus
Already was whitening herself on the eastern balcony
Away from the arms of her sweet lover
Aurora, or Eos, often rises to herald the day in the ancient epics, but she's Tithonus' wife, not concubine, and she ordinarily turns the sky rosy. Plus, at this point in the Purgatorio, it isn't dawn, it's only about 9 p.m. These oddnesses might give us pause, to ask: what's going on?

We might also want to think about the rape of Ganymede, and the horrible tale of Philomela, Procne and Tereus. What are these classical stories doing here, at the moment when Dante is being lifted up, not by a Greek God, but by St. Lucia (do you see any relevance in details of her story?), and carried to the threshold of Purgatory? Why does Dante, invoking a scene from Statius' Achilleid, likens himself upon awakening to Achilles as a child?

Up to this point, Dante and Virgil have only been in the anteroom, as it were. Purgatory proper begins at the door which opens at the end of the canto.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

immortal bees

though each a life of narrow span,
Ne'er stretched to summers more than seven, befalls,
Yet deathless doth the race endure, and still
Perennial stands the fortune of their line,
From grandsire unto grandsire backward told.

Bees are a rich classical topos. In Virgil's Georgics, they provide an emblem of the immortality of the species. Later in the same book, they occasion a story of expiation and rebirth:

Then, when the ninth dawn had led in the day,
To Orpheus sent his funeral dues, and sought
The grove once more. But sudden, strange to tell
A portent they espy: through the oxen's flesh,
Waxed soft in dissolution, hark! there hum
Bees from the belly; the rent ribs overboil
In endless clouds they spread them, till at last
On yon tree-top together fused they cling,
And drop their cluster from the bending boughs.
Bees enjoyed a long and distinguished afterlife in European publishing, as illustrated by this lovely blog.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

A few aspects of the status of Purgatory

Here are a few follow-ups to questions raised during our last session, taken from Wikipedia's basic article on Purgatory:

Besides the concept expressed in early Christian writings of purification and suffering after death, as well as the efficacy of prayer for the dead (see above), no explicit use of the Latin word purgatorium (purgatory) is recorded before the 11th century. One of the first documents to mention purgatorium by name was a letter from the Benedictine Nicholas of Saint Albans to the Cistercian Peter of Celle in 1176.

Dogmatic definition of purgatory was given in 1254, following the normal pattern of doctrinal clarification, with concepts having roots in Scripture and Tradition being given explicit names and further unambiguous theological description by dogmatic decrees as needed. ...

Though most Protestant churches embrace the somewhat similar doctrine of glorification, they largely reject explicit belief in Purgatory, especially in the precise Catholic theological definition. ...

Lutherans, following the later teachings of Martin Luther, deny the existence of purgatory and do not pray for people who have already died. Luther wrote in Question No. 211 in his expanded Small Catechism:

"We should pray for ourselves and for all other people, even for our enemies, but not for the souls of the dead."...

Protestant disbelief in "purgatory" partially centers on the idea that it implies that Christ's blood sacrifice on the cross was insufficient to save humanity in whole and represents a human desire to perform some works that can "assist" them through into Heaven.

Some Eastern Orthodox sources, including the Ecumenical Patriarchate, consider Purgatory to be among "inter-correlated theories, unwitnessed in the Bible or in the Ancient Church" that are not acceptable within Orthodox doctrine,[7] and hold to a "condition of waiting"[8] as a more apt description of the period after death for those not borne directly to heaven. This waiting condition does not imply purification as it is linked to the idea "there is no hope of repentance or betterment after death." The prayers are simply to comfort those in the waiting place.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Dante on Florentine Democracy

Atene e Lacedemona, che fenno
l'antiche leggi e furon sì civili,
fecero al viver bene un picciol cenno

verso di te, che fai tanto sottili
provedimenti, ch'a mezzo novembre
non giugne quel che tu d'ottobre fili.

Athens and Sparta, which made the ancient laws
and had such civil order,
gave only hints of the good life compared to you,

who make such fine provision
that the threads you've spun but in October
do not survive to mid-November.
Purgatorio VI

Monday, October 30, 2006

A new Aeneid

Robert Fagles has a new translation of the Aeneid, and has this to say about the poem in today's New York Times:
“I usually try not to ride the horse of relevance very hard,” Mr. Fagles said recently at his home near Princeton University, from which he recently retired, after teaching comparative literature for more than 40 years. “My feeling is that if something is timeless, then it will also be timely.” But he went on to say that “The Aeneid” did speak to the contemporary situation. It’s a poem about empire, he explained, and was commissioned by the emperor Augustus to celebrate the spread of Roman civilization.

