Friday, October 26, 2012

My Season with Dante

By Charles Kinnaird

Just as a dolphin having been held captive in some murky inland pond might have an expansion of his senses when released into the warm open gulf, seeing reefs of bright coral, schools of colorful fish, and waves of sea grasses in the ocean-filtered sunlight; so was my plunge into the world of Dante Alighieri this past summer. 

The impetus for my glad baptism into Dante’s The Divine Comedy was a class that was offered at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Birmingham, Alabama. In the class, led by Daniel McCormick, Director of Religious Education, we would watch “Dante in Translation” with Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta  online via Open Yale Courses on You Tube. We would then spend some time in discussion, which was always interesting.  The class met weekly for ten weeks, and only covered Inferno.  The first time I read Dante was in high school, and there again, all we read was Inferno. I was delighted to have the opportunity for literary discussion and I became motivated to delve further into this classic work of literature. I did two things that greatly increased my appreciation for Dante. One, I found an audiobook version of The Divine Comedy in the public library.  Two, I listened to the entire work, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Unlike in high school, this time I was not going through Hell for nothing. I wanted to keep on moving to find out what else lay in store.

Don’t Get Bogged Down in the Details

For all who might be considering reading The Divine Comedy, I would highly recommend listening to it first.  I think you will get more from the listening than from the reading. First of all, I believe poetry was meant to be heard. It is an oral and aural art form. Second, it is easy to get bogged down in details when you try to read Dante. I found that when I read the work, I was constantly stopping to read footnotes to try to understand who this or that person was, or what was intended by certain historical or mythological references. I found that when I relaxed and just listened, the whole experience was one of fascination and wonder. I might have understood about half of the incidental context and personal figures referred to by Dante, but the gist and meaning of the work was readily accessible.  By not trying to stop and figure out every detail, I was able to experience the flow and the rhythm of the tale and to hear the beauty and wonder of the words.

I should also note that since I have no proficiency in Italian, I did not experience "pure" Dante. What I listened to was, of course, an English translation. Knowing my experience of Dante may be "once removed," I am still grateful for the skill and the talents of translators who have brought Dante's world to life in my own native language.

Painting Vivid Pictures in the Mind

                                                         “Dante’s is a visual imagination”
                              ~ T.S. Eliot

I have often said that poets are natural at analogy because everything in the world reminds them of something else. Dante was an absolute master at the art of analogy. He constantly weaves vivid images for his reader/listener.  By painting a picture in words of some scene readily accessible to the reader, the Florentine poet in essence says, If you can imagine this, then you can get an idea of that.  Consider this analogy in Paradiso, Canto 23 when describing Beatrice as she looks toward Heaven:

As does the bird, among beloved branches,
when, through the night that hides things from us, she
has rested near the nest of her sweet fledglings
and, on an open branch, anticipates
the time when she can see their longed-for faces
and find the food with which to feed them-chore
that pleases her, however hard her labors-
as she awaits the sun with warm affection,
steadfastly watching for the dawn to break:

so did my lady stand, erect, intent,
turned toward that part of heaven under which
the sun is given to less haste; so that,
as I saw her in longing and suspense,
I grew to be as one who, while he wants
what is not his, is satisfied with hope.

By the time the poet mentions his lady Beatrice, I had in my mind that scene of the bird, soft and earnest with a piercing gaze through the branches and toward daybreak. And it was not only the facial image; it was also that maternal instinct of diligent nurturing and caring. All of this transferred immediately in my mind to allow me a clear view of that human/celestial lady who was Dante’s guide from Purgatory through Paradise.

In Purgatory, Dante and Statius Sleeping
while Virgil Keeps Watch
(William Blake)

In Purgatorio, Canto 3, the departed souls are astounded to see that Dante casts a shadow in the sunlight, something they are not accustomed to seeing among souls in Purgatory. Dante doesn’t just say they stopped in their tracks, he provides a picture of what such a scene would look like:

Even as sheep that move, first one, then two,
then three, out of the fold-the others also
stand, eyes and muzzles lowered, timidly;
and what the first sheep does, the others do,
and if it halts, they huddle close behind,
simple and quiet and not knowing why:

so, then, I saw those spirits in the front
of that flock favored by good fortune move-
their looks were modest; seemly, slow, their walk.
As soon as these souls saw, upon my right,
along the ground, a gap in the sun's light,
where shadow stretched from me to the rock wall,
they stopped and then drew back somewhat; and all
who came behind them – though they did not know
why those ahead had halted  –  also slowed.

In Inferno, Dante draws upon similarly common images to achieve a much more stark visualization in Canto 32 as Virgil and Dante walk through the frozen ninth circle of Hell:

And as the croaking frog sits with its muzzle
above the water, in the season when
the peasant woman often dreams of gleaning,
so, livid in the ice, up to the place
where shame can show itself, were those sad shades,
whose teeth were chattering with notes like storks'.

