Friday, October 11, 2013

Illustrated Quotes and Notes from Dante's Divine Comedy

A secondary definition of comedy, according to the World Book Dictionary, is “a sublime subject treated objectively, regardless of comic or tragic overtones: Dante’s Divine Comedy.” Dante's masterpiece is a comedy also in the sense that it ultimately has a happy ending. Dante Alighieri was a scholar from Florence, Italy, who lived from A.D. 1265-1321.

John Ciardi, a particularly good translator of The Divine Comedy into English, states in his introduction that “it is in its scope that the poem can be called epic. Dante travels the universe from end to end, from his personal grappling with the hairy sides of Satan to his final ecstatic vision of God. He maps the physical and moral geography of that universe. (For him physical and moral law were entwined manifestations of God’s will.)…The Divine Comedy is, above all else, interesting to read. Despite the weight of social, moral, scientific, and religious commentary, the writing remains active and dramatic.”

The action takes place in three parts: The Inferno, The Purgatorio, and The Paradiso, immediately revealing to the biblical thinker that Dante reflects the serious theological error of his day that a man aids God in securing his own salvation via purgatory.  That error is just as common in our own age, and has been a problem the Church has been dealing with since the Apostle Paul wrote the Book of Galatians (click here for an Illustrated Biblical Response to the Doctrine of Purgatory). Nevertheless, Dante had an excellent grasp of Scripture in most respects, and was faithful to condemn the theological errors of his day as he understood them and to uphold biblical truth. John Ciardi’s translation is worth reading at a leisurely pace in its entirety because of Dante’s keen, clever insight and Ciardi’s helpful explanations and Scripture quotations.

Dante himself tells us his reason for writing The Divine Comedy in a letter he wrote to his patron. He explains he is attempting to present the work of God in Christ. Dante cites Psalm 114, which connects the historical Exodus (departure from Egypt) with a theological understanding of God's presence among His people. Dante states that the Exodus is the historical record of saving rescue, which allows us to understand "our redemption wrought by Christ ... from the grief and misery of sin to the state of grace," and teaches us to hope in the "liberty of eternal glory" ("Letter to Can Grande Della Scala" in Critical Theory Since Plato, revised edition, edited by Hazard Adams, pages 121-22. N.Y.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992).

Here are quotes and notes from The Divine Comedy particularly worth thinking about, with emphasis on the most under-appreciated parts of Dante's epic:

“Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood....Death could scarce be more bitter than that place! But since it came to good, I will recount all that I found revealed there by God’s grace” (I.1-3, 7-9).

At the Gate of Hell, Dante and his heaven-sent guide (the Roman poet Virgil) read, “I am the way into the city of woe. I am the way to a forsaken people.  I am the way into eternal sorrow. Sacred justice moved my architect. I was raised here by divine omnipotence, primordial love and ultimate intellect. Only those elements time cannot wear were made before me, and beyond time I stand. Abandon all hope ye who enter here” (III.1-9).

Virgil to Dante: When a man lets his attention range toward every wisp, he loses true direction, sapping his mind’s force with continual change.” Dante’s response: “What could I say except ‘I come’? I said it flushed with that hue that sometimes asks forgiveness for which it shows the asker to be fit” (V.16-21).

“Their father’s better heritage none possesses. Rare is the tree that lifts to every limb the sap of merit—He who gives, so wills that men may learn to beg their best from Him” (VII.120-23).

“This is the day your hungry soul shall be fed on the golden apples men have sought on many different boughs so ardently” (XXVII.115-17).

Beatrice, Dante’s guide to Paradise, says of him in his earlier years, “This man, potentially, was so endowed from early youth that marvelous increase should have come forth from every good he sowed. But richest soil the soonest will grow wild with bad seed and neglect” (XXX.115-19).

Beatrice to Dante on their ascent to Paradise: “You think you are still on earth: the lightning’s spear never fled downward from its natural place as rapidly as you are rising there” (I.91-93).

“Open your mind to what I shall explain, then close around it, for it is no learning to understand what one does not retain” (V.40-42).

As Dante and Beatrice approach Heaven, they attract favorable attention, which Dante describes in a manner both comical and endearing:  “As in a fish-pond that is clear and tranquil, the fish draw to what drops down from the outside, believing it to be some food to feed on, so I did see more than a thousand splendid persons drawing toward us, and from each I heard, 'Look, someone comes who shall augment our love!'” (V.100-105).

“You are uncertain, and would have me find open and level words in which to speak what I expressed too steeply for your mind” (XI.22-24).

“He is a fool, and low among his kind, who answers yea or nay without reflection, nor does it matter on which road he runs blind. Opinions too soon formed often deflect man’s thinking from the truth into gross error, in which his pride then binds his intellect. It is worse than vain for men to leave the shore and fish for truth unless they know the art; for they return worse off than they were before....Let Tom and Jane not think, because they see one man is picking pockets and another is offering all his goods to charity, that they can judge their neighbors with God’s eyes: for the pious man may fall, and the thief may rise” (XIII.115-123, 139-143).

Of Florence, Italy, in better days it could be said, “No golden chains nor crowns weighed down her spirit, nor women in tooled sandals and studded belts more to be admired than the wearer’s merit” (XV.100-2).

Dante’s heavenly insight: O trivial pride of ours in noble blood! That in possessing you men are possessed, down here, where souls grow sick and lose their good” (XVI.1-3).

