Autore: Harold A. Mason
Tratto da: The Cambridge Quarterly
(in which Dante is alarmed as he sees that Virgil is returning empty-handed and seemingly worried at no help coming. Virgil, however, reassures him by telling him that he had been this way before, when the witch, Erichtho, put a spell on him, which forced him to go to the bottom of Hell to bring back one of the damned. Dante catches sight of the three Furies of classical mythology dancing on the top of the tower, and clings to Virgil, who himself seems to fear the worst when the Furies threaten to bring on Medusa. He makes sure that no harm comes to Dante by covering his eyes with his own hands. But the scene suddenly alters, and Dante asks the reader to see a deeper meaning in the events. A terrible noise is heard as somebody comes over the water dry-shod. Dante knows at once that this is the promised help. The Heavenly Messenger opens the gates with a touch of his wand. He addresses the devils with the same contempt Virgil had displayed to earlier opponents. Ignoring the two poets, he returns the way he had come, seeming to be preoccupied with quite other concerns. Feeling secure now, they enter the City, but find only open country and a number of red-hot tombs with the lids off. Dante hears miserable groans coming from them, and Virgil explains that this is the sixth circle and the sinners are heretics.)
It lies in the very nature of literary criticism that the first act of a tyro, in which he asserts his entry as a member of the tribe, is to bite the hand of the master who had fed him and brought him up. His next act, if he is not entirely graceless, is to apologise for the deed. He may easily do so if he regards his fault-finding to be nothing more than a first step in the direction of fulfilling and enlarging what the master had so admirably expounded. In this study of the Inferno, Natalino Sapegno has been my constant guide, and never more so than in his commentary on the two Cantos VIII and IX. At the same time, it has been the pleasure of a beginner — a pleasure not unmixed with Schadenfreude — to become aware of the unconscious bias and prejudice governing Sapegno’s own critical remarks and those made by many of his Italian contemporaries, which arise, I imagine, from their solidarity, their sense of all being on the main highway, and of not having any serious enemies on the right or on the left. A foreigner may, therefore, well feel intimidated and condemned to silence, even when a protesting voice within seems to be the murmur of international, or, at least, non-Italian good sense. Yet if that foreigner and a beginner may be able to illustrate the justice of his general impression of this body of criticism even on a subordinate front, the pleasure of getting this great weight off his back for a moment acts on him as an encouragement to press such a slight advantage home. It may be a long time before another such opportunity turns up! My companions will become aware throughout this commentary how uneasy I feel whenever I am being pressed to think of the Inferno as part of a poema sacro with a heavy emphasis on the word sacro. It is a particular cause of irritation to find the critics dubbing all the constituents of Dante’s Hell exclusively Christian. The features of that Hell which dominate in these two Cantos offer me a chance to question their verdict. The theme of the present essay will be a general plea for the admittance into Dante’s Hell of elements other than the Christian, and, in particular, a protest against the verdict that the Furies are both tragic figures and symbols or allegories.
The classic defence of the girl with the illegitimate baby that it was only a little one must serve me here when I say that, if this is an attempt to foment revolution in the Italian ranks, I am only trying to increase the prominence of, and to suggest a little greater significance in, all that is connected with the pagan inmates of the infernal regions in Dante’s own conception of Hell than the generality of these critics seem prepared to allow. It would be blasphemous and out of place to remind them of the saying, ‘In my Father’s house are many mansions’, but I might decently fall back on Hamlet’s remark (in the Folio text):
There are more things in Heauen and Earth, Horatio,
Then are dream’t of in our Philosophy.
But it would be pure hypocrisy if I did not admit that I come forward in this plea for the greater interest of the Hades in Dante’s Hell from what may be a position of strength, as being the author of an unpublished monograph on Demogorgon, which gathers together for the first time all that is known of this mysterious figure. ‘And what of that? There is no mention of Demogorgon in the Inferno or anywhere else in Dante’s writings.’ I grant that my position has at least one weakness: it may seem that I am pleading pro domo, or worse, introducing an unwelcome King Charles’ Head, the trouble which afflicted Mr. Dick in Dickens’ David Copperfield, into a discussion of our Canto.
What most people would find unwelcome is the invitation to enter the realm of Black Magic. This is a world the evidence for which is hard to evaluate. I do not doubt, judging by its prevalence to-day, that the amount of superstitious belief and practice was extensive in Dante’s day. T.S. Eliot appears to suggest that the amount was not excessive:
To communicate with Mars, converse with spirits,
To report the behaviour of the sea monster,
Describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry,
Observe disease in signatures, evoke
Biography from the wrinkles of the palm
And tragedy from fingers; release omens
By sortilege, or tea leaves, riddle the inevitable
With playing cards, fiddle with pentagrams
Or barbituric acids, or dissect
The recurrent image into pre-conscious terrors —
To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams; all these are usual
Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press:
And always will be, some of them especially
When there is distress of nations and perplexity
Whether on the shores of Asia, or in the Edgware Road.
But I can happily preface my case by saying that I am not proposing to raise the question of Dante’s beliefs or practices. Just as, since a vast series of volumes would have been required to catalogue the practices of necromancers and their ilk, from Hermes Trismegistus to Yeats Madame Blavatsky (to come no closer to the present), my monograph refers exclusively to the few known literary references to the mysterious god, so the only references to Dante I shall be admitting concern his known reading and his extant writings. My objection is to the unwillingness shown by his commentators to entertain the thought that Dante had been as a poet deeply interested in accounts of dark doings, not in the Christian scheme, but, as we shall shortly be seeing, not unknown to readers of the Bible.
Ver è ch’altra fiata qua giù fui,
congiurato da quella Eriton cruda
che richiamava l’ombre a’ corpi sui.
Di poco era di me la carne nuda,
ch’ella mi fece intrar dentr’ a quel muro,
per trarne un spirto del cerchio di Giuda.
Quell’ è’ più basso loco e ’l più oscuro,
e ’l più lontan dal ciel che tutto gira…
As a matter of fact, I've been down there once before. The fierce witch, Erichtho, put her spell on me. She had the power of recalling the souls of the dead, and restoring them to their bodies. I had only just been stripped of my own body when she forced me to go through the walls of Dis to fetch out one of the damned from Judas. That is the name of the lowest, the darkest region of hell and the furthest away from the Highest Heaven which encompasses the universe…
Once the scholars discovered that Dante must have invented this episode, rather than wondering why he had chosen such a prominent figure in the world of Black Magic, they tended to pooh-pooh any real significance in the choice of Erichtho. One critic went so far as to suggest that the poet was indulging in a whim (capriccio)! The usual line was to suppose that Dante was in a hurry to supply a reason for removing the pilgrim’s fears, and did not care very much what it was: the name Erichtho, for all they knew, might have been picked out of a bag! What these scholars were in a hurry to avoid was any suggestion that in going down to the region of ice Virgil had been a free agent, and therefore must himself have been (what he was commonly suspected of being in the Middle Ages) a necromancer. This was an unnecessary fear, as they might have detected if they had put more weight on congiurato. These scholars don’t take these conjuring powers seriously, but Dante’s contemporaries would be familiar with a striking instance of them in the Old Testament. We are told, in the First Book of Samuel, Chapter XXVIII, that, when Samuel died, Saul ‘put away those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land’, but, when he was afraid of his enemies, he turned for help to his God but obtained no relief:
Then said Saul unto his servants, Seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and enquire of her. And his servants said to him, Behold, there is a woman that hath a familiar spirit at Endor. And Saul disguised himself, and put on another raimént, and he went, and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night; and he said, I pray thee, divine unto me by the familiar spirit, and bring me him up, whom I shall name unto thee. And the woman said unto him, Behold, thou knowest what Saul hath done, how he hath cut off those that have familiar spirits, and the wizards out of the land: wherefore then layest thou a snare for my life, to cause me to die? And Saul sware to her by the LORD, saying, As the LORD liveth, there shall be no punishment happen to thee for this thing. Then said the woman, Whom shall I bring up unto thee? And he said, Bring me up Samuel. And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice: and the woman spake to Saul, saying, Why hast thou deceived me? for thou art Saul. And the king said unto her, Be not afraid: for what sawest thou? And the woman said unto Saul, I saw gods ascending out of the earth. And he said to her, What form is he of? And she said, An old man cometh up: and he is covered with a mantle. And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he stooped with his face to the ground, and bowed himself. And Samuel said to Saul, Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up?
