View Poll Results: Where are you with Dante?

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  • I have read the Inferno before.

    11 73.33%
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  • I am a total Dante-head, the kind who should own a cat named Beatrice.

    5 33.33%
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    6 40.00%
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Thread: Let's Talk About Dante! Inferno Canto 1

  1. #1
    in angulo cum libro Petrarch's Love's Avatar
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    Let's Talk About Dante! Inferno Canto 1

    Hi all. So, some of you may have followed the events of this thread: http://www.online-literature.com/for...867#post897867 which (as I state in post 89) got me to thinking about forming some sort of discussion of the Divina Commedia. I realized that, though I've done much reading, thinking and writing on Dante, I have never actually had the opportunity to have a formal discussion of the Inferno in a classroom setting as either student or teacher, and I was thinking how fun and interesting it might be to have a conversation about the Commedia with the engaging and intelligent folks of Lit. Net. I'm curious to hear your thoughts and reactions to L'Inferno.

    I thought we could just start by looking at Canto 1 and see where that takes us. Depending on our busy schedules, how many have read the Inferno before, and the form of the discussion, we could do anything from discussing one canto per week (bit long term, that plan) to discussing a larger segment at a time.

    Anyway, just to get the ball rolling, here's some basic off-the-top-of my head stuff about the first few stanze that I just posted on the thread that got me thinking about this idea. Feel free to use this as a springboard, or bring up your own thoughts about canto one, whatever you want to talk about. I'll look forward to seeing what (if anything!) comes of this.



    Quote Originally Posted by Dante
    Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
    mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
    che la diritta via era smarrita.
    Ahi quanto a dir qual era e cosa dura
    esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
    che nel pensier rinova la paura!
    Tant e amara che poco e piu morte;
    ma per trattar del ben ch'i' vi trovai,
    diro de l'altre cose ch'i' v'ho scorte.

    Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost. Ah, how hard it is to tell what that wood was, wild, rugged, harsh; the very thought of it renews the fear! It is so bitter that death is hardly more so. But to treat of the good that I found in it, I will tell of the other things I saw there. (Singleton's translation)
    As ever, the translation of that first line, "nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita" (midway in the journey of our life) doesn't entirely do justice to the power of the original. One clear meaning of that first line is that he is literally writing this as someone midway through his life. It's often remarked that he was about 35 at the time he wrote the Inferno and that, drawing from the biblical authority of psalm 89, which numbers the years of our life as seventy ("Dies annorum nostrorum in ipsis septuaginta anni"), he would thus be in the exact middle of his life according to Medieval and scriptural tradition. However, he does not say the middle of my life, but the middle of our life, thus starting out by placing his journey in a universal context as something that could well apply to all of us. We all will reach the middle of our life. We all may enter into a dark wood.

    The line need not only refer to being literally in the middle years of our life, however. An additional interpretation would be that it refers to any point when we are nell mezzo del cammin di nostra, in the middle of our path. That is, he is referring to any time in our lives when we are in the midst of things, traveling along our life's path of work and relationships and every day activities and concerns, and look around to find ourselves lost and confused in the middle of it all. In the next line the translation then says "I found myself in a dark wood", which is accurate but misses some of the nuance of the original. For example, the word for "dark" is "oscura" which evokes, not just the darkness of the wood, but the way it obscures, hides, and the word for "found" is not simply "trovai" but "ritrovai", which connotes not only finding himelf, but re-finding himself, which highlights the suggestion in the line of a reflection inward. In these two opening lines, Dante is describing a space that intrudes upon all of our paths at some time or another. Sometimes it is a short and passing moment when the awareness of your own mortality washes over you and you feel that brief and restless disconnect between your daily activity and something surrounding and permeating that activity that you don't understand. Sometimes it is that space when you lie in bed at some unreal hour of the morning and can feel some strange mixture of a calm detachment from all that makes up our customary sense of reality and an almost palpable and oppressive fear (perhaps like one form of such a moment that Phillip Larkin describes in his quite different poem "Aubade": "I work all day, and get half-drunk at night./ Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare./ In time the curtain-edges will grow light./Till then I see what's really always there:/ Unresting death, a whole day nearer now..."). Sometimes it is a whole period of a person's life, when they find themselves, in the middle of going through the business of living, thrown completely off track and wandering in the obscurity of the realization that the world does not, in fact, provide many answers combined with an awareness of "what's really always there." This is a space of reflection, of not only facing death, but facing that which "tant e amara che poco e piu morte" (is so bitter that death is hardly more so).

