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5. Massacre, Miserere and Martyrdom1

© Robin Kirkpatrick, CC BY 4.0 http://dx.doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0066.06

Robin Kirkpatrick

My rather lurid title may already have been an occasion for some arching of the brow. If you were to consult Google rankings you would quickly find that the second most frequently cited verse in the Commedia is this line from the first of this trio of Fives, Inferno v: ‘Amor che a nullo amato amar perdona’ [Love, who no loved one pardons love’s requite],2 prized, at least out of context, for its apparently romantic charm. Yet, responding to the demands of vertical reading, one quickly encounters a set of far from romantic considerations. Purgatorio v is a canto which, having depicted scenes of death in battle and a mafioso assassination, concludes with the elegiac words of a wife murdered by her husband. Worse still, if we ascend from Inferno v – which beyond question has always been the most popular canto in the whole Commedia – we arrive at Paradiso v, which may well qualify as the canto best avoided, depicting as it does a Beatrice who insists on arguing about the fine-print details of contract law. But, worst of all, I intend to concentrate precisely on Paradiso v.

Indeed, I want to raise the stakes still higher. So I shall be sorry if in the end I have not convinced you that Paradiso v is one of the most thoroughly humane cantos that Dante ever wrote. I might add, as a practical recommendation, that a student with whom I discussed this canto at great length a couple of years ago has now gone to Harvard Law School and persuaded the hard-headed Dean to supervise her dissertation on Dante’s conception of justice and mercy. Also, with no apology, I want to pay a good deal of attention to Purgatorio v. This is a canto that T. S. Eliot cites in The Waste Land. Likewise, the poet Robert Lowell wrote two versions of its central episode. So there is surely some living poetry here as well.

But all of this is to imply, conversely, that Inferno v – so often applauded for its delicacy of dramatic voice and subtlety of psychology – might itself be seen, in the vertical perspective, as a manifestation of dead poetry – of cliché and preconception. Is this canto Dante’s version of Strictly Come Dancing, with the lovers Paolo and Francesca tangoing on the wuthering heights of adulterous passion? Well, no. I do not mean precisely that. But I do mean that the over-popularity of this canto – and indeed of Inferno at large – is something of a cultural disaster and certainly a profound distortion of the best that Dante has to offer. From Boccaccio’s first reading of the canto in 1373, Paolo and Francesca – she being the sole speaker from line 88 onward – have been seen as heroic exemplars of a doomed and illicit love that persisted, even in the face of murder and of Hell itself. Tchaikovsky wrote a swooningly violent fantasia on this liebestod. Rodin did several sculptures of the episode – most famously ‘The Kiss’.

Yet to see what is going wrong here, one has only to stop murmuring for a moment ‘Amor che a nullo amato amar perdona’ and ask what the words here really mean. For the shocking truth is that these lines, read closely, amount to a stalker’s charter: Love dictates that no one who is the object of another person’s love (or obsession) can ever be allowed to resist the claims that love projects upon her, him or it. So, abandoning our lyrical absorption in favour of the fine-print – the nuance of the words – we see that Francesca here does not say she loves Paolo but rather that some supra-personal force of love, ‘Amor’, possesses her. The loved object – Francesca – willingly represents herself as an object; an unnamed past participle (amato) to be read in a passive application; the verb ‘pardon’ is torn from any context that might invoke the mercy of God (Miserere!) to be spoken here with a sentimental simper. And in the alliterative pattern amato/amar, the infinitive amare jags ambiguously close to the word amaro: ‘bitter’.

The depth, then, of Dante’s meaning lies as much in the syntax of these lines as in its dulcet alliterations. And syntax – which Chomskyans might say is as natural a part of our human apparatus as instinct is – emerges as the enemy of unthinking cliché. So, alliterative as my own title is, it is really meant as some sort of organizational guide to patterns of thought, theology and truly human interest that emerge in all three of Dante’s canto fives. Violence is an issue in all three, and so is a consideration of how we can free ourselves from violence. The action of the human will is brought into consideration and viewed in relation to the mayhem we can precipitate by violent action and equally by passive self-abandonment. Please remember here that the will in Dante’s understanding is an intellectual agent: it is not merely an obscure urge but (as Aquinas would also insist) an intellectual appetite, involving our discernment of those goals, patterns and purposes which will allow us to be fully human. The will, of course, may fail and, failing, reveals (Miserere again!) our need for compassion. Our perception of ultimate principles may lead us to acts of martyrdom – of bodily self-sacrifice.

But wait: what about the body in all of this? My claim is that Paradiso v is a distinctly humane canto. And we can hardly be human without our physical bodies. Dante would surely agree with this. He is not a dualist and never thinks of the body as a merely mulish impediment to the big idea. But how is this conviction registered in these cantos? Francesca may at first glance appear to be its best representative. But I shall hope to show that Purgatorio v is a better point of reference and that Paradiso v – in its exquisite poetry – brings fully into view the intertwining shimmer of will, rationality and physical responsiveness that makes us fully human.

So let me start with Paradiso – and with its philosophy rather than its poetry (though, of course, in the end poetry is far more important than philosophy). This canto is the final movement in an intellectual symphony that began in Paradiso iii, with those considerations of free will and freedom that arose in the case of Piccarda Donati. We are still in the sphere of the Moon and the final phase of the canto will describe Dante’s ascent from the Moon to Mercury, where souls tinged with ambition introduce questions concerning Law, Governance and, ultimately, the Justice of God as displayed in the Atonement. (Vertical reading is a fine device – but one should not lose sight of the plod or dance that Dante pursues, horizontally, from one canto to the next.)

