Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Divine Comedy

"The Fourfold Chariot" Go to my Sprintedon Hollow--link in About Me--September 2007 archive at Sept 28 and click sw00623st to read this paper's verse prologue and other pertinent information ..... if this link does not work. * with one clear exception the translations herein are by Laurence Binyon from The Portable Dante Paolo Milano editor Viking Press New York 1947 * for technical and presentational reasons I have made some changes to my original paper ------- Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura che la diritta via era smarrita. (1) Midway the journey of this life I was 'ware That I had strayed into a dark forest, And the right path appeared not anywhere. Thus begins the arduous trek along the path of spiritual life. With all his perceptive ability and sound judgment Dante magnificently portrays in a most splendid poetic utterance man's lifelong battle to attain heaven. This masterpiece is The Divine Comedy. It is the story of life itself--the reason for our entire being. No theme more noble can be found in literature. From the first wheel turn beyond the walls of the world we are captured by the vision before us. Immediately we feel the genius of Dante. It rests firmly on the end of a solid wooden handle, for it . . . is like a wedge of steel--hard, narrow, fit for rending oaks. Smitten with sledgehammer blows by his Titanic energy, it penetrates the toughest matter and pierces to the very core of things. The breadth of his thought is less remarkable than its depth. He goes straight to the essence of his sub- ject, rejecting accidents, despising ornament; and having seized its truth, he grasps that with a grip of iron. . . . he is so determined to be deep in insight and exact in detail that he limits his subject, if need be, in order to secure the utmost definiteness. Nothing, again, can exceed the brevity of his speech. His words are like flowers and fruits upon a tree of silence--definite, precise, sincere. His pictures are painted with the strictest parsimony of description: yet no medal-striker ever wrought his outlines sharper or his shadows deeper. The salient snd essential points of an object are selected and made visible with such vividness that we discern the whole. It would seem as if each line of Dante's poem, each simile, each aphorism, had been wrung from him with pain and struggle. . . . Hence, every syllable of the Comedy is precious, vital with intensest feeling, instinct with sincerity of soul. Not a single sentence is improvised. It has all been framed by lifelong meditation. . . . Force, depth, definiteness, brevity, sincerity, intensity, subordination to fixed purposes-- these are the great qualities of Dante's genius. (2) Presently, the fourfold chariot in which we ride attracts the eye! This ancient car looks not unlike the chariots of glorious Rome. But truly, it does differ. We see this and we ask: "What are the four characteristics hidden in this chariot that would so far remove it from those richly decorated Roman cars?" No sooner are the words formed than an answer comes to satisfy our curiosity. Dante has many things to say. In the method characteristic of the Middle Ages he says them on four levels . . . --the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical or mystical--. . . . The literal meaning is, he says, a presentation of the state of souls after death, . . . The allegorical meaning . . . is man subjected, insofar as by the freedom of the will he deserves it, to just reward or punishment. . . . In the third or moral order Dante will present to the individual man the way in which he should walk. . . . In the Divine Comedy Dante teaches man on the anagogical or mystical level the way by which, even while engaged actively in the affairs of earth, he can rise to the heights of contemplation. (3) The question erased, the brilliant chariot assumes its former movement towards the lands of liquid fire and ice. Such movement, however, is slow. A rocky trail is that which winds among the temptations confronting men's souls. (I, for one, know. My soul was forced to tred the path that drops into the lower world.) Along the way the Roman poet, Virgil, appears to the Florentine traveler. He explains that he is to guide Dante through that realm where all hope is lost and through that other world where hope raigns as king. (4) Our chariot then proceeds to follow these two down the road of loss to the gates whereon is written: Through me the way is to the City of Woe: Through me the way into eternal pain; Through me the way among the lost below. Righteousness did my maker on high constrain. Me did divine Authority uprear; Me supreme Wisdom and primal Love sustain. Before I was, no things created were Save the eternal, and I eternal abide. Relinquish all hope, ye who enter here. What madness abides in hell. How horrible the punishment visited on the souls within. . . . So many years, all spent for naught. The earth was not to them an inspiration; it became a magnet for their base desires. These wretched spirits could not resist the luscious apple that bent the tender bough. They turned from God, and God on them did justly hurl His wrath. Down, far below, beyond the beyond, into an everlasting blaze the dark spirits were cast. An eternity in fire was their reward, so vast as to overreach imagination's bounds; that if one day an infinitesimal crimson ash alone remained, a single second would not have passed to shorten the sentence eternal. Now, through this hell we journey with Dante to catch his vision rare. The punishments that for himself man made are by