- the subversion of absolute beginning
- genre: the protagonist as a lyric/romance individual, “io sol uno” (I myself alone ), versus the epic invocation to the Muses of verses 7-9
- the protagonist’s fear that he is not qualified to undertake this journey through the afterlife, given that he is “not Aeneas, not Saint Paul” (32), and that by taking this journey he risks being a transgressor, a “Ulysses” on a “wild” voyage in the coded language of the Commedia: “temo che la venuta non sia folle” (I fear my venture may be wild and empty )
- Christian visionary phenomenology: 1) the presence of the body, “e fu sensibilmente” (with his live body ); 2) the raptus of Paul (see Chapter 7 of the Undivine Comedy)
- Virgilio’s reassurance that Dante’s journey is willed on high; by relating the words of Beatrice, Virgilio enacts the consoling power of language and the relation of language to action
- the young and contemporary Florentine female is thus mediated by the venerable Roman poet, in an act of extraordinary imaginative license
- Beatrice is characterized in Inferno 2 as a speaker; this is a crucial inversion of the persona of the lyric lady, who does not speak
- Beatrice’s death and Dante’s ability to take consolation from it, conjured through precise echoes of the Vita Nuova:
- the Vita Nuova’s canzone Donna pietosa imagines Beatrice’s death in a formal structure that is now borrowed in Inferno 2; the Vita Nuova’s canzone Li occhi dolenti stages Dante’s radical new ability to take consolation from his dead lady
- Inferno 2 thus conjures the premise of the Commedia — the ability to find consolation and succor in a dead beloved — and dramatizes, in its narrative flashback to a time before the action of Inferno 1, the very idea of pre-history
As I show in Chapter 2 of The Undivine Comedy, the beginning of the Commedia is “a carefully constructed sequence of ups and downs, starts and stops; it is a beginning subject to continual new beginnings” (The Undivine Comedy, p. 28). In this way, Dante endeavors through form to create a narrative texture that imitates the path of life, in which we are always—as in the first line of Dante’s poem—in the middle. We are “nel mezzo” because time is “a kind of middle-point, uniting in itself both a beginning and an end, a beginning of future time and an end of past time” (Aristotle, Physics 8.1.251b18-26). Or, as Tolstoy writes, in the words from War and Peace that I place as epigraph at the beginning of Chapter 2 of The Undivine Comedy: “The first proceeding of the historian is to select at random a series of successive events and examine them apart from others, though there is and can be no beginning to any event, for one event flows without any break in continuity from another” (War and Peace, vol. 1, p. 975, Penguin Classics).
The subversion of absolute beginning that I analyze in the “stuttering” of Inferno 1 (The Undivine Comedy, pp. 26-28) is writ large in the first six canti of Inferno, where we find what I call a “programmatic serialization of the poem’s beginning”:
The subversion of absolute beginning that we find within Inferno 1 occurs on a larger scale in the opening cantos as a group: only in canto 2 do we find the poet’s invocation to the Muses, and only in canto 3 does the pilgrim approach the gate of hell and does the actual voyage get under way. Moreover, although the first souls we see are those in hell’s vestibule, in canto 3, we do not reach the first circle, and thus the first souls of hell proper, until canto 4, and the first prolonged infernal interview does not occur until canto 5, when the pilgrim meets Francesca. This programmatic serialization of the poem’s beginning, whereby a new beginning is accorded to each of these early cantos, is most dramatically evidenced by canto 2, which effectively succeeds in postponing, and at least temporarily derailing, the beginning provided by the end of canto 1. (The Undivine Comedy, p. 28)
Inferno 2 is an important moment in the poet’s serialization of his beginning. As we saw, the journey of the Commedia seemed to begin at the end of canto 1. And yet the last verse of canto 2 again announces the beginning of the journey: “intrai per lo cammino alto e silvestro” (I entered on the steep and savage path [Inf. 2.142]). Canto 2 is a space of non-action that creates the possibility of action; the journey is delayed while its ideological premises are discussed.