So in canto iv, Beatrice has insisted that Piccarda, though forced against her will to leave her chosen nunnery and to agree to a political marriage, did not resist to the ultimate extent of her powers. She therefore collaborated in her own violation, be it only to a minimal degree. She did not, in short, embrace martyrdom – as some might have done in such a case – and is still aware, while taken up to Heaven, of her own inconstancy of purpose. The question in canto five is whether vows such as those Piccarda took are absolutely binding or whether they might – in the solicitor’s phrase – be varied in some particulars.

At first sight, the answers that Beatrice offers might seem to be firmly authoritarian – and this, also at first glance, could well appear to be Botticelli’s impression too for, in his drawing, Beatrice bears down imperiously on a distinctly smaller Dante. But Beatrice’s argument deserves a second glance (as does Botticelli’s illustration). So at lines 45 to 47, Beatrice insists that a vow once made can never be cancelled. The fact that a vow has been made – its very existence – must always remain, as an entry, so to speak, recorded in the book of life. Now this insistence is parallel in its implications to the argument in canto iv which recalls that, in matters of the will, some of us at least have proved capable of martyrdom. And this connection is made explicit at lines 29 and 44 where a vow is spoken of as an act of sacrifice. Yet it is here surely – at a second glance – that one begins to discern the profound humanity that displays itself in the canto. For Beatrice’s words are fundamentally an affirmation of human dignity. On this account, human beings are heroically and clear-sightedly capable of entering into a contract with God, and thus to be bound, as to an equal, by our words of consent. In establishing this position, Beatrice prepares for canto vii of the Paradiso where, through the Incarnation and Atonement, human nature, in the person of Christ, is accorded the right to make reparation for its own original sin. Even in canto v, at line 123, Dante is told to trust the souls in Mercury – the ambitious rulers and jurists – as though they were Gods.

Yet there is also a gentler side to Beatrice’s humanity here, revealed on closer, syntactical analysis of the fine print. So at lines 64 to 75, it is emphasised that there is, after all, no need for us to make vows (and it is stupid to do so) unless, in proper self-knowledge, we are certain we can keep them. This is where the overly-heroic Agamemnon and Jephta went wrong, superstitiously seeking military success from the Gods by vows which led them to sacrifice their own daughters (this not being, generally, a humane thing to do). But even supposing that we do get into such a fix, there are still escape clauses. Granted that the fact of a vow must stand, the exact terms in which it is fulfilled can be subject to lawful negotiation. The covenant established in the Old Testament offers precedents for such negotiation. And now (in lines 76 to 78) the Scriptures and the Church are authorised to apply a calculus – or legal-eagle syntax – to guide us to a sensible substitution.

With this we are already a long way away, lexically, from Francesca’s cooing ‘Amor che nullo amato amar …’. And in ethical terms a new understanding is beginning to emerge of what our possession of free will implies. Free will is the ground of our human nobility and also of the violence we can suffer or perpetrate. Yet a vow, properly understood, is the very paradigm of intelligent choice. If we fulfil it, we are gods. If we choose not to make a vow, we do so in full understanding of our fragile mortality. And even supposing we do act in foolish haste, then we can still choose to engage in further discussion. Nor is this all. For the whole of this sometimes pernickety argument is conducted in the context of the radiantly liberating hymn to freedom that Beatrice utters at lines 19 to 24.

These lines mark an absolutely crucial moment in the development of Dante’s thinking about freedom. In his illuminating account of Paradiso iii, Vittorio Montemaggi made clear how inadequate it is to think in the case of Piccarda of freedom as simply a matter of choice between alternatives. That would be merely a supermarket view, of freedom as a choice between two brands of baked beans. (Vittorio put it far more elegantly than that.) We are rather to look for a form of freedom that leads into the very source and surge of life. And that is what Beatrice now lays before us. Freedom is to be understood as the freedom experienced in the wholly unconstrained giving and receiving of gifts. Free will is itself a gift that God has given us. This gift, moreover, is an expression of the original and ever-continuing act of creation – note the gerund ‘creando’; and God’s ‘generosity’ is conceived here in terms not of arbitrary patronage but rather as ‘larghezza’, the opening up of a largeness or space in which our lives may be fully realised.

Now, none of this implies that the Baked Bean model of choice is unimportant in Dante’s view. The cantos which stand, numerically, at the very centre of the Commedia – Purgatorio xvi to xviii – are throughout concerned with the ways in which our choices can be regulated so as to make our particular choices properly consistent with the ultimate source of good. To fail in that regard is to fall into Francesca’s sort of sin. To succeed is to achieve that utter self-possession of an ethical self that Virgil recognises in Dante himself at the summit of the Purgatorial mountain. But to speak of ‘gift’ is to speak, rather, of dis-possession, of a self-abandonment which also makes possible, paradoxically, a new and unexpected endowment. Thus the paradox is that in making a vow (lines 25 to 30), we freely give back to the source of our freedom that freedom we have freely been given – and bind ourselves by doing so to the ‘creando’ that is the origin and end of our existence.

The realm that we are now entering is a realm of theology rather than of ethical or philosophical argumentation. And the space that theology opens up is one in which argument is concerned less with confirming propositions than with the pleasures of performance. The point of theological argument is to define and also enrich those words that lead us to participate in other lives – or, indeed, in life itself. This space is one that admits of entrancing paradox and, as will be seen, of poetry. And the air that breathes in this region is the air of faith, not merely faith in dogma but faith in persons (such as Beatrice) along with the hope that we shall share in the gift of their unfolding possibilities. In a word, this space is one in which ‘Amor’ is seen to move the sun and the other stars and Paradiso v is one of the first steps that Dante takes towards that realisation.

