Studies in the Literary Imagination

Rewriting Virgil in the Commedia

For the record: Rewriting Virgil in the Commedia

Hawkins, Peter S

There is no more dramatic example of authorial ambivalence than Dante’s relationship to Virgil in the Commedia. One the one hand-and from the very opening canto of the Inferno-Virgil is proclaimed to be not only the glory and light of other poets but the pilgrim’s personal master and author. It is from his work alone that Dante says he has taken his bello stilo: “tu se’ solo colui da cu’io tolsi / lo bello stilo ehe m’ha fatto onore” (Inferno 1.86-87; “You alone are he from whom I took the fair style that has done me honor”). This singular indebtedness is registered canto after canto, as both pilgrim and poet quite literally follow in Virgil’s beloved footsteps. Especially in the Inferno, borrowings from the Aeneid are so abundant that it is impossible to escape the fact that the Commedia is constructed out of its narratives, personae, metaphors, and imperial dream. Dante builds his authority, as well as his authorship, by openly imitating I’altissimo poeta (Inferno 4.80), the loftiest poet of Latinity.1

On the other hand, we are increasingly reminded as the poem unfolds that Virgil’s power, both as guide and as text, is severely limited. The Aeneid may offer Dante a blueprint for his vernacular poem, but the more one scrutinizes Virgil’s influence, the more it is evident that the ancient plan is altered, edited, revised, or refuted outright. Just as Virgilio dolcissimo patre (Purgatorio 30.50; “Virgil sweetest father”) is sent back to Limbo upon completing his mission-sent, that is, to the Elysian Fields of Aeneid 6 transformed into the first circle of hell-so the textual precursor of the Commedia is likewise dispatched, all but consumed by Dante’s strong reading of it.

Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” gives us a neo-Freudian mythology for understanding the forces at play here. Dante the vernacular newcomer knows the Aeneid tutta quanta (Inferno 20.114), completely and by heart; yet for all the piety that the ephebe officially shows his maestro, he can strike out on his own only if he overcomes his father’s magisterial accomplishment by rewriting it on his own terms. Dante’s wholesale “misprision” of the Aeneid, therefore, is precisely the mark of his originality; his assault on the parent text makes his poetry possible.2

A more fruitful model for thinking about this relationship, however, may be found in traditional Christian exegesis of the Old Testament, which Bloom speaks of as the most “outrageous” misreading in all of Western civilization.3 In this light, Virgil’s text, like the Hebrew Bible, is a scripture that holds the promise of salvation. But in order for it to function in this way, it must be read (or “misread,” in Bloom’s sense) according to a particular hermeneutic that is both external and posterior to the text itself-a later as well as a new angle of vision. The locus classicus here is 2 Corinthians 3, where Paul, in contrasting tablets of stone with the fleshly heart, presents himself as one of those who have been made ministers of the latter-that is, of the “new testament” (“nos fecit ministros novi testamenu”; v. 6). Using the example of a veiled Moses descending from Mount Sinai after receiving the Decalogue (Exodus 33.29-35), Paul talks about the need for christological understanding to “open up” the Law and the Prophets to their interior, spiritual meaning. Biblical interpretation is meant to remove the veil that restricts the reader to the literal surface of the text and therefore keeps him or her at a remove from its true meaning. Those who persist in a literal reading of the Old Testament refuse to discard the veil and discover what lies within; they stay with the opaque and obsolete, in effect choosing to be sight impaired. By contrast, those who have “eyes that see” come by the grace of the Holy Spirit to apprehend the ancient text at a depth and toward a purpose that before was unknowable. In this way, the Old Testament for Christian readers is born again, with both text and reader transfigured a claritate in claritatem (v. 18), from glory to glory.4

Dante may well have had this Pauline exegesis of the Hebrew Bible in mind when he imagined the encounter between Virgil and Statius in Purgatorio 21-22. The extended passage is a hermeneutical thicket, a densely allusive consideration of writers, texts, readers, and the high stakes of literary interpretation.5 Over the course of two cantos Statius reveals all that Virgil-as poetic figure and as text-means to him. In the first instance, he identifies the author of the Aeneld as the creative source of his entire vocation as a writer:

The sparks which warmed me from the divine flame whereby more than a thousand have been kindled were the seeds of my poetic fire: I mean the Aeneid, which in poetry was both mother and nurse to me-without it I had achieved little of worth. (21.94-99)

Understandably, these lines are often taken as Dante’s own accolade-his covert acknowledgement of the seminal influence of Virgil as poetic father, mother, and wet nurse (nutrice). Indeed, this celebration recalls an earlier passage in the opening recognition scene of Inferno 1, in which the pilgrim praises Virgil as a fountainhead overflowing with linguistic power (“quella fonte / che spandi di parlar si largo fiume”; Inferno 1.79-80). Statius in effect builds on the pilgrim’s initial compliment, but turns the fountain of inspiration into a poetic fire that “disseminates” its flame and causes a textual conflagration. In either panegyric, the gratitude expressed is elemental and organic, replete with the double sense of Virgil’s paternal insemination and maternal nurture.6

After Statius discovers that the poet he lauds so warmly is in fact the figure standing before him, he continues to express his indebtedness on fronts other than the literary: it was by reading Virgil that he came to terms with his own soul. A passage in Aeneid 3, for instance, affected a moral reckoning;7 his meditation on the fourth Eclogue brought about his Christian conversion. Thus, as it turns out, Virgil made him not only a poet but a Christian, too: “Per te poeta fui, per te cristiano” (22.73).