My thesis is that if we follow up the knowledge Dante had of these two witches, we shall be able to understand some of the powers governing Dante’s underworld and, in particular, where the Furies come in this power structure.
My first suggestion is that Virgil’s behaviour here in our Canto is modelled both on Saul’s and that of Tiresias. The latter bears, as we shall see, the closer resemblance, but both exemplify the same dilemma: what do good men do when their gods do not come to their aid? This dilemma extended to the gods themselves. An example known to Dante was Virgil’s Juno. I ‘bring her up’, row, out of turn, as it may seem at first sight. But by far our greatest clue to Dante’s conception of the ròle of the Furies as spiritual powers comes from their central position in assisting Juno to bring about the downfall of Aeneas. Her position is summed up almost epigrammatically in Book VII/312:
flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta mouebo.
If I can’t get the gods of Olympus on my side, I’ll raise all hell.
I hope to return to this scene when the question of the Furies comes to the centre.
If we wish to understand something of the power that could compel Virgil to go on an errand to the bottom of Hell, we should, I suggest, consider the situation of Tiresias as it is presented in two places, Seneca’s play, Oedipus, and by Statius in his epic on the war against Thebes. In the tragedy, Tiresias is placed in a position very like Saul’s. He begins as a prophet related to the gods of Olympus, and it is only when these gods refuse their aid that he ends like the Witch of Endor, a sciomancer. His object was to discover who killed Laius, the father of Oedipus. As he explains to Oedipus:
The name of the murderer cannot be brought to light by studying the paths of birds winging their nimble way through the sky nor by tearing out the entrails of any animal and examining the movements of the still-living flesh. We have to try some other way. We must call up a messenger from the black depths of the everlasting night of the underworld to identify for us the murderer of Laius. We must address our prayers to Dis even though he listens to no prayers. The people who dwell by the shores of Styx down below must be brought to the surface.
In Seneca’s play, the whole magic ceremony is reported by an eyewitness, Creon, who, after describing some preliminary rites, continues:
Then Tiresias calls upon the spirits of the dead, and on thee, he says, who art their head, and on thee, Cerberus, who guardest the way to the lakes of hell. Then he reels off a long magic spell, looks threatening, and, foaming at the mouth, produces a charm to please the airy shapes and compel them to obey him.
Then, like all magicians, Tiresias pours out wine with his left hand, and summons the spirits in even harsher tones. An answering cry from the troops of Hecate tells him that he is being heard. There is a tremendous fracas as the earth opens and the deities of the underworld appear, and show their unearthly pallor. As Creon puts it:
The blood curdled in my veins when I saw the stagnant pools and genuine, solid night. The savage three, Tisiphone, Allecto and Megaera, lept into sight.
This I take it was the scene which frightened Dante when he wrote:
E altro disse, ma non l’ho a mente,
però che l’occhio m’avea tutto tratto
ver’ l’alta torre a la cima rovente,
dove in un punto furon dritte ratto
tre furie infernal di sangue tinte,
che membra feminine avieno e atto,
e con idre verdissime eran cinte;
serpentelli e ceraste avien per crine,
onde le fiere tempie erano avvinte.
E quei, che ben connobbe le meschine
de la regina de l’etterno pianto,
‘Guarda,’ mi disse, ‘le feroci Erine.
Quest’ è Megera dal sinistro canto:
quella che piange dal destro è Aletto;
Tesifon è nel mezzo’; e tacque a tanto.
Con l’unghie si fendea ciascuna il petto;
battiensi a palme e gridavan sì alto,
ch’ i’ mi strinsi al poeta per sospetto.
Exciting as Virgil’s news was, I cannot remember his last words because my attention was totally withdrawn from him as my eye dragged my whole being upward to the red-hot top of the high tower. For all of a sudden I saw there three Furies from Hell — ladies all with blood-stained legs, wearing bright-green watersnakes round their waists and little horned snakes curling in their hair — jump high into the air and stretch out all their length. And Virgil, who well recognized the handmaids of the queen of eternal lamentation, said to me, ‘See the fierce Erinyes! That is Megaera on the left; she that wails on the right is Allecto; Tisiphone is in the middle’; and with that he was silent. Each was tearing her breast with her nails. They were beating themselves with their hands, and they cried out so loud that I was afraid, and clung tight to the poet.
The episode in Statius’ Fourth Book is an almost word-for-word repetition of the scene in Seneca’s Oedipus, where Tiresias threatens the infernal powers, but, judging by the following lines, we might decide that this was the passage with the greater shaping power over our Canto IX:
Open to my knocks, open, you Palace of Tartarus, open, you fearful kingdom of Death, never satisfied in your demand for more supplies, and you, the most brutal of the three brothers, who received by lot the power to have the dead as your subjects, and to inflict eternal punishment on guilty souls, open, I say, as I knock on the palace gates at the bottom of the universe, the places where silence reigns and none but ghosts live with the stern Queen of Hell. Call out the multitude hidden in the cave of darkness, and let the ferryman load his boat to bring them back across the Styx. All of you, come up… but for those of you who died in sin, both the majority of the inhabitants of Erebus and the majority of the descendants of Cadmus, let Tisiphone be your leader, and head the procession, brandishing her snake three times in one hand, and carrying a blazing yew-torch in the other. Cause her to let the daylight in, and stop Cerberus from using his three heads to deter the dwellers in darkness.
As happened to Virgil in our Canto, the infernal powers at first resist. Statius reports:
When Tiresias saw that the spirits were still refusing his requests to show themselves, he said, ‘See, Goddesses, it was for you that we (using only our left hands, as was proper in the circumstances) drenched these flames and opened the earth to let the cups of wine in to win your favour. This has gone on long enough. Am I to gain no audience, I, who am your priest? Do I have to turn myself into an Erichtho to make you appear? Have I to use her monstrous incantations to summon you effectively? Are you only moved when worked upon by the poisonous drugs Medea imported from Scythia? That sort of thing, it would seem, brings a thrill of horror to Hell. But of me do you have no regard just because I do not care to raise the dead from their graves or dig out from their urns the bones of those long since departed, or perform other acts to scandalise heaven and hell? Can I not please you except by beheading corpses and harvesting their entrails and carving out their rotten remains? I warn you not to treat me so lightly because I am near the grave myself, and my own face is as black as death. You are not the only ones who can turn nasty. May I remind you that I know the name you dread to bring to consciousness, and are terrified to hear spoken? I could even raise Hecate herself, if I did not revere Apollo, and the High God of Heaven, Hell and Earth, whom it is an abomination to know (triplicis mundî summum, quem scire nefastum). But if you force me, I’Il — but I had rather live out the rest of my life in peace, so I’ll say no more.’ Manto, the priestess of Apollo, at once eagerly interrupted him, and said, ‘the gods have heard you, father, and the pale host is coming up to meet you.’
Manto then adds her evidence about this Supremo:
I see the ghastly-pale god sitting on his throne surrounded by the Furies, who are the Ministers who carry out his evil deeds, and near the god chambers of the Hellish Consort and her gloomy beds. Tiresias then reminds us of Virgil in our Canto when he informs his daughter:
ipse etiam, melior cum sanguis, opertas
inspexi sedes, Hecate ducente...
