Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 15 – evening on the lower slopes: beauty and danger

Evening, a time for reflection and nostalgia. Photo by Raoli, Wikimedia Commons

Like the penitent souls, the poets cannot climb once the sun has gone down and so must halt for the night. The twilight hour draws from Dante some of his loveliest lines:

These lines are recalled every evening at the tomb of Dante in Ravenna, where the bell of the nearby church chimes 13 times in honour of the poet. Evoking loss and nostalgia for earthly things, they have an elegiac feel to them. That last couplet could have inspired the start of Gray’s Elegy: “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.”

Dante’s tomb at Ravenna. Photo by Gianni Careddu

Dante’s imagery is never beautiful just for the sake of it but invariably carries his deeper meanings. So, what is he telling us here?

The poets’ resting place for the night is the valley of the negligent rulers, one of four groups of the so-called “late repentant”. In life these leaders were too preoccupied with the exercise of worldly power to pay much attention to their spiritual lives. They did repent, but only at the last minute, perhaps in the very hour of their death. With this extended image Dante hints that they may have also neglected the familiar and the intimate – things and people they didn’t have time or energy for because of their constant focus on affairs of state.

Perhaps there’s also a personal reminiscence here: by the time he was writing this, Dante knew what it was to be an exile and to long for home. The pain of exile comes into his poem in different guises, but nowhere more poignantly than here, as separation from family and friends. Departures hurt.

These lines also imply tension, even confusion, between spiritual yearning and earthly longing. The new pilgrim experiences nostalgia for the things we have given up and to which we cannot, may not, return. It is the sound of distant church-bells, reaching us across the water from the harbour town we have just left and piercing our hearts with a love both aspiring and retrospective, that most subtly conveys the poet’s double meaning. The church, symbol at once of spiritual quest and home comforts, suggests that although, for now, the human and the divine pull in opposite directions, the eventual destination of the journey will be identical to the point of departure. The soul’s true home is its place in the divine essence.

The souls in ante-purgatory are not yet intrinsically above the reach of temptation and, now that the sun has gone down, they are once again vulnerable, especially to influences coming from beyond their conscious awareness and control. As Dante listens, enraptured, they sing Te lucis ante terminum, a prayerful hymn for protection against the “dreams and phantoms of the night”. In answer, two angels appear, each with a flaming sword, and stand guard as darkness falls. The shade of the troubadour poet Sordello, who has led Virgil and Dante to the valley, explains that the angels’ role is to chase away the serpent of temptation that will shortly appear:

Feeling the chill not just of evening but of the returning risk of sin, Dante reacts, as he did so often in Inferno, by reaching for the protection of his reason. Then Sordello points and, following his finger, Dante sees:

As Sinclair notes, the serpent reaches the human imagination through the beauty and delights of this life – the grass and flowers (which may entice the new pilgrim just as church-bells do). It is quickly frightened off by the sound of the angels’ wings, which flash green, the colour of hope, in the darkness. The drama of Eden is re-enacted, but the outcome, this time, is that the tempter is banished, not Adam and Eve.

The night brings danger as well as beauty, but the watchful soul, waiting on God, can still keep safe.

Genius line:
Che paia il giorno pianger che si more. Note the playful repetition of che in association with words starting with p, which echo the piercing idea of punge in the previous line. This line may have inspired Gray’s Elegy, though we have no firm evidence that Gray read Dante. Byron thought Gray had simply nicked it without attribution. The entire passage appears almost verbatim in Byron’s Don Juan (Canto 3, stanza 108).