When I sat down with my students to perform a textual analysis of the fifth canto of Dante’s Inferno, I had no idea we would discover something that, to the best of my knowledge, had never been said before. It just goes to show that a text can still surprise its reader, even those that have been scrutinized as much as Dante’s. These students were by no means experts on medieval poetry, literature, or anything Italian, but rather undergraduates of different majors fulfilling a GE requirement. In fact, most of them barely knew who Dante was and were simply looking for a class in which they could put their feet up and coast; that is until they saw me standing in front of them as their TA (it seems my reputation as a “harsh grader” had preceded me). Prior to delving into the Comedy itself, the students had not read any criticism on Dante. In fact, the translated edition they were using merely provided the historical background of the various characters Dante encounters along his pilgrimage. Therefore, the only tools they had to help them construct an interpretation of the Comedy were those they had gathered from other texts: the work of other poets who had laid the groundwork for Dante to “compose concerning her what has never been written in rhyme of any woman.”
In order to better understand how we arrived at our discovery, which was more earth shattering for me than it was for my students, I would like to briefly retrace the steps that led us to the fifth canto. Our course began with St. Francis of Assisi and his Canticles of the Creatures, in which the friar praises the light of the sun for it signifies God, a concept Dante would further transform into a symbol of reason. After St. Francis we moved on to Guido Guinizelli and his canzone Of the Gentle Heart, where the woman appears for the first time as an angelic figure, the poet melding his love for the woman with his love for God: “She had the semblance of an angel / Who came from your Kingdom: / Be not sin imputed to me, if I loved her” – sin, of course, being one of Dante’s favorite words.
Next was Guido Cavalcanti and the suffering involved with loving: “Eyes which were first to gaze – my reckless eyes — / Upon your face so absolute with might, / Were those which for you, Lady, did indict / Me in that cruel court of Love’s assize.” With Cavalcanti this poetic tradition becomes a melancholic experience: the lady’s unrequited love produces a welcomed pleasure in pain – a state that Dante will eventually overcome in his Vita Nuova. Just to throw a delightful wrench in our program: who better to read than Cecco Angolieri before tackling Dante. Angolieri’s poesia giocosa is actually a great didactic tool for understanding Dante, or rather as Cecco himself states in his tenzone: “Dante boy, I’ll simply wear you out: / since I’m the cattle-prod that drives your ox.” In other words, Cecco serves as an example of what Dante wouldn’t do: he embodies all the negative aspects Dante seeks to correct, but according to Cecco he doesn’t have the stamina to keep with his mischief. Furthermore, Cecco acts as the perfect counterpoint to Dante’s idea of a virtuous, platonic love for a lady. He has no interest in things divine, but rather is attracted by the flesh, the physical beauty of the woman: “I’d pick the nicest girls to suit my whim, / And the other folks should get the ugly ones.” Our final stop was of course the Vita Nuova in which Dante neatly packages his “memory” of Beatrice to create his ideal launching point for the Comedy.
In the fifth canto all of these elements come together to create one of the richest examples of poetry ever produced: the reader finds God’s reason made slave to appetite, a long list of nefarious women clashes with the idea of an angelic Beatrice, the love between Paolo and Francesca serves as an example of what not to do, and, most importantly, there is a Cavalcantian benefit in suffering the unrequited love of the woman. However, being somewhat wicked myself, I wanted to see if my students could arrive at these conclusions on their own through a simple line by line reading of the Canto. The beginning of our analysis quickly became more difficult than I had anticipated: “This way we went, descending from the first / into the second round, that holds less space / but much more pain – stinging the soul to wailing.” Okay where are we and what’s going on? Their response: complete and utter silence! Cominciamo bene! However, as we moved into the juicier details of the Canto, or as one of my colleagues likes to say, the people magazine side of the Comedy, the students grew more eager to participate. First we have Semiramis who “licensed every form of lust with laws to cleanse the stain of scandal” followed by Dido and her betrayal of Sichaeus, Cleopatra who “loved men’s lusting,” then Helen of Troy, the one responsible for so much bloodshead. After dedicating 13 lines to these women, Dante only breifly mentions three men who fell prey to the female black arts: Achilles, Paris and Tristan. The list comes so quickly the reader almost misses it, all of which sets the stage for Francesca, who doesn’t stand a chance following such dubious company.
After Dante lures the two lovers away from their flock with his captatio benevolentiae, it’s time for Francesca to relay her famous syllogism: “Love, quick to kindle in the gentle heart, / seized this one for the beauty of my body, / torn from me. (How it happened still offends me).” The virtuous love typical of the gentle heart – a platonic relationship in which one party inspires the other to better him or herself – becomes corrupted by a sexual desire. Yet at this point I needed to explain to my students that our translation fails to properly convey the meaning of the last line “il modo ancor m’offende”: it is not “How it happens still offends me,” which implies that Francesca doesn’t feel her sin merits such harsh punishment, but rather it is love that continues to punish her for the way she loved.