I myself when I was younger, visited the hidden regions, under the guidance of Hecate.
This episode in the career of Tiresias cannot be fully understood without the help of Lucan’s treatment of Erichtho in his Bellum Ciuile. But there Lucan seems to have incorporated everything he knew about witchcraft and magic. Much, therefore, throws no light on Dante’s interest. In fact, we may say that Dante ignored the witch, and was interested solely in her powers over dead bodies and the Furies. So, from the beginning, we must mark Erichtho off from those who rode on broomsticks or the Blew meager hag Milton mentioned in Comus. There are some instructive remarks on her powers in Reginald Scot's This Discouerie of Witchcraft, who describes conjurors as people who ‘fetch diuels out of Hell, and angels out of Heaven . . . they go not to worke with a baggage tode, or a cat, as witches doo, but with a kind of Majestie, and with authoritie they call vp by name, and haue at their commandment seuentie and nine principall and princelie diuels, who haue vnder them, as their ministers, a great multitude of legions of pettie diuils.’
What made these conjurors awesome figures was that they could emergence by positing a failure to recognize the Greek word which was are still extant collections of these ‘violent threats’, used all over the Mediterranean world by practising necromancers. Cowley refers with horror to the powers they could exercise over the gods of Egypt:
the [Egyptian] Gods may well be called Servile, for in all Enchantments we finde them threatned by the Conjurers, and forced whether they will or no, by the power of spells, to do what they are commanded.
A transition from witch to necromancer may be seen when Lucan notes how far the powers of Erichtho extended:
omne nefas superi prima iam uoce precantis
concedunt carmenque timent audire secundum.
uiuentis animas et adhuc sua membra regentis
infodit busto, fatis debentibus annos
mors inuita subit...
which Sir Arthur Gorges translated as:
The Gods euen at the first request
Do grant to her each wicked hest,
And feare to heare her twice to craue
The thing that she desires to haue.
She buries bodies yet aliue
Before that death their soules depriue,
And, though their date might long subsist
In spight of Fates she cuts their twist.
The story Dante made up about Virgil and this Erichtho is clearly based on the following episode in Lucan. She had been confidently appealing to the infernal powers to allow one of Pompey’s soldiers recently dead to be revived enough to be given the power to foretell the future. Furious at what she considered the reluctance of these powers to respond to her requests, Erichtho resorts to the following threats:
Erichtho was amazed to find the fates permitted to hold up the action for so long. She vented her rage at Death’s delays by lashing the inert corpse with a live serpent. Using her magic spells to split the earth open, she howled at the spirits through the cracks, breaking the silence of the Kingdom of the Dead with these words, ‘You Furies, Tisiphone, I mean, and you, Megaera, who seem not to fear my voice, will you or will you not use your cruel whips to lash the soul of this poor dead wretch through the empty wastes of the underworld? If you don't, I shall at once proceed to give you infernal powers your real names, and draw you bitches up from your dark hellish dens, and leave you exposed to the light of day. I shall persecute you in all your haunts. Whenever I find you in graves or at burials, I shall act as guardian of the deceased and expel you from all the places where the dead are hidden away. I know you, Hecate, how you paint your face before you parade in front of the gods of the upper world. I shall force you to present yourselves in your true colours, your native, ghastly pallor. As for you, Proserpine, who were carried off from Henna and now lie beneath the measureless weight of the earth, I shall tell the world what are the pleasures which keep you down below, what are the true relations between you and the gloomy King of Night, and what filthy disease you caught from contact with him, because of which, even if you wanted to, your mother, Ceres, would not let you return to the upper world. And as for you, Pluto, the vilest of the three brothers who now govern the universe, I shall send Titan to break open your dark cave and strike you with a flash of his sunlight. Are you all going to do my will? Or shall I have to call on Him, the One at whose name once pronounced the whole world shakes? He who uses her own whips on the Fury, who shrinks beneath His lashes, He who lives as lord in the depths of Hell in a darkness you cannot see into, so far down indeed that you creatures of Hell are as high above Him as are the Olympian gods above you. Unlike all these gods, he dare break an oath sworn by the Styx’.
By the time Dante himself came to read this passage he would find in a gloss that the references in Statius and Lucan to a mysterious god were both to the same god, named Demogorgon. Modern classical scholars scoff at this bizarre word, which has been barbarously put together from daemon and Gorgo (Medusa). They account for its emergence by positing a failure to recognize the Greek word which was borrowed from Pilato by certain Gnostics to designate a supreme god, the word which we know in English as demiurge. I do not share this view, but I cannot deny that in the long life the dread name of Demogorgon has enjoyed from late antiquity down to the seventeenth century, we cannot find a single reference to Demogorgon in the practical manuals of necromancers. I argue, therefore, that Demogorgon has always been a literary fiction, a re-enactment of the two episodes of Tiresias and that of Erichtho.
Where does all this leave us? You might be expecting me to say that we should be aghast at the thought that for Dante there were two rival and equal forces in the universe, that there was an exact parallel in the summons to Virgil by Heaven in the person of Beatrice and that by Hades in the person of Erichtho. But this, to my mind, would be going much too far. It is not significant that Dante never mentions Demogorgon. The truth is more likely to be that, while taking note of the claims made for Erichtho and her ‘boss’, Dante had no real place for them in his Hell. In fact the admission of so much of the infernal powers specific to Hades as Dante allows can only be explained by the hole at the centre of Dante’s Hell, the hole we learn about at the very end of the Inferno, where in the place of a terrible centre of activity, the Dis of Dante’s Hell turns out to be a roi fainéant, not so far away, except in the point of evil, from Pope’s
Most souls, ’tis true, but peep out once an age,
Dull sullen pris’ners in the body’s cage:
Dim lights of life that burn a length of years,
Useless, unseen, as lamps in sepulchres:
Like Eastern Kings a lazy state they keep,
And close confin’d in their own palace slecp.
The dilemma we were faced with in declaring that, while Dante was deeply interested in Erichtho, he was not touched to the quick, arises again when we come across the claim that the Furies are tragic. For, on the one hand, if the Furies are not figures in tragedy, what are they? On the other hand, I shall have to insist that the Furies we meet in Dante bear no resemblance to the Erinyes we find in Greek tragedies. In so insisting, I am not only opposing Sapegno and all the Italian critics but almost everybody who handles the topic of the tre furie infernal, Tisiphone, Megaera and Allecto. If I had to confess to pleading pro domo on behalf of my monograph, I must now fight pro ara et focis on behalf of the views I put forward in my book on tragedy. In a nutshell, the case I am pleading for is for a distinction between the ‘horrors’ and tragic horror. (We can all distinguish tragedy from grandguignol, but where do we place Webster?)
I shall certainly have few on my side when I declare that the frightful creatures in Aeschylus’ play, The Eumenides, are not tragic figures. The Furies only become tragic when they cease to be visible, vaguely resembling women, and when the three shrink into one word, Erinys. She is only tragic when she is both inside as well as outside the doomed hero. Erinys is only tragic when she is another word for Ate. This is a word never breathed nowadays in ears polite, but my ‘crash course’ cannot do without it. Homer gave us a short description when, in the Nineteenth Book of his Iliad, he provided Agamemnon with the only decent excuse he could make to the Greeks for the ‘mad’ decision he took in the First Book to rob Achilles of his ‘prize’ (geras). Pope did not blush to use the words we never hear in ordinary discourse today.
Know, angry Jove, and all-compelling Fate,
With fell Erynris, urg’d my Wrath that Day
When from Achilles’ Arms I forc’d the Prey.
What then cou’d I, against the Will of Heaven?