We shall see more of this when we return to the poetry – and especially the poetic rhythms of canto v. But we need to be cautious here lest by invoking too easily ‘The love that moves the sun and other stars’ we fall into the kind of chick-lit cliché of which, so far, I have suggested Francesca is guilty. Words need to be syntactically enriched and focused; and love needs to be lived with, not merely spoken. And in fact the process of theological discrimination exemplified in Paradiso v can be traced back, in however oblique and remote a way, to the other two cantos under consideration.

So back we go for a while, vertically down to Inferno, though not, I hope, to conduct any witch-hunt against Francesca or to contrast her too unfavourably with Beatrice. Rather, I want to argue that Inferno v is the beginning of a critique of the culture that Dante himself inhabited and equally an exercise in self-criticism, directed at some of his own most central preoccupations.

The culture from which Dante’s poetry emerges is a love-culture – exhibiting at times its own tendency to Tchaikovskian sturm und drang. Most of the poems written in the vernacular tradition and most of Dante’s own early poems had been love poems. And the Commedia, in the end, is also a love-poem. Yet to see how, ultimately, love in all its aspects might be consistent with the love – and life – of God, it is necessary to overcome at the outset the commonplace – the glamorously melancholic cliché – which proposes that love is a destructive or fatal attraction. At the dark heart of many of Dante’s contemporaries – even of his closest associate, Guido Cavalcanti – lay the truly dreadful pun amore/ad mortem, love leads to death. This is reflected in Francesca’s words at lines 100 to 108: ‘Amor condusse noi ad una morte’ [Love drew us onwards to consuming death]. And we have already suggested how her ‘amare’ collapses into ‘amaro’ – ‘bitterness’.

Now Dante himself in his earliest work, the Vita nuova, had already begun to resist any such conclusion. It is there that he writes: ‘Amor e ‘l cor gentil sono una cosa’ [Love and the noble heart are one thing], attempting to establish an absolute identity between love and ethical prowess; love is a noble virtue and virtue displays itself in love. So what is happening when in Inferno v he allows himself to write, on Francesca’s behalf, the verse at line 100: ‘Amor che al cor gentil ratto s’apprende’ [Love, who so fast brings flame to generous hearts]? The diction and phonetic patternings of the two lines seem almost indistinguishable. Yet on closer analysis the meaning of the two lines are diametrically distinct. The Inferno line proposes not an identity but an aggressive opposition, in which Love, as an impersonal and numinous force, takes possession of the ethical heart and brings it to instantaneous destruction. It would be easy to blame Francesca at this point for failing to display the lexical intelligence that Beatrice exhibits whenever she utters. Yet that is hardly fair. After all, Dante himself wrote the line. And this, I suggest, can be taken to imply that he knew as well as T. S. Eliot did that words, even his own most well-defined words, can ‘slip, slide, perish / Decay with imprecision’. Setting out to write a narrative poem, all but unprecedented in the vernacular verse-tradition, Dante confronts a kind of imaginative schizophrenia which will lead him, in dramatising alien voices, to employ his own best words against his own best interests.

‘Love’, then, as everybody knows, is a slippery word. But Dante, knowing this, has also built into his poem a principle that, at least until Beatrice arrives, can help to resist such slippage. And the name of that principle is Virgil, who has already established himself in the poem not only as the model for Dante’s unprecedented foray into the epic mode but is also from the first a paragon of linguistic precision. This principle bears upon one particular word which is as much a leitmotif in Inferno v as is the word ‘amore’, this word being pietà – pity or compassion – which appears in one form or another at three crucial moments in the canto. The notion of compassion will eventually prove to be of great importance in Dante’s thinking. Indeed, one of the characters in Purgatorio v is named La Pia and the canto in which she appears introduces in its first notes the Miserere – ‘have pity or mercy on us O Lord’ – which I have alluded to in my title. But in slippery Inferno v, Francesca demonstrates how easily this word, too, can decay into a tear-jerk (ll. 91-3). And one remedy for any such slippage is to recall that, on an etymological analysis, the Italian pietà is directly derived from the Latin pietas, which is the central term in Virgil’s own ethical lexicon. In the Aeneid, pietas, so far from implying a kittenish cultivation of private sentiment, denotes public duty, an unwavering commitment such as Aeneas displays to the well-being of the state and to Justice. In choosing Virgil as his guide, Dante had explicitly devoted himself to the virtue of political justice, which he took to be embodied in the Roman Empire. Yet justice is already seen here to involve something of that discriminating attention to words that Beatrice displays. And on further examination of etymology, lex – law – would appear to have been connected as early as its Sanskrit origins with leggere – to read. Law is that which is publically legible. In Inferno v, pietà as well as amore are blurred to the point of un-readability.

So Love and Pity require much further attention if they are to take their rightful place in the Book of Divine Devotion. But then so too does ‘Justice’, at least as justice appears in Inferno. Just look at how the canto begins. Drawing directly on Aeneid vi, Dante here at lines 4-6 introduces the figure of Minos, judge of the underworld. But in Virgil’s text, Minos is a solemn and awe-inspiring adjudicator. And so he might be in the Commedia – if only Dante had not endowed him with that ridiculous tail, which Minos here twirls to indicate the number of the circle to which the damned are to descend. No sooner has Dante embarked on his ethical epic than he finds himself criticising, even ridiculing, the principle of mechanical justice on which the plan of Inferno, at least, so largely depends.

