At the Gates of Dis [Mark Musa]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Mark Musa

Tratto da: Advent at the gates: Dante's Comedy

Editore: Indiana University Press, Bloomington-London

Anno: 1974

Pagine: 65-84

When Beatrice came, Christ came. Most critics recognize the final Advent of Christ in the Coming of Beatrice to judge her lover in Purgatory XXX. I believe that the First Advent of Christ and the Second are also present in the Divine Comedy: in Inferno IX and Purgatory VIII, respectively.
Now it may be said that each of these two cantos appears in the same place in its canticle—that is, if we consider Canto I of the Inferno as an introduction to the whole poem (which would leave 33 cantos in the Irferzo proper to correspond with the 33 of the Purgatory and of the Paradise). And not only do Inferno IX and Purgatory VIII appear in the ‘’same place,” but the events treated in each lead to similar developments in the Pilgrim's journey: the action in Inferno IX precedes his entrance into the City of Dis; that in Purgatory VIII precedes his entrance into the gate of Purgatory proper.
Moreover, in both cantos the poet interrupts the narrative with a tercet inviting the reader to penetrate to the doctrine hidden behind the veil of his words:

O voi ch’avete li ’ntelletti sani,
mirate la dottrina che s'asconde
sotto ’l velame de li versi strani.
(Inferno IX, 61-63)

(O allof you whose intellects are sound,
look now and see the meaning that is hidden
beneath the veil that covers my strange verses)

Aguzza qui, lettor, ben li occhi al vero,
ché ’l velo è ora ben tanto sottile,
certo che ’l trapassar dentro è leggero.
(Purgatory VIII, 19-21)

(Here, reader, sharpen well your eyes to the truth
for, now, the veil is so transparent
that, certainly, seeing through it isan easy matter).

