By ANTHONY HOWELL.
I’VE SPENT THIS locked-down winter reading Purgatory. It seemed appropriate. Why? Well, I made this note to myself. “Dante wrote what is called The Divine Comedy. In it he describes the Inferno (or Hell), Purgatory and Heaven. So Purgatory is where you go to in the afterlife if you are not bad enough for Hell and not good enough for Heaven. Purgatory is the place in between.” And last autumn, I thought it would be good to read in lock-down. Because Hell everyone reads anyway — while Heaven is there for worthiness’ sake. But isn’t it the case that our times are not absolute hell, though certainly not in the least bit blissful either?
In my teens I was obsessed by La Vita Nuova, having taken a book from my grandmother’s shelf: D. G. Rossetti’s Dante and His Circle, a book with which I became obsessed. It includes that “New Life” of his, as well as Rossetti’s competent translations of many of Dante’s friends and contemporaries. Fascinated by the notion of courtly love (back in the free-and-easy ‘sixties), I took lessons in early Italian, immersed myself in the poetry of the troubadours and admired Cavalcante more than Dante. I also liked wearing tights and was training to become a ballet dancer.
My favourite book was The Duchess of Pembroke’s Arcadia by Sir Philip Sydney. Earlier still, I had read Yeats, Pound, Empson and Eliot – as well as Sylvia Plath – but for several years I’d turned away from the moderns. These were the years of an infatuation which prompted me to define poetry by subject, and the predominant subject was love. I thought of myself quite seriously as the reincarnation of Petrarch. But form (in the poetry of love) was of paramount concern. As a caveman may have wooed his lady by presenting her with an arrowhead knapped into perfect symmetry, the balance of a poetic form was the charm that was supposed to grant you access to your lady’s heart. I felt nothing but contempt for the Shakespearean sonnet with its three lazy quatrains rounded off by a couplet. I laboured away at the Petrarchan sonnet, at sestinas, at terza rima. The pallid object of my transfigured verses was unimpressed; my intellectual contemporaries appalled. And they had every right to be. My courtly juvenilia was destined for the rubbish bin.
That Provençal society of the Cathars (where primogeniture could enable a woman to inherit, were she the oldest sibling) was wiped out by the Albigensian Crusade in the first quarter of the thirteenth century, yet it had given poetry its last vital boost with its elegant celebration of profane love, in forms such as the sestina, for their culture survived that genocide. Wandering survivors brought this love to Italy where it became more “courtly”, in a polished sense – having been courtly previously in the sense that Provençal trouvères sang their own lord’s song from court to court. In the pens of the Italians profanity was transformed into a pious worship of the female – a seriously new idea in a society which treated women as chattels for the most part.
Dante held the troubadours in high esteem – at least one of them – Bertran de Born – appears in his comedy. However, he moved the courtly idea further – love provided a bridge to salvation through its moral uplift, and women became personifications – of Chastity, Temperance, Philosophy. The love he felt for Beatrice when she was eight and he nine persisted throughout his life; but it evolved also, and in Paradise she rose to a practically heretical condition of divinity.
But there is too much ether in all this, and it leaves me breathless. Today, out of all Dante’s contemporaries, I would single out Cecco Angiolieri as a writer to offer something relevant to the present. Raunchy and disreputable, in love with a slut who wants more money from him than he’s got, wishing his father were dead, so that he can inherit, Cecco is a poet after my own now-jaded heart, well, jaded compared to the poet with spotless wings that I aspired to be in my crush-affected teens. Cecco’s poetry derives in part from the Goliard tradition of wandering monks, who entertained fat abbots in their cloisters with dirty verses in Latin.
And now, if anyone mentions Sir Philip and the Arcadia, I leap to pull out his niece’s work — The Countess of Montgomery’s Urania. Lady Mary Wroth’s sentences are just as long, stately and convoluted as her uncle’s, and her poetry exceeds his in formal restraint, yet, at the same time, she is, like Fulke Greville, moving away from studied symmetries of rhetoric towards the excitement of new concepts and metaphors based on actual observation — trends that we find in the metaphysical poetry pioneered by John Donne. This results in a struggle to express thorny modern notions in the highly wrought forms of a previous era, an attempt which ends up creating intriguing coronas of angular and edgy sonnets. Hers is another voice that deserves far more recognition than it gets.