Not by my self, but vengeful Ate driv’n;
She, Jove’s dread Daughter, fated to infest
The Race of Mortals, enter'd in my Breast.
Not on the Ground that haughty Fury treads,
But prints her lofty Footsteps on the Heads
Of mighty Men; inflicting as she goes
Long-fest'ring Wounds, inextricable Woes!
Of old, she stalk’d amid the bright Abodes;
And Jove himself, the Sire of Men and Gods,
The World’s great Ruler, felt her venom’d Dart;
Deceiv’d by Juno’s Wiles, and female Art.
Fortunately, I can now side-step further dogmatic remarks by me in favour of an excellent book, which clears up the precise meaning of Erinys in the tragic act. The author is describing the doom of Eteocles in the play by Aeschylus we call The Seven against Thebes:
La folie meurtrière qui va désormais définir son ethos n’est pas seulement un sentiment humain, c’est une puissance démonique qui dépasse Etéocle de toute part. Elle l’enveloppe dans le nuage obscur de l’ase, elle le pénètre è la facon d’un dieu prenant du dedans possession de celui dont il a décidé la perte, sous forme d’une mania, d’une lussa, d’un délire engendrant des actes criminels d’hubris.
The murderous rage which from now on will dominate his moral being is more than a purely human feeling. It is a demonic power, which completely envelops the hero. He is now wrapped in the black cloud of ate, who passes into him and through and through. It is as if a god were encamped inside him and totally possessed him to destroy him by driving him mad, and forcing him in his wild fury to commit guilty acts of hubris.
But Dante had no access to Greek tragedy. His approach to The Seven Against Thebes had to be through Statius. From the passages I have already quoted we can see that the main differences between the Furies in Greek and Latin are that the former are on the side of the gods and carry out their good purposes, even though to the men who receive these heavenly visitors the effect feels like madness. In Statius, the Furies are denziens of Hades, and serve the superior infernal powers. To bring home what a moral and spiritual abyss separates the Greek from the Roman treatment, I have chosen the same moment in the career of Oedipus, just after he had destroyed his eyes on learning of what crimes he had been guilty. I have chosen this passage from the play by Sophocles we know as Oedipus the King because I thought that in it was revealed the essence of all tragedy. We must suppose that a great deal is lost by falling back on a prose version, but the essential facts of the sense of having been possessed and yet still feeling responsible for the deeds come over in prose very much as, I fondly imagine, they must have done in the Greek. The chorus open the dialogue:
- How could you bring yourself to destroy your eyes? What the god that pushed your arm?
- Apollo. My friends, I want you all to know that it was Apollo who willed these troubles on me and brought me low. But it was my own hand alone did the horrid deed. I had nothing left my eyes could bear to see. All was bitterness.
- It was indeed.
- Yes, friends, there was nothing to give me joy, seeing or hearing. Take me away as quick as you can. Get rid of a man, the worst of wretches, the most accursed, the most hateful to gods and men.
- When I think of what you did, and of what was done to you, I wish I had never known you.
- My curse on the man, whoever he was, in those pasture lands, who took the clamps off my feet and saved my life. Little good did he do me. If I had died them, I should not now be giving pain to myself and my friends.
- Amen to that.
- I should never have killed my father. I should never have married someone from whom I am descended. As it is, I have lost my connection with the gods. My parents have desecrated religion. I am the child of sin. No sin can be greater than mine when I shared the defiled bed.
- There is no action of yours I can say was well done. You ought to have killed, not blinded yourself. [I omit a short passage]
- Why were you so kind to me Cithaeron? You could have killed me on the spot, and nobody would have known I had existed. What an ugly sore was festering under my fair skin when I was a boy in the Corinth I took to be my true fatherland, and you my true father, Polybus! Now everybody has seen me exposed as a bad son of bad parents.
Are you still dreaming of my fine doings, you three roads, you secret glen, you coppice and narrow way where those three roads meet? Do you still remember how you supped up my blood, the blood I poured out for you from my father’s veins? And did you ever hear of the sequel — what transpired elsewhere? The bed on which I was got with sperm and brought into the world had to know me delivering the same sperm and having that turned into children — a dreadful mix-up in the blood of our tribe, father and son, brother and sister, boys and girls, daughter and mother, all wrongly blood-related — there is no fouler nor unholier deed a man can commit.
If we now follow the same scene in Statius, we may see how the axis has shifted. The Sophoclean hero felt that he was in the hands of a god. In Statius, Oedipus is consciously in league with the powers of darkness, who favour his evil desires of vengeance:
After doing the right thing in using his own hands to dig out the eyes which had seen what they should not, and after drowning in the sea of endless night the good name he had lost for ever, Oedipus was living on earth a prolonged death-in-life. By this deed he had made friends with darkness, as he hid in his inner chamber from the physical light of day. Yet the fierce light of his conscience played ceaselessly over his head, and the powers which avenge crime sat heavy in his heart. Then he uncovered his vacant orbs, and with hands still bloody from the cruel self-punishment he began to beat on the earth [no doubt, to summon the gods of the underworld], and pray in a voice made inhuman by pain: ‘Do me a favour, ye gods who control the dead, and who rule over the realm of Tartarus, now crammed full to the gates with the guilty dead, and you Styx, you I now see clearly with my blinded eyes down to the shadiest depths where you lie like a corpse, and, more than all the other infernal powers, you Tisiphone, my familiar spirit, I beg you to favour my unnatural desires. AIl I have ever done in my life was in your service. When I fell from my mother’s womb, it was you who picked me up and became my nurse. You set me on my feet and healed the pierced holes. It was you I was serving when I went to consult the oracle, when I could have stayed at home happily with my supposed father, Polybus. It was for you I was acting when I came to the place where three roads meet, and I strangled the aged king. It was your cleverness which provided me with the answers to the riddle set by the Sphinx. Thanks to you, I experienced all the ecstacies, all the shame, and passed many a long and enjoyable night in my mother’s bed. You know I there got children fit to serve you. And now, last of all, to please you I have laid murderous fingers on myself and sent my dead eyes to join my poor mother. If I have carried out to the end all the suggestions you have made to me, I beg you now to grant my prayer.'
This prayer turns out to be the evil wish for Tisiphone to enter his two sons and bring about the war against Thebes.
So much for the claim that Dante’s Furies are tragic. On the other hand, I must assert with equal vigour that they are not mere lifeless plaster casts, fit only to hang moral vices on. I think we are not reading Dante correctly if we lose the sense which filled Dante when he read the chief passages in Statius, Virgil and Ovid, where we see, dramatically, what these infernal powers were and how they treated their human victims. I therefore propose, as I hope to do later, when we detect Dante's interest in Giants, that, as a preliminary to reading further in the Inferno, we put together Dante’s Book of Furies, containing the vivid pictures of Tisiphone, Allecto and the Dirae. I conjecture that Statius’ favourite Fury, Tisiphone, loomed most prominently in Dante’s mind. Let me therefore open the page which, in the First Book of the Thebaid, follows Oedipus’ prayer to her, and take advantage of Pope's spirited version:
The Fury heard, while on Coeytus’ Brink
Her Snakes, unty’d, Sulphureous Waters drink;
But at the Summons, roll’d her Eyes around,
And snatch’d the starting Serpents from the Ground.
Not half so swiftly shoots along in Air
The gliding Lightning, or descending Star.
Thro’ Crouds of Airy Shades she wing’d her Flight,
And dark Dominions of the silent Night;
Swift as she past, the flitting Ghosts withdrew,
And the pale Spectres trembled at her View:
To th’ Iron Gates of Taenarus she flies,
There spreads her dusky Pinions to the Skies.
The Day beheld, and sick’ning at the Sight,
Veil’d her fair Glories in the Shades of Night.