Of the many “addresses to the reader” in the Divine Comedy these are the only ones in which we are explicitly asked to interpret the literal sense of the narrative figuratively; accordingly, we should see the two passages in sharper parallel than is usually done. In fact, that Dante in the second passage was remembering his earlier admonition to the reader and was expecting his reader to remember it too, is suggested by the ora of line 20: "Reader, the veil now is surely so transparent that it is easy to penetrate.” That is, the reader “now”' is being offered an easier mystery to solve than he was in the passage of Inferno IX (where the word velanze appears instead of the “più sottile velo” of the second passage.)
What is the mystery that Dante each time is asking the reader to solve? The first passage is immediately followed by the appearance of an angel who opens the gate of the City of Dis; the second, by the appearance of two angels in the Valley of the Princes, sent to put the serpent to flight. That the parallel between the two angelic events has been overlooked is easily explained: whereas Dante’s admonition to the reader in Purgatory VIII had been taken by the critics to refer to what follows (since what preceded was nothing remarkable), that of Inferno IX has mainly been taken to refer to what preceded—the sudden, startling appearance of the three Furies on the top of the tower, screaming and calling upon Medusa to come and turn the Pilgrim to stone. But since the admonitory tercet of Purgatory VIII must refer to what follows, it is only natural to assume, given the parallelisms already pointed out, that the same holds true for Inferno IX. And I believe that Dante, in asking us to consider the deep significance of the two angelic interventions, is asking us to think of the First and Second Advents of Christ.
Of the two parallels involved, that between the event in Purgatory VIII and the Second Advent can be more easily demonstrated: unlike the angelic intervention before the gates of Dis, the appearance of the angels in the Valley is presented as an habitual occurrence. Every day, at the same time of day, the angels come to wait for the serpent, who always comes and is always driven away. There could hardly be a clearer symbolization of Christ’s daily coming into the hearts of those ready to receive him.
The coming of the angel in Inferno IX to save the Pilgrim (who is Everyman) was a unique event, as was the First Advent, the Coming of Christ to save mankind. But there is more than this simple detail to suggest that Dante is thinking here in terms of the First Advent: at the end of Canto VIII Virgil reminds his ward of the devils’ failure to prevent Christ’s entrance into Hell—referring, that is, to the Harrowing of Hell. This event was the culmination of Christ’s life on earth, completing the miracle of His Coming, of His First Advent. In fact, St. Bernard defines the First Coming in terms of the descent into Hell; it is as if he sees in this Advent “one act of coming” uniting Heaven, Earth and Hell.
Taking for granted, then, that Inferno IX contains an enactment of the First Advent, and Purgatory VIII of the Second, let us study carefully in each case what precedes them in the text, in order to see the way in which the poet leads up to the moment of angelic intervention. Given the portentous significance of these two events (the only ones in the Divine Comedy whose veiled significance Dante has explicitly asked his reader beforehand to ponder), it is surely to be expected that the poet has striven with particular care to prepare for them in such a way as to set them into relief.
In order to follow the path leading to the First Advent let us begin by reviewing the events of Canto VIII. When this canto opens, the Pilgrim and his guide have come to the shore of the river Styx on the other side of which lies the City of Dis; Virgil has pointed out to him the figures of the Wrathful in the muddy waters, announcing the presence, beneath the water, of the Slothful, who are sending up bubbles through the mud. Suddenly the Pilgrim's eyes are attracted to the top of a tower by two flames issuing forth, and he sees another light from very far away flash back as if in response. To the Pilgrim's bewildered question Virgil answers enigmatically that he should already be able to see “quello che s' aspetta.” The Pilgrim looks over the waters to see Phlegyas swiftly approaching, shouting, “Now I've got you!” Virgil rebukes him disdainfully; the two travellers enter the boat and soon arrive at the other shore, their passage being interrupted by the encounter with Filippo Argenti. “Usciteci’’ cries Phlegyas landing the boat at a certain point, “qui è l'entrata.” They disembark and the Pilgrim sees thousands of devils massed upon the walls of Dis.
The demons greet his appearance with angry yells. Then begins a period of uncertainty for the Pilgrim and uncertainty for Virgil. In answer to the screams Virgil signals his wish to speak to the angry host secretly (a second time we are told of a signal given, and a second time there is a suggestion of secrecy). The Pilgrim’s fear begins when he hears the condition imposed by the devils: that while Virgil may come to the gates for the parley, the Pilgrim must return alone from where he had come—that is, back to the ‘‘dark wood” of Canto I. Virgil, as we expect, is very calm and patiently reassuring; but when, after his brief talk with the devils (which the Pilgrim and the reader do not hear), the gates of Dis are slammed shut in his face, then, for the first time—in fact, for the only time inthe Divine Comedy—Virgil gives signs not only of bewilderment but of discouragement about his mission. And the Pilgrim hears him sigh:

Li occhi a la terra, e le ciglia avea rase
d'ogne baldanza, e dicea ne’ sospiri:
“Chi m'ha negate le dolenti case!”

(With eyes downcast, all self-assurance now
erased from his brow, sighing, he said: ‘’Who are these
to forbid my entrance to the halls of grief!”)

Nevertheless, he insists that victory will be theirs; the devils will be defeated as they were once before when Christ came to open the gates of Hell; in fact, as he tells his frightened ward, someone is now on the way to them, “tal che per lui ne fia la terra aperta.” After this prophecy which closes Canto VIII, he becomes silent, seeming to listen—for what sound we do not know. And as he waits he starts muttering to himself, rather incoherently:

“Pur a noi converrà vincer la punga,”
cominciò el, “se non... Tal ne s'offerse!
Oh quanto tarda a me ch'altri qui giunga!”
(IX, 7-9)

(“But surely we were meant to win this fight,”
he began, “or else… But, such help was promised!
O how much time it's taking him to come!”)

It seems strange that after having predicted the arrival of their savior his first words should indicate the possibility of defeat (… se non…!); he has to remind himself of the power of the one who “offered herself” (Tal ne s'offerse). He ends with a note of impatient yearning for the arrival he had just predicted. Such indications of indecision on the part of his leader have a calamitous effect on the Pilgrim; but, hoping for the best, he asks a discreetly probing question of his guide: had anyone from Limbo ever before penetrated the abyss of Lower Hell? Virgil, well aware of the motive that prompted the Pilgrim’s question, answers that he himself, soon after his death, had descended to the very bottom of Hell, bidden by Erichtho to fetch a soul up from the depths. He ends his account with words of encouragement: “ben so il cammin: però ti fa sicuro.” While he is describing the terrain where they find themselves— quite casually, as if to kill time as they wait—the Pilgrim’s attention is suddenly diverted by a horrid spectacle: on the top of the tower there spring up before his eyes the figures of the three Furies, whose terrible, bloody aspect horrifies and unnerves him. Virgil’s overt reaction to the apparition hardly allows us access to his feelings: he merely identifies the figures for the Pilgrim's benefit and then becomes silent. They watch the Furies tear their breasts, beating themselves; they hear their screams, calling for Medusa to make her appearance—and, at this point, Virgil completely loses his composure, saying:

“Volgiti ’n dietro e tien lo viso chiuso;
ché se ‘l Gorgon si mostra e tu ’l vedessi,
nulla sarebbe di tornar mai suso.”

(“Now turn your back and cover up your eyes,
for if the Gorgon comes and you should see her,
there would be no returning to the world!”)

As a further indication of his panic, and as if doubting the efficacy of his own words to the Pilgrim, Virgil turns him around and places his own hands on top of the Pilgrim’s, which were already covering his closed eyes (58-60). Surely every hope of the angel’s arrival (or at least of the successful outcome of his arrival) has vanished from Virgil’s mind: if Medusa could be summoned by the Furies to cross the Pilgrim's path, if her magic could function as it had in Pagan times before Christ came, there could be no functioning of Christian machinery.
But immediately after Virgil’s total submission to Pagan laws (line 60), the sounds announcing the angel’s approach are heard. One tercet, however, separates what might have been the triumph of Paganism from the actual triumph of Christianity: the address to the reader calling upon him for the true interpretation of li strani versi yet to come (61—63). It could be said that this tercet is the dividing line between B.C. time and A.D. time. Now Virgil can remove his hands from the Pilgrim’s eyes, enabling him to see the figure of the heavenly messenger passing over the Styx. He sees him open the gates with a light touch of his wand, he hears his scornful word to the devils, and watches his departure. The travellers enter through the gates opened for them: the Pilgrim, full of curiosity, looks around him, and the canto ends with the kind of question that has become familiar to the reader— “Maestro, quai son quelle genti…?” It is, somehow, as if nothing has happened, as if the Pilgrim’s journey to Beatrice and to God had not seemed for a few terrible moments to have been placed in jeopardy.
It was, of course, Virgil’s defeatist attitude that was responsible for the interval of despair. How is his attitude to be explained? His despondency after the devils have shut the gates of Dis in his face is accepted by most scholars as quite understandable: for the first time he has met with resistance that he is unable to cope with. But there are two objections against this explanation. First, why was Virgil unable to cope with the resistance of the devils? It would seem that even before his failure to quell their turbulence, his attitude was such as to seem to anticipate failure. Why should Virgil wish to speak privately with the devils, and express this desire by means of sign-language? When he heard the devils screaming “Chi è costui…?” why did he not answer them sternly with the words that had proved effective earlier with Charon and Minos: ‘’Vuolsi così colà dove si puote, / ciò che si vuole, e più non dimandare,” instead of gesturing mutely? In fact, this formula with its concluding words ‘e più non dimandare,” is even more appropriate here than it was on the previous occasions, for only here does the enemy ask a question. (Charon and Minos had uttered hostile warnings; it is interesting that here the devils who will get the better of Virgil, temporarily, do not begin by uttering threats with signs of overt hostility.) It is as if the formula which, by way of anticipation, had proved successful was actually conceived for this occasion, and Virgil failed at this crucial point to use it.
Secondly, even if we accept as natural Virgil’s immediate reaction of dejection when the gates are slammed in his face, we must remember that very soon afterwards, at the end of Canto VIII, he predicts to the Pilgrim their rescue through divine intervention; why, then, do fresh doubts assail him in the following canto? He struggles against them (…Tal ne s'offerse!), but why does he have to struggle (his prophecy of the coming of the “Veltro” at the end of Canto I was attended by no such doubts)? He will show confidence once again when he speaks of his earlier, successful descent into Hell; but when the Furies suddenly appear on top of the tower to call Medusa, his collapse is total. We have seen that for one crucial moment, before Dante the Poet interrupts the narrative to address his reader, Virgil does actually believe in the supremacy of Pagan forces.
There can be no doubt that up until the address to the reader the atmosphere of Cantos VIII and IX has become more and more the atmosphere of Pagan mythology, with which Virgil in his lifetime was so familiar. Surely the City of Dis must have reminded him of his own Tartarus, because of their parallel functions in the Christian and Pagan otherworldly penal systems, respectively. Moreover, when he saw the iron wall of Dis, he may have remembered the iron tower and doorposts of the Tartarus he himself had described in the Aeneid; and he knew that the gates of the Pagan Lower Hell could never be forced. Thus, when the gates of Dis were slammed in his face, this might well have seemed to have an ominous significance. It is true that by the time he reaches the Pilgrim’s side he is able to predict the coming of the angel, but if, immediately after (7-9), he is able to doubt again, perhaps he remembered that he himself had written of the gates of Tartarus that not even one sent from Heaven could open them:

Porta adversa ingens solidoque adamante columnae,
vis et nulla virum, non ipsi exscindere bello
coelicolae valeant...
(Aeneid VI, 552-4.)

(In front, a huge gate and columns of solid adamant
which no human force, not the gods themselves,
are strong enough to pull downin war...)

He had also described the bloodstained figure of Tesiphone seated on the iron tower forever on guard, and suddenly he sees spring up, on the top of the tower of Dis, the bloody Tesiphone flanked by her bloody sisters; and he hears them call for Medusa.
Here, with the screams of the three Furies directed to an unseen creature offstage, it is as if the world of mythology has come to life again, and the machinery of Paganism is once again set in motion. The three Furies are obviously not the only creatures of mythology who inhabit Dante’s Inferno, but all the rest of them, scattered from the beginning to the end of Hell, are simply remnants of antiquity allowed to survive in order to play some part (if only a representational role, e.g. the Minotaur) in the workings of Divine Justice; they are exiled from their own world to live in the Christian world of Dante’s Hell, in the atmosphere of the Hell Dante created. But the Furies bring their own atmosphere, and they work in opposition to the Divine Plan. Moreover, when they decide to call upon Medusa to play her customary role, they almost make us believe (there is no doubt that they did make Virgil believe) that any mythological monster might suddenly appear on stage. And, with their reminiscence (54) of Theseus: (“Mal non vengiammo in Teseo l'assalto!”) it is as if the Pilgrim himself is sucked into the vortex of alien forces: the Pilgrim is to be the Furies’ next victim after Theseus! And it is from this Pagan fate that Virgil, desperate, hysterical, seeks to save his ward! But this Pagan drama so suddenly set in motion is just as suddenly swept off-stage by the earthquake announcing the coming of the angel.
Now the coming of the angel in which Virgil could not quite believe is a re-enactment of the First Coming of Christ. And here we have the main reason why Virgil could not quite believe, and was so susceptible to reminders of the world he had written about in his lifetime. We must remember that Virgil is in the Inferno, not only for a short space of time, as the guide of Dante’s Pilgrim, but also, and for eternity, as one of the damned—his ‘sin’ being that of not believing in the coming of the Messiah. Like all those in Limbo at the time, he had witnessed the Harrowing of Hell; like them he learned that Christ has come. And it was surely his remembering of that event in Canto VIII that made possible the revelation to him of the angel’s approach, for his announcement of the advent immediately follows his reminder to the Pilgrim of Christ's triumph. But because during his lifetime he could not believe in the coming of Christ, so now he can not quite believe in the coming of the angel —in spite of his having learned from Beatrice that the Pilgrim's Journey is willed in Heaven.
In fact if we accept, as any interpreter of Dante's poem must accept it, the medieval belief that Virgil in the Foxrib Eclogue had prophesied the birth of Christ, then we can find in the historical Virgil thus reinterpreted, something of a parallel to his “belief nonbelief” attitude illustrated in our canto: for when he wrote the prophecy he himself did not know what he was prophesying. In some mysterious way he had been used by the God he never knew to proclaim a truth he could not have believed in.
Thus, in our canto, Virgil is made to repeat, to “imitate” the defect that doomed him to Limbo. From my analysis it would seem clear that ever since he caught sight of the gates of Dis he has been acting out of character. The reader has become so accustomed to Virgil’s role as infallible guide and mentor that it comes as a shock to see the figure that he cuts in Cantos VIII and IX. It is as if he has a new role in the drama—or a role in some other drama. It is only after the sounds of the earthquake heralding the angel’s approach have died away and Virgil removes his hands from the Pilgrim's eyes, telling him exactly where to direct his glance, that we recognize again the Virgil we have come to know.
Why was Virgil made to undergo such a humiliating experience? From the moral point of view the purpose may well have been to demonstrate the weakness of Reason when not accompanied by Faith. But it is also true that Virgil’s behavior is made to serve artistic purposes; it is obvious, for example, that his inner disequilibrium, with its possible threatening consequences, adds suspense and excitement to the narration—as well as an ironical undertone: with Phlegyas, Virgil had been completely the master of the situation, and with Filippo Argenti, peremptory and contemptuous; with the Pilgrim whom he embraces approvingly he had spoken words of eloquent solemnity blessing the womb that bore him. Thus, the sharpest of contrasts is offered by the inglorious role he will play in the scene that follows. But the treatment of Virgil also serves a more deeply significant auctorial goal: Virgil had to fail in order that the messo could be sent. For Dante the Poet wishes to have the First Advent represented somewhere in the Inferno. And Virgil had to fail when he did, after landing from Phlegyas’ boat in front of the City of Dis, so that “gates” could be brought into play: gates open, then shut fast, then open again.
Now since Virgil failed, the angel had to come for the sake of the Pilgrim. But to think only in these terms would give too narrow a perspective, for the success of the Pilgrim's journey was guaranteed from the beginning. Nothing actually could have prevented him from reaching his goal, so that if, on the one hand, the coming of the messo was necessary for his sake, it was made necessary quite artificially—in order that the First Advent could be represented. As was just said, Virgil had to fail so that the angel could come. And so, the answer to Virgil’s bewildered question “Chi m'ha negate le dolenti case?” is—Dante the Poet.
The uneventful entrance of the two travelers into the City of Dis, once the wzesso had opened the gates with his wand, is announced in Canto IX, 106: “Dentro li entrammo sanz’alcuna guerra.” Actually, this announcement could have come much earlier: if Dante the Poet had not wanted to introduce a re-enactment of the First Advent, they would have passed through the gates in Canto VII a few lines after the devil’s jeering question in lines 84-85:

… “Chi è costui che sanza morte
va per lo regno de la morta gente?”

(... “Who is the one approaching? Who, without death,
dares walk into the kingdom of the dead?”)

The following tercet (86-88) could well have been devoted to Virgil’s stern rebuke and his repetition of the awesome formula that could never fail: “Vuolsi così colà…” And perhaps in the next line (89) we would have read “Dentro li entrammo sanz'alcuna guerra.” This is what would have been required by the laws that had operated up to Canto VIII, 86, of the Inferno, but because Dante decided as he did, those “laws” had to be superseded temporarily by other laws: we are for a moment no longer in the confines of the story of the Divine Comedy but in the wider reaches of sacred history, somehow caught up in the battle between the forces of Paganism and those of Christianity. But because of drama of Paganism, re-awakened to be vanquished by Christianity, has to take place on a stage set up within the confines of the story, the effect is somewhat that of a puppet-show—which begins like a dumb show: we remember Virgil's mute gesture that starts the action, and the conclave of voices we ate not allowed to hear. Virgil is a puppet whose strings are pulled to make him go now forward, now backward, or simply to twitch (mentally). The three raging Furies who pop up suddenly on the top of the tall tower are puppets pretending to call upon another puppet offstage (Medusa).
And surely the arrival of the messo is pure theater: as Virgil in frantic desperation covers the eyes of his ward (and Dante the Poet intervenes to bid his reader interpret carefully) a thunderous sound is heard causing the land to tremble; three tercets are devoted to a description of the fearful repercussions. This tumult of sounds is followed by tumultuous movement as the thousands of panic-stricken souls in the marsh dive to the bottom of the muddy water, hiding from the heavenly being whom the Pilgrim now sees approaching with minimal, mechanically rhythmical movements:

Come le rane innanzi a la nimica
biscia per l'acqua si dileguan tutte,
fin ch'a la terra ciascuna s’abbica,

vid' io più di mille anime distrutte
fuggir così dinanzi ad un ch'al passo
passava Stige con le piante asciutte.