Metaphor, simile, and analogy are not as frequent in Inferno, but they are abundant in Purgatorio and Paradiso. That wondrous imagery to be found in The Divine Comedy is one compelling reason not to stop with Inferno. I highly recommend the reader to progress through the entire work. Therein lies an epic journey of dramatic visualization. Oh, and in case you haven’t already guessed, my opening lines were an attempt to imitate Dante’s use of visual metaphor.   



A Geography of the Soul

     “The soul hath Heaven and Hell within itself…”
                                            ~ Jacob Boehme

Virgil with Dante at Hell-Gate
(William Blake)







"Abandon all hope, ye that enter"
                               ~ The inscription over Hell-Gate












The world that Dante presents in The Divine Comedy is one of substance and dimension, so much so that charts and maps have been made to plot the poet’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven.  The more valuable measurements, however, are to be made in the soul. For me, the value of Dante is not in picturing some geography of the afterlife in the way he presents Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. The value for me is the poet’s insight into the geography of the soul. For the reader to engage in Dante’s epic poem, there will naturally come self-reflection and a sense of deep self-examination.  To travel with Dante from the depths to the heights of imagination is to take a critical look at personal interactions, politics, and motivations.

In the Garden

Early on in Inferno, the reader is given a cautionary tale of a well-ordered peaceful garden. Professor Mazzotta, in his Yale lectures, pointed out that while the garden is a place where one feels safe and secure,  it is in fact a place where one is subject to great danger. The danger Dante faced in the garden was that of poetic hubris when he began to see himself associated with the great poets. The garden in The Divine Comedy was, after all, on the pathway to Hell.  

When I considered that warning, I thought of some examples of my own well-ordered garden.  Personal meditation, or “quiet time” can easily become a habit in which I retreat from the real world. It is easy to imagine a “spirituality” that works within that well-ordered garden of meditation, but will not hold up in the real world. Thus a useful practice such as meditation can become a dangerous place when it becomes isolated and egocentric. It can be that well-ordered garden on the way to Hell. 

Another garden for me is poetry. Poetry can be a realm of transcendence, but if it becomes merely an escape, danger is surely not far away. Within the perceived order, structure and safety of the garden, we disarm ourselves and can fall prey to hubris. Well-ordered gardens come in many forms. 

Reason and Impulse

“A man who has not passed through the inferno of his passions has never
  overcome them. “
                                                                                        ~Carl Jung

Virgil comes to Dante as he is running from the Three Beasts
(William Blake)

There is a section in Inferno near the beginning in Canto V that describes punishment in the afterlife, but can also speak to the heartache that many encounter in this life.  Dante describes those in the second circle of Hell as suffering because they subjected their reason to the rule of lust:

When they come up against the ruined slope,
then there are cries and wailing and lament,
and there they curse the force of the divine.
I learned that those who undergo this torment
are damned because they sinned within the flesh,
subjecting reason to the rule of lust.

The value of Dante’s words for me is not the idea that people receive certain punishments in the afterlife. The value for me is the illustration of how we can bring torment upon ourselves by acting on impulse and never learning to let reason be our guide. Dante saw humans as having both animal drives and intellectual reason along with spiritual capacity. He envisioned a better way to live by allowing love and intellect to rule over our life rather than being subject to animal passions.

How many people live roller coaster lives of high drama because they live by impulse rather than by reason, and are guided more by greed than by compassion? A colleague of mine told me about working as a registered nurse in the emergency room of a large hospital in another state. He told me that when he began his orientation the nurse manager said to him, “After you have worked here for a while, you will see that tragic things happen to tragic people.” While it is true that bad things can happen without regard to a person’s merit or choices, it is also true that there are consequences to our actions. By paying attention and doing some self-examination, we can affect how things will unfold. While suffering is inevitable in this life, we can reduce the suffering of others as well as our own pain by the choices we make and the actions we take. We all carry within us a mixture of impulse and reason, greed and compassion, love and hate. Which traits are in ascendancy can determine the quality of the life we live. It is a matter of careful examination of the geography of the soul.