Affrighted Atlas, on the distant Shore,
Trembl’d, and shook the Heav’ns and Gods he bore.
Now from beneath Malea’s airy Height
Aloft she sprung, and steer’d to Thebes her Flight;
With eager Speed the well-known Journey took,
Nor here regrets the Hell she late forsook.
A hundred Snakes her gloomy Visage shade,
A hundred Serpents guard her horrid Head,
In her sunk Eye-balls dreadful Meteors glow,
Such Rays from Phoebe’s bloody Circle flow,
When lab’ring with strong Charms, she shoots from high,
A fiery Gleam, and reddens all the Sky.
Blood stain’d her Cheeks, and from her Mouth there came
Blue steaming Poisons, and a Length of Flame;
From ev’ry Blast of her contagious Breath,
Famine and Drought proceed, and Plagues, and Death:
A Robe obscene was o’er her Shoulders thrown,
A Dress by Fates and Furies worn alone:
She tost her meagre Arms; her better Hand
In waving Circles whirl’d a Fun’ral Brand;
A Serpent from her left was seen to rear
His flaming Crest, and lash the yielding Air.
But when the Fury took her Stand on high,
Where vast Cythaeron's Top salutes the Sky,
A Hiss from all the Snaky Tire went round;
The dreadful Signal all the Rocks rebound,
And thro’ th’ Achaian Cities send the Sound.
Oete, with high Parnassus, heard the Voice;
Eurota’s Banks remurmur’d to the Noise;
Again Leucothoé shook at these Alarms,
And press’d Palaemon closer in her Arms.
Headlong from thence the glowing Fury springs,
And o’er the Theban Palace spreads her Wings,
Once more invades the guilty Dome, and shrouds
Its bright Pavilions in a Veil of Clouds.
Strait with the Rage of all their Race possest,
Stung to the Soul, the Brothers start from Rest,
And all the Furies wake within their Breast.
Their tortur’d Minds repining Envy tears,
And Hate, engender’d by suspicious Fears;
And sacred Thirst of Sway; and all the Ties
Of Nature broke; and Royal Perjuries;
And impotent Desire to Reign alone,
That scorns the dull Reversion of a Throne;
Each wou’d the sweets of Sovereign Rule devour,
While Discord waits upon divided Pow'r.
Dante was naturally less forthcoming when the Furies are the servants of the gods of Olympus, partly because he did not wish to consider the gods as having such wicked desires that they would go down to hell to find suitable Avengers. I have already alluded to the story in Virgil, to which I shall be returning to describe the part played by Allecto. Ovid took up the same situation but applied it to Tisiphone. We shall have to wait for Canto XXX to substantiate the claim that this story made a deep impression on Dante. Ovid brought the Fury in as the instrument of Juno, who, bent on the destruction of the whole race of Cadmus, turns on the two surviving members, Ino, Cadmus’ daughter, and her husband, Athamas. Juno, strangely, finds herself powerless to exterminate them. Yet her hatred is so strong that she resolves to leave her seat in heaven and descend to the nether world and ask the three Furies to help her:
Before a lofty, adamantine Gate,
Which clos’d a Tower of Brass, the Furies sate:
Mis-shapen Forms, tremendous to the sight,
Th’implacable foul Daughters of the Night.
A sounding Whip each bloody Sister shakes,
Or from her Tresses combs the curling Snakes.
Tisiphone steps forward to undertake the task:
Then fell Tisiphone with rage was stung,
And from her mouth th’untwisted Serpents flung.
... The faithful Fury, guiltless of delays,
With cruel Haste the dire Command obeys.
Girt in a bloody gown, a Torch she shakes,
And round her neck twines speckled wreaths of snakes.
Fear, and Dismay, and agonizing Pain,
With frantic Rage, complete her loveless Train.
To Thebes her Flight she sped, and Hell forsook;
At her approach the Theban Turrets shook:
The Sun shrunk back, thick Clouds the Day o’re-cast,
And springing greens were wither'd as she past.
Now, dismal Yellings heard, strange Specters seen,
Confound as much the Monarch as the Queen.
In vain to quit the Palace they prepar’d,
Tisiphone was there, and kept the Ward.
She wide extended her unfriendly Arms
And all the Fury lavish’d all her Harms.
Part of her Tresses loudly hiss, and part
Spread Poison, as their forky Tongues they dart.
Then from her middle Locks two Snakes she drew,
Whose merit from superior Mischief grew,
Th’envenom’d Ruin, thrown with spiteful Care,
Clung to the Bosoms of the hapless Pair.
The hapless Pair soon with wild Thoughts were fir’d
And madness by a thousand ways inspir’d.
How completely successful the infernal spirit had been in filling the pair with madness and fury is told by Dante in Canto XXX.
The grinning Fury her own Conquest spy’d,
And to her rueful Shades return’d with Pride,
And threw th’exhausted, useless, Snakes aside.
The action of the Furies is far graver in the Aeneid, when Juno turns to them for help in her attempt to change the course of the war in favour of Turnus. Feeling vanquished by Aeneas, and all her powers exhausted, Juno summons Allecto from the pit of darkness.
Thus having said, she sinks beneath the Ground,
With furious haste, and shoots the Stygian Sound
To rowze Alecto from th’ Infernal Seat
Of her dire Sisters, and their dark Retreat.
This Fury, fit for her Intent, she chose,
One who delights in Wars and Human Woes.
Ev’n Pluto hates his own misshapen Race:
Her Sister-Furies fly her hideous Face:
So frightful are the Forms the Monster takes,
So fierce the Hissings of her speckled Snakes.
She performs her first act as Juno’s Infernal Minister by snatching a snake from her hair, which slides down the gap between Amata’s robe and breast, and infects the innocent girl with its venemous breath, and thus effectively poisons the victim’s milk of human kindness as it bites her breast. Her second victim was Turnus himself. She first approaches him in the disguise of an old woman, but when she finds herself laughed off, she resumes her real self:
These haughty Words Alecto’s Rage provoke,
And frighted Turnus trembled as she spoke.
Her Eyes grew stiffen’d, and with Sulphur burn,
Her hideous Looks, and hellish Form return;
Her curling Snakes with Hissings fill the place,
And open all the Furies of her Face.
Then, darting Fire from her malignant Eyes,
She cast him backward as he strove to rise,
And, ling’ring, sought to frame some new Replies.
High on her Head she rears two twisted Snakes,
Her Chains she rattles, and her Whip she shakes;
And, churning bloody Foam, thus loudly speaks:
‘Behold whom Time has made to dote, and tell
Of Arms, imagin’d in her lonely Cell:
Behold the Fates’ Infernal Minister!
War, Death, Destruction, in my Hand I bear.’
But we only know fully what a hellish creature she is, when she completes her task by starting a war, and is dismissed by Juno: Then Juno thus:
The grateful Work is done,
The Seeds of Discord sow’d, the War begun:
Frauds, Fears, and Fury have possess’d the State,
And fix’d the Causes of a lasting Hate.
But thou with Speed to Night and Hell repair,
For not the Gods, nor angry Jove, will bear
Thy lawless wand’ring walks, in upper Air.
Leave what remains to me. Saturnia said,
The sullen Field her sounding Wings display’d,
Unwilling left the Light, and sought the nether Shade.
This Fury, clearly, belongs exclusively to the nether kingdom.
The extreme opposition, which induced me to use the word ‘abyss’, between the Greek and Roman conceptions of the Furies is tempered at the close of the Aeneid, where Virgil introduces the Furies under the name of Dirae. We find this name used vaguely in other parts of the poem for ‘avenging powers”. In Book XII they are explicitly defined as Jove's Ministers of Vengeance, and are employed to indicate, first, to Juturna, Turnus' sister, and then to Turnus himself, that the game is up. They are recognized by Turnus as a sign from heaven:
di me terrent et Jupiter hostis
what frightens me is the gods and Jupiter, who is now my enemy.