Dal volto rimovea quell’ aere grasso,
menando la sinistra innanzi spesso;
e sol di quell’ angoscia parea lasso.

(As frogs before their enemy, the snake,
all scatter through the pond and then dive down
until each one is squatting on the bottom,

so I saw more than a thousand fear-shocked souls
in flight, clearing the path of one who came
walking the Styx, his feet dry on the water.

From time to time with his left hand he fanned
his face to push the putrid air away,
and this was all that seemed to weary him.)

The messo comes as energy and power and, finally, eloquence; hence, the reader hears the sound of his coming and sees the effects of his coming before he is made aware of “un, ch'al passo / passava Stige con le piante asciutte.” And when he has arrived his appearance is not described. It is with a mere tap of his wand, a token gesture, that he opens the gates (note the diminutive verghetta used of the wand) and, after his scathing rebuke to the devils (he makes the kind of speech that Virgil should have and could have made), he goes back whence he had come. Of course he does not address the Pilgrim and his guide whom he has saved, nor does he in any way acknowledge their presence—as little as any actor before moving off-stage would address a member of his audience. Now that the show is over the two travellers can enter the gates to continue the journey that was willed by God—as Virgil for one brief moment, with his hands over the Pilgrim’s eyes, seemed to have completely forgotten.

If the narrative leading up to the advent of the messo is unique in the treatment of Virgil and in what this treatment entailed, it is also unique because of the artistic technique involving the matter of narrative time. According to my summary, these events began with the opening lines of Canto VIII; it would also be possible to go back still farther to include the final lines of Canto VII. Virgil’s interpretation of the gurgling words sung by the Slothful beneath the mud, end with the lines 125-126: Quest’inno si gorgoglian ne la strozza, / che dir nol posson con parola integra.” They are immediately followed by four lines of narrative that close the canto:

Così girammo de la lorda pozza
grand'’arco, tra la ripa secca e ’l mézzo,
con li occhi vòlti a chi del fango ingozza.

Venimmo al piè d'una torre al da sezzo.
(VII, 127-130)

(Then making a wide arc we walked around
the pond between the dry bank and the slime,
our eyes still fixed on those who gobbled mud.

We came, in time, to the foot of a high tower.)

Line 130 has no exact parallel in the Inferno as a final line of a canto. It is true that there are five other cantos which end, as this does, with the announcement of the point reached.

E vengo in parte ove non è che luca.
(IV, 151)

(I come into a place where no light is.)

Venimmo al punto dove si digrada:
quivi trovammo Pluto, il gran nemico.
(VI, 114-115)

(and came to where the ledge begins descending;
there we found Plutus, mankind’s arch-enemy.)

... e gimmo inver lo mezzo
per un sentier ch'a una valle fiede,
che ’nfin là sù facea spiacer suo lezzo.
(X, 134-136)

(... we headed toward the center by a path
that strikes into a vale, whose stench arose
disgusting us as high up as we were.)

Noi passamm' oltre...
...infino in su l’altr’ arco
che cuopre 'I fosso in che si paga il fio
a quei che scommettendo acquistan carco.
(XXVII, 133-136)

(My guide and I moved farther on...
... until we stood on the next arch
that spans the fosse where penalties are paid
by those who, sowing discord, earned Hell's wages.)

E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.
(XXXIV, 139)

(and we came out to see once more the stars.)

But there is an important difference between these five endings and that of Canto VII: none of these leave the reader in suspense. In none of them are we suddenly offered the outlines of a landscapemarker for which we were unprepared. This high tower seems to come from nowhere, just as the high mountain in the opening canto of the Inferno (I, 13) came from nowhere (Ma poi ch’i’ fui al piè d'un colle giunto).
And the lines that follow in the narrative, that is, the opening lines of Canto VIII, also have no parallel:

Io dico, seguitando, ch’assai prima
che noi fossimo al piè de l’alta torre,
li occhi nostri n’andar suso a la cima
per due fiammette che i vedemmo porte...
(VIII, 1-4)

(I must explain, however, that before
we finally reached the foot of that high tower,
our eyes had been attracted to its summit

by two small flames we saw flare up just there ...)