There is evidence here of a schizophrenic tension – and no time now to extend that diagnosis over the whole of the first part of the Commedia. But in Inferno v there is one third and final symptom to be noted. And that is a certain discomfort over the very competence of literature itself. It has become a commonplace of Dante criticism that Francesca is a very bad reader of literature – a direct ancestor of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. So at lines 127 to 138 we find her attributing her downfall to her reading of French Romances. Engrossed in the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, Paolo and Francesca are stirred to imitate the guilty kiss of those archetypal lovers, disregarding the fatal consequences that followed, in King Arthur’s court, from that stolen moment. Eyes flutter and flicker above the pages. Trembling, a mouth is kissed, though is it really a kiss? Is it really as bodily there as Rodin’s version might suggest? And even Dante, himself a reader of the Romances and author of the present version, swoons to the point of death in sympathetic sentiment.

Fiction, no less than love, can prove to be narcotic. And, in fiction, justice, too, may degenerate into grotesque, Minoan absurdity. So where we do we go from here? Well, obviously to Purgatory. And then we shall, I hope, discover in the wonderfully imaginative second realm the beginnings of a freedom from all those ills that in Inferno infect the language both of love and justice. We shall also, I hope, find there a conception of the body – hitherto lacking from my argument – which allows our physical frame a far more significant role in human existence than might appear from the literary vapours of Francesca’s fragmented eroticism.

Now there are at least two points of immediate connection between Inferno v and Purgatorio v. Like Francesca, La Pia – the figure who appears in the final moments of Purgatorio v – was murdered by her husband, thus suffering the violent death that deprives all of the characters in this canto of the time they needed to perform a formal act of expiation. Then, too, both cantos depict scenes of violent storm: Francesca’s punishment is to be driven unendingly on the hurricane of the ‘bufera infernal’; the central section of Purgatorio v describes how the body of the warrior Buonconte is assailed after death by a tempest brewed up by the Devil himself, no less.

But similarities such as these serve above all to emphasise how significantly different the two cantos are, in style and implication. Consider the voice that Dante attributes to La Pia, and in particular the line that attracted T. S. Eliot’s attention: ‘Siena mi fe; disfecemi Maremma’ [Siena made me, unmade by Maremma] (134). There is nothing here of Francesca’s deliquescent languor. Yes, as in ‘Amor che a nullo amato amar perdona’, there are notable alliterations on ‘m’. But these are held back from melting murmuration by the strong repetition in ‘mi fe: disfecemi’: she was born in Siena and died in the miasmic regions of Maremma. But ‘fare’ – ‘to make’ and ‘to unmake’ – rejects pathos in favour of a clear, diamond-hard insistence on the brevity and fragility of her created existence. And then there is that incisive mid-line caesura, which brings about balance but, simultaneously, introduces a silence which itself speaks eloquently of La Pia’s brutal end and also of prayers that are still to be uttered. We have here a remote anticipation of Piccarda – whose story is still being told in Paradiso v, where a voice fades into the elegiac singing of the Ave Maria – but only after delivering some of the most intelligently clear-sighted lines that Dante ever wrote.

From this point on, a sub-theme in this reading will be that of wounds, in a literal and in a metaphorical sense, signifying interruptions, surprising shifts of direction and corresponding metrical or syntactical articulations. But the rationale for this attempt emerges most clearly from the storm-episode that runs from lines 103 to 129. The tempest depicted here is not – as it was in Inferno v – an infernal punishment. The natural elements now are stirred by a demonic power to battle, in the end ineffectually, against the physical body of a soldier who has just died of his wounds, having dragged himself with his last breath away from the field of conflict. Here Dante constructs a narrative fiction in which the human protagonist, in a wholly unexpected moment of conversion, leaps over the gaps between life, death and eternal salvation. Sub-textually, too, the episode represents a conversion on Dante’s own part, with important implications regarding his conception of Justice, Mercy and the freedom from sin which may come to those who sing Miserere.

The protagonist here is the Ghibelline general Buonconte da Montefeltro. More than that, he was the leader of the Arezzo cavalry in the Battle of Campaldino on June 11th, 1289. In that battle Dante, aged a mere 24, fought on the opposing side in the army of the Florentine Guelfs commanded by Corso Donati. Thus to admit Buonconte to his fictional Purgatory argues a degree of magnanimity on Dante’s part. This, at the very least, is the sign of a change in Dante’s political inclinations. Though the Guelphs were victorious at Campaldino, the party was soon to split into factions in which Dante, veering now towards a Ghibelline-ish position, would find himself in bitter enmity with his own erstwhile commander, Corso. But there is more at stake here than a merely political conversion. In envisaging Buonconte’s salvation, Dante makes nonsense of the old gibe that the poet vindictively assigns his enemies to Hell. And going further still, there is evidence here that Dante is now freeing himself from that crudely judgemental conception of the after-life that, I suggested earlier, revealed its limitations in the absurd figure of Minos. For in an exceptionally explicit example of his own ‘verticality’, Dante in Purgatorio v contrives an exact parallel to an episode in Inferno xxvii where the judgement of Minos was seen to be un-bendable. Moreover, canto xxvii depicts the fate of Buonconte’s father Guido da Montefeltro, who had once been applauded by Dante (some would say satirically) as the noblest exemplar of how we should lead our human lives. Guido – and Dante, too, in the Convivio – plainly got it wrong.3 So that when Guido presents himself to Minos he is told that the papal pardon he thought he had secured was not valid, and devils drag him to the depths of Hell. In Purgatorio v, in exact, even comic, contrast, Buonconte is claimed by the angels at line 104. He arrives with no papal free pass in his hand. His salvation defies all logic. Yet, as Dante imagines it, he gets there all the same. And if he does, it is because Dante, in the construction of his fiction, has begun to explore a new conception of mercy and freedom.