While in my love-sick state, I plunged several times into the Inferno, though I never felt myself hooked enough to persevere. Damnation proves pretty static. You get what you deserve – for eternity – and that’s that. Dante’s sense of the comic consists in finding an apt punishment for any crime (much later, Gilbert and Sullivan were to latch onto the same jokey idea). You’re doled out those just desserts for fucking your husband’s brother, or for violent crime – though Ugolino is actually in Hell not for famously eating his own children – after all, he was dying of hunger – but for some obscure act of treason. Suicide, Sloth and Graft are major offences in Dante’s vision of the underworld. My favourite punishment is that allotted the Simonists — pious types — gate-keepers who sold the Church’s indulgences and favours. Simon Magus’s behaviour was the precedent: he tried to bribe two disciples of Jesus into giving him the ability to impart the power of the Holy Spirit to anyone on whom he placed his hands. Boniface III – steeped as he was in simony – is upended up to his waist in what looks like a toilet seat (in Botticelli’s wonderful illustrations to this poem) and this bad Pope’s feet are on fire. He can’t get to them to put them out. Meanwhile his upper parts are also being roasted. He is actually upended in a baptismal font such as got used at the time in a fairly brutal way. Dante once rescued a child who got stuck in one while being baptised. The Pope’s selling of indulgences contradicts his own baptism.
But damnation is an eternally steady state, however changeable and turbulent it may seem. You are blown about by eternal winds, or you drown in rivers of boiling blood – forever. As a travelogue, the Inferno is impressive. However, there is no development. The crimes which put you there are, except for the uppermost circle, the sort that any jury would vote unanimously to condemn. Admittedly, the punishments get worse and worse, the lower the circle in which you find yourself. But the suffering is nevertheless in stasis – for eternity: it’s all pretty obvious and hardly a compelling read.
Paradise is impossible. I only managed a dip. When I took that dip, as an adolescent, all those years ago, I learnt that Mary Magdalene resides in a starry tier that is further away from the divine light than the tier in which Mary Mother of God resides. Mary Mother of God has a seat in the very front row! And yet, Mary Magdalene takes it on the chin. She’s perfectly happy with that. All ambition, envy, injured feeling has been expunged. She’s been lobotomised! She’s blissed out. Heaven is like Brave New World. Every “woke” saint has been conditioned to accept their ranking. Everyone allowed into heaven is as blandly good as those in hell are evil. There are hardly any nuances – unless you count the difference of ranking between the two Marys as a nuance. I think I might feel myself more incarcerated in heaven than in hell. At least in hell, there’s a purgatory above you, and a heaven way above that. Once you’re in heaven itself, though, you’ve reached the end of the line.
Purgatory alone allows for narrative development, for, starting from some grudging rejection, vomited out of the caverns of hell, as Dante is with Virgil, or refused entrance initially, it is actually possible to climb up and eventually reach the Pearly Gates. So at least you are moving from here to there. They say that Hell is dramatic, Purgatory lyrical and Paradise metaphysical. The lyrical nature of Purgatory appeals to me: it’s got some nasty ledges, yes: but it’s also got some enchanting gardens and woods. Emerging out of fear, fire and murk, this mountain aspires to the pastoral.
But how organised his comedy is: thirty-three cantos for Hell, thirty-three for Purgatory and thirty-three for Paradise. Prepared for a pretty tough read, I decided to tackle a canto a day. This proved easy enough. Most cantos are between 130-160 lines in length, which is hardly an arduous read. I chose Laurence Binyon’s translation, which has its archaisms, admittedly, but at least it preserves the terza rima – ABA, BCB, CDC — easier in Dante’s Italian (an archaic Italian in his time) than it is in English. In English, it is fairly hard to find three rhymes on the same sound — we also find it hard to deal with three-line verses — which is why the English sonnet abandons the two-quatrain-two-tercet Italian form and settles for three quatrains and a couplet. Binyon’s translation may seem convoluted, but it does preserve the nature of the original.
