SYNOPSIS OF DANTE, THE INFERNO, CANTOS 3 AND 5
Will Johnston for 20 August 2013 at the Carmelite Library
The Ghosts of Paolo and Francesca Appear to Dante and Virgil (Ary Scheffer, 1835)
This synopsis apes the structure of the cantica’s 34 books, translating “Canto” as “Song.”
OUR SONG 1: Prologue (Proemium): Invocation of My Inspirers: Veronica Brady [In Inf. 2: 8-10 Dante the Poet invokes the Muses and Memory (mente)]
OUR SONG 2: Situating Ourselves in the Three Frames of Each Canto: a) Remote b) Outer c) Inner
a) The remote frame is Dante the Author’s life, esp. his unbroken exile 1302-1321
b) The outer frame is Dante the Pilgrim’ journey through the three realms in cantos 2-100
c) The inner frame is each canto’s precise location within either hell, purgatory, or paradise.
OUR SONGS 3 and 4: A Virgil of our own Meets Us in the Vestibule of Hell:
Sameul Taylor Coleridge’s Lecture of 1818 on the Seven Excellences of the Commedia
a) Style of unsurpassed energy b) Images intelligible to all c) Profoundness that
“sends thoughts deep” rather than sublimity that “raises them higher”
d) “Picturesqueness” = Pictorial Imagining e) Topographic Reality 6) Mastery of pathos 7) Endless Subtle Beauties [repr. in Michael Caesar, ed., Dante: The Critical Heritage 1314 (?) -1870 (London and NY: Routledge, 1989), pp. 439-447.
OUR SONGS 5 to 33: Overview of Inferno, cantos 1 -5
Canto 1: Virgil invites Dante, still on earth, to overcome his mid-life crisis by journeying through the fire of hell. At first a bewildered Dante resists the invitation.
Canto 2: Virgil tells how an unseen Beatrice took an initiative to despatch Lucy [“Light”] from heaven to persuade Virgil (dwelling in the Noble Castle of Canto 4) to rescue the languishing Dante. In exile he needs help to overcome his acedia (spiritual torpor).
Canto 3 contains Seven “Firsts” of the Commedia: a) First sounds of hell: sighs (3:22)
b) First historical personage: Pope Celestine V, who resigned 13 December 1294, enabling the hated Boniface VIII (1294-1303) to become pope (Inf. 3:60: “il gran rifiuto”) c) First speech by a denizen of hell: the boatman Charon (3: 82-84) d) Virgil invokes higher authority to silence Charon (3: 94-96) e) First two similes from nature: Autumn leaves falling and birds flying toward a hunter’s call (3: 112-117) f) Virgil’s first expression of affection for Dante the Pilgrim (“My son” 3: 121) g) Dante the Pilgrim’s first faint 5:136.
Canto 4: Dante the Poet reconciles Pagan Ancients and Christian Moderns by commingling both types in Limbo (a place for the torpid, 4:45) as well as in the “Noble Castle” (4:106-107). He bases this seven-walled abode of ancient writers on Virgil’s Aeneid (20s BCE), where Aeneas’s Journey to the Underworld in Book 6 is conducted by a female figure, the Cumaean Sibyl, a precedent for Beatrice. The end of Virgil’s Book 6 describes the walled off Elysian Fields, where the shades of poets and philosophers discourse in incongruous groups.
Canto 5: The Second Circle of Hell proper houses the Lustful (the Lascivious) and introduces the grinning Judge Minòs, who assigns each soul to its circle of hell (5: 9-10).
First major Encounter with a Soul: Francesca da Rimini (murdered by her husband Gianciotto Malatesta in 1283 or 1284) accompanied forever by her wailing lover, Paolo, her husband’s younger and better looking brother (5: 74-142). The pathos of Francesca causes Dante the Pilgrim to faint a second time. In lectures of 1373-74 Boccaccio told the story differently, making Francesca victim of a ruse which deceived her into mistaking her ugly husband-to-be with his brother Paolo. WHY DOES DANTE THE POET MAKE DANTE THE PILGRIM FAINT?
OUR SONG 34: Re-Emerging from Hell: Three Audacities of Dante the Poet
a) Daring to visit Hell and to return to tell of it.
b) Stylizing Virgil, the all-knowing epic and didactic poet, into a literary character who serves as mentor and friend to Dante the Pilgrim. It takes two (motivated by a third) to visit Hell.
c) Inventing a new rhyme scheme ababcbcdc (terza rima) and sustaining it for 14,200 lines, which subdue every kind of creature from demon to angel into speaking the new form of rhyme. Having everyone speak terza rima symbolizes submission to universal law, i.e. Dante the Poet’s law. The poet imposed on everyone a novel rhyme scheme at a time when rhyme itself was less than two centuries old. The first artificer of rhyme in the vernacular was the occitan troubador, Duke William IX of Aquitaine (1071-1127), whose compeers probably adapted rhyme from ninth-century Arab poets of Andalucia. The ancient Greeks and Romans did NOT use rhyme! None of Dante’s characters had ever heard terza rima!
A CRUX FOR INTERPRETERS The name Beatrice derives from the Latin female noun of agency. A Beatrix is a woman “who makes someone blessed.” Although there is no male noun Beator, numerous other male-female pairs exist: e.g. Dominator, Dominatrix. Thus the name Beatrice designates not primarily a person but an agency, that of making someone else blessed. Accordingly, the literary character of Beatrice is not simply to be equated with the historical girl, Bice Portinari (d. 1285), whom Dante invoked in La vita nova (1292). By the time he wrote the Commedia fifteen years later, he had outgrown the simplistic courtly love of his early writings.
RECOMMENDED INTERPRETATIONS of how Dante the poet’s Life shaped the Commedia
1980 William ANDERSON, Dante the Maker (London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1980) A learned wrestling with unresolved questions. Proposes an unusually late dating (after 1212) for when during exile Dante wrote the Commedia. Excels on similarities between devices in the Aeneid and in the Commedia: a) both rely on visual description and imagery of light b) dreams and visions abound c) the role of Venus as protectress parallels that of Beatrice d) monologues disclose character e) closely observed vignettes of nature convey mood f) style is direct.
1990 George STEINER in NYRB July 1990: “Virgil and Dante are talismanic and exemplary of …European self-consciousness and its singular contamination of Classical and modern, of pagan and Christian, of private and public modes. We [today] follow on diasater [and exile] as does Aeneas. The dead swarm to us with dire demands both of due remembrance and future resolve as they do in Book VI of the Aeneid [and in the Commedia]. We [too] are twilit, uneasy imperialists or exploiters of less privileged peoples…” Cited in Charles Martindale, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Virgil (Cambridge: CUP, 1997), p. 16.
2005 Harriet RUBIN, Dante in Love: The World’s Greatest Poem and How it Made History (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2005) An offbeat appraisal of Dante’s spiritual growth and its lessons for questers today. The tone is reminiscent of a book of self-help such as Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life (1998).
2006 Barbara REYNOLDS (1914- ), Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man (Lonbdon and NY: I.B. Tauris, 2006) A well-argued rethinking of key questions, rooted in a Cambridge University scholar’s lifetime of study both of her friend Dorothy Sayers and of Dante. Abounds in authoritative novel interpretations of obscure passages such as “tra feltro e feltro” [a phrase concerning manufacture of paper] (Inf. 1:105), pp.118-120.
2011 A.N. WILSON, Dante in Love (London: Atlantic Books, 2011) A labor of love based on forty years of reading by a master of high-level popularization.