The story began at lines 88 to 90. And from the first it is more like a prayer or act of devotion than any piece of political or military polemic. Buonconte’s wife does not pray for him – such negligence is not uncommon in Purgatorio – nor does anyone else. But Dante is interested enough to invent almost a hagiography on his behalf. Why, Dante asks, was Buonconte never seen again after his defeat at Campaldino? It might be supposed that he had defected. But not at all. Rather, he presented himself to a conflict more ferocious than any earthly battle could be. The answer that Dante devises for Buonconte involves the celebration of a fortitude that defeats all manner of satanic power – and, indeed, of logicality. Mortally wounded, Buonconte had summoned up his last remaining energies to crawl two miles away from the field of battle. And his last dying act (ll. 97-102) was is to utter the word ‘Maria’ – no sentimental piety but a final mustering of his physical powers – and to cross his arms over his chest, falling as he does so into a tributary of the river Arno. It is only after summoning the most destructive forces of tempest and hydrodynamic violence that Satan is able to loosen the grip that Buonconte’s corpse exerts over its own sanctity; and even then Satan is defeated. Where, in the case of Buonconte’s father, the devil had been able to claim a logical victory over an unrepentant sinner, he is now totalled flummoxed, taken aback at the illogicality of allowing a sinner into salvation, without any papal blessing and solely on the strength of a single repenting tear, a lagrimetta.

The storm, then, is Satan’s act of vengeance on Buonconte’s spiritual success. But the crucial factor is the place accorded to Buonconte’s body in all this drama. Out of the massacre of Campaldino there comes, in the moment of its hero’s Miserere, something akin to martyrdom. Buonconte’s final and spontaneous ‘Maria’ is, in its own way, a vow of fidelity, an act of will far closer to Piccarda’s self-giving determination than to Francesca’s descent into literary oblivion. But the specific contribution that this episode can offer is a celebration of heroic vulnerability. In articulo mortis, the muscles of the wounded lock in the form of a cross. And though, reaching the Arno, Buonconte’s grip is eventually released, this is not before his actions have inscribed an utterly new meaning on the physical universe. Throughout, the fifth canto has evoked landscapes where flux, vapours and fogs are in the ascendancy. La Pia dies in the malarial Maremma. Jacopo del Cassero (ll. 73-84) tells of how he took a wrong turning in the swamp around Padua and, stuck in the mire and reeds, was murdered by his pursuers: his life-blood pours out to form a lake in which his humanity is wholly absorbed into the brackish ooze. But this already contrasts with the single, distinct and purposeful line of red that Buonconte draws behind him – ‘sanguinando ‘l piano’ [a line of blood behind me on the plain] (99) – on the way to his final encounter. And with the crossing of his arms the fragile human body spells out a significance which can only be described as liturgical. Physical nature, as in the liturgy, now means something – something that links it to the creator and redeemer of that physical nature. And water itself becomes more than a disastrous flood. Buonconte’s watery fate is also the sign of his baptismal redemption.

So body does matter, in ways that the lustful might never have imagined. But this significance has already been registered in the long sequence (ll. 1-27) that opens Purgatorio v, describing Dante’s own movement from one region of Purgatory to another. The landscape he is traversing is the magically realistic landscape of Mount Purgatory where natural features are at every point endowed with liturgical significance. But the magic here is that Dante casts a shadow and therefore must still possess a body and – amazing even in his own eyes – must himself at line 9 (‘pur me, pur me’ [me – yes, me!]) be an object of wonder. As the penitents in a group approach him they are singing the Miserere. But then at the sight of Dante’s shadow their devotions are – violently, marvellously, comically – shattered at line 27 into a ‘lungo e rauco’ [long, hoarse]: ‘Ohhhhh!’ And this rude interruption marks the announcement of an ultimate mystery. Yes, it is obviously right, liturgically, that all penitents should sing, repeatedly, the Miserere, which means here the whole of the penitential psalm number 51. But Dante’s bodily presence in Purgatorio announces to them the ultimate reality of the human condition, which is that, finally, we shall reside not in some merely spiritual nirvana but rather in the resurrected body. Violating all logic, even beyond the sequential logic of liturgical devotion, we shall be returned at the Day of Judgement to our specifically physical identities. And there is more still. The Miserere is sung at Mass as part of the Agnus Dei immediately before the sacrament of Eucharistic communion. But through a willing participation in the act of communion we participate in both the violence that Christ, sacrificially, endured for us and also in the creative unity that our faithful participation in the Body of Christ is now making sure. Violent death is here replaced by the violence of grace, by the wholly unaccountable gift (or, in Greek, ‘eucharist’) that a Creator, in creating, holds out to all of his creatures. It is the shock of Dante’s bodily presence in Purgatory that announces all this. And perhaps the most marvellous – and poetic thing of all – is that announcement is made not in a flash of epiphanic light but rather through the shadow cast by a mortal, still vulnerable, indeed rather silly, human body. Grace operates as much in shadowed fragility as it does in the eye of the storm, and draws those who know it together in unknown communion.

To speak about grace is to speak – as a matter of faith, not logic – of gifts, of divine largesse, of the circulation of giving and receiving on which life depends, and also, I think, to speak of poetry. So, happily, we are about to return to Paradiso. But before we do there are one or two links of my own – certain gaps, violent segues and penitential points – that I need first to identify.

For instance, I have said nothing of how important the discussion of gift-giving has become in recent philosophy. The question, as Derrida might put it, is whether there can be any such thing as a gift freely given without expectation of return. In the Convivio, Dante argues that his use of vernacular Italian in that work is itself a true gift to his reader.4 In Paradiso ii, he allows the reader freely to choose whether or not they will read Paradiso, as though there were no necessity to do so. Might not those readers who do freely choose to continue with the text be thought of as accepting a gift – or even as taking a vow of fidelity to its author?