Virgil greets this latter revelation with an incredulity that should also be shared by the reader, for there is no other testimony that Statius ever set his sails “to follow the Fisherman,” St. Peter (22.63) or, out of fear, concealed his faith as a chiuso cristian (22.90), a “closeted Christian.”8 More interesting than this announcement of Statius’s otherwise unknown religious commitment, however, is the news that he was brought to faith by none other than the pagan Virgil, the one “who first did light me on to God” (“prima appresso Dio m’alluminasti”; 22.66). In this case, the transformational Virgilian poem was not the Aeneid but, rather, the fourth Eclogue, a highly enigmatic text that had enjoyed a christological interpretation at least since the days of Constantine and Eusebius:9

Now is come the last age of the song of Cumae; the great line of the centuries begins anew. Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns; now a new generation descends from heaven on high. Only do thou, pure Lucina, smile on the birth of the child, under whom the iron brood shall first cease, and a golden race spring up throughout the world! Thine own Apollo now is king!

It is easy to see how Christian exegetes, trained to go from letter to spirit, could find in these words a prophecy of the Virgin Mary, her divine offspring, the kingdom of heaven come to earth, and the church’s golden age flourishing under its own Sun King. Statius lived in a world in which Virgil’s text was an “old testament” just beginning to be interpreted according to the “new.” He describes it as “pregnant” (pregno) with the Christian faith, its official paganism already infiltrated by a gospel that had been “seminata / per li messaggi de l’etterno regno” (vv. 77-78; “sown by the messengers of the eternal realm”). There may have been nothing about these apostles to catch the attention of a second-century Roman man of letters, but because their words seemed so uncannily consonant with those of the fourth Eclogue-“si consonava a’ nuovi predicanti” (v. 80; “were so in accord with the new preachers”)-Virgil’s venerable poem lent a kind of credibility to their teaching. As a result of the coincidence between the birth of Christ and Virgil’s celebration of a “new progeny descending from heaven” (“progenie scende da ciel nova”; v. 72), Statius began to frequent Christian assemblies and in time received (however secretly) the sacrament of baptism. He mentions the holiness of these believers as a draw to their company, but it was not the church that initially led him to God; it was the fourth Eclogue. Without its glossing of the Nativity, without the validation provided by Rome’s altissimo poeta, the Christian Scripture would have remained unintelligible, no matter how fervent its preachers. It would have been a buried treasure, a sealed casket. But because of the strange concordance found between Virgil’s words and those of the nuovi predicanti, a door was opened:

You, therefore, did lift for me the covering that was hiding the great good that I tell of.

It was Virgil, therefore, who rolled away the stone that formerly had blocked Statius’s understanding of God. Through the words of the Eclogue, he in effect pried open the sepulchral slab (coperchio) that had sealed off the Gospel; in so doing, he opened Statius to the “great good” he had not otherwise been able to find. It does not seem to matter that Virgil lived in the time of the “false and lying gods” (Inferno 1.72), in ignorance of the message that lay concealed in his own lines. His pagan text was now to be definitively understood as Christian prophecy and the Eclogue’s “old testament” delivered from its obscurity, brought into the light of a “new” day.

The connection I am suggesting between how Dante read Virgil and the way traditional Christian exegetes interpreted the Old Testament is borne out by the patristic and medieval “canonization” of the Eclogue’s author, who in many an Advent procession, prophet-play, or iconographic program took his place alongside David, Isaiah, and other Hebrew worthies-all foretellers of Christ.10 Constantine held that when Virgil wrote his poem he knew about the reign of grace that would come with the Virgin Mary’s child, but chose instead to express himself covertly. For most others, however, Virgil was believed to be deaf to the good news hidden in his text, blind to its implications. For this reason, Dante has Statius liken him to someone who carries a lantern in the darkness but who holds it behind him to show the way to those who come thereafter: “che porta il lume e se non giova” (22.68). Like Scripture, his words are a light upon the path, but only for those who follow in his wake, in the era of grace, guided by an illumination that Virgil himself was fated never to see.

The image of one who carries a lamp behind him, “qui ehe va di notte / ehe porta il lume dietro e se non giova,” is a touching one. It may have come to Dante through Augustine, who in De symbolo identifies the Jews as people who walk in obscurity but who nonetheless carry the light of Scripture for those who follow in their footsteps: “O Iudaei, ad hoc ferentes in minibus lucernam Legis, ut aliis viam demonstretis, et vobis tenebras ingeratis,” (“O Jews, you carry in your hands the torch of the law, and while you light the way for others, you are yourselves shrouded in darkness”; qtd. in Singleton 2: 527). Augustine’s trope is a variation on the one Paul uses in 2 Corinthians 3-the veiling of Moses’s face and the blindness of those who read only in littera and not according to the spirit. Both these texts identify what is meant to be a proper Christian interpretation of the Old Testament; both also shed their light on what Dante is doing with Virgil throughout the Commedia-celebrating the author of incomparable poetic texts, but then exposing them as dead letters until decoded and superseded by a Christian hermeneutic.