this poet so vividly portrayed they nearly nauseate the strongest listener. These paltry, who never were alive, were bare As to the body, and all about were stung By stings of the wasps and hornets that were there. Because of these, blood, from their faces sprung, Was mingled with their tears and flowed to feast The loathly worms about their feet that clung. Many lines in the Comedy, such as those above, are worthy examples of Dante's literary genius. An outstanding quality to be found in these lines is the presence of human attributes in a land of spirits. This manner of treating the subject appeals strongly to the emotions, allowing the chariot riders to feel something of the suffering in the inferno. Since we are touching on the literary treasures in the Comedy, it would be worthwhile to explain at this time the meaning of literature. Man's expressions in words of his affections, for example: fear, hatred, sorrow, or their opposites, as moved by his contact with the world and the Heavenly Father is literature. Thus, if that which is human in man is approached and reached through language, the end product is literature. (5) Let this definition remain then as the foundation on which all further beliefs concerning literature will be built. Accordingly, while we roll through the remainder of this Inferno and beyond towards the heights of heaven, each quote taken from the Divine Comedy will be tested by the unified definitions of literature compiled at that time. Besides this, each vision mentioned will be classified in regard to its dominant appeal to us as our chariot passes the sight. By following this architectural plan a more complete and substantial structure will be raised--a structure which can be entered, admired, and most of all, trusted, to give shelter, beauty, and a feeling of safety in our efforts to reveal the often breath-taking literary quality found throughout the Divine Comedy. Over them all the big sand falling slow Rained its dilated drops and flakes of fire, As without wind falls in the hills the snow. Like to the flames which in the regions dire Of India's heat on Alexander smote And on his men, falling to earth entire, Whereat he with his host took careful thought The soil to trample and crush beneath their feet (Those single fires being readier to put out), So was the falling of the eternal heat, By which, like tinder under steel, the sand's Keen scorch with an intenser torment beat. This quotation pictures a different aspect of the Dantean literary genius. It is a grand example of the Italian's unique ability to form flowing similes. Such figures of speech have an appeal to the imagination surpassed only by personification and metaphor, which two are also abundantly woven into that poetic tapestry, the Divine Comedy. So on past all the mounds and pits of Lucifer's old prison the fourfold chariot carries us, till we can say with Dante as he follows Virgil: We mounted, he first, and I following fond, To glimpse those things whose beauty nothing mars, Through a round opening, in the heavens enthroned. Thence issuing, we beheld again the stars. A sweeter life awaits at the foot of yonder mountain. You lively steeds, race on across the plain. You are the words that form this wondrous song. So raise the poem's tone as you move on towards Purga's prayerful fold. No more do we desire of the mournful pits, for we have conquered mortal sin and wish to mount up to a higher spiritual plain. Life is for us the rugged path that leads to eternal joy. Therefore, let new obstacles be piled along this path, for the harder the way to overcome, the greater the reward for overcoming it; but gallop on with quickened speed. Into the realm where hope reigns as king we come, the dew- covered chariot wheels laughing in the sunlight; our whitened souls are lifted in thankful song. For a moment we think about the rocky trail which darkened our past. We attempt to discover the function of and the values of this (literary) journey. In our search we soon realize that our sentiments have been awakened; and that many characteristics of our individual natures, nearly overcome by the dust and fumes of life, have been drawn forth. (6) It seems as if all our innermost feelings were literally changed into values, (7) just as through long, silent waiting the cater- pillar becomes a colorful butterfly. Regarding this as the function of the journey, we seek its values. We soon find the primary value to be the furthering of humanity in man. (8) Under this are several subordinate values, one of which is: " . . . that it awakens the imagination and gives poise to life." (9) After gaining this know- ledge we again ride forward. Purgatory, though a place of temporal punishment for men who died in the state of grace; but who were not worthy of entering directly into paradise, is not dominated by pain but rather by a joyous expectation. Each soul gladly suffers for the sins he com- mitted while on earth. The faces of these spirits are a direct contrast to this Dantean metaphor. So that the fair cheeks of Aurora, there Where I was, gave their red and white away, The dawn does not disappear from their countenances; but its vibrant hues remain, since youthful hope so wholly fills their frames. Life lies in wait for what must justly come. The upper gates will never be closed to these singing spirits. All of them lived a good Christian life and shall upon their merits gain the goal. Time allotted for repentance will wing swiftly by, like a hawk bolting down upon its prey. No adamantine horrors inhabit this purging world to cause the spirits within to weep and moan. The fire that burns here is the