    It is from this moment of reflection, of fear, of confronting death and what is scarcely better than death, that the Divine Comedy opens up onto all the many things that crowd a person's mind at such times. Part of what we find with him in the pages that follow are reflections on the events that shape our real-life experience: politics, friendships, those we are tied to by love and those we are tied to by hatred. Another part is a looking back to the past outside our own lives. It is no accident that Virgil is his guide through the inferno. A pagan poet who wrote the great ancient Roman epic, The Aeneid hardly is the most logical choice as a moral guide through the Christian conception of hell, but Dante turns to Virgil as the author of book six of the Aeneid--who has already masterfully described the hero Aeneas' confrontation of death and journey through the pagan underworld-- because he sees in him a voice from the past who has already faced this space of reflection and fear. Dante is trying to grapple with the same things through the lens of his own world, his own religious beliefs, his own personal loves and resentments. He places himself, as an ordinary person like the rest of us facing "nostra vita," "our life" in the position of the mythical epic hero, Aeneas, and it we who now confront the space that in Virgil is braved only by the uncommon and the heroic figure. We turn to Dante as he turned to Virgil, to help us open up the complex boundaries between our own world and that "undiscovered country" we sense pressing in around the ragged edges of our world.

    "In rime sparse il suono/ di quei sospiri ond' io nudriva 'l core/ in sul mio primo giovenile errore"~ Francesco Petrarca
    "Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can."~ Jane Austen

  2. #2
    Of Subatomic Importance Quark's Avatar
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    This deserves a very large bump.
    "Par instants je suis le Pauvre Navire
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    [Raises hand] Against my better judgment, primarily due to time contraints, but I'll manage--I will join in Petrarch. The debate evoked my sense of neglect, how much the Comedia satisfies metaphysical longing. I have Mandelbaum's Inferno with the vernacular to compare to the translation, and if we actually last long enough to reach the Purgatorio, I downloaded an older Harvard translation, and think I know a site with frames that imitate Mandelbaum's side by side comparison. I will be back after coffee and such!

  4. #4
    in angulo cum libro Petrarch's Love's Avatar
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    Glad to see some interest already, and I've gotten a couple of queries concerning what format we're going to use for this. To better determine how we frame this discussion (and because I've never made one before!) I've attached a poll to this thread to determine where everyone is in terms of having read/not read the Inferno before and what the language skills of our group are. Answer only if you want to.

    OK, enough fun creating polls. Back to student papers now.

    "In rime sparse il suono/ di quei sospiri ond' io nudriva 'l core/ in sul mio primo giovenile errore"~ Francesco Petrarca
    "Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can."~ Jane Austen

  5. #5
    aspiring Arthurianist Wilde woman's Avatar
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    Petrarch! What an amazing idea for a thread! I've busted out my old Mandelbaum to follow along. I do hope our skeptic, Mr. Gaunt, decides to participate.

    Quote Originally Posted by Petrarch's Love View Post
    In the next line the translation then says "I found myself in a dark wood", which is accurate but misses some of the nuance of the original. For example, the word for "dark" is "oscura" which evokes, not just the darkness of the wood, but the way it obscures, hides, and the word for "found" is not simply "trovai" but "ritrovai", which connotes not only finding himelf, but re-finding himself, which highlights the suggestion in the line of a reflection inward.
    Lovely reading. As you said, these lines set up our expectations that this will not only be a supernatural journey through Hell but also a journey inward of self-discovery. This makes sense because Dante began writing the Divine Comedy in a moment of despair. Let's back up a moment here to give some historical background: Dante was a member of a political party called the White Guelphs, who tried to keep the Pope from wielding too much influence over his native city of Florence. While he was on a mission to Rome to meet with the Pope, Pope Boniface VIII sent in one of his allies, Charles of Valois, who was sympathetically received by the rival political party, the Black Guelphs (who supported the Pope). Once Charles and the Black Guelphs had control over the city, they announced the exile of many prominent White Guelphs, including Dante. So...back to the Commedia. When Dante begins writing it, he is in exile from his beloved hometown and this adds to our understanding of why he is "found himself in a dark wood". And it explains why so much of the Inferno reads like a revenge tale against Pope Boniface VIII.

    ma per trattar del ben ch'i' vi trovai,
    diro de l'altre cose ch'i' v'ho scorte.
    These specific lines where Dante "treats of the good he found in [his bad situation]" shows the optimism Dante has even in the worst of times. He has a tendency to find the good in every bad situation (a trend which we will continue to see). For me, these lines anticipate "il ben de l'intelletto" (the good of the intellect) which is first mentioned in Canto 3. But more discussion on that when we get there.

    Quote Originally Posted by Petrarch's Love
    Sometimes it is that space when you lie in bed at some unreal hour of the morning and can feel some strange mixture of a calm detachment from all that makes up our customary sense of reality and an almost palpable and oppressive fear
    Agreed. And this surreal opening has led some scholars to interpret the entire Divine Comedy as a dream vision (a genre in which I have a budding interest). Even though the Comedy doesn't begin with the generic opening of the author falling asleep over a book, it does have a surreal sense (esp. when we get to the three beasts) and plenty of supernatural occurrences which mirror a dream sequence.

