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    Poetry and History Essay (2392 words)

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    In the Heaven of Mars, the fixed icon of the cross and the momentary vision of the Crucifixion form part of an engagement with ideas about the history of redemption that run through Paradiso xiv as a whole. The canto covers a long arc of human history. In the Heaven of the Sun, Solomon, wise king of the Old Testament, speaks about the Last Judgement and the final resurrection of humanity in the flesh in the far distant future. In Mars, the vision of Christ on the cross stresses the doctrine of redemption, looking back to humanity’s original Fall in Adam and Eve, with the consequent need for atonement. Two other pivotal moments in redemption history are also explicitly cited in the canto.

    Solomon’s ‘voce modesta’ [modest voice] recalls Gabriel’s annunciation of Christ’s incarnation (ll. 35–36), in the sermo humilis of biblical rhetoric, in his meditation on the universal re-incarnation of humanity at the Last Judgement. The words ‘Resurgi’ and ‘Vinci’ [‘Arise’ and ‘Conquer’] (l. 125) in the hymn of praise that follows the vision of Christ crucified clearly allude to the Resurrection in which Adamic sin and death were conquered. 14 It is an apt motto for the holy warriors who have ‘taken up their crosses and followed Christ’: in the biblical passages that provide the source for this phrase, which Dante translates exactly at line 106, the following verse tells how ‘he that shall lose his life for me, shall find it’ (Matthew 10. 39), as in martyrdom and crusade.

    15 Overall, the canto’s punctuated series of allusions to death, atonement, resurrection, and judgement offers continuous echoes of Saint Paul in i Corinthians 15, with his central emphasis on the Resurrection as the foundation of Christian faith. Just as much as Paradiso xiv is densely packed with allusions to Scripture and the sermo humilis, and rooted in a sense of biblical time, so the other two Fourteens each focus on a distinctive textual style and historical time period. In the case of Purgatorio xiv, this is the time of Dante’s immediate historical past and present. The canto’s two souls, Guido del Duca and Rinieri da Calboli, demonstrate a minutely analytical concern with the local history of Tuscany and Romagna over not much more than a hundred-year period. The Arno speech focuses on the present (that is, the spring of 1300), using present tenses throughout, even in its closing prophecy of the treacherous government of Florence by Rinieri’s grandson in 1303.

    This event, future to the Commedia’s time-scale but past to Dante at the time of Purgatorio’s composition, is also presented with the present tense ‘Io veggio’ [I see]  (l. 58) of prophecy. But although this prolongs the timespan, predicting that this period’s ruinous consequences will extend ‘di qui a mille anni’ [a thousand years from now] (l. 65), the canto’s primary historical emphasis remains focused on a narrow circle of space and time. The whole second part of the canto, with its survey of the Romagna region, is couched rhetorically as an elegiac ubi sunt?, cataloguing the transitory glamour of the region’s noble families, and underpinned by precise knowledge of the intricacies of their family trees and the politics of marriage alliances and inheritance.

    The speech thus combines two rhetorical figures beloved of medieval moralistic poetry, ubi sunt? and enumeratio, listing nineteen separate names of Romagnolo people and places in just twenty-six lines (ll. 97–123). 18 The theme of decline, and the list of names, recalls the vernacular lyric form of the sirventese, typically concerned with current affairs or social morality, often with a satirical inflection. Guido’s indignation alternates with a more melancholic tone, which crystallizes in the sole terzina in the sequence that lacks a proper name:le donne e ’ cavalier, li affanni e li agiche ne ’nvogliava amore e cortesialà dove i cuor son fatti sì malvagi.

    (Purg. , xiv. 109–11)[the ladies and the knights, the labours and the leisures that love andcourtesy made us desire, there where hearts have become so wicked. ]Here the lament invokes another literary register, that of vernacular chivalric romance and love poetry, in which amore e cortesia are central themes. The rhetorical tenor of the canto’s entire second half thus matches its temporal emphasis: local, vernacular, contemporary frames of reference establish the historical and literary register as that of the medieval present and recent past. The first half of the canto, besides its traces of prophetic diction, likewise adopts a distinctive contemporary tone in its rhetoric of invective; while its allusion to Ovid’s Circe as the source for the imagery of metamorphosed cities fits the fourteenth-century taste for moral allegorisation of the classics, attested by the commentaries of Arnulf of Orleans, John of Garland, and many others, and by the vernacular Ovide Moralisé.