The Lady Beatrice

“O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.”
                                                                  ~William Shakespeare in Henry V

Beatrice was for Dante an inspiration in life and the image of Beatrice became for him a focal point of wonder, creativity, love and divinity. The poet understood instinctively the tremendous inner enlivening that came by calling upon the feminine image of Beatrice long before Carl Jung wrote of the anima which he described as the feminine archetype which serves as the creative force within the psyche. Charles Williams wrote in the Introduction to The Figure of Beatrice: a Study in Dante that in this lady, Dante was showing to the world how to approach God through the Way of Affirmation as opposed to the Way of Rejection.  Williams tells of how the Way of Rejection approached God by rejecting all images that were not God, until the divine was found, while the Way of Affirmation approached God through those images in which the divine is reflected. He mentions that St. Athanasius spoke of the Way of Affirmation when he described Christ's Incarnation as not so much a “conversion of God into the flesh,” as it was a “taking of Manhood (sic) into God.” Dante, Williams goes onto explain, brings the Way of Affirmation to a further realization in his poetry when he uses Beatrice, along with the city of Florence and the poet Virgil, to show to us “the inGodding of man (sic).” (pp.9-11)

Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car
(William Blake)


There is no way to overstate the importance of Beatrice in the life, work and vision of Dante. She was his inspiration in life, as the poet explains in La Vita Nouva, and upon her untimely death, she took on a much more cosmic role in his life and imagination. She was his muse, his inspiration, his enlivening. She was his guide in The Divine Comedy from Purgatory into Heaven and to the very presence of God. One wonders if Carl Jung would have understood as completely the role of the feminine archetype within the psyche if Dante had not spoken so eloquently and gloriously of the Lady Beatrice centuries earlier. Before Dante, poets would appeal to their muse (the feminine inspiration for music and poetry), but Dante made the concept at once more elevated and more intimately personal than the world had yet witnessed.

So Much More to Say

There more to be said of Dante’s world and his work. Indeed, much has already been said by scholars more qualified than I:

  • There is the profound psychological statement on Dante's part when he begins his work saying that he was "in the middle of the journey of our life" when he found himself lost in a dark wood. Carl Jung was one of the earliest to formulate a psychological concept of midlife transition, stating that the primary goal of the second half of life is to confront death. Perhaps this is another concept that Jung got from Dante.  
  • There is the significance of the classical poet Virgil who was Dante’s wise and noble guide and who explained to Dante that it was Beatrice who summoned him to his aid. 
  • There are the three blessed women who make Dante's journey possible: Mary the mother of Jesus who set things in motion and directed St. Lucia (associated with sight and vision) to enlist the help of Beatrice in Dante's journey. 
  • There are the many conversations Dante had with "shades," souls along the way in his journey from Inferno to Paradiso.
  • There is much to be said of the city of Florence and the politics of Dante’s time which sheds more light on the poet’s work.

My purpose is not to say all that can be said. I only wish to share my wonder and enthusiasm for the poetic genius of Dante, and to encourage others to discover the poet for themselves.

Lucia Carrying Dante up Mt. Purgatorio
(William Blake)


A Few Resources

There are many excellent resources available. Your public library will have many books on the shelf for your perusal.  Here are a few that I found:

  • The Divine Comedy: Inferno - Purgatory – Paradise, Naxos Audiobooks; Unabridged edition (November 30, 2004) This is the audio version that I found at our public library. Heathcote Williams narrates and Benedict Flynn did the English translation. It is also available for purchase online or I’m sure can be ordered at your preferred bookstore.
  • The Figure of Beatrice: a Study in Dante, by Charles Williams, published by  Faber and Faber (1953). This is the work I referenced above, and is another one that I found at the library. It is also available in more recent paperback editions.
  • Blake's Dante: The Complete Illustrations to The Divine Comedy, by Milton Klonsky. Harmony Books, New York (1980). This is a compilation of illustrations painted by William Blake for an edition of The Divine Comedy that was never published. Many of Blake's paintings are unfinished, but they are still quite fascinating - as you can see by the few that I chose to illustrate this blog post.
  • The Open Yale Courses, “Dante in Translation” with Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta  which our class viewed is available on You Tube. You can access those lectures at http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLD1450DFDA859F694&feature=plcp .
  • The quotations I used from The Divine Comedy are from a translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow which I found online at http://dante.ilt.columbia.edu/comedy/ There are other translations available online as well. A modern translation by A.S. Kline can be downloaded at http://www.poetryintranslation.com/klineasdante.htm 
  • There is also a beautiful and elaborate website, Dante’s World, at http://www.worldofdante.org/




St Peter, St James, Dante and Beatrice with St John the Evangelist
(William Blake)



[About the first picture: The picture at the beginning of this post is from the Wikipedia entry for The Divine Comedy. The caption for the picture reads, “Dante shown holding a copy of the Divine Comedy, next to the entrance to Hell, the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory and the city of Florence, with the spheres of Heaven above.” The painting is from  a fresco by Domenico di Michelino, La commedia illumina Firenze on the wall of Florence Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore.]


1 comment:

  1. Hey Charles, well done. I listen to a lot of books on my iPhone. I'm in my truck a great deal so rather than list to DJs laugh at themselves, I much prefer to listen to books.
    I will have another look at Dante. Thanks for letting me know.

    ReplyDelete

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