But here I would bring in a third passage to speak with these two passages of Dante’s; it is from an essay, largely concerned with Resurrection, by the theologian John Milbank:

If we truly value the other, we must value him in his specificity and therefore my presence before the other is ineradicable from a situation which is paradigmatic for the ethical. Of course, one’s celebration of such an encounter may require one in certain circumstances to sacrifice oneself, even unto death, and one can go further to say that in a fallen world the only path to the recovery of mutual giving will always pass through an element of apparently ‘unredeemed’ sacrifice and apparently sheerly unilateral gift. But the point is that the gesture is not in itself the Good and indeed I have argued, is not good at all outside the hope of a redemptive return of the self […]. To speak of such a return is not at all, however, to surrender to the lure of contract, because it is not the case that actual, self-present life is a mode of self-possession. […]

The fuller more abundant life is a return of life always afresh, always differently. Hence what distinguishes gift from contract is not the absolute freedom and non-binding character of the gift (this is our Western counterpart to the reduction of exchange to contract, which remains entirely uncriticized by Derrida […]) but rather the surprisingness and unpredictability of the gift and counter-gift, or their character in space as asymmetrical reciprocity and their character in time as non-identical repetition.5

And all I would note for the moment is his emphasis, contra Derrida, on the specific ‘surprisingness’ and ‘unpredictability’ of theological gifts. And the supreme gift is resurrection, which gives ourselves back to ourselves wholly and in wholly unfamiliar form. The mode of that restoration will be one of non-identical repetition, freeing our Misereres from a merely penitential sequence and surprising us into a communal contemplation of entirely new possibilities.

Whatever such theorisings might produce, however, the reality of the Resurrection and the ‘new life’ – the vita nuova – that it offers is borne in upon Dante by his real and particular love of Beatrice. He himself insists, in Purgatorio xxx to xxxii and in Paradiso xxxi, upon the profound historicity of Beatrice’s life and influence. And, in regard to imagination and intellect, every canto of the Paradiso needs to be read, on Dante’s insistence, as a confession of her significance to him. Beatrice died young – violently, one might say. The very core of Dante’s Christian faith and, likewise, of his faith in Beatrice is that, in death, she lives in non-identical repetition, which is to say, she lives anew.

So from her first appearance in the poem, and throughout the final cantica, every argument and every piece of theology that Dante produces is illuminated, in being offered to Beatrice, by an understanding of grace – of life freely given and generously received. And this understanding has direct implications concerning the part that the Body plays in Paradiso at large – so often so badly misrepresented as a piece of bloodless theology – and also for the ways in which we might analyse the details of structure and language in Paradiso v.

Theology: I suggested that the purpose of theological argumentation was to define and equally enrich the terms by which we live in the realm of faith, hope and charity. But in regard to Paradiso this suggestion may lead one to ask which is more important, Beatrice’s discourse or the radiant poetry that accompanies her response to Dante’s questions. Put another way, are the smiles that almost invariably accompany her words merely a sugaring of some bitter theological pill, concerning, say, the making of vows? Or could it be that the point of her theology is to release the smile and all the vitality of words that Dante summons up in his description of Beatrice’s laughter?

I would argue for the second of these alternatives. And in doing so I draw attention also to the way in which a canto such as Paradiso v is punctuated by a series of interruptions, silences – or gaps or fissures – that allow laughter to be released from a merely argumentative syntax. For example, note in canto iv the undulating stream of energy that flows from the contemplation of truth. (The Italian ‘rio’ – stream – is very close to ‘riso’ – laughter.) And this canto notably concludes with a line that mirrors precisely – and exactly contrasts with – the mortal swoon that ends Inferno v: Dante, eyes closed, almost loses all strength:

Beatrice mi guardò con li occhi pieni

di faville d’amor così divini,

che, vinta, mia virtute diè le reni,



e quasi mi perdei con li occhi chini. (ll. 139-142)

[Now Beatrice looked at me with eyes all full
of sparks of speaking love, and so divine
that, overwhelmed, I turned my back on her

and, eyes bowed down, I almost lost myself.]

Then the silent gap between cantos. And then the return of elemental energy, this time as flashing fire not water:

S’io ti fiammeggio nel caldo d’amore

di là dal modo che ’n terra si vede,

sì che del viso tuo vinco il valore,

non ti maravigliar. (ll. 1-4)

[If I flame out in warmth of love to you
beyond all measure that is seen on earth,
and so defeat the prowess of your eyes,

don’t wonder why.]

Or else take the concluding section of canto v (from line 85). Dante here begins a narrative modulation, describing his ascent to the Heaven of Mercury and this pause in argumentation is filled with the happiness of Beatrice culminating in laughter that emanates from the Heaven of Mercury itself.

Now I defy anyone to say that a ‘smile’ is not a physical, even an erotic, phenomenon. Of course, a contrast at once suggests itself between the Beatrician smile and the ‘bocca tutto tremante’ [trembling to my open mouth] that seals Francesca’s fate. And, of course, to modern cultural tastes, the Francesca-frisson is bound to seem the sexier. If this were The X Factor, the conventionalised writhings and squirmings of Inferno v would undoubtedly go through. But a smile is not only physical but also a spontaneous, indeed psychosomatic, expression of total attention. For evidence, think of those smiles that are illustrated on every next page of the Kama Sutra. Or, if you would rather not, then please do read Dante’s ‘Commedia’: Theology as Poetry, edited by Vittorio Montemaggi and Matthew Treherne, which collects together papers on the significance of smiles, presented at a conference at Robinson College in 2003 by some of the world’s most eminent theologians. At this point, too, Botticelli might be of assistance. The striking thing here is not really the supervisorial dominance that Beatrice exerts, but the way in which she sweeps Dante into the dynamic rhythm of her dance. The ‘ondeggiar’ and ‘fiammeggiar’ of Dante’s text is perfectly realised in the billows of Beatrice’s robe. And it is easy with this illustration in mind to see here the action of an undulation and a vitality of rhythm which rises in complete contrast to the chaos of Francesca’s ‘bufera infernal’ or, indeed, of the storm that assails Buonconte’s body. Please don’t forget that in anticipation of divine laughter Purgatorio v contains both the comic defeat of a huffy Satan and the comic interruption of the Miserere. Now, in Paradiso, Dante imagines, theologically, the very rhythm of Creation – a rhythm in which, lexically and phonetically, his own verses participate.