Deep in the dismal Regions, void of Light,
Three Daughters at a Birth were born to Night:
These their brown Mother, brooding on her Care,
Indu’d with windy Wings to flit in Air:
With Serpents girt alike; and crown’d with hissing Hair.
In Heav’n, the Dirae call’d, and still at hand,
Before the Throne of angry Jove they stand.
His Ministers of Wrath; and ready still
The Minds of Mortal Men with Fears to fill:
When e’re the moody Sire, to wreak his Hate
On Realms, or Towns deserving of their Fate,
Hurls down Diseases, Death, and deadly Care,
And terrifies the guilty World with War.
But what prevents me from having to eat my words by proclaiming that here we have the Greek Erinys and Até is the behaviour of this Minister on receiving the order to go into action:
Soon as the Field inclos’d she had in view,
And from afar her destin’d Quarry knew:
Contracted to the boding Bird she turns,
Which haunts the ruin’d Piles, and hallow'd Urns;
And beats about the Tombs with nightly Wings...
I break off here because at some moment in his reading I suppose that Dante must have said to himself, ‘Why, this is Erichtho!. You may recall that in this Canto I thought that Dante was more interested in the necromancer than in the witch. Virgil is here recalling the origin of all these infernal creatures. These Furies were all birds. They were birds of ill omen, known as striges (whence the Italian for witches, streghe) screech-owls. We can find a ‘conjuring’ scene in Shakespeare's The Second Part of King Henry the Sixth, where the conjuror announces the propitious hour:
The time when Screech-owles cry, and Bandogs howle,
And Spirits walke, and Ghosts break vp their Graues.
It is plain from Lucan that Erichtho began as a bird that haunts the graveyard in order to eat the corpses:
She would not lodge her damned head
In towns, or house, or any shed,
But still among the graues would rest,
And tombes of corses dispossest.
Although my companions are not a captive audience, so long as they are fellow-travellers they have been forced to jog along with me for what may have seemed an unconscionably lengthy spell as I ran through these pages from Dante’s Book of Furies. I have felt myself under suspicion of nursing some peculiar sympathies with these odd figures. My mind, however, is clear. The Furies do not mesh with us at any level. We never think of them when we have to take a short-cut home at midnight through a graveyard. (With the progress of the habit of cremation these lurking-places of the screech owl seem less eerie.) Nor do the Furies benefit from the pockets of loony amateur magicians who ape the more pictorial aspects of witchcraft. I have the greatest difficulty in putting myself in the frame of mind I suppose was Dante’s. Nevertheless I think we ought to consider the possibility that the dreadful three were realities for Dante, and that the scenes I have alluded to were played over and over in Dante’s private theatre.
The reason why I have gone on so long about them is that I wish to place a weight on one side of the scales to balance that on the opposite pan, put there by the body of Italian critics who regard these figures as allegories. Have the Italians misunderstood Dante’s drift? The best of them are willing to confess that it is not easy to hold this line throughout the Canto. I notice that they are inclined to pick and choose their allegories. The gamut runs from complete silence as regards Erichtho to complete adherence to the view that the Medusa is exclusively an allegorical figure — though they differ when asked, ‘an allegory of what? Though I am willing to oppose this body of experts, I am forced in turn to recognize that my conviction rests on a great many imponderables. All parties, for instance, see that we cannot pick and choose; our interpretation must hold of the whole Canto. As we saw when discussing Canto VIII, Dante’s design has the unity of a play, where the last act is the visit by the Messenger, followed by a theatrical, or rather, pantomime, change of scenery, when we step into the area of the heretics. Consequently, the ultimate decision must be in terms of the audience for whom the show was being put on. The question will be decided when we can say, What were Virgil and Dante afraid ofand most concerned with?
If all this is so, there is something odd in persisting with the line I have been taking. Yet it is a line that cannot be avoided by those who have a nose for poetry and follow their noses, and have a distrust for allegory ‘whenever they suspect it is being imported by those whose responses to poetry are not so strong as their desires for doctrine. The undertow of the dispute is once again the fundamental quarrel between those who see the Infero as primarily a poem and those who regard it as primarily a revelation of spiritual truth. What complicates matters is that for both parties the Furies in this Canto do not lie in the centre of Dante’s preoccupations. Yet, for the time the Furies are on the stage, the thousand devils, who proved so formidable, are off. But once the Furies have staged their turn, they vanish into air, into thin air. (We know that they will be returning in later cantos, but that does not help here.)
I fancy that some of these Italian critics, who have done their best to re-create in their private theatres the Greek and Roman scenes in which the Furies have the lead, would have been more responsive to the line I have favoured but for an explicit address Dante makes to the reader:
O voi ch’avete li ’ntelletti sani,
mirate la dottrina che s’asconde
sotto ’l velame de li versi strani.
O you who have mens sana in your bodies, gaze with wonder on the teaching which is hiding under the veil of these wondrous lines!
What seems to me an illegitimate conclusion to draw from this address is that all the seven direct addresses to the reader in the Inferno are exactly of the same type. And it is even more illegitimate to suppose that they are all of the explicit kind we meet with in Canto VIII of the Purgatorio:
Aguzza qui, lettor, ben li occhi al vero,
ché ’l velo è ora ben tanto sottile,
certo che ’l trapassar dentro è leggero.
Reader, here you must sharpen your gaze to see the truth, for the veil covering it is so very thin that it is certainly an easy matter for your eyes to see through it to the hidden truth. This language of veils became standard doctrine once the myths had lost their religious power. We find it expressed in a delightful little book by Sir Francis Bacon, which is devoted to the topic.
And yet for all this I relinquish not my opinion. For first it may not be, that the folly and loosenesse of a few should altogether detract from the respect due to the Parables: for that were a conceit which might sauour of prophanenesse and presumption: for Religion it selfe doth somtimes delight in such vailes and shadowes: so that who so exempts them, seemes in a manner to interdict all commerce betweene things diuine and humane. But concerning humane wisedome, I doe indeed ingenuously and freely confesse, that I am enclined to imagine, that vnder some of the ancient fictions lay couched certaine mysteries and Allegories, euen from their first inuention. And I am perswaded (whether rauished with the reuerence of Antiquity, or because in some Fables I finde such singular proportion betweene the similitude and the thing signified; and such apt and cleare coherence in the very structure of them, and propriety of names wherewith the persons or actors in them are inscribed and intitled) that no man can constantly deny, but this sense was in the Authours intent and meaning when they first inuented them, and that they purposely shadowed it in this sort.
I am now ready to return to N. Sapegno, continuing from the excellent summary I quoted from in discussing Canto VIII:
Dante is evidently responding to a clear, specified structural requirement in thus offering a sort of miracle play. As the pilgrim stands at the threshold of the City of Dis, and prepares himself to face the stiffest part of his journey, Dante brings on once again, but this time more weightily than in the opening cantos, the reasons for feeling full of anxiety and perplexity, the doubts, obstacles and dangers which have already once presented themselves, and had been temporarily overcome at the start of the journey. In lines 61-63 of this Canto, Dante himself underlines the moral and allegorical significance of the dramatic events. It is like a repeat performance of the first act of the Inferno, but this time Dante strengthens it with much greater and maturer artistry, and turns all the leading general themes into real particulars, imaginatively conceived. All the figures, all the turns of events, all the details of the drama, are enriched by acquiring a symbolic meaning. At the same time all the symbols are presented in powerful relief, and are drawn with sharp, vivid outlines, which give an impression of down-to-earth actuality.
