Our three poets are now walking carefully around this last level, keeping away from the cliff on one side and skirting the wall of flame on the other. On this last level of Lust we run into even more poets. What a surprise. In fact, it should not be a surprise at all due to the conversations we have had over the last several cantos about the ‘sweet new style’ of poetry, and the intent behind all poetics. Great art and poetry can lead one to the Truth as Virgil’s poetry did for Statius or Augustine reading the epistles of St. Paul, both being led to faith. And yet, it was also reading poetry that led Paolo and Francesca [Inferno V] to commit adultery. They read the poem of Lancelot and Guinevere together, and it led them astray:
127 'One day, to pass the time in pleasure,
Noi leggiavamo un giorno per diletto
128 we read of Lancelot, how love enthralled him.
di Lancialotto come amor lo strinse;
129 We were alone, without the least misgiving.
soli eravamo e sanza alcun sospetto.
As they continued to read, they ‘incarnated’ the actions of Lancelot and Guinevere’s betrayal, moving from beautiful love poetry to ugly lustful completion of the act about which they were reading. Francesca blames the book for their downfall, of course, but in reality Francesca is merely deflecting where the real responsibility is to be found for their adultery and their subsequent murder by Paolo’s brother, her husband: in their own hearts. It is important that we realize not simply the power of poetry, but what Dante the Poet is creating and claiming for himself and for all who use language to a particular end.
For those who are able, reading the Commedia in the original Italian is a remarkable insight into the talent of Dante the Poet. The Inferno reeks with raw, coarse vocabulary and syntax, from bodily sounds to cursing and blunt cruelty. The Italian in the Purgatorio shifts and changes, morphing into a more intentional and balanced expression. The dialogue extends over several cantos, such as XXIV to XXVI, with an assumption of give and take, growth and learning. The vocabulary and syntax reflects that change. In the Paradiso, the Italian shifts yet again, becoming regal, what might be called High Italian. It is distinctly different to the preceding two books. Yet in all, we find created words [neologisms] and structured rhymes and rhythms that fit the need for each situation. Dante the Poet is not only showing how he has grown as an artist, but as a moral being and a true theologian; using his craft and poetry to lead his readers to a higher realm, and not just to entice another to bed and sex. We also tend to forget that he is doing this with the vernacular Italian as opposed to Latin or Greek. He created the craft that used common language as a vehicle for great art that has integrity and moral gravitas; paving the way for Shakespeare, Goethe and Pushkin, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Flannery O’Connor. And this is done within the narrow confines of his own created poetic structure and rhyme scheme. This supposed ‘strait jacket’ of poetic structure yielded a surprising bounty of beauty and innovativeness. Proust’s statement applies to Dante the Poet’s art: “The tyranny of rhyme forces the poet to the discovery of his finest lines.”
Reading Dante the Poet also highlights Shame as a relevant restorative in formation and redemption. The very word “shame” has been co-opted in the last twenty years as something to be stricken from all social and personal interactions. On Facebook, the “shaming” of individuals has led to suicide and despair. This, of course, is a reductionist definition that is peculiar to this age of social media and deflected responsibility. Shame is disappearing from the social discourse, as seems to be personal accountability. This is a reality that can be found in Dante’s Hell. Francesca and all other residents of the Inferno eschew any personal responsibility. It’s not their fault. For Paolo and Francesca, it is the book’s fault! All of them feel many things: hate, anger, fear and pain. But there is no Shame in Hell, for they are eminently not ashamed of their actions. It was another’s fault. It was God’s uncaring justice. Conscience has gone AWOL and never returns.
In Purgatorio, however, there is accepted responsibility for their sins. They “own” it. That is why here, on the seventh level, it is appropriate the Whip of Lust comes from the sinners own mouths, not from a tree or an angel or the ground itself. The homosexuality of Caesar and the bestial lust of Psaiphaë are the examples shouted out to remind themselves of their sins. But they cry out what is needed to be known, not to shame them for no reason, but to purge, heal and transform. It is not just the flames that are healing them, but the acceptance of the consequences of their own actions, for which they feel shame: “with their shame they fan the flames.”
79 'Thus they move on crying "Sodom,"
però si parton 'Soddoma' gridando,
80 as you heard, in self-reproach.
rimproverando a sé com' hai udito,
81 And with their shame they fan the flames.
e aiutan l'arsura vergognando.
This is a game-changing acknowledgement for 21st century society. We see here two groups coming at one another from different directions, homosexual and heterosexual. They are on level ground, in the same wall of flame, and greet one another with a holy kiss, as Paul recommends in Romans 16. The actions of lust, whether sodomy or bestiality or excessive fornication matter not, for all have accepted responsibility for their own sins and the need for redemption. They are ashamed, all of them, and are being healed and made whole, every single one of them. The ground is level, the flames burn all [even Dante the Pilgrim in the next Canto].
31 There I can see that every shade of either group
Lì veggio d'ogne parte farsi presta
32 makes haste to kiss another, without stopping,
ciascun' ombra e basciarsi una con una
33 and is content with such brief salutation,
sanza restar, contente a brieve festa;
Robert Hollander notes in his commentary that Dante the Poet’s description of them greeting each other with a kiss is a rare medieval portrayal of friendship between homosexuals and heterosexuals. That is true, but it is far more than that in my opinion. It is a beautiful expression of John 8:7 “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” [NRSV] The ground is indeed level at the foot of the Cross.
While one can, and many have, take the time to read each of the poets mentioned by Dante the Poet in these Cantos, and admire their craft and the growth of the art itself, it is still important to step way back and review the wonders of Grace that shine through this work. Dante Alighieri may or may not have been part of the inspiration for William Cowper’s poem, but the Commedia certainly reflects it:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sov’reign will.
This Canto and this entire work has ‘unfathomable mines’ of hidden treasure throughout that reward patient study and repeated readings. The celebration of poets, both classical [Virgil, Statius] and vernacular [Guinizzelli, Arnaut Daniel] shows a capacity on the part of Dante the Poet to appreciate a wide spectrum of art. The wideness of Dante’s reach is staggering, for we see classical figures throughout the universe of the Commedia, as well as pagan and Moslem historical figures. We will find pagans who are in Paradise and we see Muslim sages in Limbo. There are popes in Hell and popes in Heaven. Cato, who opposed Julius Caesar, is guardian of ante-Purgatory. I could go on and on, for there is an acceptance here that God’s ways truly are mysterious and hidden. In today’s society, which is tragically polarized and hate filled, this wideness of welcome and acknowledgement of shared responsibility found in this Canto and the entire Commedia, is sorely needed.