But Dante does more, of course, than shed new light on Virgil’s ancient text: he uses the divine Aeneid-l’altissimo poema-in order to write a text meant in every way to surpass it. In other words, he turns to Virgil for validation of his own poetic enterprise at the very time that he invalidates his “master and author.” We see this most spectacularly in Purgatorio 30, when Virgil is quite literally replaced by one he has identified from the very outset as a more worthy soul (anima … piu di me degna; Inferno 1.122). This “changing of the guard” entails an extraordinary effacement of Virgilian text precisely when Beatrice appears. The sequence is a tour de force of allusion, translation, and echo-a literary fadeout that enacts on a linguistic level Virgil’s exit from the narrative.11 Scarcely less astonishing is Inferno 20, where, in discussing the origins of his native city of Mantua, Virgil establishes the one and only true account. All others, he says, “defraud the truth” (la verita … frodi; v. 99)-including the one Virgil himself offers in the Aeneid!12 But there are also less spectacular moments that dramatize Dante’s appeal to Virgil’s precedent and authority at the same time that he presents his own efforts as “more worthy.”

One of these takes place in Inferno 13, within the circle of the suicides.13 There is no mistaking the Virgilian atmosphere of the setting, for Dante has taken its densely wooded landscape, its demonic harpies, and a bleeding plant from several places in the Aeneid.” It is the latter “borrowing,” however, that actually forces itself on us, as Virgil stages an encounter with his own prior account by openly referring to it. The likeness/dissimilarity of his Polydorus and Dante’s Pier delle Vigna then becomes the specific point of encounter between the old poem and the new.

In Aeneid 3, Aeneas follows his book-long narrative of Troy’s fall with an account of his several attempts to find the new Trojan Promised Land. The first of these attempts takes him to the plains of Thrace. Upon arrival, plus Aeneas sees a low mound that is overgrown with saplings. It seems the perfect location to prepare an altar of thanksgiving, and so he proceeds to cut and uproot the young trees growing on the mound in order to make the place ready for sacrifice. What happens thereafter repeatedly stops him in his narrative tracks: “horrendum et dictu video mirabile monstrum” (26; “I see an awful portent, wondrous to tell”); “mihi frigidus horror / membra quatit, gelidusque coil formidine sanguis” (vv. 29-30; “A cold shudder shakes my limbs and my chilled blood freezes with terror”); eloquar, an sileam? (v. 39; “Should I speak or be silent?”). The first sapling he pulls up by the roots secretes a trickle of dark blood that stains the earth with gore (vv. 28-29). The second tree, when tackled, flows with black blood from its bark. When he wrestles with the third stalk, a voice is heard emerging from the mound (vox reddita fertur ad auris; v. 40), its words carried upward from the earth to Aeneas’s ears:

“Woe is me! Why, Aeneas, dost thou tear me? Spare me in the tomb at last; spare this pollution of thy pure hands! I, born of Troy am no stranger to thee; not from a lifeless stock oozes this blood. Ah! Flee the cruel land, flee the greedy shore! for I am Polydorus. Here an iron harvest of spears covered my pierced body, and grew up into sharp javelins.”

Polydorus goes on to tell how the Thracians, ignoring every sacred obligation of hospitality to a stranger, not only seized his gold but murdered him as well. With his injunction to “flee the cruel land, flee the greedy shore” ringing in their ears, Aeneas and his men agree to move on, but not before according the grave of their former comrade every sacred ritual and custom, thereby laying his aggrieved soul to rest: animamque sepulchro / condimus (vv. 67-68).

This moment in Aeneid 3, along with the moral given to the episode by Aeneas-“quid non mortalia pectora cogis, / auri sacra fames!” (vv. 56-57; “To what dost thou not drive the hearts of men, O accursed hunger for gold!”)-becomes a touchstone within the epic, another example of desecrating greed.15 Nor is it likely that a reader who knows Virgil’s text-perhaps not tutta quanta, but reasonably well-would come to Inferno 13 and fail to recognize a strong recall. Even if he or she were to do so, however, the recollection of Aeneid 3 is impossible to miss, for it is none other than Virgil who brings it to mind.

The poet and his guide enter a woody landscape that quite surpasses the poem’s opening canto in gnarly oscurita; this selva has likewise lost the vera via, being a wood che da neun sentiero era segnato (13.3; “which was not marked by any path”). Nesting in the rough boughs of these convoluted trees are bird-women, whose original “home” in Aeneid 3.209-57 is made explicit: “Here the foul Harpies make their nests, who drove the Trojans from the Strophades with dismal announcement of future ill” (vv. 10-12). In this evocative setting, Virgil prepares Dante pilgrim to be astonished at what he is about to see. Indeed: “Pero riguarda ben; si vedrai / cose ehe torrien fede al mio sermone” (vv. 20-21; “Look well, therefore, and you shall see things that would make my words incredible”). At first, Dante is not engaged by sight but by sound: he hears wailing within the trees and underbrush, yet sees nothing. Virgil tells him to break off a branch at random in order that li pensier c’hai si faran tutti monchi (v. 30; “the thoughts you have will all be cut short”). No sooner does he do so than we are suddenly back in Thrace, standing astonished with Aeneas, broken twig in hand:

Then I stretched my hand a little forward and plucked A twig from a great thorn bush, and its stub cried, “Why do you break me?” And when it had become dark with blood, it began again to cry, “Why do you tear me? Have you no spirit of pity? We were men, and now are turned to stocks. Truly your hand ought to be more merciful had we been souls of serpents.”