“To begin with, it’s a cautionary tale,” Mr. Fagles said. “About the terrible ills that attend empire — its war-making capacity, the loss of blood and treasure both. But it’s all done in the name of the rule of law, which you’d have a hard time ascribing to what we’re doing in the Middle East today.

“It’s also a tale of exhortation. It says that if you depart from the civilized, then you become a murderer. The price of empire is very steep, but Virgil shows how it is to be earned, if it’s to be earned at all. The poem can be read as an exhortation for us to behave ourselves, which is a horse of relevance that ought to be ridden.”
Fagles has also translated the Iliad (I still prefer Lattimore) and the Odyssey, and offers this personal glimpse into his fascination with these works:
Virgil worked on “The Aeneid” for 10 years, and Mr. Fagles took almost as long. When he was done with it, he said, he went through a period of mourning, having lost what had become in effect a daily companion. And he still can’t decide which of the epics is his favorite.

“Some days are very Iliadic,” he said. “You’re in a war. And some days it’s all about getting home; you’re like Odysseus. It all depends on what side of the bed you get up on.”

Friday, October 27, 2006

A few sources

Wikipedia's capsule view of the Commedia.

There are many, many online resources helpful for reading Dante. For example, in Purgatorio VIII, Dante alludes to an old hymn sung by monks to ward off sexual and other kinds of dreams during sleep. Googling the name of the hymn, Te lucis ante, brought up this page about it, found on ChoralWiki, a large collection of music found in the public domain.

Here's the text:

Te lucis ante terminum,
Rerum Creator, poscimus,
Ut pro tua clementia,
Sis praesul et custodia.

Procul recedant somnia,
Et noctium phantasmata:
Hostemque nostrum comprime,
Ne polluantur corpora.

Praesta, Pater piissime,
Patrique compar Unice,
Cum Spiritu Paraclito,
Regnans per omne saeculum.


To thee before the close of day,

Creator of the world, we pray
That, with thy wonted favor, thou
Wouldst be our guard and keeper now.

From all ill dreams defend our sight,
From fears and terrors of the night;
Withhold from us our ghostly foe,
That spot of sin we may not know.

O Father, that we ask be done,
Through Jesus Christ, thine only Son,
Who, with the Holy Ghost and thee,
Doth live and reign eternally. Amen.

Tr. John Mason Neale, 1852, alt.

Here's background on Salve Regina, sung in Purgatorio 7.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Illustrated Comedy

Speaking of the Bodleian, this link will take you to illuminations of the Commedia from a 14th century North Italian manuscript. Here Dante meets Buonconte and La Pia, Purgatorio V.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

On Reserve

We've set up a small reserve area at the Fruitville library for any Purgatorio-related articles, books, or other resources which the group might wish to share. It's located at the main reference desk in the center of the main room - directly ahead as you enter.

So far the "collection" consists of a book offering text and some images of works by Giotto; an article on the ancient epic and the Commedia by Dante scholar John Freccero, and a piece found on the Internet whose authorship remains mysterious. The article is called: "Introduction to the Humanities as Involved Knowing" - it's a concise but far-ranging look at learning, the humanities and sciences, with comments on the value of humanistic learning from the Greeks to the present. Naturally, you don't need to go to the library to read it, since it's online here.

Please sign for items you borrow, and return them when done.

Our thanks to Valerie and the staff at Fruitville for allowing us to do this.

La Pia and Great Libraries

Jutta shares two links of interest:

First, an academic article by Aldo Scaglione that offers a detailed look at Purgatorio V. Here's a snippet from its subtle reading of the character of La Pia:
Pia's position in the topography of the Commedia gives reason to assume a significant parallelism with the somewhat analogous female characters who appear toward the beginning of each cantica, namely Francesca (Inf. V) and Piccarda (Par. III). All three are unusually gentle toward Dante, all three had been the victims of their husbands, yet, when seen in succession, they mark an interesting and telling progression from Francesca's complete, tragically lasting involvement in human passion, to Pia's transcending her private affairs in a willful state of preparation for the final, total salvation of her soul, and lastly to Piccarda's having reached the complete identification with divine will, as expressed in the memorable line,

«E 'n la sua volontade è nostra pace» (Par. III 85).