At the end of canto 2, when the journey begins again, the protagonist has been effectively issued a passport that licenses him to do the non-permissible without suffering negative consequences.
By the end of Inferno 2, we know that Dante-protagonist will not be a Ulysses. He has been granted a way forward, graced to undertake a journey not permitted to those who adventure on their own, but only to those who are chosen.
In narrative terms, canto 2 is devoted to retarding the journey’s beginning, allowing for a narrative space in which these issues can be explicitly brought forward, discussed, and “resolved”, at least to the degree necessary to allow the journey to begin. It turns out that Dante-protagonist, the individual and singular historical being, the “io sol uno” (I myself alone) of Inferno 2.3, who was born in Florence in 1265 , has to deal with the psychological fall-out of being chosen for such a remarkable undertaking.
At the beginning of Inferno 2 Dante announces to Virgilio that he is afraid — he does not believe he is qualified to undertake such a spectacular mission. The pilgrim’s apprehension is carefully articulated through two examples of men who, in contrast to himself, were indeed qualified for such remarkable undertakings. The first is Aeneas (the “father of Sylvius” in verse 13), who was able to go to the otherworld while still in the body: “corruttibile ancora, ad immortale / secolo andò, e fu sensibilmente” (he went to the immortal realm while still corruptible, and with his live body [Inf. 2.14-15]). The voyage of Aeneas is fully comprehensible, says the pilgrim, given that he was chosen in heaven as the founder of Rome and its empire, the future seat of the papacy (verses 19-27). The pilgrim continues: St. Paul too (“the chosen vessel” of verse 28) undertook an analogous journey. Dante is referring here to Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 12:2 that he was “caught up to the third heaven”: “whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows”.
St. Paul’s journey to the third heaven was the classic example of visionary raptus. As such, it was discussed and debated by theologians for centuries (for this discussion, see Chapter 7 of The Undivine Comedy). While the invocation of St. Paul as the classic protagonist of raptus is canonical, Dante is highly atypical in linking St. Paul to Aeneas. This linkage is another example of Dante’s commitment to a hybrid textuality. He is committed to the contamination of biblical with classical.
Moreover, the language used in Inferno 2 for Aeneas’ descent to Hades, the emphasis on his going in his body (“e fu sensibilmente”), further connects the classical pagan example to Christian visionary phenomenology. This is a tradition, as we see in 2 Corinthians, which stresses the paradoxical and inexplicable presence of the body. In this passage Dante has introduced language and references that serve as allusions to the problematic of the mystical journey accomplished in the flesh.
These allusions moreover work retroactively to characterize the “sleep” of Inferno 1.11 as belonging to a special class of sleep: it is the mystical and waking sleep of the visionary.
The ultimate emblem of this “waking sleep” in the Commedia is the old man who figures the Apocalpyse in the procession of the Earthly Paradise: “un vecchio solo . . . dormendo, con la faccia arguta” (a lone old man, his features keen, advanced, as if in sleep [Purg. 29.143-44]). This is John, the author of the Apocalypse. (It is important to note that in Dante’s day the author of the Gospel of John and the author of the Apocalypse were held to be the same John.) He is in a visionary trance, “asleep”, yet keenly sighted.
In this commentary, these issues, which can be classified as “visionary” and pertain to St. Paul’s raptus and to the “sonno” of the Commedia, will be discussed as they arise. St. John as author of the Apocalpyse, for instance, will first be discussed in the commentary to Inferno 19. For the reader who wants to consider these issues holistically, they are treated synchronically and contextualized in Chapter 7 of The Undivine Comedy. See also my commentary to Dante’s early lyric poems for the pre-Commedia history of these themes in Dante’s work. For instance, I present the early sonnet Ciò che m’incontra as treating mystical themes.