Sapegno has no difficulty in dismissing as absurd the widely-differing conjectures of the earliest commentators, for he feels sure of his own interpretation:
As for the meaning of Dante’s address to the reader in lines 61-63, there is little agreement even among the early commentators, and the views of some of them are rather wild. Lana thought the Medusa stood for heresy, while Boccaccio (and in this he is followed by many recent critics) preferred to see her as a picture of that sensuality which blinds mankind. For Pietro Alighieri, Bambagliuoli and Benvenuto, she was an allegory of the terror she causes Dante when, allied with the Furies, (who are symbols of remorse) she tries to drive him back from his journey. If we keep in mind that the whole episode is designed with a single, clear doctrinal purpose, in tune with the general allegory of the whole poem, it seems clear that Dante, on the point of facing the most difficult part of his journey through Hell (in which is symbolised the process of contrition and the acquisition of freedom from sin), wished to underline the most serious obstacles men have to meet and have to overcome in their attempts to save their souls. These obstacles are the temptations (the devils), the ‘againbite of inwit’ as a man recalls and feels remorse for his past life (the Furies), and, lastly, religious doubt or despair, (Medusa).
What right has Sapegno to say that this is obvious? I ask this in the light of a remark made by another Italian scholar:
What are these Furies symbols of? Evil in general? Or, as Scartazzini would have it, the hardening of the conscience? Or, as Pascoli thought, spiritual blindness and stupidity? Or malice, or fraud ... or sensual pleasure? Perhaps they stand for all these things.
Does not this throw a real doubt over the whole enterprise of searching for an allegorical interpretation?
My objection, however, is more fundamental, if there can be degrees of fundamentality. If this had been the purpose for which the whole Canto was designed, what an absolute duffer Dante would have shown himself to be in choosing objects which are so far off the things they are supposed to stand for! I won't say I know any more than Sapegno does what the Furies were doing when they scratched themselves. But I should never have supposed that they themselves were feeling remorse. And if the way to discover what they stood for is to examine the feelings of Dante and Virgil, the last thing that would occur to me is that the two poets were overcome by regret or shame for the sins of their misspent youths. Dante was clearly afraid. And, so far from thinking that the Furies were going to undermine Dante’s Christian faith, Virgil was sure that it was their lives which were at stake, not their religion. Virgil, so far from seeing an allegory in the Medusa, saw the immediate prospect of physical danger:
‘Volgiti ’n dietro e tien lo viso chiuso;
ché se ’l Gorgon si mostra e tu ’l vedessi,
nulla sarebbe di tornar mai suso.’
Così disse ’l maestro; ed elli stessi
mi volse, e non si tenne a le mie mani,
che con le sue ancor mi chiudessi.
“Turn your back and cover your eyes. If the Furies display the head, and you see the Medusa, your chances of getting back to earth are nil.’ Virgil not only warned me, but he took it on himself to turn me round, and, in case I might be too paralysed to protect my face, he covered my eyes with his own hands.
I conclude that not only are the Furies not allegorical, they are not part of a coherent design. The reason for the failure of the commentators to find for them a convincing symbolic meaning is that they are not an integral part of Dante’s general design. They are temporary inmates in, not permanent residents in Dante’s Hell. Dante had clearly not thought out all the difficulties of mixing the classical Furies, the servants of Erichtho, and the Christian devils, servants of Lucifer. The two sets of infernal beings belong to incompatible systems. The effect of this failure is that the Furies cease to be classical without becoming mediaeval. They create a momentary sensation and then expire like fireworks.
If ever there was a case for pleading for the priority of the literal over every other sense, we have it, I suggest, in the rest of this Canto. There are special reasons here in addition to those which govern the whole Inferno. For, if Dante really meant strani to apply to this intervention of a Heavenly Messenger, then we must be departing from Dante if we find a simple ‘interpretation’. Should we not say that an integral part of a literal reading is acquiring the conviction that, if there was anything in the slightest degree ‘allegorical’ about the devils, the Furies and the threat of Medusa, the Messenger is no allegory but the thing itself. Now, if there is a grain of truth in all this, Sapegno must stand condemned for the following comment:
The powers of human reason (Virgil) are sufficient up to a point to repel all the assaults of the devils, but the intervention of Grace (the Divine Messenger) is needed to fulfil the process of redemption and salvation.
The most obvious objection, to my mind, is to the reduction of Virgil to an allegory of Reason. In which canto is it made clear that Virgil’s password, that allowed him to go through the various check-points in Hell with the minimum of resistance, was ‘the powers of human reason’? His password had always been, ‘I am a delegate of God's Will, that Dante should be shown over the whole of Hell’. It is a very strange thing that on this one and only occasion, at the gates of Dis, Virgil’s credentials are not respected. We must wonder, too, why this was the last time Virgil required the help of a special envoy from heaven. What does Dante want us to do with all this strangeness? What a silly waste of our time, if he designed the culminating act of the drama with no other aim than of producing the proverbial rabbit out of the hat, if the revelation was merely that ‘Grace’ was the open sesame needed to unbar the door.
Now it ill becomes me to lecture Sapegno on Christian theology. A fair question to put to him is, What right has he to reduce the real presence of a messenger to an allegory? The result of this reduction is that many of this messenger’s acts and sayings (and his omissions to act and speak) have to be ignored as irrelevant. (I will touch only lightly, since I don’t feel competent to pass judgement on the point, on a general accusation, that many Italian critics are inclined to make Dante papstlicher als der Papst, more of a narrow-minded conventional, post-Tridentine Roman Catholic than he appears in our poem.) But, supposing we were to attempt to define Grace, would we find ourselves describing all the acts of the Messenger? I wonder whether Sapegno ever heard in any of the Christian accounts of the many ways in which Grace touches the human spirit anything corresponding to the manner of this Messenger towards Virgil and Dante?
e non fé motto a noi, ma fé sembiante
d’omo cui altra cura stringa e morda
che quella di colui che li è davante.
never a word did he say: he seemed to pay no attention to us, as if quite different troubles were gripping and biting him.
My major objection, however, is to what Sapegno called the ‘process of redemption and salvation’. This was no idle phrase; Sapegno’s admirable summary of the whole action in these two Cantos closes with these words:
Nevertheless, it is possible that perhaps the deepest and most meaningful part of the poetry which is condensed in these pages must inevitably escape a reader incapable of perceiving in the dramatic movement of the scene the myth of the soul constantly, repeatedly plunged in the anguish and desolation of its insufficiency, or exalted in the knowledge of being in harmony with the avenging justice of Providence or reassured and freed from all fear with arms outstretched to receive the help of Grace.
The heart of the objection lies in the belief that we must consider first the visible drama before we can discover any ‘myth’. And the drama has to do principally with the two poets. Now, it seems to me obvious that they are not faced with any such problems. They do not feel that they are being insidiously seduced into committing any mortal sins. In this Canto Dante is never shown facing spiritual difficulties in his Christian faith and as undergoing redemption and salvation when, finally, the Messenger appears. We cannot forget the virtual snub both poets receive. (Some critics think that it was more than a snub; it was tacit condemnation.)
Could we rather complain that Dante has brought a hammer to crush a butterfly?: That all that happens is that a temporary log-jam has been unblocked? The journey suffered a momentary hitch and can now go smoothly forward? Are we fully satisfied that the evident alarm of both Virgil and Dante was justified? Some of the commentators write as if the Medusa actually appeared on the scene. Is this what Dante says?
‘Vegna Medusa: Sì ’l farem di smalto.’
Fetch Medusa: she’ll quickly turn him to stone.