fire of hope, attracting every soul into its flame. Life everlasting is their promised reward, and it moves them to dash headlong into the cleansing blaze. They pray, they sing; they burn for the love of God. Then suddenly, a soul is plucked up and begins to rise, to wing towards home; to become lost to the eyesight as it floats up to dizzying heights. How magnanimous is unending love! The Good ineffable and infinite That is on high so runneth unto love As a beam comes to a body that is bright. So much it gives as warmth it findeth of, So that, how far so-ever love be poured, The eternal goodness dost its best improve. And the more people on high have that accord, The more to love well are there, and more love is, And mirror-like 'tis given and restored. How Dante measures his words. He is not only a poet, but also a theologian. That chant of thine sustained by Clio's lore, Argues that faith, without which good works fail Of their effect, had not yet taught thee more. The chariot glides! Stop! A red light! O Purga's traffic court, you sentence men for not enough of love. Thus, they must burn in their appointed place until their sins are all accounted for. But happy is the sentence. Our chariot makes a turn, traveling up a different trail. This new way we rode on once before and we shall ride on it again. Three times in all our ancient car will trace this central path. It is the way to a keener understanding of literature. Literature is an art of expression. The material which it employs is experience; or, in other words, literature is the expression of life. Action, emotion, and thought are the three great divisions of life, and constitute experience. Literature undertakes to represent such experience through the medium of language, and bring it home to the understanding of the reader. (10) Returning now to Purgatory's hold, but keeping this new knowledge within sight, we charge into the dewy waterfall of Dantean delight. Thus Beatrice: and I with my whole might Whither she willed, devoted at the fact Of her commands, gave both my mind and sight. The human feeling again leaps forth from Dante's lips. It truly colors many thoughts revealed in the Comedy Divine, giving an earthly glow that more than equals the spiritual in the theme. However, this literary quality allows the words of Dante to beam new light and breathe new life upon the fourfold chariot. It raises our spirits until they skip across the rolling meads and stand in awe where paradise proceeds. Now, imagination, like Betelgeuse in size, your power will much be strained when the lively steeds pull us past heaven's wondrous scenes. If you were overworked by hell and Purga's realm, what chance have you to encompass the halls of paradise? One glance will overwhelm your walls, as rising rivers crush the strongest dikes and flood the land beyond. The glory of Him who moveth all that is Pervades the universe, and glows more bright In the one region, and in another less. In that heaven which partakes most of His light I have been, and have beheld such things as who Comes down thence has no wit nor power to write; Such depth our understanding deepens to When it draws near unto its longing's home That memory cannot backward with it go. But let us enter, fearing not because we are incapable of understanding the wonders which will be seen by our mundane eyes. Heaven is our home. We will not be turned away. Our sins have been purged. It differs not if the imagination falters; the love that will bind us with God shall suffice. Pull, lively steeds. Allow the wheels of dew to glisten in the golden light. Follow the poet who walks with Beatrice. My sight, which followed far as it was powered, When it had lost her, turned and straightway shot To the other mark, more ardently desired, And Beatrice, only Beatrice, it sought. Yes, Dante walks with Beatrice through the heavens, but he also admits by means of a simple suggestion that he is unable to comprehend the beauty in paradise. Skilful restraint often suggests more than any explicit discourse could impart. Suggestion, conveying the impression of something far beyond the power of words, is one of the finest tools of our poetic craftsman; and with an example of its use I shall conclude this account. If what hath e'er been said of her could all Combine into a single praise and blend, For this occasion it would be too small. The beauty now before me doth transcend Not only human thirst: the Infinite Alone can drink it to the very end. This test hath found me wanting, I admit, Far worse than any one of poet kind Was ever vanquished by his hardest bit. E'en as the sun the feeblest eye doth blind, E'en so the sweetness of her smile doth chase Itself from memory, leaving naught behind. Since first in mortal life I saw her face Until I saw it thus supremely blest, My song hath constantly pursued her trace; But now my fond pursuit must come to rest-- Pursuit of loveliness in poesy-- Like every artist who hath done his best. (11) Winging through the air above our artist's speech the lively steeds proclaim his weakness rare; and since the chariot is rushed along behind, we become lost afar in the flooded land. At daybreak Dante and Beatrice find themselves taken up from "the greatest body" (the Primum Mobile) into the Empyrean, beyond the spheres. This heaven is revealed symbolically as a river of light, streaming between banks of flowers. Dante's eyes are strengthened by "drinking" of this light; whereupon the image is transformed, and appears as a round sea of light, above which Paradise is discovered as a vast white rose, within which are assembled the "two courts" of Heaven, the