In Inferno 2, Dante weaves together the figures of Aeneas and St. Paul, the two great precursors—one classical and one biblical—both of whom were chosen for good reasons to undertake his journey to the afterlife. Together, these great figures are what the pilgrim fears that he is not:
Ma io perché venirvi? o chi ’l concede? Io non Enea, io non Paulo sono: me degno a ciò né io né altri ’l crede. (Inf. 2.31-33)
But why should I go there? Who sanctions it? For I am not Aeneas, am not Paul; nor I nor others think myself so worthy.
The statement “Io non Enea, io non Paulo sono” functions, at this moment, as a statement of what the pilgrim fears he is not. But the line works ultimately as the poet’s declaration of the genealogy to which he belongs. In effect he is saying that he is a modern version of Aeneas, and that he is a modern version of St. Paul.
Virgilio then reassures the pilgrim, which he does by explaining how it is that he was sent to Dante’s assistance: he was called to Dante’s aid by Beatrice, who from heaven witnessed Dante’s peril and wants to save him. In other words, Virgilio reassures Dante by repeating a conversation that had previously occurred between himself and Beatrice.
Here Dante-poet introduces a crucial pre-history to the events of Inferno 1. The journey of Beatrice to Limbo to solicit Virgilio is an event that precedes and crucially conditions the events of Inferno 1. Let us note, too, that the first reference to Limbo in the Commedia is in Inferno 2.52, where Virgilio describes his dwelling-place among “color che son sospesi” (those souls who are suspended).
Virgilio, by narrating this crucial pre-history, dramatizes the dynamic between action and discourse, a dynamic that will be captured by Beatrice’s beautiful words (related by Virgilio to Dante): “amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare” (love moved me, and makes me speak [Inf. 2.72]).
Love first enters the Commedia in Inferno 1’s evocation of the moment of creation, which occurred when divine love first moved the stars in the sky: “quando l’amor divino / mosse di prima quelle cose belle” (when divine love first moved those things of beauty [Inf. 1.39-40]). Love in Inferno 2 again governs a verb of motion, in Beatrice’s great verse: “amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare” (Love moved me, that Love which makes me speak [Inf. 2.72]).
The motion of the universe as the expression of God’s love for creation in Inferno 1 becomes the motion of Beatrice as the expression of her personal love for Dante in Inferno 2. In the macrocosm, divine love moved the stars at the dawn of time in Inferno 1: “l’amor divino / mosse di prima quelle cose belle” (Inf. 1.39-40). So, in the microcosm, love moved Beatrice to come to Dante’s aid, through speech: “amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare” (Inf. 2.72).
In the courtly and stilnovist lyric, the lady does not speak. Beatrice, who began her life in Dante’s oeuvre as a silent lyric lady, enters the Commedia characterized as a speaker: one who engages in “parlare”.
Beatrice is characterized throughout Inferno 2 as a speaker, in a crucial inversion of the persona of the lyric lady. This inversion is all the more interesting because this canto introduces the modalities of the lyric into the Commedia and sutures Dante to his past as a lyric love poet and as writer of the Vita Nuova. By making Beatrice a speaker, Dante signals that in the Beatrice of the Commedia he is forging a new kind of female persona, an amalgam of the lyric lady with other more loquacious female literary figures, like Lady Philosophy in Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. And, while in Inferno 2, Beatrice’s speech is mediated through Virgilio, later in the Commedia her status as independent and authoritative Beatrix loquax will be fully explored.