As words and blood sputter together, Dante in terror drops the branch he’d broken off. Yet it is not to him that Virgil speaks but rather to the incarcerated soul of Pier delle Vigna, who has just been involved in a painful experiment intended to reveal the extent of the pilgrim’s recall of the Aeneid and his trust in its sermone: Virgil says,

“If he, wounded spirit, had been able to believe before,” replied my sage, “what he had never seen save in my verses, he would not have stretched forth his hand against you; but the incredible thing made me prompt him to a deed that grieves me.

This passage spins off in various interpretative directions: To what extent are either the Aeneid or the Commedia “true”? What is the role of the incredible in either of these poems? What would it mean for Dante to “believe” Virgil? What particularly interests me here, however, is how Virgil’s recollection of one of his own scenes seems ostensibly to demonstrate the priority of his poem, its reliability as a description of reality no matter how fantastical, and the ultimate reliability of his words, whether they be found in the “there” of the poem he once wrote or in the “here and now,” in the words of instruction and guidance he provides in the Commedia. The broken branch, the invisible voice, and the bleeding bark-all hearken back to another text and another world. No matter that the whole business is a cosa incredibile. He had the benefit of my poem, Virgil essentially says-he had la mia rima-and if he had believed what he read there, this painful exercise could have been avoided. To remember Polydorus would have obviated the “deed that grieves me.”

Yet even as we are invited to recall (and admire) the tale that Virgil told in Aeneid 3, we are inevitably led to contrast it with what Dante is doing in Inferno 13-and to measure the distance Dante has traveled in his account. The broken bough, in other words, is an invitation to assess the Commedia’s revision of Virgil’s rima. To begin with, Dante has intensified the whole element of wonder that dominates in both: the branches that bleed are not trees growing out of a blood-soaked gravesite but the actual extensions of a soul-his arms and legs, so to speak. Nor does the outraged voice rise out of a tomb at some remove from Dante’s touch: “Why do you break me…? Why do you tear me?” articulates the pained outrage of one who is being literally dismembered, twig by twig.

Furthermore, the scope of Dante’s retelling is so much larger than the elegant, elegiac encounter Virgil describes. The function of Polydorus in Aeneid 3 is to extend our sympathy for innocent Trojans, to provide another instance when Aeneas unknowingly causes suffering to another person, to offer a general reflection on human greed and the horror of sacrilege, and to play the expedient function of getting Aeneas and his people away from an inhospitable landscape not meant to be their homeland. The meeting with Pier delle Vigne, by contrast, is not only a good deal longer but also far more complex. It gives us not a conversation between two heroes but an encounter of the living with one of the damned, whose convoluted language could not be more different from the straightforward, poignant exchange of Aeneid 3.16 Contrast, for instance, Polydorus’s straightforward account of his death with the labyrinthine ways (and tortured syntax) of Pier’s recollections of his end:

My mind, in scornful temper, thinking by dying to escape from scorn, made me unjust against my just self.

Pier’s speech reflects the maze of his psyche and the machinations of his politics, his careful locking and unlocking of his emperor’s heart (serrando e disserrando; v. 60). Whereas the fantastical element of Polydorus’s burial and “outgrowth” seems to serve no purpose other than to create an atmosphere of mystery and magic, Pier’s incarceration within a tree is an expression of his contrapasso, the process by which the punishment of the damned (in this case, a suicide’s severing of body from soul) at once reflects and punishes his sin. Thus, when at Virgil’s behest Dante tears twig from stalk, he does more than initiate a conversation with the dead: he mimes the rupture of self from self that represents the sinner’s transgression. In addition to the elaborated moral “ramification” of Dante’s treeman, there is also a strong theological dimension to the episode that sets the encounter with Pier apart from anything we find in Virgil. Instead of the transmigration of souls revealed by Anchises in Aeneid 6, we get Dante’s Christian emphasis on a definitive mortal life as the gateway to eternity, to a divine judgment that forever confirms a soul’s dying choice. Pier alludes to the Final judgment when the general resurrection of the dead leads to a reunion of body and soul for everyone except the suicides:

Like the rest we shall come, each for his cast-off body, but not, however, that any man may inhabit it again; for it is not just that a man have what he robs himself of. Hither shall we drag them, and through the mournful wood Our bodies will be hung, each on the thorn bush of its Nocuous shade.

The Aeneid provides Dante with the wonder of a bleeding stalk and a voice from the beyond. The author of Inferno 13, however, takes that legacy and runs with it, increasing our sense of amazement, complicating the conversation with the dead, taking us deep within the twisted mind of the “great thorn bush,” and projecting the entire encounter against the theological background of Last Things. When in Inferno 13 Virgil reminds the pilgrim of what the Aeneid should have prepared him to experience, he inadvertently draws our attention to the cosa incredibile of Dante’s revision of his source, to his successful rivalry of the esteemed maestro.