Angels and the Redeemed. (12) Suchwise is heaven no human can ever say. The temporal life is webbed in by material substance. All men can only kneel, believe, and work. These three will lead us home. Then we shall see the everlasting realm, but while on earth we can only move our lips with Dante in final utterance: To the high imagination force now failed; But like to a wheel whose circling nothing jars Already on my desire and will prevailed The Love that moves the sun and the other stars. Now let us learn the last values of this journey--the ending proofs that literature is king and that Dante's Divine Comedy is a prime example of literature. Literature can thus become an outlet not only to your unspoken thoughts and moods but to the choked passage-way of your own speech, through which your thoughts and moods have tried to pass; it can keep you before the vision of the ideal not only in the dreams of great idealists but in the shining structures in which their dreams have found sanctuary; it can give you a better knowledge of human nature not only as human nature is stored in human deeds but as it is stored in the varied forms of language that express human deeds; it can restore the past to you not only as the past lives in the vanished centuries but as it is crystal- lized in the speech of those who gave character and direction to the vanished centuries; and it can show you the glory of the commonplace not only in the common things about you but in the commonest words through which the glory of the commonplace is flashed upon you. (13) As I step out of the fourfold chariot and once again rest my foot upon the cool green earth, I find myself unable to express in words the magnificence of the ride. So far beyond the scope of ordinary men does Dante's genius move that only the surface of his theme is understood. The greater worth is only found through the aid of other minds. Within this class in dire need of aid I find myself to be a part. Even in this conclusion I need the thoughts of others. The best thinking is done by men of imagination; the best action is accomplished by men of posie; for, by poise is meant the faculty of holding one's course courageously to the compass among contrary winds and waves. . . . (14) To me this is Dante through and through. He never varies from his central course. His path is straighter than the flight of an arrow, more detailed than a complicated machine; more colorful than a toucan. His Divine Comedy is an inspiration borne aloft on the wings of melodious zephyrs. As a book it gloriously accomplishes its purpose, which is, in the words of Dr. Johnson: "A book should show one either how to enjoy life or to endure it. . . ." (15) All the verses of the Commedia are vibrant . . . treasures of our literature, that in the old famous words are with us in the night, and in the hurry of the prime, stir youth and refresh age, adorn success, and to failure furnish shelter and consolation. (16) May 2, 1960 Brian Salchert Milwaukee, Wisconsin ---------------------------------- Sources (footnotes / other) (1) Sinclair, John D. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri p. 22 Oxford University Press New York, 1948 (2) Symonds, John A. The Study of Dante third edition pp. 197-199 Adam and Charles Black London, 1893 (3) Fox, Ruth Mary Dante Lights the Way pp. 88-90 The Bruce Publishing Company Milwaukee, 1958 (4) Milano, Paulo editor The Portable Dante p. 3 Viking Press New York, 1947 (5) Azarias, Brother Philosophy of Literature p. 11 John Joseph McVey Philadelphia, 1906 (6) Ibid. p. 16 (7) Duncan, Hugh Dalziel Language and Literature in Society p. 17 The University of Chicago Press Chicago, 1953 (8) Woodberry, George E. The Appreciation of Literature p. 3 The Baker & Taylor Co. New York, 1907 (9) Anonymous "Function of High Standards in Literature and the Arts" p. 472 Century vol. 86 (July, 1913) (10) Woodberry, George E. p. 1 see (8) (11) Grandgent, Charles H. The Power of Dante pp. 216-217 Marshall Jones Company Boston, 1918 (12) Milano, Paulo p. 522 see (4) (13) Smith, C. Alphonso What Can Literature Do for Me? pp. 223-224 Doubleday Garden City, N. Y., 1913 (14) Anonymous p. 472 see (9) (15) Benson, Arthur C. "Literature and Life" p. 778 Century vol. 88 (September, 1914) (16) Morley, Lord "Lord Morley on Language and Literature" p. 396 Educational Review vol. 42 (November, 1911) - Abercrombie, Lascelles The Epic Martin Becker London, 1922 Earnest, Ernest A Forward to Literature D. Appleton-Century Co. New York and London, 1945 Fergusson, Francis Dante's Drama of the Mind Princeton University Press Princeton, 1953 Gayley, Charles M., and Scott, Fred N. Methods and Materials of Literary Criticism Grim and Company Boston, 1899 Anonymous "Genius in Literature" Harper's Magazine 127 (November, 1913) pp. 962-964 Heydrick, Benjamin A. How to Study Literature Hinds & Noble New York, 1902 Petitt, Dorothy "Literary Appreciation: A Re-focus" California Journal of Secondary Education 34 (March, 1959) pp. 184-190 Pritchard, F. H. Training in Literary Appreciation Thomas Y. Crowell Co. New York, 1924 Ruskin, John Comments of John Ruskin on the Divine Comedy comp. by George P. Huntington Mifflin and Company Boston, 1903 Scott-James, R. A. The Making of Literature Henry Holt and Company New York, 1928 Shipley, Joseph T. The Quest for Literature Richard R. Smith, Inc. New York, 1931 --------------------------------- post completed September 30, 2007, 10:50 AM © 2007 Brian A J Salchert Thinking Lizard All rights reserved. See directory2007 in Catmap. Rho00021

2 comments:

RC said...

Hey,Brian,thanks for dropping by my place.

Carha said...

Well said.