Dante’s Mastery

Gabriel Josipovici

  • Dante by George Holmes
    Oxford, 104 pp, £95.00, April 1980, ISBN 0 19 287504 3
  • The Divine Comedy: A New Verse Translation by C.H. Sisson
    Carcanet, 455 pp, £8.95, April 1980, ISBN 0 85635 273 X

No one, except perhaps Proust, has been able to express such a sense of totally unexpected joy as Dante, and what most often brings joy flooding through his body is the chance meeting with a revered ancestor or teacher. ‘O sanguis meus, O superinfusa gratia Dei,’ Cacciaguida greets him in Paradise, and Dante, turning in puzzlement to Beatrice, feels that ‘I had touched the limit both of my beatitude and of my paradise.’ Then, he tells us, the spirit continues to speak, and it is ‘a joy to hearing and to sight.’ Many hours before, deep down in the pit of Hell, another meeting had taken place, following a very similar pattern:

Eyed in this way by this company,
I was recognised by one of them, who seized me
By the edge of my cloak, and cried: ‘How marvellous!’

And, when he had stretched out his arm to me,
I fixed my eyes upon his scorched appearance
So that his burnt face should not prevent

The recognition of him by my intellect;
And, bending my face towards his,

I answered him: ‘Are you here, ser Brunetto?’[*]

Siete voi qui, ser Brunetto?’ – the poetry leaps as does the pilgrim Dante’s heart at the sight of his old teacher, even here, in the burning valleys of Hell. It is because the contact between them is so immediate and so strong, so uncluttered by doubts or second thoughts, that the last image of the canto, so often quoted out of context, achieves its power:

Then he turned back, and seemed to be one of those
Who, at Verona, run for the green cloth,
Through the open country; and he seemed to be the one
Who wins the race, and not the one who loses.

But of course it is in the meeting with a greater master than Brunetto could ever be that we learn most fully why Dante attached so much importance to this aspect of life. It will be remembered that Dante, having come to in the dark wood, emerges and tries to climb a great mountain towards the sun, only to be pushed back by three beasts. ‘While I was ruining down to the depth,’ he says, using one of those frightening Dantesque words which combine the moral and physical inextricably, rovinava, ‘there appeared before me one who seemed faint through long silence.’ It is Virgil, who is faint (or hoarse) because he has been silent for 13 centuries. But at this point Dante does not know who he is and it is an important principle of this poem that we do not forestall the narrator with our prior knowledge, for the way the encounter unfolds between them is of crucial importance:

When I saw that fellow in the great desert,
I cried out to him: ‘Have pity on me,
Whatever you are, shadow or definite man.’

The figure answers, ‘No, not a living man, though once I was,’ and proceeds to explain that his parents were Lombards and that he himself was born under Julius Caesar and lived in Rome under the good Augustus ‘at the time of the false and lying gods’. Only after he has said this does he go on to explain what he did in life: ‘I was a poet, and I sang of that just son of Anchises who came from Troy after proud Ilium was burned.’ At this point Dante can contain himself no longer:

Are you then that Virgil and that fountain
Which pours forth so rich a stream of speech ...

O glory and light of other poets!
May the long study avail me, and the great love
That made me search your volume.

You are my master and my author;
You alone are he from whom I took
The good style that has done me honour.

It is fitting that Virgil should see himself clearly, and in the harsh light of eternity the facts, in descending order of importance, are as he presents them: that he was born under the false and lying gods, which accounts for his sad place in Hell; and then that what he did in his life was to sing of a just man who escaped from a proud city (thus preparing the way for that other just man who would topple the proud city of the Caesars and erect his own in heaven). He was, of course, the supreme poet of antiquity, but for him, at this point, that is irrelevant – it would make no difference if he had been the most minor of scribblers. However, it is also right that for Dante it should make a difference, and it is right that he should gasp with wonder and delight: ‘Or se’tu quel Virgilio e quella fonte/che spandi di parlar si largo fiume?... Tu se’lo mio maestro e’l mio autore.’

What exactly is the meaning of that last phrase? ‘My author’ – the one who made me, as well as my special writer. As the Commedia unfolds, we come to see how these two meanings interfuse and how, quite simply, without Virgil, Dante would not have been himself, for it is Virgil who allowed him to find his own voice.

This is the real mystery of ‘influence’. This is what past masters, if they are true masters, have to teach those who follow them. This is what drew Eliot to Dante when he, too, was lost in a strange land and without a voice of his own, able only to mimic brilliantly the voices of others. When Virgil and Dante approach the summit of Mount Purgatory they meet a new figure, Statius, who, like Dante, has also found his voice through Virgil. Not knowing who the two pilgrims are, he recounts his life:

I sang of Thebes, then of the great Achilles;
But fell by the wayside with the second load.

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[*] Extended quotations from Dante in the early sequences of this article are given in C.H. Sisson’s translation, except for the passage which begins, ‘Are you then that Virgil ... ’: this is an improvisation based on the Dent translation.

[†] Valerio Lucchesi has some good things to say on this aspect of Dante in much the most interesting essay in The World of Dante: Essays on Dante and His Times edited by Cecil Grayson. Clarendon, 252 pp., £14, 24 January, 0 19 815760 6.