In my view, Dante shared with Boccaccio an obsession with euhemerism, an approach to the interpretation of mythology in which mythological accounts are presumed to have originated from real historical events or personages. It’s the “historical theory” of mythology. Boccaccio uses it to describe gods and goddesses as actual people in his book On Famous Women. Perhaps euhemerism isn’t quite the word to use in Dante’s case – but still, his intent in his comedy is to perceive the afterlife as a palpable reality. Boccaccio and Dante share an interest in integrating the antique world of Greece and Rome with Christian belief. This is the seed out of which the Renaissance will spring – and later it will influence painters such as Botticelli. Dante is particularly interested in the realities of Roman politics – his three-headed Satan devours Brutus the treacherous assassin of Caesar with one mouth, Judas Iscariot with another.
Modelled on Ptolemy’s notion of the universe, Dante’s cosmos has the earth at its centre and, around the earth, ten heavens. The terrestrial globe consists of earth and water, and is surrounded by a sphere of air, which in turn is surrounded by a sphere of fire. Above this sphere of fire are nine planetary heavens, a heaven of the Fixed Stars, and the immaterial Empyrean from which God as the Primum Mobile makes everything happen. The earth and the spheres of air and fire make up the sublunar world which is subject to change and corruption – so the Inferno where the damned undergo perpetually fiery and transformative punishment is part of that. The celestial world, on the other hand, is not subject to change and corruption since it is made of a fifth element – ether – which cannot change or mix with any other element. Purgatory is a mountain which mediates between the sublunar and the ethereal zones. It is open to the heavens, so there is day and night, and Dante is very precise about the constellations which may be seen on any one night on any particular ledge of this mountain and he explains their significance.
As I’ve shown, for all one may be changed from eater to eaten, from cinder to flame and back again, the Inferno is controlled change, change within strict limits. You are not going anywhere. In Purgatory it is possible to atone for failings – but only in daylight, when God can see. There are narrow paths leading from one ledge to another, and, after a lifetime (or several lifetimes) expiating a misdeed or character flaw, one may be allowed to progress to the level above. So Purgatory seems full of lifetimes and (non-corporeal) reincarnations: a territory familiar to the Buddha. You are branded with all seven sins, and the first that you do penance for is the heaviest, but as you finally move to the next ledge up, a P (for Peccatum) is brushed off your forehead by an angel. Your steps become lighter. Allegorically speaking, the first sin you manage to renounce involves colossal effort. Later, renunciation becomes a habit, and your steps become lighter with each P removed. So the gravity pulling you back down to the sublunar spheres of air and fire, earth and damnation, exerts less and less of a hold on you the nearer you get to the bliss.
For Dante, Purgatory is just part of his grand scheme. Didactic allegories in verse had already been pioneered by Brunetto Latini, with his Tesoretto appearing in 1295. Dante began his allegorical comedy a year earlier, in ‘94 – to complete it six years later. With three categories of afterlife, and with thirty-three cantos in each category, all written in terza rima, the Trinity permeates his canticles. Note that it is said it was Botticelli who added the word “divine” to its title. For Dante it is a comedy simply. However, its joke is fairly sick. For all its otherworldly setting, Dante is describing his time, and many of his friends are dead and have already been relegated to their appropriate abodes.
Back on earth, Italy is a dangerous place, seething with feuds. Two main parties have dominated most of Europe for several centuries: the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. The Guelphs support the Pope, the Ghibellines the Holy Roman Emperor. This was a struggle for power which arose with the Investiture Controversy – which concerned who got to choose bishops, popes or secular rulers. The feud began in 1075, and ended with the Concordat of Worms in 1122. However, the division between the Guelphs and Ghibellines persisted in Italy until the 15th century, and it underpins the loathing between the Montagues and the Capulets which we meet in Romeo and Juliet.
A city of merchant guilds and artisans, Florence at that time is considered the first functioning democracy of the Christian era. However, after the Tuscan Guelphs finally defeated the Ghibellines in 1289 at the Battle of Campaldino and at Vicopisano (Dante fought for the Guelphs at the first of these battles), the Guelphs became divided among themselves. By 1300, the Florentine Guelphs had split into the Black and White Guelphs. The Blacks enthusiastically supported the Papacy, while the Whites were opposed to Papal influence, specifically the influence of Pope Boniface VIII and the Church’s lust for increased secular power.