“Love, that excuses no one loved from loving, / seized me so strongly for delight in him / that, as you see, he never leaves my side.” I quickly advised my students to approach this first verse with equal amount of caution. Here the translation is once again based on a preconceived notion of the text, one that we as readers are allowed to question. The line is thought to mean that a person loved is obligated to love the one who loves them. However, “amor ch’a nullo amato amar perdona” can be easily translated as “Love, that doesn’t pardon one loved for loving back,” which changes things considerably regarding the courtly relationship. To cite Luigi Ballerini “la proibizione non riguarda l’amante, il quale è liberissimo di amare, ma l’amato, il quale per espresso mandato da Amore, commette peccato se riama.” It seemed that this last statement was a bitter pill for my students to swallow: they were reluctant to let go of the idea that love was something that implied reciprocity. Looking back on it I’m afraid I may have put somewhat of a damper on their romantic plans for that Friday evening.
The third stanza then brings our syllogism to a close: “Love led us straight to sudden death together. / Caina awaits the one who quenched our lives. / These where the words that came from them to us.” If A) the gentle heart entertains the idea of a sexual love, and B) that gentle heart succumbs to that sexual love, then C) things are not going to be pretty for lovers in the afterlife. At this point my students started seeing the connections: Yes, Paolo’s brother is waiting further down where their is less space, yet more pain because he committed the more egregious sin of murder. And then came one of those beautiful questions that brings a smile to an instructor’s face: “Why does Dante say the words came from them to us, when Paolo didn’t say anything at all?” Yet, I didn’t have an answer: maybe because my own studies on Dante escaped me at that moment, or maybe because I didn’t want to delude the students with the typical response that Paolo was simply too overcome with grief to offer his side of the story.
It was only at the end of our analysis when a possible explanation popped into my head, as I considered why Dante would faint at the end of the Canto: “And all the while / the one of these two spirits spoke these words, / the other wept, in such a way that pity / blurred my senses; I swooned as though to die, / and fell to Hell’s floor as a body, dead, falls.” Dante’s momentary weakness was caused by the overwhelming empathy he felt for the lover’s situation, for his fate could have easily been the same if he wasn’t careful. At this point, I reminded my students that this was one of the reasons why Dante carefully packaged the poems of the Vita Nova in prose, so readers wouldn’t misconstrue his relationship with Beatrice. In order to better explain my point, I asked the students to return to the syllogism.
In a sense, Francesca’s lines serve as a strong example of what not to do, that loving in the wrong way holds dire consequences. If we read the syllogism as an opposite, Dante’s position regarding Beatrice becomes clear: the truly gentle heart would never give into lust for it is counterproductive to the aim it hopes to achieve: it is concerned with moving closer to God through a mental exercise of longing. The physical obtainment or satisfaction of that desire means to choose the earthly over the eternal, while Dante’s pursuit of Beatrice is driven by a much nobler task. Therefore, for this mental exercise to continue the love must remain unrequited. Beatrice cannot love back because she has to entice Dante’s desire in order from him to reach her in heaven. When viewed from this perspective, the contrapasso now carries more weight: while Paolo and Francesca are in physical proximity in lust, Dante and Beatrice are separated by the ultimate distance: there is no greater intangibility than when the lady has already left this life.
I could tell my students were getting tired, it was a lot to process in 45 minutes, but there still remained the question of Paolo’s silence. We needed to briefly recap before moving forward: on the one hand, Francesca is placed in hell because she loved back when she wasn’t supposed to. Beatrice, on the other hand, is in heaven because she loved the right way, or rather, didn’t love back at all. But if one woman acts as the antithesis to the other, can we say the same thing about Paolo and Dante? We were getting closer, but we needed one last push to discover the key to Paolo’s silence. And, lo and behold, just as the house of cards was about to come crashing down, I remembered that the love between the poet and his object of desire must remain unrequited in order for him to continue writing poetry.
I immediately pitched the idea to my students: “Love, that doesn’t pardon one loved for loving back,” can also be read as antithetical to a Dolce Stil Novo statement on poetics, one that both Dante and Cavalcanti share: there is a certain compensation for not being loved in return for it allows the poet to compose poetry. Once this was said, I saw all the light bulbs turn on across the classroom (mine included). Paolo loved the wrong way and consequently never opens his mouth. He just floats there, sighing. Because he loved correctly, Dante goes on to write the monumental work that is Divine Comedy. The difference couldn’t be any more apparent: while Dante the author gets a major ego boost out of the deal, poor Paolo is confined to his own personal contrapasso of aphasia. Therefore, while the women represent two completely different ways of loving, the men reflect the consequences love has on their gift of gab, or in Paolo’s case a lack their of. Subsequently, our observation allowed us to look at this canto in an entirely different light, especially at the reason behind Dante’s fainting: while listening to Francesca speak, the poet sighs, but maybe Paolo’s silence is what pushed him over the edge: the thought of never again writing verse was simply too much to bear.
In conclusion, I would like to tie my talk back into the theme of our panel (that is, what is the new task of criticism). Recently, I attended a conference where I had an interesting conversation with a fellow graduate student in our field of Italian studies. Following typical conference protocol we began to ask each other about our respective research interests. If understood correctly, he was writing a dissertation on Italian authors who lived in Japan for more than six months (a temporal requirement I found rather strange). When I told him I study poets like Cavalcanti, Petrarca, and Leopardi his reaction was “Really, I didn’t think there was anything left to say about that stuff!” Knowing full well that a comparison between apples and oranges can often result in one party being left thoroughly offended, I thought it best to end the conversation with a little quip: “I’m sorry but I believe it’s quite the opposite: we’re just getting started, we only need a fresh set of eyes to help us see things in a different light.”
- Dominic Siracusa