    Finally, for all you poetry buffs out there, notice the rhyme scheme of the Italian. It's in terza rima, where every three lines is a stanza and every other line rhymes. Notice which specific words rhyme and you'll begin to see some of Dante's aesthetic genius. Vita (life) rhymes with smarrita (lost) and oscura (dark/hidden) rhymes with dura (difficult) rhymes with paura (fear).
    Ecce quam bonum et jocundum, habitares libros in unum!
    ~Robert Greene, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay

  6. #6
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    I have not had time to sit down and gather my thoughts, (and I may go do a brief skim of Virgil as well to refresh / reinforce the Hellenistic paradigm) but please take this as a rough sketch of what I've been dwelling on since yesterday

    In addition to what Petrarch and Wilde have already developed,

    Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita signifies the advent of Western autonomy in a dramatic break with the Homeric epic tradition, one that Virgil carries forward in the Aeneid, of external actions being fatalistic toward a willed destiny. Though the gods may play poker with the Trojans and the Greeks, the victors are a foregone conclusion, and by extension, so to the founding of Rome. People may suffer and battle and love but to the ancients these are plotted points, but the absorption of Christian theology into the empire, and later Europe, revolutionizes this.

    The individual has a choice that is not willed according to pagan design, but through an individual faith towards reunionification with divine love, or the rejection of that; hence Dante was one of the first poets to create an interior individual reality that merges with both Hellenistic rationality and the tradition of courtly love as exemplified by poets like Petrarch. This is what I was attempting to convey to Leland, perhaps unsuccessfully, about the revolutionary aspect of the Commedia. It fuses the Hellenistic tradition and supercedes it by creating, for the first time, the individual will that struggles to form its own destiny.

    And now I'll shut up and do some rereading !

  7. #7
    Artist and Bibliophile stlukesguild's Avatar
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    Petrarch... I'd be more than thrilled to engaged in a Dante discussion. Nothing like another reason to reread Dante... perhaps one of the translations I haven't gotten around to. I won't be able to participate however until later Sunday. I have a Wedding tomorrow and I plan on getting into my studio to actually get something done on my own art work for once. (12 days left 'til Summer Break!)
    Beware of the man with just one book. -Ovid
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  8. #8
    in angulo cum libro Petrarch's Love's Avatar
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    Glad to see all this interest in Dante!

    Wilde Woman--Thanks for stepping in to give some of the historical background. It certainly is important to remember that this emerged from a devastating real life situation that literally threw Dante off course into exile.

    These specific lines where Dante "treats of the good he found in [his bad situation]" shows the optimism Dante has even in the worst of times. He has a tendency to find the good in every bad situation (a trend which we will continue to see). For me, these lines anticipate "il ben de l'intelletto" (the good of the intellect) which is first mentioned in Canto 3. But more discussion on that when we get there.
    Yes, you're right about him always looking for the "ben" in everything. I don't know that I had consciously thought of Dante as an optimist before, but I think that's a very good point.
    Agreed. And this surreal opening has led some scholars to interpret the entire Divine Comedy as a dream vision (a genre in which I have a budding interest). Even though the Comedy doesn't begin with the generic opening of the author falling asleep over a book, it does have a surreal sense (esp. when we get to the three beasts) and plenty of supernatural occurrences which mirror a dream sequence.
    Absolutely. Thinking of the poem as a dream vision is one apt way of thinking about the sort of "space" I was referring to (and what wouldn't I give to see Ingmar Bergman's dream sequence talents applied to the start of the Inferno!). It's definitely a space that is somehow both outside the real world and yet contains pieces--people impressions--from that real world in the way a dream does.

    He mentions sleep almost immediately after the opening stanze we've been looking at:

    Io non so ben ridir com' i' v'intrai,
    tant'era pien di sonno a quel punto
    che la verace via abbandonai."

    I cannot rightly say how I entered it [the wood], I was so full of sleep at the moment I left the true way
    You're right that, though it could be read as a dream vision, it gives none of the conventional framework--the narrator falling asleep over his book, the repeated phrase "I dreampt" or "I saw," or any direct allusion to its being a dream--but this allows for a really wonderful ambiguity. Do we read "pien di sonno" (full of sleep) as a weariness on the part of the traveler who, in his exhaustion, wanders from the right path, or do we read it that he was asleep as he entered into this dream? The line pivots between a suggestion of sleep and weary wakefulness.