Scaglione continues: The...contrast between this abruptly peaceful ending and the fury of the highly emotional, bloody, and tempestuous stories that immediately precede (vv. 64-129), is another example of Dante's unprecedented and uniquely effective method of arranging the parts of his poem by frequent variations in mood in the form of dialectically contrasting episodes, somewhat like the movements of a sonata. This discreet, subdued ending suggestively closes a canto that had been so full of dramatic action.

Jutta's second link is to a site about several of the great libraries of the world, including extraordinary collections such as that at Patmos (above), the Marcian, and the Bodleian (below):

Monday, October 23, 2006

Manfred of Sicily (Canto 3)

The appearance of Manfred of Sicily is occasion for one of the most celebrated lines in the Commedia:

Biondo era e bello e di gentile aspetto

Some background on Manfred here. The Sicilian Vespers was a direct consequence of what happened to Manfred.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

"Poppa" and Cato

Following up on a couple of questions from today:

"Poppa" indeed means "stern" when used of boats (it also means breast). The prow of a boat is the prora or prua. In Italian, "from stem to stern" is rendered "di prua a poppa."

Dante's guardian of Purgatory is Marcus Porcius Cato (Wikipedia entry here), also known as Cato the Younger. Plutarch devotes a chapter to him in his Lives (as well as another one to his ancestor, Cato the Elder). He appears in Sallust's Conspiracy of Catiline, and in Lucan's Pharsalia (61-65 AD).

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Allegory in the Middle Ages

As we read Dante's Purgatorio it will be helpful to gain some understanding of how the Bible was interpreted in the Middle Ages. A great deal of the basis for Biblical reading can be found in the works of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Much of this turns on the nature of allegory as construed in the Middle Ages.

The Letter to Can Grande allegedly written by Dante (whether it was by him or no, it's generally believed that he'd agree with its tenor) sets forth a contrast between the allegory of the poets, as can be found, for example, in Plato, and the allegory of scripture.

Wikipedia offers a brief summary of Dante's views.

From Dante's letter: may be called "polysemous", that is, of many senses [allegories]. A first sense derives from the letters themselves, and a second from the things signified by the letters. We call the first sense "literal" sense, the second the "allegorical", or "moral" or "anagogical". To clarify this method of treatment, consider this verse: When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a barbarous people: Judea was made his sanctuary, Israel his dominion (Psalm 113). Now if we examine the letters alone, the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt in the time of Moses is signified; in the allegory, our redemption accomplished through Christ; in the moral sense, the conversion of the soul from the grief and misery of sin to the state of grace; in the anagogical sense, the exodus of the holy soul from slavery of this corruption to the freedom of eternal glory.. they can all be called allegorical.
More on Dante's letter and a detailed look at the typological view of Scripture can be found here.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Limbo in Limbo?

Pope to end doctrine of Limbo

The Pope will this week overturn a belief held by Roman Catholics since medieval times by abolishing the concept of Limbo. More here.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Time and Trajectory in the Purgatorio

A diagram by Moore that might help with some of the elaborate (and lovely) time references in the Purgatorio:

Monday, September 18, 2006

Bible vs Greeks in the news

A moment of relevance: The full text of Benedict XVI's speech that ignited protests across the Muslim world is here.

The firestorm it set off has its context in the very thing that has been at the root of so many of our conversations: the uneasy relation/aporia between the Biblical text and the Greco/Roman logos. Here's a clip from his talk -- but see the entire speech for context.
...we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true?

I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God. Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: "In the beginning was the Word".

This is the very word used by the emperor: God acts, [text unclear] with logos. Logos means both reason and word - a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis.

In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist. The encounter between the biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: "Come over to Macedonia and help us!" (cf. Acts 16. 6-10) - this vision can be interpreted as a "distillation" of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.

In point of fact, this rapprochement had been going on for some time. The mysterious name of God, revealed from the burning bush, a name which separates this God from all other divinities with their many names and simply declares "I am", already presents a challenge to the notion of myth, to which Socrates' attempt to vanquish and transcend myth stands in close analogy.

Within the Old Testament, the process which started at the burning bush came to new maturity at the time of the Exile, when the God of Israel, an Israel now deprived of its land and worship, was proclaimed as the God of heaven and earth and described in a simple formula which echoes the words uttered at the burning bush: "I am".