In “Notes toward a Gendered History of Italian Literature, with a Discussion of Dante’s Beatrix Loquax” (I first coined “Beatrix loquax”, “loquacious Beatrice”, in The Undivine Comedy, p. 303, note 36), I discuss the many sources that feed into Dante’s construction of the figure of Beatrice in the Commedia, and also the disruptive significance of her speech:
He ruptures the connection of the Commedia’s Beatrice to her lyric past by having this Beatrice use her angelica voce—by having her speak. Because we are in hell, and Beatrice does not enter hell, her speech is reported by Vergil, but it is her speech nonetheless; it is reported verbatim and it takes up most of the canto. The fact that she speaks is central, just as central as the impulse that moves her to speak: she is moved by love, and the same force that moves her to leave heaven on Dante’s behalf also causes her to speak. The famous verse in which Beatrice states the cause of her motion and her purpose makes it equally clear that her purpose is intimately bound up with her speech: ‘‘amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare’’ (love moved me, which makes me speak) (Inf. 2.72). In this declaration that love moved her and makes her speak, Dante both conjures Beatrice’s past and scripts for her a radically new future. This future, which will unfold in the Commedia, is contained in the verb parlare, a verb betokening an activity utterly alien from the agenda of the lyric lady. (“Notes toward a Gendered History of Italian Literature, with a Discussion of Dante’s Beatrix Loquax”, in Dante and the Origins of Italian Literary Culture, p. 371)
As we saw, in Inferno 1 Dante combines biblical and classical echoes to create a uniquely hybrid “middling” textuality. Here in Inferno 2 we see another form of rhetorical mixing. Now Dante mixes the vernacular and lyrical features of the courtly poetry he wrote as a young man (the dolce stil novo or “sweet new style”) with the theological underpinnings of his otherworld.
By the same token, he mixes Virgilio, a “real person” who lived in classical Rome, with Beatrice, a completely different kind of “real person”. A contemporary of Dante’s, a Florentine woman whom he knew in his youth, Beatrice announces herself by name to the Roman poet, confident that he will know who she is:
I’ son Beatrice che ti faccio andare; vegno del loco ove tornar disio; amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare. (Inf. 2.70-72)
For I am Beatrice who send you on; I come from where I most long to return; Love prompted me, that Love which makes me speak.
One of the tricky aspects of Inferno 2 is keeping track of who is speaking. Virgilio does most of the speaking: he is relating what Beatrice said to him when she descended from heaven to Limbo to enlist his help, in a time before the events recounted in Inferno 1. In Inferno 2 Virgilio repeats to Dante what Beatrice said to him in that time prior to the beginning of the action of the poem. Virgilio also narrates conversations between Beatrice and other ladies in heaven, conversations relayed to him by Beatrice.
Technically, therefore, we do not “meet” Beatrice in this canto, nor do we “hear” her speak, since she is not present at the time of the conversation between Dante and his guide. Rather, we hear her words, quoted by Virgilio in direct discourse: the Florentine lady mediated by the Roman poet.
We have in this scene a signature testament to the fearless nature of Dante’s imaginative faculties, in his conjuring of the words spoken by a young Florentine female contemporary intercessor, words that are repeated to him, as the highest form of consolation, by none other than the greatest of Roman poets.
It turns out, in Virgilio’s account, that one heavenly lady (Maria) spoke to another (Lucia) who spoke to Beatrice, and that Beatrice then left heaven to speak to Virgilio. Love, which is motion, causes more motion—more love. To this reality we have to add the qualifier that, among humans (as compared to angels), love uses language to cause motion. Language, and its effect on our lives, is thus a veritable protagonist of Inferno 2. The ability of language to move and to persuade is at the heart of the poet’s quest in the Commedia, and he dramatizes its power in Inferno 2.
In the tercet that precedes Beatrice’s self-presentation cited above (“I’ son Beatrice che ti faccio andare”), she speaks of needing Virgilio to employ his beautiful language to aid Dante so that she may be consoled:
Or movi, e con la tua parola ornata e con ciò c’ha mestieri al suo campare l’aiuta, sì ch’i’ ne sia consolata. (Inf. 2.67-69)
Go now; with your persuasive word, with all that is required to see that he escapes, bring help to him, that I may be consoled.
Consolation, and the power of language to console, is a theme with a long past in Dante’s oeuvre. Beatrice is the source of Dante’s consolation from the time of Dante’s Vita Nuova and before. (Written in the aftermath of Beatrice’s death, circa 1292-1293, the Vita Nuova is the work in which Dante theologizes Beatrice and his love for her.)
Given this autobiographical pre-history, it is all the more fascinating to see Beatrice enter the Commedia asking a third party (Virgilio) to supply for her that consolatio that has in fact been her unique gift to Dante.