The first-time reader is all agog, thinking that Virgil’s precautions were being taken in the nick of time. But, as you know, Dante interrupts the tale with an address to the reader. I am inclined to think that this interruption looks both backwards and forwards, but that the tremendous fracas was what Dante had chiefly in mind. It certainly came as a relief to Virgil. He took his hands off Dante’s eyes well knowing that all danger was over. Now, Virgil’s behaviour does not suggest that he was either expecting or meeting Grace. He may have decided that he was seeing an apparition like Samuel. My companions will not have forgotten that the Witch of Endor succeeded in bringing this formidable figure up from the dead and that Saul prostrated himself, bowing his face to the ground.
e quei fé segno
ch’ i’ stessi queto ed inchinassi ad esso
Virgil indicated to me that I should keep silent and bow before him.
This fracas may remind us of the similar event, when the ‘conjuror’ was calling ‘Spirits from the vastie Deepe'.
I would suggest that, on this, our second-time round, we should be content to follow Dante, and dwell on what he tells us, and not be too curious about matters on which he is reticent. For instance, Dante does not tell us who the apparition was, but only his function. Therefore, I suggest, we should cease to speculate about his identity. If you dabbled in the commentaries on this Canto, you would be astonished at the conviction with which the answers are given, ranging from Christ himself to the longed-for Emperor, the supposed Veltro of the First Canto. Let us rather try out the possible meanings of ‘Messenger’. The Roman Virgil shared the modern schoolboy’s fascination with visitors from outer space. There is an elaborate account in Book IV of the Aeneid of Mercury’s descent to earth, (IV/222-278), when he was sent down to warn the hero that he had a mission to accomplish.
If Dante possessed a Book of Furies or a Book of Giants, he would also possess a Book of Messengers. Some fragments of his reading in it seem to be present in our Canto. There are two appearances of Mercury in Statius’” Thebaid which are likely candidates. The Italian commentators usually plump for Book II, where Mercury returns with the ghost of Laius. There are some striking verbal resemblances. Like Dante’s Heavenly Messenger, Mercury moves through pigrae nubes and has to contend with the enveloping turbidus aer. Nevertheless I sense a stronger influence coming from a second appearance in the Seventh Book, where Mercury is sent on a mission to Mars. I prefer this appearance, not only on account of the description of the winds, but because of what Mercury saw as he approached the home of Mars:
His palace, where no spirit had learned to be tame, was surrounded by a thousand Furies. The walls, the gates, the roof, were all of iron.
Statius adds a formidable list of threatening sentinels. But it is the manner of the approach which clinches the claim:
As Mercury came floating down from the North, he was met with storms that never subside, which drove him from his course, and by clouds ranging like mighty armies in the sky, and the first blasts of the North Wind. Pouring rain rattled down and drenched him.
After my many illustrations of the ‘conjurors’ putting the infernal powers in their places, we may think we see parallels in the haughty attitude of the Messenger:
‘O cacciati del ciel, gente dispetta,’
cominciò elli in su l’orribil soglia,
‘ond’ esta oltracotanza in voi s’alletta?
Perché recalcitrate a quella voglia
a cui non puote il fin mai esser mozzo,
e che più volte v’ha cresciuta doglia?
Standing on the frightful threshold he said, ‘You despicable creatures, you rejects from Heaven, where have you found this fresh stock of insolence? Why do you persist in kicking against the pricks? Why do you continue to fight against the Will which can never come short of anything it determines? Hasn't it given you enough causes for smarting?’
But Dante’s main concern appears to be to indicate just how superior such a being must be, and how remote from our affairs. He makes Heaven seem infinitely far off. By contrast we may now feel that Beatrice had made Heaven seem a cosy place not so many miles away from earth.
I find nothing merely mediaeval in this little scene. The perception of such an attitude strikes me as a permanently valid way for presenting the difference between living in the eternal world and living in the temporal. When I live over this moment of power and authority, I am reminded of a key figure in Kafka’s novel, Das Schloß, who is there described as ein Machtiger, a man of power, but with the depressing name of Klamm. The moment I find helpful to recall now occurs when Klamm is likened to an eagle. Kafka's language is occasionally so obscure that I have to confess that the following is more a gloss than a translation:
This comparison had once seemed ridiculous to K., but it now ceased to do so when he thought how far off Klamm was from him, when he thought of the place he lived in, which nobody could penetrate into, of his silence never broken by any cries for his help that K. had heard. Above all, Klamm’s gaze when he looked down on K. with his piercing eye. There was no possibility of challenging that look. K. seemed to himself to be gazing up from an abyss at movements whose laws he could never hope to fathom. Klamm’s flights through the air could never be affected by anything K. might do. They flashed before his eyes and disappeared. In all this, Klamm seemed to K. fit to be compared with an eagle.
Kafka was always striving to bring out the incommensurability of the divine and the human, but he never achieved the dramatic credibility of Dante’s Messenger. Has anyone ever doubted Dante’s account of the ease with which the devils were dismissed, and the gates of Dis opened? This was a moment a modern Longinus might place alongside the account in the Treatise on the Sublime of the act of creation in Genesis. The Greek critic thought it was the work of no ordinary man to be able to express so worthily the real power of god, when he wrote, ‘Let there be light, and there was light.’ Dante is not so lapidary, but in the context the dignity of the expression matches the deed:
Venne a la porta e con una verghetta
l’aperse, che non v’ebbe alcun ritegno.
He went up to the door and opened it with a little wand, and there was no sign of any resistance.
But the moment of sublimity for me comes at the end, as I am forced to stretch beyond my limits to try to encompass what the cares could be which preoccupied the Messenger so much that they might stringa and morda, grip and bite him.
Dante never loses an opportunity for the unexpected:
Dentro li ’ntrammo sanz’ alcuna guerra;
e io, ch’ avea di riguardar disio
la condizion che tal fortezza serra,
com’ io fui dentro, l’occhio intorno invio,
e veggio ad ogne man grande campagna...
We met with no resistance when we entered the city. I was full of curiosity to find out the state of things inside such a mighty fortress. The moment I set forth inside it, I looked about me and discovered that all was open country...
The surprise was well expressed by Bruno Nardi:
What a strange city is this city of Dis! A wide marsh surrounds it; we see its walls, a high tower, its red-hot turrets — it has all the marks of a fortress that it would be difficult to take in direct assault. But the moment we are allowed inside, the whole picture disappears. There are no houses, no palaces, no squares, no mosques for the worship of the King of Hell, but ‘open country on every hand’...
We can understand that Dante should have held conventional views about heretics and their appropriate punishment, treatment which so closely resembles that meted out to people who do not see eye to eye with the government of some illiberal countries of our own day. But would I be alone in hoping that Dante did not gaze with dry eyes on the bonfires of heretics in his own Florence? He does not say that, when he looked on this living graveyard, the cries rising from the red-hot graves reminded him of cries he had heard on earth. (Is it odd that it did not occur to Dante that the best punishment for those who had refused to believe in any kind of existence after death would have been to let them walk about in Hell and discover their mistake?)
Is it possible that Dante changed his mind after completing this Canto? You all know that two very striking pieces of information are virtually forgotten when we turn to the next Canto. The first has great sociological interest:
più che non credi son le tombe carche
there are a larger number of occupied tombs than you might have expected.
Dante could not have gone out ofhis way to say this unless he possessed some knowledge, which, so far as I know, was not available to any contemporary, and has not been confirmed by any modern historian. The other odd feature is that in this Canto Dante thinks of the graveyard as ordered in a full hierarchy:
Qui son li eresiarche
con lor seguaci, d’ogne setta
Here lie all the founders of heresies with all their followers. Dante completes his full house with a point of characteristic thoroughness and tidiness:
Simile qui con simile è sepolto,
e i monimenti son più e men caldi.
Each sect has its own quarter, and the heat varies with the degree and gravity of the heresy.
But these questions, including that of the regulation of oven temperatures, are forgotten when, in the next Canto, Dante meets his heroes.