    If Paradiso xiv’s rhetorical emphasis is scriptural, and Purgatorio xiv’s contemporary and Italian, Inferno xiv is strongly embedded within a framework of classical allusions, both historical and literary. Capaneus’s opening words, describing his death from Jove’s punitive thunderbolt, closely paraphrase the relevant episode from Statius’s Thebaid. The description of the underworld’s rivers likewise derives from Latin epic, in the katabasis of Aeneid vi. The small deviation concerning Lethe permits Dante-poet to demonstrate his perfect familiarity with ancient authorities,even as Dante-pilgrim’s question also briefly opens a larger perspective onto the profound way that Christianity has transformed human conceptions of the afterlife, when the river is reassigned to Purgatory. Capaneus and the Phlegethon are both posited as materially present in this circle of Dante’s Hell; but descriptions and similes bring numerous other classical reference points into view by allusion. The burning desert sands bring comparison with Cato’s desert campaigns in Lucan’s Pharsalia (l.

    15);24 the snowflakes of fire, a reference to Alexander the Great’s Indian conquests (ll. 31–39). 25 Equally, Virgil’s description of the Old Man statue on Crete opens with a dense sequence of classical allusions. 26 In describing Crete as a site ‘sotto ’l cui rege fu già ’l mondo casto’ [under whose king the world once was chaste] (l. 96), Dante recalls the opening passage of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where Saturn is king of a Golden Age of justice. (Virgil’s fourth eclogue opens with the same Golden Age legend.

    ) In Ovid, the Golden Age is followed by increasingly corrupt ages of silver, bronze, and iron, a sequence of metals also followed in the body of the gran veglio statue (ll. 106–11). Finally, the metamorphosis of Crete from a fertile land ‘lieta / d’acqua e di fronde’ [happy with water and foliage] (ll. 97–98) into a ‘paese guasto’ [ruined land] (l.

    94) recalls the Aeneid’s account of how plague and famine cut short the Trojans’ attempt at Cretan settlement, driving them onward to Italy. The textual and historical emphases of the Fourteens could thus be stratified as follows: Inferno xiv is shaped primarily by involvement with the literature and history of pagan antiquity; Purgatorio xiv is preoccupied with contemporary Italian local history and the intricacies of current affairs, adopting the language predominantly of medieval satire and invective; while Paradiso xiv highlights the biblical sermo humilis and offers a scriptural, Christocentric survey of history encompassing the whole arc of human experience, from the Adamic Fall to the far future of the Last Judgement, and giving special emphasis to the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ in the flesh on earth.

    The Old Man of Crete and Redemption History

    This is not to say that there is not inevitably a mixture of classical, contemporary, and scriptural elements within individual canti, even if one of these aspects proves preponderant. In Inferno xiv, for instance, although Dante-poet underlines the classical derivation of his images both of the rain of fire and of the Old Man statue, they also inevitably evoke episodes from the Bible. In the former case, the circle of the violent against God has been earlier identified by Virgil as housing the sinners of ‘Soddoma e Caorsa / e chi, spregiando Dio col cor, favella’ [Sodom and Cahors and whoever speaks with scorn of God in his heart] (Inf. , xi.

    50–51). Although Sodom is not mentioned in xiv, the rain of fire irresistibly recalls how ‘the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrha brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven’ (Genesis 19. 24–25). The comparison of Phlegethon to the sulphurous Bulicame springs, and their association with ‘le peccatrici’ (l. 80) — according to early commentators, prostitutes who used the spring for bathing or washing27 — further extends the implied allusions to the story of Sodom, and the creation of the sulphurous Dead Sea in punishment for sexual sin.

    Likewise, despite the classicising surface referents in Virgil’s speech, he describes the Old Man of Crete with details that almost perfectly match a source in the Old Testament book of Daniel. Divine revelation enables Daniel to interpret correctly the mysterious dream of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon:Thou, O king, sawest, and behold there was as it were a great statue: thisstatue, which was great and high, tall of stature, stood before thee, and thelook thereof was terrible. The head of this statue was of fine gold, but thebreast and the arms of silver, and the belly and the thighs of brass. And thelegs of iron, the feet part of iron and part of clay. (Daniel 2.