By appropriating and transferring the word “consolata” to herself in Inferno 2, Beatrice gestures toward, and recreates in nuce, the entire early history between herself and Dante. This is a lyric history, expressed in lyric poems and first set out in narrative form in the Vita Nuova, the text that situates those early poems in a prose frame-story, thus converting them to a history. That history may be distilled into these steps:
- In the Vita Nuova Beatrice is constructed as a source of beatitudine, of consolation: Dante learns that Love “ha posto tutta la mia beatitudine in quello che non mi puote venire meno” (has placed all my beatitude in that which cannot fail me [VN 18.4]). Love has placed his happiness “in those words that praise my lady—“in quelle parole che lodano la donna mia” (VN 18.6-7)—and thus is born the poetry of praise, “lo stilo de la sua loda” (VN 25.4). The poetry of praise is reprised in Inferno 2. But in Inferno 2 Beatrice is more than the object of praise. She is now praise incarnate, defined as ‘‘loda di Dio vera’’ (true praise of God [Inf. 2.103]). In other words, her being testifies to God’s greatness—she praises him ontologically, merely by existing.
- Beatrice dies. Her death is imagined in Donna pietosa, the canzone of visionary prefigurations and consolatory female speech, placed in Vita Nuova 23: “The construction of Donna pietosa anticipates that of the second canto of Inferno, also made up of embedded speeches. Just as in Inferno 2, where there is a relay of female compassion that motivates the ladies of the court of heaven to succor the lost pilgrim, so Donna pietosa opens with the pity of one lady that elicits the compassion of others: ‘E altre donne, che si fuoro accorte / di me per quella che meco piangia, / fecer lei partir via, / e appressarsi per farmi sentire’ (And other ladies, learning of my plight / because of her who wept there by my side, / sent her away / and came to aid in my recovery [7-10])” (Dante’s Lyric Poetry, p. 213). The ladies of Donna pietosa are there to console him: “‘Deh, consoliam costui’ / pregava l’una l’altra umilemente” (‘Let’s console him,’ / each one of them implored kindheartedly [23-4]).
- After the death of Beatrice, Dante remains “disconsolate”, like the canzone on her death, Li occhi dolenti (Vita Nuova 31): “In the last line the poet assigns to his canzone the label ‘disconsolata’, making it the emblem and spokesperson for the state of being inconsolable: ‘e tu, che se’ figliuola di tristizia, / vatten disconsolata a star con elle’ (and you, the daughter of despondency, / go off in misery to stay with the [75-6])” (Dante’s Lyric Poetry, p. 251).
- However, the great importance of the canzone Li occhi dolenti actually lies in the consolatio that, despite everything, it manages to find. Beginning in Li occhi dolenti, Dante, who in Donna pietosa was consoled by living ladies, learns to take consolation and comfort from his dead lady: “In Li occhi dolenti we see consolatio come to the fore in a new way: it is connected for the first time to the imaginative processes of the lover and to what he can do to obtain consolation for himself. Consolatio is now tied to the act of imagining his lady alive. We find in Li occhi dolenti not only the despondency aroused by the death of madonna but Dante’s response: his move towards a poetics that brings the dead to life. While the death of Beatrice leaves the soul despondent, in a condition of fundamental deprivation, stripped of all consolation, ‘d’onne consolar … spoglia’ (Li occhi dolenti, 40), the ability to imagine her alive to the point of talking to her opens the door to the possibilities of consolatio. And not to the consolatio provided by books or by abstractions like Lady Philosophy, but to the consolatio provided by Beatrice herself, as emphasized by the timely repetition of her name: ‘chiamo Beatrice, e dico: «Or se’ tu morta?»; / e mentre ch’io la chiamo, me conforta’ [I call to Beatrice: ‘Are you now dead?’ / And while I call on her she comforts me] (Li occhi dolenti, 54–6)” (Dante’s Lyric Poetry, p. 249).