Revision of Virgilian precedent in Inferno 13 becomes an open (if polite) challenge in Purgatorio 6, where experience in Dante’s afterlife seems to fly in the face of a passage in the Aeneid and therefore puts its author on the defensive. When souls clustered in AntePurgatory perceive that the pilgrim casts a shadow and is therefore alive, they surround him en masse, soliciting prayer that will speed them on their spiritual journey of transformation. In a simile that opens the canto, the poet likens the pilgrim to the winner at the game of hazard: whereas he is pressed on every side by onlookers who hope for some share in the spoils, the loser in the match riman dolente (6.2; “is left disconsolate”). The loser here, of course, is Virgil, who lacks the prayer power that the souls long for. Freeing himself from the clamor of the shades, Dante approaches Virgil with a problem, the contradiction between the teaching of a specific passage in the Aeneid and the burden of the situation they have just gone through. The text in question is Aeneid 6. 337-83, in which the shade of the unburied Palinurus begs Aeneas to carry him across the river Styx-a journey that only the buried can undertake. Before Aeneas has the chance to reply to his comrade, the Sibyl intervenes with a pronouncement that brooks no dispute:

“Whence, O Palinurus, this wild longing of thine? Shall thou, unburied, view the Stygian waters and the Furies’ strong river, and unbidden draw near the bank? Cease to dream that heaven’s decrees may be turned aside by prayer.”

Dante recalls these words quite specifically in order to throw them into question:

As soon as I was free of all those shades, whose one prayer was that others should pray, so that their way to blessedness may be sped, I began, “It seems to me, O my light, that you deny expressly in a certain passage that prayer bends the decree of heaven; and these people pray but for this-shall then their hope be vain, or are your words not rightly clear to me?”

Dante’s query underscores his knowledge of the Acneid. He speaks of “a certain passage” (alcun testo), refers to the ancient poet’s authoritative utterance (‘l detto tuo), and expresses his own desire to make sure that he has been an attentive reader and careful interpreter, a worthy partaker of the revered word. Virgil’s response takes pains to reaffirm Dante’s accurate recollection of what he wrote (La mia scrittura; v. 34) and to explain why the “scripture” of the Aeneid can no longer be taken at its word.17

“My writing is plain and the hope of all these souls is not fallacious, if with sound judgment you consider well; for the summit of justice is not lowered because the fire of love fulfill in a moment that which he must satisfy who sojourns here; and there where I affirmed that point, default could not be amended by prayer, because the prayer was disjoint from God.”

Virgil does not shy away from the essence of the pilgrim’s pointed question: surrounded as he is by so many clamors for intercession and with the Sibyl’s words freshly in mind, could he somehow have misunderstood Virgil’s text, or did the ancient poet get it wrong? The answer is No on both counts. Virgil’s scrittura is plain, and Dante has understood it correctly. Nor is the Sibyl in error when speaking to Palinurus. The Aeneid is in error only if its teaching is applied to the souls in purgatory (or for that matter, to those on earth)-that is, if applied to those living or dead whose hope is not in vain and whose prayers are not “disjoint” (disgiunto) from God; the passage Dante recalls therefore-cotesto punto-entirely concerns a spiritual universe that does not know that prayer can licitly bend the decree of heaven and release the fire of divine love. To comprehend the reality shared by all the pilgrims in Purgatory, Virgil tells Dante to wait for Beatrice. She will be a “light between the truth and the intellect” (che lume fia tra ‘l vero e lo ‘ntelletto’, v. 45).

The contrast here is not limited to Virgil’s deficient understanding in comparison to Beatrice’s insight; it is also between the hopelessness of the Aeneids iter durum and that journey toward sanctity proposed by the Commedia. In this game of literary, not to mention spiritual, evaluation, it could not be more manifesto which text is the winner and which the loser. And once again, it is the figure of Virgil and one of his texts used to make the case.

What we have seen thus far are instances in the first two canticles that refer us to specific passages in the Aeneid, which in turn provide occasions for Dantean revision. They help us to see the extent to which Virgil’s poem not only underwrites the Commedia but is also undermined by it. In each case, the figure of Virgil forces us to recall a specific moment in his work and then assess it in the light of Dante’s own work. Recollection of Polydorus raises the question of how much the pilgrim (and, by extension, the reader) can rely on the Aeneid in the present moment (“S’elli avesse potuto creder prima” ‘If he … had been able to believe before’; Inferno 13.46); memory of the Sibyl’s words to Palinurus establishes that Virgil speaks accurately on spiritual matters only within the ancient context and not with regard to the new age of grace. To read Virgil aright, then, is to understand that he is not only “veiled” until interpreted correctly but that he is overtly wrong on many matters. Reinterpretation is finally not enough: the Aeneid must be rewritten.

What happens in the third canticle of the Commedia, however, when Virgil himself is no longer present in the narrative? A glance at the heaven of the sun (Paradiso 15-17) where the pilgrim encounters his great-great grandfather, Cacciaguida, reveals the ongoing process of overt Virgilian citation and revision.18 Only now, instead of the pilgrim’s guide pointing to his own work, it is the poet of the Paradiso who does so. For instance, when Cacciaguida descends from the glowing red cross of Mars, the poet-narrator openly directs our attention to the famous meeting between Aeneas and his father in Aeneid 6.684-94:

With like affection did the shade of Anchises stretch forward (if our greatest Muse merits belief), when in Elysium he perceived his son. O blood of mine! O overbrimming grace of God! For whom was ever heaven’s gate thrown open twice, as it has been for you?

