Canto IX is a Canto of anticipation – Virgil and Dante wait outside the gate of the City of Dis for someone to open the door. I noticed three things – two of them go together and the third bewildered me for a bit – Esolen’s note helped a lot, though I’m going to have to see what the Lectura Dantis commentary* makes of it, too.
First the bewildering bit:
O voi ch’avete li’ntelletti sani,
mirate la dottrina che s’asconde
sotto ‘l velame de li versi strani. (9.61-63)
O you whose intellects see clear and whole,
gaze on the doctrine that is hidden here
beneath the unfamiliar verses’ veil
The literal sense is easy enough – Dante is addressing (ideal) living readers, asking them to interpret – to read verses for doctrine hidden behind the veil. But what? This occurs as Virgil turns Dante away from Medusa and covers his eyes to save him from petrification. Is it to tell us to look when Dante can’t? But then what are we to see?
Actually I think that’s pretty close – we, readers who Dante kindly addresses as persons whose intellects see clear and whole, are to look at Medusa. He can’t.
Esolen helps here. “Dante, we must understand, is in real danger. When Virgil covers his charge’s faace with his hands lest he see the Gorgon and be turned to stone, we must not think it idle….Whatever the danger is (despair?), we are to remember that its approach to Dante might well cause the loss of his eternal soul” (428). Esolen also refers to Dante’s explanation of the 4 ways of interpreting (from the Letter to Can Grande). Since we can read this literally as turning to stone or (the moral sense) the loss of his soul by staying stuck in Hell we are reading beyond the veil. How does that sound? It satisfied me over coffee, at least.
The picture on the right, from the photo stream of my Flickr friend Nick in Exsilio, brings us to the 2 related points. There are two great moments of classical recall and reuse in Canto IX – one of which Dante may have gotten in the folkloric sense.
First, Dante asks Virgil for some reassurance – Dante is once again on the verge of the despair Esolen mentions. Dante asks “has anyone from Limbo ever been this far in Hell?” (tercet 6). Virgil replies that he himself has been all the way to the circle of Judas, when sent by the witch Erichtho to drag a soul up to the land of the living to speak a prophesy. That’s a reference to Lucan’s Pharasalia, book 6, where just like in Virgil’s Aeneid, book 6, we read about the Underworld. We last saw Lucan in the Castle of Limbo in the company of Homer, Horace, and Ovid. Ah, intertextuality!
So, yes, Virgil has walked this path before – yet another reason for Dante to stop whining.
But once the angel from Heaven opens the gates of Dis and our pilgrims walk through, they see a vast field of jumbled tombs, which Dante compares to the Alyscamps at Arles (thanks, Nick!) and a sarcophagus field at Pola – across the Adriatic from Ravenna. You may also remember the Alyscamps from some very orange and yellow van Gogh paintings, which show a rather prettified park version. In Dante’s day it was more of a mess, probably – an area outside the city walls filled with tombs. Alyscamps is the Occitan for what northern French calls “Champs Elysees.” In medieval legend, which may have some relevance for Dante, these were the tombs of the army of Roland, slain by Saracens. Vivid visual image for a field of tombs, though.
*So far only the first two volumes are out. Each Canto gets a good essay in commentary, but each essay’s author is free to focus very narrowly. So far it’s always been interesting but never immediately useful. I’m sure the 2nd time through I will mine lots more to talk about with students.
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