- Dante refuses normative consolation, in both its material form as the donna gentile of the Vita Nuova and in its allegorized form as Lady Philosophy in the Convivio: “This refusal of normative consolation, in both its material form as the donna gentile of the Vita Nuova and in its allegorized form as Lady Philosophy in the Convivio, is the condition sine qua non of the Commedia, whose essential plot hinges on a far more radical form of self-consolation, whereby the old love is divinized” (Dante’s Lyric Poetry, p. 269).
The premise to Inferno 2, the premise to the “plot” of the Commedia, is Dante’s refusal of normative consolation. He refuses both new living loves (the donna gentile of the Vita Nuova) and new allegorized loves (Lady Philosophy in the Convivio).
He has to devise a method to find consolation where he had found it previously, in Beatrice. He brings her to life through the power of his mind, his fantasia. Already in the youthful canzone Li occhi dolenti Dante is able to speak to dead Beatrice in direct discourse and to solicit her comfort: “chiamo Beatrice, e dico: «Or se’ tu morta?»; / e mentre ch’io la chiamo, me conforta” [I call to Beatrice: ‘Are you now dead?’ / And while I call on her she comforts me] (Li occhi dolenti, 54–6). What Dante accomplishes in this passage of Li occhi dolenti is remarkable, as I explain:
I have frequently noted the importance for Dante of direct discourse, which he uses to cross the boundaries between the imagined and the real, and in this case literally between life and death. The poet speaks directly, in the climactic expression of his suffering, to his lady, asking her, as if she were alive, “Are you now dead?”: “Or se’ tu morta?” (55). The conceptual paradox of this question is genial. Its form – not only direct discourse but the fact of its being a question, a locution that requires an interlocutor, as well as the literal and temporal meaning of the pleonastic particle “or” (“now”) – battles and almost overwhelms its substance: it is not possible for Beatrice to be dead, if one can talk to her! The poet’s question “makes her alive,” in what we might call an “optical illusion” created by words. And yet what it is that he asks her is if she is dead. (Dante’s Lyric Poetry, p. 248)
Here we see how one who had been accustomed to find consolation in living Beatrice learns to find consolation in dead Beatrice. The premise of the Commedia, of Inferno 2, is this pre-history.
Inferno 2 thus communicates the crucial autobiographical pre-history of the Commedia: the story of how he learned to find consolatio in dead Beatrice. This is a story that stands outside the fiction of the journey to the afterlife. And, at the same time, Inferno 2 enacts a pre-history in the fiction, by telling a story that precedes the story told in Inferno 1. This story, the story of Virgilio and Beatrice meeting prior to the meeting of Virgilio and Dante in Inferno 1, stands within the fiction.
Here Dante shows us one of his signature moves as a poet, which is to show rather than tell. The very idea of pre-history is neatly captured, and is in effect dramatized, by the fact that Inferno 2 recounts the pre-history to Inferno 1. And, in effect, it thus recounts the pre-history to the Commedia itself.
In canto 2 Virgilio explains to Dante that his voyage through the three realms of the afterlife is willed by God: he is not undertaking a sacrilegious journey of hubris and transgression, but rather a journey that is fully sanctioned and licensed by divine providence. Dante-protagonist fears that his enterprise may be “folle”—“temo che la venuta non sia folle” (Inf. 2.35)—using a Ulyssean adjective whose resonance will be unpacked as the poem progresses. Dante-poet scripts both the fear and the reassurance, both raising and defusing the specter of hubris. By invoking the possibility of hubris, he is communicating that he is not self-authorized, that he is not a willful and reckless adventurer like Ulysses. His journey is fully authorized by divine authority.
The author of the Commedia lets us know, by staging his fear and Beatrice’s succor—her consolation as expressed in her action and in her language—that he received license for his voyage, that the supreme authority granted him the way forward. After the pilgrim has been reassured that he is not embarked on a wild venture, after he has been told by Virgilio who heard it from Beatrice that his voyage is willed by a higher power, the journey can finally begin.