Beatrice to Dante: “‘Speak. And let the fire of your consuming wish come forth,’ she said, ‘well marked by the inner stamp of your desire; not that we learn more by what you say, but that you better learn to speak your thirst, that men may sooner quench it on your way’” (XVII.7-12).

“My guide to God said: ‘Turn your thoughts along a happier course. Remember I dwell near the One who lifts the weight of every wrong’” (XVIII.4-6).

“As a man, perceiving day by day an increase of delight in doing good, begins to sense his soul is gaining way” (XVIII.58-60).

“What I must now call back from memory no voice has ever spoken, nor ink written. Nor has its like been known to fantasy” (XIX.7-9).

“The One who wheeled the compass round the limits of the world, and spread there what is hidden and…revealed, could not so stamp His power and quality into His work but what the creating Word would still exceed creation infinitely. And this explains why the first Prideful Power, highest of creatures, because he would not wait the power of the ripening sun, fell green and sour. And thus we see that every lesser creature is much too small a vessel to hold the Good that has no end. Therefore…our way of seeing…cannot, by its very nature, be so clear but what its Author’s eye sees far beyond the furthest limits that to us appear. [Regarding] eternal justice, consequently, the understanding granted to mankind is lost as the eye is within the sea: it can make out the bottom near the shore but not on the main deep; and still it is there, though at a depth your eye cannot explore....Who are you to take the judgment seat and pass on things a thousand miles away, who cannot see the ground before your feet? The man who would split hairs with me could find no end of grounds for questioning, had he not the Scriptures over him to guide his mind....To this high empery none ever rose but through belief in Christ, either before or after His agony. But see how many now cry out ‘Christ! Christ!’ who shall be farther from Him at the Judgment than many who, on earth, did not know Christ” (XIX.40-108).

Predestination! Oh how deep your source....Mortals, be slow to judge! Not even we who look on God in Heaven know, as yet, how many He will choose for ecstasy. And sweet it is to lack this knowledge still, for in this good is our own good refined, willing whatever God Himself may will” (XX.130-38).

Poetry is, among other things, the art of knowing what to leave out” (XX.135n—note by translator John Ciardi).

Beatrice to Dante: “Make your eyes the mirror of the vision this mirror will reveal to you, and fix your mind behind your eyes in strict attention” (XXI.16-18).

“She saw in the vision of Him who sees all things what silence held my eager tongue in check, and said to me: ‘Give your soul’s impulse wings!’” (XXI.49-51).

“My eyes went back through the seven spheres below, and I saw this globe, so small, so lost in space, I had to smile at such a sorry show. Who thinks it the least pebble in the skies I most approve. Only the mind that turns to other things may truly be called wise” (XXII.133-38).

My pen leaps and I do not write; not words nor fantasy can paint the truth; the folds of Heaven’s draperies are too bright” (XXIV.25-27).


Prayer to God for Worthy Expression
The Apostle Peter to Dante: “‘Speak, good Christian, manifest your worth: what is faith?’…Beatrice…urged me with her eyes to let the waters of the spring that welled within my soul pour free. ‘May the Grace that grants the grace of this confession to the captain of the first rank,’ I began, ‘grant that my thoughts may find worthy expression!’” (XXIV.52-60).

You mortals let the thought of being acclaimed as wise lead you astray. Yet Heaven bears even this with less offense that it must feel when it sees Holy Writ neglected, or perverted of all sense. They do not count what blood and agony planted it in the world, nor Heaven’s pleasure in those who search it in humility. Each man, to show off, strains at some absurd invented truth; and it is these that the preachers make sermons of; and the Gospel is not heard....These fables pour from pulpits in such torrents....Therefore the ignorant sheep turn home at night from having fed on wind. Nor does the fact that the pastor sees no harm done set things right. Christ did not say to His first congregation: ‘Go and preach twaddle to the waiting world.’ He gave them, rather, Holy Truth’s foundation. That, and that only, was the Truth revealed by those who fought and died to plant the faith. They made the Gospel both their sword and shield. Now preachers make the congregation roar with quips and quirks, and so it laughs enough....Because of this, such folly fills the earth that, asking neither proof nor testimonials, men chase whatever promise is held forth” (XXIX.85-123).

A wry note by translator John Ciardi on Dante’s heavenly style: The language of astronomy, legend, and the zodiac is not as immediate to us as it was to Dante…yet it does describe Beatrice’s brief pause with tonal embellishments sweetly appropriate to the Paradisal elevation. Gist of this lengthy passage: ‘Beatrice looked up in a moment of silence’” (XXIX.1-9n, p. 575).

In ultimate praise of Beatrice: “If all that I have said of her below were gathered now into a single paean, that would be scant praise of her beauty now. The beauty I saw there transcends all measure of mortal minds. I think only her Maker can wholly comprehend so great a treasure. Here I concede defeat. No poet known, comic or tragic, challenged by his theme to show his power, was ever more outdone” (XXX.16-24).

O splendor of God eternal through which I saw the supreme triumph of the one true kingdom, grant me the power to speak forth what I saw! There in Heaven, a lamp shines in whose light the Creator is made visible to His creature, whose one peace lies in having Him in sight” (XXX.97-102).

Dante's closing prayer: “Make Thou my tongue so eloquent, it may of all Thy glory speak a single clue to those who follow me in the world’s day” (XXXIII.70-72).

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