The most overwhelming and refulgent example of Beatrice’s laughter occurs in Paradiso xxiii. And there Dante expends all his poetic energies in saying how he cannot speak of her smile. This is in the fullest sense a ‘hilarious’ interruption, a delirious silence. But the pauses that scan Paradiso v point forward to this great example. They also distinguish the canto structurally from the two other Fives. The Francesca-episode was a monologue, scarcely interrupted by the two male figures, Paolo being a shadowy mute and Dante rather too inclined to swoon. Purgatorio v presents three contrasted voices that establish no connection with each other – though the author in prayer, or the careful reader, may well construct a connection on their behalf. The Paradise-pause, however, reveals a source of coherence located either in human attention or in the contemplation of an ultimately mysterious energy.

The moments I am speaking of occur, in my reckoning, around lines 16, 37, 85-91 and 109. Some of these serve – in a way that I have been describing as syntactical – to accentuate points of legal definition. Indeed lines 73-75 and 82-84 clearly enunciate that syntactic principle when Christians are advised to be slow and measured in considering their vows, so as not to flutter on the breeze or gambol about like idiotic lambs. But these are also moments when attention can fall on Beatrice’s resurrected presence, continuing beneath the silence to harmonise our necessarily fragmented arguments. On this point the crucial lines are 16 and 17. Beginning this canto – significantly, this song – Beatrice ‘sings’ her intervention and in that respect is to be differentiated from all human beings in the temporal world where language must be ‘broken’ – ‘si spezza’ – into grammatical sequences. Human language, if it is not to be merely an ‘amato amar’ confusion, depends upon its breaks, its word-divisions and punctuation marks. But the language of resurrection has no need of such sequential markers. It is at one with eternity and participates instantaneously in the song of truth. However, since Dante is still writing in a temporal language, this song can only be registered in silence. So at lines 88-90:

Lo suo tacere e ’l trasmutar sembiante
puoser silenzio al mio cupido ingegno,
che già nuove questioni avea davante.

[Her saying nothing now and changing look
imposed a silence on my avid mind,
which had already new demands ahead.]

The silence registered here denotes neither a lack nor a frustrated impediment. Rather, it reverberates to the chant of rhythmic and rhyming desire, the forward impetus ‘davante’ – meaning ‘forward’ – echoing Beatrice’s ‘sembiante’ – countenance. Moreover, at lines 109-111 this chant is one that Dante invites – or even teases – his reader to join in enjoying:

Pensa, lettor, se quel che qui s’inizia
non procedesse, come tu avresti
di più savere angosciosa carizia.

[Readers, just think if what we’ve now begun
did not go on, what torment it would be
to hunger, wanting further information.]

There’s a lovely rhyme here on ‘inizia-carizia’. And this teasing is surely very different from the tease that Francesca’s reading of romance alluringly exerts upon her – and us. Dante’s rhymes are now a bait for intelligent desire.

A bait? Yes, sure enough, there are fish to be baited here. For the souls in Mercury coming towards us at lines 100 to 102 are compared to fish in a pool, desiring the food of companionship from Dante, as he arrives in their Heaven. Sub-textually, there are, of course, Eucharistic implications here. The Mass is a sharing of ourselves with ourselves, and the resurrected Christ breakfasted on fish by the shores of Galilee (John 21). But above all there is here an evocation of those calm undulations that run through, and are revealed by, the natural world. The souls in Mercury, unlike the penitents in Purgatorio v, do not need to be shocked into seeing how glorious humanity can be, even in Dante’s physical, if trans-humanised form. One might also note here the poetic device by which Dante introduces his mercurial fish. It is a simile: Dante’s favoured figure of speech. And, in saying ‘like’ or ‘compare’, similes admit a difference – or a gap – between two phenomena yet proceed across that silence to trust that there is a significant connection. Paradiso is throughout, as here, full with references to the natural world. And there is no need now to strive against that world, as Buonconte did in the storm. All such details can be seen, along with Dante’s bodily arrival, as part of the rhythm – or gift – of creation, ‘creando’.

But how, finally, is the reader – whom Dante addresses at lines 109 to 111 – to share in all these undulations? How should we keep our vow to continue? Well, less, in the end, through legal-eagle caution than through a clear and sharp awareness of the patterns underlying Dante’s poetic rhythms. One might already see the play of alliterations at lines 2 and 3: vede, viso, vinco il valore:

S’io ti fiammeggio nel caldo d’amore

di là dal modo che ’n terra si vede,

sì che del viso tuo vinco il valore,



non ti maravigliar. (ll. 1-4)

And then at lines 8 and 9, there is a crescendo of illumination, turning into fire, as though focused through a lens, as the light of truth, seen at last by the human intellect, burns in simple and unchanging love: ‘sola e sempre amor accende’ [will kindle – only, always – love].6 In lines 19-27, the crucial discussion of gift and freedom renders argument as aria:

Lo maggior don che Dio per sua larghezza
fesse creando, e a la sua bontate
più conformato, e quel ch’e’ più apprezza,



fu de la volontà la libertate;

di che le creature intelligenti,

e tutte e sole, fuoro e son dotate.