Dante openly draws upon one of the most memorable scenes in the Aeneid (when father and son are passionately reunited in the Elysian Fields) only to demonstrate that the living cannot reach out and touch the dead (Aeneid 6.699-702). No doubt Dante could count on his reader’s knowledge of that warm but failed Virgilian embrace; indeed, he could rely on it to supply a powerful emotional charge to what in the Paradiso is, after all, only an ardent meeting with a flame. No doubt he also wanted to highlight the difference between Virgil’s tragedy and his comedy, to contrast the unalloyed joy of the pilgrim, who confesses here that he has “touched the limit of my beatitude and of my paradise” (“toccar lo fondo / de la mia gloria e del mio paradiso”; vv. 35-36), with the shadow of futility that falls upon the more heartfelt moment in the Aeneid: “Thrice there [Aeneas] strove to throw his arms about [his father’s] neck; thrice the form, vainly clasped, fled from his hands, even as light winds, and most like a winged dream” (par levibus venus volucrique simillima somno; 6.699-702). But Dante does more than compare and contrast Virgil’s text with his own; he casts doubt upon the veracity of the source he draws upon, wondering almost parenthetically if in this matter nostra maggior Musa merits our trust-a perfect example of biting the hand that feeds. The effect of this authorial suspicion is to suggest a distinction between the truth of the Commedia’s account and the possible fiction of a poem that heretofore has been treated as if it were nothing less than history.

Toward the end of the encounter with Cacciaguida and just before this pater familias tells the pilgrim in no uncertain terms about the Florentine exile that has been but foreshadowed until now, we are given another reminder to consult our Aeneid as we turn Dante’s page. But now we are asked not to take in at least a superficial likeness between the two texts but, rather, to plumb their profound dissimilarity-clarity on the one hand and hopeless obscurity on the other:

In no dark sayings, such as those in which the foolish folk of old once ensnared themselves, before the lamb of God who takes away sins was slain. But in clear words and with precise discourse that paternal love replied, hidden and revealed by his own smile.

Just a few lines before this passage, the pilgrim reminisces with Cacciaguida about the earlier course of his journey when he was a Virgllio congiunto (v. 19; “in Virgil’s company”). Here the poet makes a conjunction with the Aeneid, from which come two accounts of the Sibyl’s dark sayings (ambage). In book three, Helenus tells Aeneas and his men that they must seek their future from the inspired prophetess of Cumae, who spells out the decree of the fates on the fragile parchment of leaves:

Whatever verses the maid has traced on leaves she arranges in order and stores away in the cave. These remain unmoved in their places and quit not their rank; but when at the turn of the hinge a light breeze has stirred them, and the open door scattered the tender foliage, never does she thereafter care to catch them, as they flutter in the rocky cave, nor to recover their places, nor to unite the verses; uncounseled, men depart, and loathe the Sibyl’s seat.

Thus forewarned by Helenus, Aeneas is armed against the inevitable dispersion of the Sibyl’s wisdom. Finding her at Cumae in book six, he begs her to divulge her oracles (tuas sortis arcanaque fata / dicta; 6.72-73) in song, and not to inscribe them on leaves that surely “will fly away in disorder, the sport of rushing winds” (ne turba volent rapidis ludibria venus; v. 75). When the Sibyl agrees to do this and then chants the terrible future that Aeneas and his people can expect to find in Italy-bella, horrida bella (v. 86)-Virgil describes her performance as follows:

In such words the Cumaean Sibyl chants from the shrine her dread enigmas and echoes from the cavern, wrapping truth in darkness-so does Apollo shake the reins as she rages, and ply the spur beneath her breast.

Through a single Latinism, ambage (Paradiso 17.31), Dante points us not only to the passage in the Aeneid quoted immediately above but to all this Virgilian vatic lore.19 he draws a line in the sand between Cacciaguida and the Sibyl that is also a timeline separating the Christian revelation-“clear and precise”-from a pagan truth wrapped in darkness and futility. On closer examination, such oppositions proliferate: the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world versus Apollo; a beloved paterno amor versus an oracle hated by men whose trust she has betrayed; a calm smile versus frenetic possession; a measured unfolding of the future under the sign of the cross versus a vision of ongoing horror. Nor can it be lost on Dante’s readers that in these lines he is also contrasting his comedy with Virgil’s epic lacrimae rerum. The poet of the Commedia may be congiunto with the author of the Aeneid, but he inevitably parts company from him and his text. In a move that is at once chiuso e parvente (Paradiso 17.36; “hidden and revealed”), Dante uses his beloved precursor in order-fondly, ruthlessly-to step beyond him.

The Commedia’s last allusion to Virgil occurs as late as the final canto, when the poet marks the dissolution of his own powers in the face of God’s reality. What can he possibly leave behind, in memory or on the page? The experience he once had in his moment of vision, and the alta fantasia (Paradiso 33.142) that until now has made his text possible, are both diminishing rapidly, almost without a trace left behind. he likens himself to a man who has a powerful dream but, upon waking, recalls only an inarticulate feeling, an aftertaste, a distillation, an evaporation of what once was:

Thenceforward my vision was greater than my speech can show, which fails at such a sight, and at such excess memory fails. As he who is dreaming sees, and after the dream the passion remains imprinted and the rest returns not to the mind; such am I, for my vision almost wholly fades away, yet does the sweetness that was born of it still drop within my heart. Thus is the snow unsealed by the sun; thus in the wind, on the light leaves, the Sibyl’s oracle was lost.