For the first and only time in the Inferno, Dante interrupts the line of his narrative, turning back in time in order to tell his reader what had taken place before the point reached in the preceding statement—that is, between Virgil’s words about the sinners in the mud (VII, 115-24) and his arrival with his ward at the foot of the tower (VII, 130). Just what did take place in that interval of time? It is not too clear just when, in Canto VIII, we have caught up with the narrative time of the last line of Canto VII. Let us briefly resume the events of Canto VIII:

The signal-lights are seen (1-12); then Phlegyas appears screaming (13-18). He is rebuked by Virgil (19-24), and the two travellers start off in his boat across the Styx (25-30); after the episode with Filippo Argenti (31-66) the Pilgrim and his guide approach the City of Dis (67-78) and are left in front of the gates (79-81). Virgil fails to gain entrance into the City (82-130).

The first guess that the reader is apt to make is that only the brief episode of the signal-lights is included in the interval of time posited: discussing the lights they have just seen, the travellers reach the tower as Phlegyas is approaching. We must assume with this interpretation that the tower is on the hither side of the Stygian marsh, and that they would leave the tower behind as they cross the Styx.
Now Steiner, for one, believes that the tower mentioned in Canto VII, 130, was not on this side; he states in his commentary to this line that it is one of the towers of the City of Dis seen across the Styx. But this is an impossible interpretation: if the river Styx were between the two travellers and the tower we would not have been told that they had gotten to the foot of it. And from the way the story is told the reader is led to believe that the tower is on the shore from which the two travellers had first caught sight of the Wrathful; in the last four lines of Canto VII we are told that they walked a while following the curve of the shore and, then, that they came to the foot of a high tower. Accordingly, the shift in the time of the narrative would have been introduced in order to inform us that, just before reaching this tower, the Pilgrim had seen a signal light at its top (answered by another some distance away), and to tell us of the brief dialogue between the Pilgrim and his guide. Thus, with line 12 we would have caught up with the final line of Canto VII—for in line 13 Phlegyas begins to appear who will take them across the Styx.
But there are several objections against this interpretation. Why are we not told more about this tower that the Pilgrim and his guide came upon so suddenly? Not only does it appear out of nowhere, it seems to disappear immediately into nothingness: after the last line of Canto VII there is no further reference to it—that is, no additional information about a tower on this side of the Styx. Moreover, the problematic interval of time that the reader must fill out cannot be accounted for in terms of the brief event noted in lines 1-12 of Canto VIII, because of the words “… assai prima / che noi fossimo al piè de l’alta torre”: it was not just before the arrival at the foot of the tower that the signal-lights were seen, but a considerable time before (note also the last three words of Canto VII, al da sezzo, ‘finally’). And, indeed, Dante would hardly have exploited this exceptional device of “backward then forward movement in time” merely to put into relief the detail of the signal-lights.
We must, then, revise our picture of what happened before the arrival at the mysterious tower, by including a longer series of events in the interval posited. These events would comprehend not only the incident of the signal-lights but also the arrival of Phlegyas, the words exchanged between him and Virgil, their entrance into the boat, their voyage across the Styx interrupted by the incident of Filippo Argenti, and the final words of Phlegyas in line 81: “Usciteci!... qui è l'intrata!” It would be line 81, then, that would bring us up to date with the last line of Canto VII—which does indeed refer to one of the towers of Dis, but not seen across the Styx, for in the last line of Canto VII Virgil and the Pilgrim have already crossed it and are on the other side. Of course, in the first lines of Canto VIII which go back in time, they have not yet come to the tower, they have not yet crossed the river; and it is, indeed, from across the Styx that the tall tower with its signal lights was first seen—long before they arrived there!
Thus, Dante has deliberately confused the reader, has deliberately, and surely for artistic purposes, blurred the focus of the sequence of events and has dislocated time. When the tower is first mentioned the reader will naturally believe that the two travellers come upon it in the course of their walk along the Stygian shore, and we instinctively read into the last lines of Canto VII the meaning: “we walked... until we came…,” not noticing that the announcement of arrival has been worded “we walked... we came after a long time.” And up to line 13 of Canto VIII the reader will believe that only the sight of the signal-fires has preceded what is predicated in the closing line of Canto VII and that, with the arrival of Phlegyas, events will move ahead from that point on. It is only when we begin wondering why more has not been made of the tower that was supposedly left behind on the other shore that we will be slowly forced into the correct reconstitution of events, and will see that in the last line of Canto VII the Pilgrim has already crossed the river Styx with Phlegyas, and has heard his command to get out; it is only in line 82 of Canto VIII that the narrative will start moving ahead in time, as the Pilgrim looks up and sees the thousands of devils amassed upon the walls of Dis:

(“Usciteci,” gridò, “qui è l’intrata.”)

Io vidi più di mille in su le porte
da ciel piovuti, che stizzosamente
dicean: “Chi è costui che sanza morte...?”
(VIII, 81-84)

(…“Get out! Here is the entrance.”)

I saw more than a thousand fiendish angels
perching above the gates enraged, screaming
“Who is the one approaching? Who, without death...?”)

Note how swiftly the sight of the devils follows upon the cry of Phlegyas in 81—uttered before the Pilgrim and Virgil have disembarked. Their subsequent landing on the shore is not predicated. We have already been told (Canto VII, 130) that they came to the foot of a high tower. And it must be from the foot of this tower (though the poet withholds this information from us at this point) that the Pilgrim, looking up, sees the devils swarming over the top of the gates. He is still there in Canto IX, when he sees the Furies on the tower’s summit:

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...
(IX, 34-38)

(And he said other things, but I forget them;
for suddenly my eyes were drawn above,
up to the fiery top of that high tower

where in no time at all and all at once
sprang up three hellish Furies stained with blood...)

That this “high tower” is the same as the one mentioned in Canto VII, 130, there can be no doubt, if only because of the presence of the definite article. This is not 4 high tower, but the high tower last mentioned in Canto VIII, 2 (“... prima / che noi fossimo al piè de l'alta torre”).
So, in the last line of Canto VII, the author, projecting his story ahead, brings his characters to the foot of a high tower which, actually, in the course of the step-by-step narrative, they do not reach until 81 lines later. And the reader himself does not know that they have made good the last line of Canto VII until he comes to the reference to “the tower” in line 36 of Canto IX—after a number of events have taken place in the shadow of the tower.
After the reader has reconstructed the events that must have preceded the arrival at the tower (and only then), and has come to realize that the tower is on the “other” side of the Styx, he can, on turning back to reread the last line of Canto VII, receive the full impact of the suddenness of the arrival announced there—an impact completely imperceptible the first time he reads the narrative lines beginning with the casual assurance of così, that close the canto:

Così girammo de la lorda pozza
grand’arco, tra la ripa secca e 'l mézzo,
con li occhi vòlti a chi del fango ingozza.

Venimmo al piè d'una torre al da sezzo.
(VII, 127-130)

Granted that this impact could be achieved only by the postponement of the reader’s reconstruction of events, why should Dante want to achieve this effect? Surely, it was in order to strike the note of inevitability.
In describing the events leading up to the re-enactment of the First Advent, Dante the poet has introduced two innovations neither of which he is going to repeat in the course of the Comedy and which, at first glance, might seem to have nothing in common. One involves character delineation—the strange behavior of Virgil; the other is the use of a device of narrative technique: a forward-back-ward-forward movement in time. Actually, of course the two innovations are closely related. Both represent temporary dislocations, the one of time, the other of identity. Of the two the basic one is the exploitation of Virgil’s Paganism for the purpose of “staging” the triumph of Christianity. But this, too, involved a play with time, of historical time: a going back to the time of Paganism, a going forward (in the Past) to the advent of Christianity, leading to a return to the action of the narrative: the Pilgrim's progress in his journey to God. Inevitably, then, the play with narrative time must be seen as an artistic reflection of the play with historical time, brought into focus by the shifts within Virgil’s psychology.

Date: 2022-01-18