Since we’re in the game of finding analogies, you could compare the ousted Ghibellines to the Tories. But internecine conflict is always the most savage. Sucking up to the Pope, the Blacks were “New Church” – presided over by some early fourteenth century Keir Starmer. Dante was “Old Church” – so among the supporters of the White Guelphs, and in 1302, when the Black Guelphs took control of the city, he was exiled from Florence, and threatened with the stake should he return.
Armed and armoured rivalry dominates city squares with one militia pouring out of a side-street to take on some other militia. It is a time of uncertainty and unrest. What I find interesting about Purgatory is that it describes how this affects normal people. In Purgatory, we are not dealing with monsters devouring their own children or saintly-minded types bathed in the glow of their haloes. Purgatory is more of a soap opera. Your average citizens are there – neither saints nor sinners. It concerns ordinary life, so far as life can be ordinary in turbulent times.
IT IS THE dawn of Easter Day in the year 1300. Virgil, Dante’s guide, born before Christ and therefore not subject to the Devil’s rule, but unable to enter Heaven, resides in Limbo, an upper ledge in Hell assigned to all reasonably worthy B.C. ancients, but he has been allowed to give Dante this tour of the regions. Now on the shores of Purgatory – an island dominated by a vast mountain, Dante expresses the uncertainty that typifies the place:
The dawn was moving the dark hours to flee
Before her, and far off amid their wane
I could perceive the trembling of the sea.
We paced along the solitary plain,
Like one who seeks to his lost road a clue,
And till he reach it deems he walks in vain. (Purgatory 1, 115-120)
Joined by fresh arrivals, they seek to tackle the mountain’s initial slopes, and one thing is brought home to the poet: people often end up in Purgatory by accident!
This seems the case with the spirit of Manfred, one of the first souls to ask Dante if he knows who he used to be; his face noble, but with one eye-brow split by a great wound. Manfred was the Ghibelline chief, hugely admired, who was cut down at Benevento, defeated by Charles of Anjou. Manfred consigned his soul to Christ, and was decently buried by the bridgehead near Benevento. However, since the Ghibellines were opposed to the power of the Papacy, Pope Clement IV sent the Archbishop of Cosenza to remove the heaped, heavy stones, disinter the corpse and scatter its bones, unsanctified now, along the bank of the Verde river. Poor Manfred must wander at the foot of Purgatory for ages before being allowed to climb up further. That is just so unfair! But since there is a law forbidding the blessed to be moved by the fate of those condemned, only Dante feels any sympathy with his plight.
Finding a narrow passage, Dante and Virgil move a ledge higher and meet Dante’s old friend Belacqua, who put off his repentance to the very last minute. Because of this delay, he now lounges listlessly here, delayed from progressing further up the mountain. A ledge higher and they meet the spirit of Pia de ‘Tolomei of Siena. Murdered in secrecy by her husband, who wanted to marry another woman, she died unrepentant – but that was hardly her fault.
Purgatory is very largely peopled by unlucky folk, and there are a fair number of poets and artists among them. Virgil is very pleased when they bump into Sordello, a renowned Mantuan poet of the previous century (celebrated in a long poem by Robert Browning), and so Virgil embraces a colleague from his own city. Later they meet Statius, a “silver” poet who lived just after the cusp of that transition from BC to AD. He is a poet Dante admired greatly, and I must confess I felt equally pleased that he then accompanies their ascent, since Statius is a poet I also admire and I’ve done several versions of his Silvae – which can be found in Statius: Silvae – A Selection. It includes great translations by Bill Shepherd, and was published by Anvil in 2007. Today, Statius suffers the purgatory of being seriously underrated, forgotten indeed. I’m glad Dante recognised his genius.