From start to finish, these lines are pervaded by a sense of loss: cede, non riede, cessa, si aisigilla, si perdea. Words, vision, and memory all fail, and a dream that was once as vivid as life itself now de-materializes before our eyes. The imprint becomes a mere distillation of experience until evaporating into thin air. At the end of this meltdown, just after the snow has been “unsealed” by the sun, Dante turns to the Aeneid as if to acknowledge the master of such sadly poignant moments: “Cos! al vento ne le foglie levi / si perdea Ia sentenza di Sibilla,” recalling the Sibyl in her drafty cave, the rush of scattered leaves, the sorrow of obliteration-and standing behind it all, Virgil, the consummate poet of human loss.

Yet the impasse before which Dante stands in this eleventh hour of the is his difficulty in describing ineffable joy, not bella, horrida bella. His cup is full to overflowing, and the oltraggio that overwhelms him is the joy at the heart of things, not the lacrimae rerum. Turning to Virgil at this point is useful only in expressing the frustration of a poet before his ineffable subject. What Virgil cannot do, however, is offer Dante the model of the book that he himself would write. For this he must follow the lead of his vision and give himself to another volume and another maestro e aulore. And so he does: looking into the eternal light of the Empyrean, he has his first glimpse of God as a book:

In its depth I saw ingathered, bound by love in one single volume, that which is dispersed in leaves throughout the universe.

Dante may have been thinking here of Confessions 13.15, in which Augustine imagines the beatific vision as an act of reading: “The book they read shall not be closed. For them the scroll shall not be furled. For you yourself are their book and you forever are” (“non clauditur codex eorum nee plicatur liber eorum, quia tu ipse illis hoc es et es in aeternam”). For our purposes, however, the precursor who comes to mind is Virgil, whose scattering of leaves (/ogiie) in the Aeneid stands in contrast to the universal folio that is God himself-ingathered, collated, and edited by love.20 When Dante considers his inevitable poetic failure before his ineffable subject, he conjures Virgil; when he thinks of a volume that stands in aeternam, he thinks of God. Which precursor will he emulate? Between these two authors and two volumes, of course, there can be no contest. Dante deserts the loser and joins the winner. Who other than God, after all, could join with him in making that “sacred poem” (Paradiso 25.1-2) to which both heaven and earth have lent a hand?

Boston University


1 All citations of Dante are from Singleton’s translation. For Dante’s complex response to Virgil, see Curtius 350-57, Barolini 201-55, Hollander, and the Virgil-related essays injacoff and Schnapp.

2 Bloom’s thesis in A Theory of Poetry (1973), succinctly put, is that “Poetic influence-when it involves two strong, authentic poets-always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation.” He believes this phenomenon begins with the Renaissance, after which time “the major tradition of Western poetry … is a history of anxiety, and self-saving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, willful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist” (30). Bloom characterizes the canonical line from Homer to Shakespeare as constituting “a great age before the Flood, when influence was generous (or poets thought it so)…. At the heart of this matrix of generous influence is Dante and his relation to his precursor Virgil, who moved his ephebe only to love and emulation and not to anxiety” (122). Bloom goes on to quote a letter from John Freccero on the “skewed” nature of Virgilian citations in Purgatorio 30, but nonetheless speaks with uncharacteristic nostalgia about “this great sublimation” of Dante’s relationship to Virgil, of this pre-modern “sharing-with-others” that subsequently gives way to a “being-within-oneself” (123). In The Western Canon (1994), Bloom’s tone changes; he speaks of Dante’s “abrogating” the “true Epicurean Virgil” (55) and says that Virgil departs the poem in Purgatorio 30 because “Dante’s Comedy now wholly replaces Virgil’s Aeneid” (94). he adds, “Virgil and Milton remain poets who provoke immense ambivalences in those who come after them, and those ambivalences define centrality in a canonical context” (526).

3 According to J. Hillis Miller, “Harold Bloom’s way of putting this is to say that the New Testament in its relation to the Hebrew Bible is the most outrageous example of ‘misprision’ in the history of the West, that is, of ‘mistakings’ or takings amiss, translation as mistranslation” (332). It should be remembered, however, that outrageous “misprision” is also characteristic of the Hebrew Bible, as in the opening chapter of Genesis when the Priestly writer translates the Enuma elish into an Israelite creation story, or in Genesis 7-9 when the Mesopotamian Flood story is transformed first by the Yahwist and then by the Priestly writer.

4 For the traditional Christian typological exegesis of the Old Testament, see Danielou, de Lubac, and Charity. Reductive readings of the Hebrew Bible that made the old text obsolete with the advent of the new were not the only way to go for medieval readers of Scripture. see Smalley 112-95, on Andrew of St. Victor and his Jewish contacts and learning. see also Dawson, who argues that modern commentators have misread Paul by imposing on his thought a binary interpretive framework that he himself did not use. “Poststructuralist conceptions of meaning, according to which the Pauline distinction between the ‘letter’ and the ‘spirit’ is cast as an irreconcilable conflict between what is literal and what is iionliteral, obscures Paul’s efforts to preserve his Jewish identity. By consistently restating Pauline accounts of divine performances in history as claims about meanings in texts, Paul’s complex formulations of discontinuity within continuity are transformed into mutually canceling binary oppositions” (19-20). For a Jewish response to traditional Christian readings, see Boyarin; for the letter/spirit distinction elsewhere in Dante, see Freccero 119-35; for an historian’s “neutral-belief” admiration for the New Testament’s “re-invention of the species,” see Akenson, esp. chaps. 8-9, pp. 212-69.