This new understanding of God is accompanied by a kind of enlightenment, which finds stark expression in the mockery of gods who are merely the work of human hands (cf. Psalm 115). Thus, despite the bitter conflict with those Hellenistic rulers who sought to accommodate it forcibly to the customs and idolatrous cult of the Greeks, biblical faith, in the Hellenistic period, encountered the best of Greek thought at a deep level, resulting in a mutual enrichment evident especially in the later wisdom literature.

Today we know that the Greek translation of the Old Testament produced at Alexandria - the Septuagint - is more than a simple (and in that sense really less than satisfactory) translation of the Hebrew text: it is an independent textual witness and a distinct and important step in the history of revelation, one which brought about this encounter in a way that was decisive for the birth and spread of Christianity.

A profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place here, an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion. From the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith, Manuel II was able to say: Not to act "with logos" is contrary to God's nature.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Comedia and Divina Commedia

For anyone interested in the textual history of Dante's Commedia, here's a detailed page on the subject, which is part of a site dedicated to Dante that draws upon the resources of three libaries.

Interesting bit of trivia: As is apparent from the image above from 1477, the original title of Dante's poem was La Comedia (with the accent on the i), (only later was the word regularized to "commedia") which was the vernacular of the day for "Comedy." It was only in 1555 that an editor attached the adjective "Divina," and it stuck.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Glory in Time: An Approach to the Classics

In this speech, Historian Jeffrey Burton Russell talks about the study of history, using the example of how the medieval world conceived of the relationship of man, nature and divinity. Good as background for Dante, as well as a springboard for helping us understand the perennial allure of the Classics:
I call this approach the history of concepts. It engages other worldviews rather than imposing modern ideologies or academic fads upon them. It does not assume, for example, that a fourteenth-century mystic's experience with God was "really" a psychotic episode, a chemical dysfunction of the brain, or a fraud. The historian of concepts, aware of the precariousness and limitations of her own views, does make a value judgement. It is the judgement that the wider our world view is the better, and she does not see a way of getting a wider world view than through the history of concepts itself. For that method, by exploring the entire history of a concept, embraces all the thought about that concept from its beginning to the living present. What could give you more?

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Image and Outline

Sandro Botticelli's image of Dante's Inferno is one of several artistic representations that can be found on Wikipedia's entry about the Commedia, which offers an outline of the structure of the poem. More Commedia images can be found on Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Orpheus and the Underworld

Corot: Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld (1861)

The story of Orpheus and Eurydice was an ancient Greek myth and source of cultic practices, but had its fullest ancient poetic treatment in Virgil's Georgics IV-- a near triumph of art over death:

Nay to the jaws of Taenarus too he came,
Of Dis the infernal palace, and the grove
Grim with a horror of great darkness- came,
Entered, and faced the Manes and the King
Of terrors, the stone heart no prayer can tame.
Then from the deepest deeps of Erebus,
Wrung by his minstrelsy, the hollow shades
Came trooping, ghostly semblances of forms
Lost to the light, as birds by myriads hie
To greenwood boughs for cover, when twilight-hour
Or storms of winter chase them from the hills;
Matrons and men, and great heroic frames
Done with life's service, boys, unwedded girls,
Youths placed on pyre before their fathers' eyes.
Round them, with black slime choked and hideous weed,
Cocytus winds; there lies the unlovely swamp
Of dull dead water, and, to pen them fast,
Styx with her ninefold barrier poured between.
Nay, even the deep Tartarean Halls of death
Stood lost in wonderment, and the Eumenides,
Their brows with livid locks of serpents twined;

See also Ovid's treatment.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

More on Augustine

Augustine, a man of late classical Roman antiquity, is so basic to the shaping of the Middle Ages that a few more sources are in order.

Here's a quote from The City of God:
Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, "Thou art my glory, and the lifter up of mine head."
The link above is to excerpts from the book. The entire City of God is online here. A wikipedia article on the book is here. Here's another on Augustine himself. The standard bio of Augustine is a classic, Augustine of Hippo, by Peter Brown. Be sure to get the 2000 edition which has two new essays at the back.

The Latin originals of some of Augustine's major works can be found here.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Fall Mountaineering

Our Fall meetings will center on Dante's Purgatorio. We'll be using Allen Mandelbaum's translation, which includes the original Italian.

We'll meet Wednesdays from 10 to 11:30 a.m. on October 11 and 25, November 8 and 29, and December 13, at the Fruitville Library.