    31–33)Daniel reveals that this symbolizes the golden period of Nebuchadnezzar’s own reign, his succession by weaker kings, and the fragmentation of his territories, until finally:the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed […] and itself shall stand for ever. (Daniel2. 44)The historico-political elements of the biblical prophecy, with the succession of kingdoms through gold, silver, bronze, and iron, match so well with the Ovidian myth of the Golden Age, that Dante’s Old Man image has long been read in similar vein. The statue’s different metals are taken to represent different epochs, either running from Adam (the prelapsarian golden head) through Noah, Abraham, Moses, to the sinful present; or from Saturn, through the empires of the Medes and Persians, of Alexander, of Rome, again up to the present. The feet of clay and iron fit Dante’s well-known obsession with the division of authority between the papacy and the empire, the statue’s imbalance indicating the evils of contemporary papal corruption. The confluence of the political prophecy in Daniel with the Golden Age legend of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is suggestive.

    The story of the Old Man may well be intended to awaken ideas about the succession of historical time, and the rise and fall of ages or empires. Yet as Mario Marti notes à propos Inferno xiv, Dante’s allegorical passages tend towards polysemanticism, including many possible layers of meaning within a single poetic element. Another potential meaning of the statue is clarified by the practice of vertical reading, when Inferno xiv is brought alongside Paradiso xiv. This is the hypothesis, first proposed by Giovanni Busnelli, that the Old Man of Crete is a symbol of postlapsarian humanity, the homo vetus or primus Adam corrupted by sin. In the mystical language of i Corinthians, Christ’s death and resurrection made this Old Adam into the homo novus, or novissimus Adam (i Corinthians 15. 20–28, 45–49).

    In this ethico-religious interpretation, the composite body of the statue represents the vitiation of original human perfection by the wounds of sin, whereby free will (golden) may be corruptly exercised in four ways in fallen man: ignorance and error wound the silver of reason, malice the bronze of will, infirmity the irascible appetite (iron) and cupidity the concupiscent appetite (clay). The categories of sin, divided between indulgence of incontinent appetite, violent exercise of the will, and fraudulent corruption of reason, also correlate with the structural organization of the whole of Dante’s Hell. The allegory of the gran veglio in Inferno xiv thus generates parallels and echoes with the vision of Christ on the cross in Paradiso xiv. A vertical reading of both reveals how symmetrically i Corinthians underpins the Inferno canto as well as the Paradiso. Paul’s words on the Old Adam and the New Adam (i Corinthians 15.

    22), and on the victory of Christ over death and sin (i Corinthians 15. 55–57), clearly inform the language and imagery both of the Old Man of Crete passage and of Solomon’s discourse on the Resurrection of the flesh. The same Pauline passage also closes with a prophecy on the Last Judgement and Kingdom of Heaven that echoes the Messianic prophecy of God’s future kingdom in Daniel’s gloss to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream:The God of heaven hath given thee [Nebuchadnezzar] a kingdom, andstrength, and power, and glory. […] But […] the God of heaven will set upa kingdom that shall never be destroyed […], and itself shall stand for ever.

    (Daniel 2. 37, 44)Afterwards the end: when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to Godand the Father: when he shall have brought to nought all principality andpower and virtue. (i Corinthians 15. 24)The Old and New Testament passages were already linked in exegetical tradition: Dante enriches this connection with his mirroring of the Pauline themes of the Old and New Adam, transmuted via his poetic images of the gran veglio in Inferno and the lightning-flash vision of Christ in Paradiso.

    Yet the political or historical potential of the Inferno’s overt classical intertexts with Virgil and Ovid is not overturned by this pairing: the polysemous text generates meanings by accretion, rather than elimination. The classical legend of the Golden Age was indeed already well established with Christological meaning thanks to Messianic readings of Virgil’s fourth eclogue, with its opening reference to the return of Justice and a renewed age of Saturn. Dante cites and translates the eclogue’s opening lines in Purgatorio, xxii. 70–72, appropriating Virgil’s historical and imperial poem into a text that converted Statius-character, through its fit with the evangelization of the early Christians (Purg.

    , xxii. 79–81). The historical Statius is also vividly present in Inferno xiv, as author of the Thebaid and source for Dante’s Capaneus. So the Virgil and Statius whose epic poetry provides so much of the classicising surface patterning of Inferno xiv can be drawn into a wider relationship that embraces their function as protagonists within Dante’s own poem. The flash-forward to Purgatorio xxi–xxii further underlines the creative outcomes of cross-reading classical and scriptural texts, a process that Dante claims effected Statius’s conversion.

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