5 Barolini 256-69 gives an excellent reading of the Statius encounter. see also Mazzotta 194-95 and 222-24, and Franke 191-213. For the Biblical allusions that play so large a role in Purgatorio 21-22, see both Stephany and Hawkins (“Resurrecting the Word”).

6 At the end of his twelve-year labor, the twelve-book Thebaid, Statius closes his epic with an acknowledgment of his “position” with regard to the Aeneid and its author: “vive, precor; nee tu divinam Aeneida tempta, / sed longe sequere et vestigia semper adora” (12.816-17; “O live, I pray! nor rival the divine Aeneid, but follow afar and ever venerate its footsteps”). In the Commedia, the pilgrim literally follows in Virgil’s footsteps until Purgatorio 28, when Dante enters Eden ahead of his master-a changing of position that is underscored in Purgatorio 30.43, when Dante turns around to face Virgil only to discover that he is gone. Nor does Dante poet ever promise not to rival another writer. he makes this clear in the opening of the Paradiso (1.7), where he boasts that the poetic waters he is about to sail have never been navigated before.

7 The Aeneid text that turns Statius from his prodigality is none other than the Polydorus story in 3.19-68, which shows a creative “misreading” of Virgil’s text in Statius’s transformation of auri sacra/ames (3.57) into sacrafame de Vom (Purgatorio 22.40), which Singleton in turn mistranslates as “accursed hunger of gold.” see his discussion on pp. 521-24 of his Purgatorio commentary, as well as those in Sapegno vol. 2: 242-43, Bosco and Reggio vol. 2: 375, Sayers 343-45, Martinez, and Franke 197-98. I take it that Statius “found” in Virgil what he needed-an injunction not against avarice but prodigality-and thereby recalled the words he “read” in Aeneid 3 rather than those Virgil actually wrote.

8 On the surprise of Statius’s Christian faith, see Lewis, Paratore 420, and Franke 193-96.

9 see Comparetti.

10 Paolo Toschi, 34-36, describes a fourteenth-century liturgical drama for Advent, which begins in the church’s choir and then moves out to the nave. There the congregation would sing a hymn, bidding the prophets (from Moses to Virgil and the Cumaean Sibyl) to proclaim their prophecy of Christ. All of these profeti were dressed in emblematic costumes. They would come to life, so to speak, in brief scenarios, their particular role in salvation history articulated through an “annunciation” of direct address. The procession would continue to the altar, and the Ordo prophetarum culminate in a celebration of the Mass.

11 Jacoff and Schnapp include three essays on this sequence by Putnam, Hawkins, andjacoff (94-144). See also Freccero 207-08; as well as Bloom, Anxiety 122-23; and Flawkins, Dante’s Testaments 121-24.

12 See Barolini’s discussion of Dante’s rewriting of Virgil on the matter of Manto/Mantua in Inferno 20.214-22, also Hollander in Jacoff and Schnapp 76-93.

13 Mazzotta gives a fine reading of this episode, 188-90. see also Barolini, esp. 211-12, and Paratore.

14 Although the negative-constructed wood (non … non … non) of Inferno 13 derives most obviously from a passage in Seneca’s Hercules furens (vv. 689-703), it also recalls the antiqua silva (Aeneid 6.179), the silva inmema (6.186), entered by Aeneas, in whose shady depths Aeneas must pluck the golden bough if he is to gain access to the underworld. For the likely source for Dante’s harpies, see Aeneid 3.209-12, 214-18, 225-35, and 242-57. The entire Pier delie Vigne encounter follows closely on Aeneas’s meeting with Polydorus’s shade in Aeneid 3.22-48. Dante also may have had in mind Ovid’s Metamorphoses 2.358-366, which tells of the transformation of the Heliades into poplar trees.

15 The greatest example of desecrating greed in the Aeneid is Turnus’s killing of Pallas and then taking booty from his corpse (10.479-89). This is an act that Aeneas recalls at the very end of the poem (12.94OfF) when sight of the plundered war belt incites him to reject Turnus’s pleas for mercy.

16 See Spitzer.

17 The word scrittura appears ten times in the Commedia. With the exception of its first use in Purgatorio 6.34 (“la mia scrittura e piana” ‘my writing is plain’), all other uses refer to the Bible. Likewise with volume, which appears nine times. In the first instance (“ehe m’hafatto cercar Io tuo volume” ‘that have made me search your volume’; Inferno 1.84), in the speech of Dante pilgrim, volume refers to Virgil’s poetry; all other appearances are in the Paradiso and pertain to the heavens, to monastic rules, and to the mind of God. The last of these is Paradiso 33.86, legato con amore in un volume, “bound by love in one volume.”

18 Schnapp gives the fullest account of the Heaven of Mars and Dante’s reworking of Virgil in and through the meeting with Cacciaguida. see also Hollander, esp. 145-51, and Allevi.

19 On Paradiso 17.31-33 and Dante’s use of ambage, see Schnapp 140-41.

20 Ahern explores how book production informs this image of God’s book (s’interna…, si squaderna).


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