    In the same passage, he's also walking a fine line between sleep and death. The first 25 lines or so move very quickly through the night in the woods to him being in a position to look back:

    E come quei che con lena affannata,
    uscito fuor del pelago a la riva,
    si volge a l'acqua perigliosa e guata

    cosi l'animo mio, ch'ancor fuggiva,
    si volse a retro a rimirar lo passo
    che non lascio gia mai persona viva.

    And as he who with laboring breath has escaped from the deep to the shore turns to look back on the dangerous waters, so my mind which was still fleeing turned back to gaze upon the pass that never left anyone alive.
    Thus, at the very start we have the indication that he has cheated death, that he has passed through, as another poet would put it "the undiscovered country from whose bourne/ No traveler returns." Perhaps it is also reminiscent of psalm 23, "yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death" aka vulgate 22, "Nam etsi ambulavero in medio umbræ mortis" Note that the Latin, the version Dante would have been referring to, does not allude to the "valley" of the English translation, but "in the midst of the shadows of death" could still be readily applicable here, and coincides with Dante's opening line as well in some possible resonant ways. (As a side question, do any of you learned types know where the "valley" comes from? Was this purely poetic license on the part of the English translator? Or is it in the Hebrew original and left out of the Latin version? It's so much in our heads, that I wonder where it came from?) Also, to build on Wilde Woman's excellent notes about the use of rhyme, the rhymes "fuggiva" (was)fleeing and

    What's wonderful about this, is that in the first 27 lines he gives an account of his accomplishing exactly what he will now spend the next several hundred lines going through. He has passed through the shades from which no one ever returns to life. Spenser (yes, I'm finishing up a chapter on Spenser right now, so people are just going to have to tolerate my FQ references) uses a similar move at the start of the Faerie Queene when he has his Redcrosse knight defeat the monster Error at the very opening of book one before he goes on to spend the rest of the book doing nothing but struggling with error. A question that just occurred to me out of this: is this sort of move, of setting up a quick and easy apparent victory over the thing that will be the main struggle of the work, something that in some ways is particularly appropriate to the Christian tradition? I was thinking back to classical epics, and it seems to me as though there is often an initial perilous episode before getting into the main plot (i.e. the storm at the opening of the Aeneid) that there isn't this kind of exact parallel between an opening episode that seems to overcome exactly the problem that will make up the main narrative. Any thoughts on this?

    This actually brings us neatly to Jo's excellent points:

    Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita signifies the advent of Western autonomy in a dramatic break with the Homeric epic tradition, one that Virgil carries forward in the Aeneid, of external actions being fatalistic toward a willed destiny. Though the gods may play poker with the Trojans and the Greeks, the victors are a foregone conclusion, and by extension, so to the founding of Rome. People may suffer and battle and love but to the ancients these are plotted points, but the absorption of Christian theology into the empire, and later Europe, revolutionizes this.

    The individual has a choice that is not willed according to pagan design, but through an individual faith towards reunionification with divine love, or the rejection of that; hence Dante was one of the first poets to create an interior individual reality that merges with both Hellenistic rationality and the tradition of courtly love as exemplified by poets like Petrarch. This is what I was attempting to convey to Leland, perhaps unsuccessfully, about the revolutionary aspect of the Commedia. It fuses the Hellenistic tradition and supercedes it by creating, for the first time, the individual will that struggles to form its own destiny.
    Yes, thanks for raising some very big questions and observations about the contrast between the DC's status as Christian epic and the classical epic traditions he is in direct dialogue with. I think you're absolutely right that there's a shift of focus in Dante to the interior life of the individual, and it's a very complex shift. The question of the role of the "individual will" in the Divine Comedy is perhaps one that we can think about as we go into our discussion.
    Petrarch... I'd be more than thrilled to engaged in a Dante discussion. Nothing like another reason to reread Dante... perhaps one of the translations I haven't gotten around to. I won't be able to participate however until later Sunday. I have a Wedding tomorrow and I plan on getting into my studio to actually get something done on my own art work for once. (12 days left 'til Summer Break!)
    Well, you realize that we'll have read through the entire Divina Commedia by this Sunday. I mean how hard is it to discuss? Just a bunch of moralistic stuff you could get in Sunday school. Sorry, couldn't resist. I've got a pretty busy schedule for the next few weeks myself, so I imagine we'll be making a pretty leisurely pace. Look forward to hearing from you when you're able to chime in.

    12 days until Summer Break eh? Maybe you need a countdown song, like the 12 days of Christmas: 12 students snoring, 11 spitwads sticking, 10 bureaucrats testing...5 class bells to ring....

    Just keep making it to the end of the day. Hope you enjoy the wedding.