It would be a good idea to review the Inferno. For our first session, please have prepared Inferno cantos 1, 4, 26 and 34, which we will discuss as a springboard to the Purgatorio. We'll be using the Mandelbaum translation of the Inferno as well. Please have also read Purgatorio 1 and 2 for the first meeting.

You might wish to check this blog from time to time. As we become aware of online resources for Dante, we will link to them.

Have a very fine summer.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

tolle lege

One question to consider is the recurrent image of reading that occurs in The Confessions. What significance might attach to those salient moments depicting Ambrose reading without moving his lips, and of course the famous "tolle lege" scene?

Monday, May 08, 2006

Augustine online

Some further online resources on Augustine. Here is an edition of the Confessions in Latin with commentary in English by noted scholar James J. O'Donnell. He offers further resources, including an introduction to Augustine's life and works.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Augustine and Manichaeism

I still thought that it is not we who sin but some other nature that sins within us. It flattered my pride to think that I incurred no guilt and, when I did wrong, not to confess it... I preferred to excuse myself and blame this unknown thing which was in me but was not part of me. The truth, of course, was that it was all my own self, and my own impiety had divided me against myself. My sin was all the more incurable because I did not think myself a sinner.
Our next session will address the first nine books of Augustine's Confessions. Early on, Augustine describes his involvement with Manichaeism. For some background on this sect, which was declared heretical by the early Christian Church, go here.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Tabernacle and Ark

See this useful discussion of the Tabernacle, with references to an annotated online version of Exodus. A replica of the Tabernacle is described and pictured here.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Choice of text

Looking ahead to May, when we will read St. Augustine's Confessions, Arline has suggested this Oxford edition. The translation is by Henry Chadwick.

Sunday, April 02, 2006


Our next session is devoted to Lycurgus, the legendary lawgiver of Sparta. Plutarch's Life, translated by Dryden, is here. As we are in the process of reading Exodus, it's worth considering the differences in how the entire matter of the Law is thought and rendered in Plutarch, versus how it comes into play in the books of Moses.

For further exploration: You might find Plutarch's parallel account of the Roman king, Numa Pompilius, of interest. He gave Rome certain of its key values and institutions, much as Lycurgus did with Sparta. If Plutarch's Life of Numa is too long, there's a useful brief account of his life and works on Wikipedia.

Friday, March 24, 2006


On March 29, Mary Rosner will begin our reading of Exodus. The first 20 chapters are filled with narrative action. What is the essential story here? How does it follow, if it does, from Genesis? How does it relate to the institution of the Law which takes place at the exact center of Exodus?

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Socrates in the seaport

The Republic begins during a festival at Piraeus in honor of Bendis, a goddess recently imported to Athens from Thrace. The settings of Platonic dialogues often make oblique comments upon their subjects. What does this one suggest?

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Republic

For our meetings on March 8th and March 22nd, Pat will take up selections from Plato's Republic. Any edition of the text is fine, several are online, including the Jowett translation.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Visualizations of Joseph

Click on the images for larger versions:

Guido Reni, Joseph and Potiphar's Wife, c. 1631

Michaelangelo, Jacob Joseph, Sistine ceiling

Friday, January 27, 2006

Joseph and his brothers

On Feb. 8 we'll begin the last story of the first book of the Bible, the Joseph story (Gen. 37-50).

We'll continue our reading on Feb. 22. A few questions to consider as we go through the story:
  • In terms of the major kinds of figures we find in the Bible, what is Joseph? Is he a patriarch? a prophet? or something else?
  • What is the nature of dreams in this story, and how do they differ from earlier dreams narrated in Genesis?
  • Although we won't have time to examine it in detail, the story of Judah and Tamar (chapter 38) offers numerous points of relevance and contrast to the tales of Jacob and of Joseph. What are your observations?
  • Consider the plot structure of Joseph: the anticipatory dreams, the heinous act, the covering up of that act, the discovery of Joseph to his brothers, the denouement. In some ways, the plot structure can be suggestively compared with that of Greek tragedy as outlined by Aristotle in his Poetics. We may wish to note some of these similarities and differences with reference to Oedipus the King.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Artifacts of the Bible

A comprehensive exhibition on the history of the Bible, known as Ink & Blood: Sacred Treasures of the Bible, is on display at Florida International Museum (FIM) from January 13th to May 14.

The artifacts include authentic Dead Sea Scroll fragments, ancient Biblical manuscripts and 5,000-year-old pictographic clay tablets from ancient Mesopotamia.

Directions to the new home of FIM, 244 Second Avenue North, St. Petersburg.