Purgatory is not the place for overweening crime. It is more a place for minor personality disorders, errors and misdeeds you should be able to rectify, given some resolve to give up your bad old ways and thus improve your chances of attaining bliss. Sluggards have to keep running. Eyelids get sewn shut because one cast envious eyes on others’ talents and properties, but only for a life or two, then you can move on. Later, Dante and his guide reach a terrace where the spirits crawl on all fours weighed down by the humiliating weight of huge boulders. These are people who sneered at others on earth, guilty of the sin of pride. And now Dante is on his home ground, for many of these turn out to be artists and poets. Plus ça change! Dante lends an ear to one of these humbled characters:
Listening I stoopt my face down to his head,
And one of them twisted himself about,
(Not he who spoke) beneath what on him weighed
And saw me and knew me and was calling out,
Straining his neck to keep me in his eye
Who, all bent down, went with them foot by foot.
“Art thou not Oderisi,” then said I,
“Honour of Gubbio, honour of that art,
The illuminators famed in Paris ply?”
“Brother, the pages smile more on the mart
Which Franco of Bologna paints,” said he:
“Now the honour is all his, mine only in part.
Truly I had not used such courtesy
In life, so great desire within me burned
To excel the rest, which overmastered me.
By such pride such a penalty is earned.
Nor were I here, save that, having the power
Of sinful doing, unto God I turned.
O idle glory of all human dower!
How short a time, save a dull age succeed,
Its flourishing fresh greenness doth devour!
In painting Cimabue thought indeed
To hold the field; now Giotto has the cry,
So that the fame of the other few now heed.
So our tongue’s glory from one Guido by
The other is taken; and from their nest of fame
Perchance is born one who shall make both fly.
Naught but a wind’s breath is the world’s acclaim,
Which blows now hence, now thence, as it may hap,
And when it changes quarter changes name.
Wilt thou have more fame if old age unwrap
Thy bones from withered flesh than if thy race
Ended ere thou wert done with bib and pap
Before a thousand years pass,—shorter space
To eternity than is a blinked eye-lid
To the circle in heaven that moves at slowest pace?” (Purgatory XI, line 73-108)
Dante is suggesting that Guido Cavalcanti surpassed Guido Guinicelli of Bologna as a poet; however, it is evident that when he gets to Purgatory as a spirit, Dante himself may well have to spend some considerable time under a boulder or two, given he can’t resist putting in that line: “Perchance is born one who shall make both fly.”
The Inferno culminates in a farce performed by a number of devils with ridiculous names. Purgatory culminates in an elaborate masque outlining the vicissitudes the church has undergone since the time of Christ, this presided over by the spirit of Beatrice, who is moved to tears by the sufferings of the church. But now Dante approaches two springs, and she persuades him to drink from Lethe, so that he may forget all previous sin, and after he has done that she invites him to drink from the other spring – Eunoë – which will restore memory of the good and strengthen him with the will never ever to do anything but good ever again; and Dante is about to describe the divine effect of this invigorating water, but:
If, Reader, for the writing were more space,
That sweet fount, whence I ne’er could drink my fill,
Would I yet sing, though in imperfect praise.
But seeing that for this second canticle
The paper planned is full to the last page,
The bridle of art must needs constrain my will.
Back from that wave’s most holy privilege
I turned me, re-made, as the plant repairs
Itself, renewed with its new foliage,
Pure and disposed to mount up to the stars. (Purgatory XXXIII, 137-145)
Critics have pointed out the economy of Dante’s style. He gets it in a nutshell. But still, my modernism is shocked by this admission. So, from the very start, he has had it all mapped out – like three stained-glass windows – all of the very same size. He has allocated thirty-three cantos to each canticle, right down to an equal number of pages for each, and now he is obliged to cut back! Medieval stricture clashes at this juncture with Renaissance structure – which might allow for expansion. This may tell us something about his method, his thinking – but does it really indicate a rigidity in his poetic outlook? On second thoughts, I think it is a joke. Dante’s tongue has a predilection for his cheek! It is humour that ensures that everyone gets such accurate desserts. It is humour that keeps returning his comedy to popularity – whether for Chaucer or for T.S. Eliot. With a shrug, he leaves us at the gates of Paradise. It would be a mistake, while here, to describe the indescribable. But we have reached our destination. This canticle is over; its ending undeniably sublime.
Anthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here. In 2019, his exploration of psychic chaos, Multilation (with Consciouness), was published by the Fortnightly’s imprint, Odd Volumes. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).