    "In rime sparse il suono/ di quei sospiri ond' io nudriva 'l core/ in sul mio primo giovenile errore"~ Francesco Petrarca
    "Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can."~ Jane Austen

  9. #9
    biting writer
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    I know anyone could find this site on their own, but I think this is the one I was refering to earlier, and I am going to bookmark it in my academics folder as a reading assistant--and no, I still cannot sit for any quiet reflection with the first canto, but by Monday evening I should have started.

  10. #10
    Card-carrying Medievalist Lokasenna's Avatar
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    There have been some remarks on the pseudo-dream-like qualities of the opening, which I largely agree with. I think the strength of Dante's opening lies in his impressive use of ambiguity, polar juxtaposition, and liminality. Not only is he midway through his life, but he is half-way between reality and dream, on the margins of purgatory and hell, where he finds both horror and solace. Furthermore, you have the meeting between the ancient and modern poet, and also the juxtaposition of wild and dangerous beasts with the great sage of classical civilization. These comparisons come thick and fast, which psychologically serves to destabilize this area; we experience some of the same uncertainty that Dante himself goes through.

    There is also a marvellously sublime aspect to the wood; not only is it savage and rough, but it inspires terror. Our sophisticated Florentine is rather at a loss without the trappings of civilisation; he is, like Virgil, out of his ideal element, which serves to emphasise the symbolic relationship between the two poets. I'm also fascinated by Dante's use of animal imagery; the exclusive use of predatory creatures hightens the sense of threat, and the exoticism of them compounds the unusualness of the situation. The use of the she-wolf is particularly interesting; his usage of the image is surprisingly germanic, in which tradition the she-wolf is a powerful symbol of apocalypse. In the context of Italy, one wonders whether this is some sort of reference to the foundation of Rome, and the concept that cities are breeding grounds for the future inhabitants of hell (as Dante's various meetings suggests)? In which case, there is some suggestion that cities are just as dangerous as the metaphorical woods; by implication, we denizens of the real world, wherever we may be, are in as much spiritual danger, and spiritual isolation, as Dante is on the periphary of hell.
    "I should only believe in a God that would know how to dance. And when I saw my devil, I found him serious, thorough, profound, solemn: he was the spirit of gravity- through him all things fall. Not by wrath, but by laughter, do we slay. Come, let us slay the spirit of gravity!" - Nietzsche

  11. #11
    Vincit Qui Se Vincit Virgil's Avatar
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    Yikes, Petrarch finally comes back when I'm away from home for an extended period and I have no access to my Dante. *Sigh*

    Everyone has such great posts here already. I will have to make the time for this one.
    LET THERE BE LIGHT

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  12. #12
    Of Subatomic Importance Quark's Avatar
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    Thanks for starting the discussion, Petrarch. It's been a while since there's been a good book discussion on the forum. I'll try to post as much as I can, but I'm a little lost when it comes to medieval poetry--my own personal selva oscura. Of course, Dante's forest is a personal one, as well, and many have already pointed out the prominence of the individual in the first canto:

    Quote Originally Posted by Petrarch's Love View Post
    Dante is trying to grapple with the same things through the lens of his own world, his own religious beliefs, his own personal loves and resentments. He places himself, as an ordinary person like the rest of us facing "nostra vita,"
    Quote Originally Posted by Wilde woman View Post
    Lovely reading. As you said, these lines set up our expectations that this will not only be a supernatural journey through Hell but also a journey inward of self-discovery. This makes sense because Dante began writing the Divine Comedy in a moment of despair.
    Quote Originally Posted by Jozanny View Post
    This is what I was attempting to convey to Leland, perhaps unsuccessfully, about the revolutionary aspect of the Commedia. It fuses the Hellenistic tradition and supercedes it by creating, for the first time, the individual will that struggles to form its own destiny.
    I was noticing the same coupling of personal experience and epic conventions. Maybe the marriage of these two elements is not quite so happy as we're imagining it, though. It seems like there's an odd division between the two that's drawn (at times) which is never completely overcome. I think that might have something to do with why the second canto almost restarts the poem. The first canto positions us in the usual epic in media res, but we're in the middle of life and not some grand, heroic act. Dante meets a muse-like figure in Virgil, but it's not the typical invocation to a removed, inspiring figure. Rather, he exchanges pleasantries with this person and could physically shake his hand. We don't get the usual epic openning until the start of the second canto. There, Dante states the topic of the poem and invokes the muse properly. It's a weird second beginning of the poem. The first beginning is linked to personal history and development, and the second belongs to a heroic, epic tradition. Rather than fusing these together in the first canto, Dante seperates them into entirely different cantos. That might change how we view Dante's melding of individual life with an epic tradition. This seperation comes out even when you look at the similies in the first canto. The first simile is has grand Virgilian echoes:

    Quote Originally Posted by Dante View Post
    I spent in such distress, was calmed.