Or ti parrà, se tu quinci argomenti,

l’alto valor del voto, s’è sì fatto

che Dio consenta quando tu consenti;

[The greatest gift that God, in spacious deed,
made, all-creating – and most nearly formed
to His liberality, most prized by Him – 

was liberty in actions of the will,
with which all creatures of intelligence – 
and they alone – both were and are endowed.

Now there’ll appear, if you pursue this thought,
the value and nobility of vows,
when framed so God’s consent consents with yours.]

Subordinate clauses, sustained for a whole terzina, triumphantly hit their main clause after an emphatic enjambment with the firm and sustained vibrato of ‘volontà / libertate’. And following from that, the word ‘consent’ (at line 27) means far more than it might in the phrase ‘the age of consent’. Lingering on Dante’s repetition of the word, one recalls that in Italian the word may also express ‘hearing’, ‘sensing’ and ‘feeling’ together in complete human harmony. Then, in lines 100-8, that dangerously unstable word love: ‘amore’ is held and celebrated by appearing rhymed with the unambiguously positive ‘splendori/amori’:

Come ’n peschiera ch’è tranquilla e pura

traggonsi i pesci a ciò che vien di fori

per modo che lo stimin lor pastura,



sì vid’io ben più di mille splendori

trarsi ver’ noi, e in ciascun s’udia:

“Ecco chi crescerà li nostri amori”.



E sì come ciascuno a noi venìa,

vedeasi l’ombra piena di letizia

nel folgór chiaro che di lei uscia.

[Compare: in fish pools that are still and clear,
the fish are drawn – as though they guess at food –
to anything that comes there from outside.

So now I saw a thousand splendours plus
drawing towards us. And in each was heard:
‘Look there! He’ll make our many loves grow more.’

And then, as each came near to us, each shade
was seen – within the flash of clarity
that came from each – full of pure happiness.]

And finally, for sheer poetry, how can one paraphrase the paradox or oxymoron at lines 106 to 108 which sees the flash of pure happiness proceeding from a shadow, from an ‘ombra’ – save perhaps by emphasising that in Purgatorio v, Dante’s shadow itself had brought miraculous light to the penitents?

But to end, I will just draw attention to the last third of the canto which is both a conclusion and also a beginning, expanding over the gaps between cantos iv and v. Now the single figure who swims towards Dante out of the fish-pond over the mercurial, hence over-ambitious souls, will prove to be the Emperor Justinian. And Justinian’s great achievement was to codify Roman Law so successfully that the code remains, after fifteen hundred years, a pillar in many a legal system, at least in Europe. But note that Justinian is said at Paradiso vi (lines 13 to 18) to have begun his work on the Code only when he came to understand the true nature of the Incarnation. In other words, only when he came in faith to recognise that Christ is both truly God and also truly man did he realise that human dignity deserved to be articulated and preserved through a coherent and legible set of human statutes. But the Incarnation is also the beginning of that history which, sustained by the Eucharist, will at the Last Judgement be fulfilled in our Resurrection. So while Justinian does indeed assert the importance of legal precision, he also prepares for a greater justice – what Dante will call a ‘living justice’, ‘viva giustizia’ – the justice of God ‘creando’. Living justice has nothing to do with Minos, and precious little to do with fine print. It has everything to do with mercy and generosity.

Mercy, however, is better sung than analysed. So let us end there. The spirit of Justinian comes enclosed in light in lines 125 to 139, ‘chiusa chiusa’, but this enclosure is no prison; rather, it is a pulsating light, registered phonetically in the repetition. And pointing across the canto division, the last line, the song, also pulsates in repetition: ‘canto canta’ [canto sings]. Theologians need to sing and dance, so too perhaps do lawyers and literary critics. But so, above all, should readers of Paradiso.


1 The video of this lecture is available at the Cambridge Vertical Readings in Dante’s Comedy website, https://sms.cam.ac.uk/media/1459503

2 The translations in this essay are my own.

3 ‘Certainly Sir Lancelot did not want to enter port under full sail, nor did our most noble fellow Italian Guido of Montefeltro. These noble people did indeed lower the sails of their worldly activities; in their advanced age, they dedicated themselves to a religious life and put aside all worldly delight and activity’ (Conv., IV. xxviii).

4 In Conv., I. viii, Dante argues that, in writing this work in the vernacular, he is giving a gift to his reader. In defining a gift, one of the several considerations is as follows: ‘in all of its acts a virtue must be joyful not sad, so if a gift lacks in being given and received, it does not manifest perfect or whole-hearted’ virtue. This joy derives entirely from the quality termed usefulness, which remains with the giver in making the gift and passes into the recipient in his receiving the gift. The giver, therefore, must have the foresight to ensure that on his side there remains the usefulness constituted by goodness, which is the highest form of usefulness … If the giver acts in this way both people will be joyful and the liberality will be the more whole-hearted. The chapter concludes: ‘The third feature in which whole-hearted liberality can be recognised is that the person give the gift without waiting for a request; for giving done in response to a request is, from one perspective, not virtue but trade, since the recipient pays a price even though the donor makes no sale. So we find Seneca saying that nothing “is more dearly bought than what is paid for with our entreaties”’.

5 See John Milbank, Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 155-56.

6 ‘ne l’intelletto tuo l’etterna luce,
/ che, vista, sola e sempre amore accende’ (ll. 8-9) [in your own mind / the mirrored splendour of eternal light / which seen will kindle – only, always – love.]