    And as one who, with laboring breath,
    has escaped from the deep to the shore
    turns and looks back at the perilous waters,

    so my mind
    It recalls the storm-tossed feelings of the great heroes of Greek and Roman epic, and raises his own inner turmoils to heroic grandeur. The second simile takes a much a different approach:

    Quote Originally Posted by Dante View Post
    And like one who rejoices in his gains
    but when the time comes and he loses,
    turns all his thought to sadness and lament,

    such did the restless beast make me
    Now his sadness is like that of a merchant's or a gambler's--figures taken more from comedies than epics. Sometimes the combination of epic and personal experience appears almost seemless, but at other times the two look like complete opposites. It's difficult to know whether one contains the other, or whether they're held in some kind of equal tension. But, I think it's worth noting that in some cases the two are not completely worked together. I'll probably say more about it when I get into the motivations behind both the epic and personal history threads that run through the poem. I like what Jozanny had pointed out about the Christian influences and what Wilde Woman has said about the Dante-specific motivations, but I think there's still some more to add to this.

    In any case, I hope everyone can stay with the discussion.
    Last edited by Quark; 05-23-2010 at 04:16 AM.
    "Par instants je suis le Pauvre Navire
    [...] Par instants je meurs la mort du Pecheur
    [...] O mais! par instants"

    --"Birds in the Night" by Paul Verlaine (1844-1896). Join the discussion here: http://www.online-literature.com/for...5&goto=newpost

  13. #13
    in angulo cum libro Petrarch's Love's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lokasenna View Post
    There have been some remarks on the pseudo-dream-like qualities of the opening, which I largely agree with. I think the strength of Dante's opening lies in his impressive use of ambiguity, polar juxtaposition, and liminality. Not only is he midway through his life, but he is half-way between reality and dream, on the margins of purgatory and hell, where he finds both horror and solace. Furthermore, you have the meeting between the ancient and modern poet, and also the juxtaposition of wild and dangerous beasts with the great sage of classical civilization. These comparisons come thick and fast, which psychologically serves to destabilize this area; we experience some of the same uncertainty that Dante himself goes through.

    There is also a marvellously sublime aspect to the wood; not only is it savage and rough, but it inspires terror. Our sophisticated Florentine is rather at a loss without the trappings of civilisation; he is, like Virgil, out of his ideal element, which serves to emphasise the symbolic relationship between the two poets. I'm also fascinated by Dante's use of animal imagery; the exclusive use of predatory creatures hightens the sense of threat, and the exoticism of them compounds the unusualness of the situation. The use of the she-wolf is particularly interesting; his usage of the image is surprisingly germanic, in which tradition the she-wolf is a powerful symbol of apocalypse. In the context of Italy, one wonders whether this is some sort of reference to the foundation of Rome, and the concept that cities are breeding grounds for the future inhabitants of hell (as Dante's various meetings suggests)? In which case, there is some suggestion that cities are just as dangerous as the metaphorical woods; by implication, we denizens of the real world, wherever we may be, are in as much spiritual danger, and spiritual isolation, as Dante is on the periphary of hell.
    Lovely account of the liminality of the opening, Lokasenna. Yes, what do we all make of the she-wolf. I hadn't thought of the germanic tradition in relation to that symbol in Dante before. I wonder if that could be an influence in some remote or indirect way? The more obvious influence is, as you say, the symbol of Rome. I like the idea that this evokes the city as breeding ground for hell. More directly, of course, Dante had been exiled by the papal party (the Guelphs) and wasn't a big fan of the pope, so a negative symbol of Rome isn't too surpising on that front. Singleton cites Jerome 5:6 in relation to the three beasts (as usual, I cite both the English and the Vulgate in the interests of keeping the version Dante knew before us):

    Quote Originally Posted by Jer. 5:6
    Wherefore a lion out of the wood hath slain them, a wolf in the evening hath spoiled them, a leopard watcheth for their cities: every one that shall go out thence shall be taken, because their transgressions are multiplied, their rebellions are strengthened.

    Idcirco percussit eos leo de silva, lupus ad vesperam vastavit eos, pardus vigilans super civitates, quia multiplicatae sunt praevaricationes eorum, confortatae sunt aversiones eorum.
    This also fits with the lines from about 94 on, in which the wolf is described as rapacious and devouring.

    Quote Originally Posted by Virgil View Post
    Yikes, Petrarch finally comes back when I'm away from home for an extended period and I have no access to my Dante. *Sigh*

    Everyone has such great posts here already. I will have to make the time for this one.
    Hi Virg.--Sorry to start this while you are away. It was an impulse thread! If you have some online time and want to follow along, this site (which I think someone already linked to above, but I'll post again) http://www.divinecomedy.org/divine_comedy.html had the text of the DC in both Italian and English translation. This is also a useful site that everyone on this thread probably should be aware of if they are not already: http://etcweb.princeton.edu/dante/pdp/index.html

    This will probably be a nice leisurely discussion, too, so that may give you a chance to chime in if you like. At the present pleasant pace, your son may be taking his first steps before we get to canto 2.

    Quote Originally Posted by Quark View Post
    Thanks for starting the discussion, Petrarch. It's been a while since there's been a good book discussion on the forum. I'll try to post as much as I can, but I'm a little lost when it comes to medieval poetry--my own personal selva oscura. Of course, Dante's forest is a personal one, as well, and many have already pointed out the prominence of the individual in the first canto:
    Hi Quark--Glad you're joining the discussion. Non Medievalists are definitely welcome!
    I was noticing the same coupling of personal experience and epic conventions. Maybe the marriage of these two elements is not quite so happy as we're imagining it, though. It seems like there's an odd division between the two that's drawn (at times) which is never completely overcome. I think that might have something to do with why the second canto almost restarts the poem. The first canto positions us in the usual epic in media res, but we're in the middle of life and not some grand, heroic act. Dante meets a muse-like figure in Virgil, but it's not the typical invocation to a removed, inspiring figure. Rather, he exchanges pleasantries with this person and could physically shake his hand. We don't get the usual epic openning until the start of the second canto. There, Dante states the topic of the poem and invokes the muse properly. It's a weird second beginning of the poem. The first beginning is linked to personal history and development, and the second belongs to a heroic, epic tradition. Rather than fusing these together in the first canto, Dante seperates them into entirely different cantos. That might change how we view Dante's melding of individual life with an epic tradition. This seperation comes out even when you look at the similies in the first canto. The first simile is has grand Virgilian echoes:

    It recalls the storm-tossed feelings of the great heroes of Greek and Roman epic, and raises his own inner turmoils to heroic grandeur. The second simile takes a much a different approach:

    It recalls the storm-tossed feelings of the great heroes of Greek and Roman epic, and raises his own inner turmoils to heroic grandeur. The second simile takes a much a different approach:

    Now his sadness is like that of a merchant's or a gambler's--figures taken more from comedies than epics. Sometimes the combination of epic and personal experience appears almost seemless, but at other times the two look like complete opposites. It's difficult to know whether one contains the other, or whether they're held in some kind of equal tension. But, I think it's worth noting that in some cases the two are not completely worked together. I'll probably say more about it when I get into the motivations behind both the epic and personal history threads that run through the poem. I like what Jozanny had pointed out about the Christian influences and what Wilde Woman has said about the Dante-specific motivations, but I think there's still some more to add to this.

    In any case, I hope everyone can stay with the discussion.
    [/QUOTE]

    Some excellent points. Yes, I pointed to the way he seems to begin and then begin again within canto 1, and you're right that this is even more prominent in the more formal, classically epic re-start a the opening of canto 2. One explanation for this, of course, is that he's now met Virgil and this meeting has given him the ability to now incorporate an epic voice. Read in this light, the significance of the second beginning is that it makes the themes of learning, reflection, and returning explicity right away in the poem. It not only suggests that the Dante figure himself revisits old territory as a means of progressing into new, but suggests the way in which we are meant to approach the poem, that we are meant to read and re-read, look at the same thing from multiple perspectives. You look at one way of opening a poem and then you do a retake to explore what the juxtaposition of the two reveals. This is central to the way Medieval/Early Modern allegory was meant to function. It was a means of reading meant to encourage revisiting, which was in turn intended to prompt an engagement with the text that would prompt learning. Part of this allegorical tradition emerges, of course, from approaches to biblical exegesis, and the double beginning in some way echoes the narrative structure of the bible itself, which famously begins with two different accounts of creation.

    However, to get back to your point about relationships between the personal and the epic experiences and the possible separations and fissures between the two as well as the way they are integrated into one another, I think you're raising some good questions about how the personal, the epic, the classical and the Christian are at work in this poem, and I imagine these are themes we'll continue to discuss as we continue in our reading of the poem. I think you're right to put some pressure on the way that, at the same time these various elements are coming together in this poem, there is also evidence of a "tension" between the two as you phrase it. I like the two metaphors you bring out, which again reinforce the apparent victory of the first 25 lines or so, immediately replaced and undermined by the fear and uncertainty of the episode with the three beasts. I think your insight into these two modes being a contrast between the narrator inhabiting a heroic mode and then inhabiting the mode of a mere mortal is apt. The only thing I would possibly question is your characterization of the second metaphor as a character from a comedy. Though I see what you mean about the potential for it to open up onto a more plebian, possibly comic character such as a gambler or merchant, couldn't these lines also simply be associated with the tragic mode of the man who has worked against fate and lost?

    Anyway, I'm glad to see this shaping into such a good conversation everyone and look forward to seeing how this continues.

    "In rime sparse il suono/ di quei sospiri ond' io nudriva 'l core/ in sul mio primo giovenile errore"~ Francesco Petrarca
    "Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can."~ Jane Austen

  14. #14
    in angulo cum libro Petrarch's Love's Avatar
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    Allegory

    I realized that I was beginning to refer to allegory in my last post, and that this is a rather huge term for the DC. I also realize that the participants in this discussion likely fall into a wide range in their knowledge and understanding of what allegory means and approaches to allegorical reading. I haven't yet found any really great online resources regarding allegory in the Middle Ages, so I may devote a post to defining/discussing the concept at some point (am far too busy at the moment, but possibly in a couple of weeks). For those unfamiliar with the term at all, this Wikipedia article may at least get you started: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegor...he_Middle_Ages

    In the meantime, I wonder if anyone here who does have a strong grasp of Medieval Allegory has found a good concise way of explaining it. If so, I would love to read any attempts at definition you're willing to post. This is a concept I find very challenging to get across well in my teaching (that is, to explain it in a way that helps students move beyond viewing allegory simply as a bunch of symbols and personifications to identify) and I am actively trying to sort out ways that I can effectively move people toward a real understanding of how allegory works.

    "In rime sparse il suono/ di quei sospiri ond' io nudriva 'l core/ in sul mio primo giovenile errore"~ Francesco Petrarca
    "Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can."~ Jane Austen

  15. #15
    Of Subatomic Importance Quark's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Petrarch's Love View Post
    Yes, what do we all make of the she-wolf. I hadn't thought of the germanic tradition in relation to that symbol in Dante before. I wonder if that could be an influence in some remote or indirect way? The more obvious influence is, as you say, the symbol of Rome. I like the idea that this evokes the city as breeding ground for hell. More directly, of course, Dante had been exiled by the papal party (the Guelphs) and wasn't a big fan of the pope, so a negative symbol of Rome isn't too surpising on that front. Singleton cites Jerome 5:6 in relation to the three beasts (as usual, I cite both the English and the Vulgate in the interests of keeping the version Dante knew before us):

    This also fits with the lines from about 94 on, in which the wolf is described as rapacious and devouring.
    Yeah, the she-wolf has much to with Rome. It's hard not to read it as Lokasenna does, as the she-wolf is a main figure in the Roman founding myth. I think Dante may be applying it more generally to the Roman state rather than specifically to the urban center--since this is a wolf of the forest.

    As the little bit of criticism of the poem that I've read points out, too, the wolf may also be a reference to the Capitoline Wolf found in the Pope's Lateran Palace. You can find information on this here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capitoline_Wolf . The wolf can be taken in this reading to mean the power of the church.

    I think the most obvious interpretation is the one that Petrarch is hinting at: wolf as rapacity or greed. Dante may be pointing out how that sin of excess permeates individuals like the pilgrim, as well as states like Rome and institutions like the church.

    Quote Originally Posted by Petrarch's Love View Post
    Some excellent points. Yes, I pointed to the way he seems to begin and then begin again within canto 1, and you're right that this is even more prominent in the more formal, classically epic re-start a the opening of canto 2. One explanation for this, of course, is that he's now met Virgil and this meeting has given him the ability to now incorporate an epic voice. Read in this light, the significance of the second beginning is that it makes the themes of learning, reflection, and returning explicity right away in the poem. It not only suggests that the Dante figure himself revisits old territory as a means of progressing into new, but suggests the way in which we are meant to approach the poem, that we are meant to read and re-read, look at the same thing from multiple perspectives. You look at one way of opening a poem and then you do a retake to explore what the juxtaposition of the two reveals. This is central to the way Medieval/Early Modern allegory was meant to function. It was a means of reading meant to encourage revisiting, which was in turn intended to prompt an engagement with the text that would prompt learning. Part of this allegorical tradition emerges, of course, from approaches to biblical exegesis, and the double beginning in some way echoes the narrative structure of the bible itself, which famously begins with two different accounts of creation.
    That's very interesting. I didn't pick up on all of that the first time through, but it makes sense. I like the idea that the poem models in its form the way it wants to be received. My point was a little more simple: that "incorporating" an epic voice is much different than just speaking in one.
    "Par instants je suis le Pauvre Navire
    [...] Par instants je meurs la mort du Pecheur
    [...] O mais! par instants"

    --"Birds in the Night" by Paul Verlaine (1844-1896). Join the discussion here: http://www.online-literature.com/for...5&goto=newpost

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