Tuesday, March 3, 2009

little night feet

Dante has this habit of using impossibly convoluted descriptions of the sky and the stars to make points about time, direction or geography. His bombast is nearly impenetrable, and his tenuous grasp of geography makes it all the worse:
The sun already burned at the horizon,
while the high point of its meridian circle
covered Jerusalem, and in opposition

equal Night revolved above the Ganges
bearing the Scales that fall out of her hand
as she grows longer with the season's changes:

thus, where I was, Aurora in her passage
was losing the pale blushes from her cheeks
which turned to orange with increasing age. (II. 1-9)

Ciardi helpfully points out, "The bit of erudite affectation in which Dante indulges here means simply, 'It was dawn' " (p.194, note to II. 1-9).

And just in case you were wondering:

To understand the total figure, one must recall the following essentials of Dante's geography: (1) Jersualem is antipodal to the Mount of Purgatory. Thus it is sunset at Jerusalem when it is sunrise on the mountain. (2) All the land of the earth is contained in one half of the Northern Hemisphere. That is to say, there is no land (except the Mount of Purgatory) anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere and of the total circle of the norther Hemisphere (360 degrees) only half (180 degrees) is land. Jerusalem is at the exact center of this 180 degree arc of land. Spain, 90 degrees to one side, is the West, and India (Ganges), 90 degrees to the other, is the East.
Every fifteen degrees of longitude equals one hour or time. That is to say, it takes the Sun an hour to travel fifteen degrees. Thus at sunset over Jerusalem it is midnight (six hours later) over India, and noon (six hours earlier) over Spain. The journey, moreover, is conceived as taking place during the vernal* equinox, when the days and nights are of the same length. Thus it is "equal Night' (line 4).
Finally, when the Sun is in Aries, midnight is in Libra (the Scales). Thus the night bears the Scales in her hand (i.e., that constellation is visible), but Libra will no longer be the sign of the night as the season changes, and thus it may be said that the Scales will fall from her hand (i.e., will no longer be visible.

That's very helpful, Ciardi... or at least, it would have been if I'd cared at all about what exactly Dante was getting at there. The text is full of similar passages and notes; I won't quote all of them because I know you wouldn't read them. Nor do I blame you.

Ok, maybe one more example. Just trust me that the entire book is filled with these sorts of things:
Virgil was quick to note the start I gave
when I beheld the Chariot of the Sun
driven between me and the North Wind's cave.

"Were Castor and Pollux," he said, "in company
of that bright mirror which sends forth its rays
equally up and down, then you would see

the twelve-toothed cogwheel of the Zodiac
turned till it blazed still closer to the Bears
--unless it were to stray from its fixed path. **

If you wish to understand why this is so,
imagine Zion and this Mount so placed
on earth, the one above, the other below,

that the two have one horizon though they lie
in different hemispheres. Therefore, the path
that Phaethon could not follow in the sky

must necessarily, in passing here
on the one side, pass there upon the other,
as your own reasoning will have made clear."

And I then: "Master, I may truly vow
I never grasped so well the very point
on which my wits were most astray just now:

that the mid-circle of the highest Heaven,
called the Equator, always lies between
the sun and winter, and, for the reason given,

lies as far north of this place at all times
as the Hebrews, when they held Jerusalem
were wont to see it toward the warmer climbs." (IV. 58-84)

I'll spare you Ciardi's notes on all this, because I can't imagine why anyone would care. Suffice to say that they're approximately nine million paragraphs long and contain this hilarious diagram of the earth with Zion, the equator, the path of the ecliptic, Purgatory, and the "celestial horizon of Purgatory and Zion" all carefully marked.

There is, however, at least one of Dante's little digressions on time and geography that I find utterly delightful. At the end of a conversation with the indolent Belacqua in Canto IV (Ante-Purgatory: The First Ledge -- The Late-Repentant -- Class Two: The Indolent) (hell of an ordering system they've got there, eh?), Dante is reminded that he must keep going:
But now the Poet already led the way
to the slope above, saying to me: "Come now:
the sun has touched the very peak of day

above the sea, and night already stands
with one black foot upon Morocco's sands." (IV.136-41)

Ciardi clarifies:
It was now noon at Purgatory. It must therefore be midnight in Jerusalem. Dante believed Morocco to lie exactly 90 degrees west of Jerusalem (in the same longitude as Spain) and 90 degrees west of midnight is six hours earlier. Hence, it is six o'clock there and night would just be beginning. (p. 207, note to ll.136-140)

I love these lines so much! I picture Night wearing a lone black sock, like maybe the other one got eaten by the dryer. Or Night coming "on little cat feet" (this is the first poem I remember learning -- I think we read it in kindergarten). Carl Sandburg, 'fess up. Did you borrow from Dante?

*My edition is old and full of typos; the text here actually reads "venal Equinox." Which is a hilarious image and could be a good name for a band.

**Apparently this line is Dante's idea of what passes for humor. Horrifying.


Fiona said...

Heh, also, remember all the bits where he talks about the Constellations? Turns out his almanac or whatever was wrong for two of the Zodiac signs (the book calculated Libra and one other one for 1301, not for 1300) and so his long descriptions of the fish and the scales are WRONG ALL WRONG.

Also boring.

And wrong.

Dante loses.

Leigh Walton said...

I'm just going to keep inventing reasons to post excerpts of my thesis.

[The author I translated in my thesis, Callimachus, was born in northern Africa soon after the death of Alexander, who had united the whole Mediterranean region into a single Greek-speaking community. Then he went to work at the Library of Alexandra, where he joined a community of scholars called the Museum.]

In fact, a passion for the poetry of the ancients was a common feature of the Alexandrian scholastic community, and not by coincidence. Peter Bing, building on the insights of Rudolf Pfeiffer, has written on the nature of the Alexandrians’ anxieties and complexities of self-perception. Living as Greeks outside of Greece, recruited by a fabulously wealthy king to live in an artificial city, the scholars of the Museum were painfully aware of their distance from the golden age of Greek civilization — a distance which Bing calls "the gulf" (Bing 64). In response to this anxiety, the Hellenistics "created a kind of microcosm of Greece on Egyptian soil," specifically via the collection, study, and care of Greek literature (Bing 14). By declaring themselves the custodians of the written word, the Alexandrian community created a stable connection back to the Greek past.

For many of the Alexandrians, it was not sufficient merely to preserve and edit old texts, but new texts had to be composed, informed by study of the literary past:

Poetry had to be rescued from the dangerous situation in which it lay, and the writing of poetry had to become a particularly serious work of discipline and wide knowledge. The new writers had to look back to the old masters . . . not to emulate them — this was regarded as impossible or at least as undesirable — but in order to be trained like them in their own new poetical technique. (Pfeiffer History 88)

As a result, Hellenistic poetry shows a distinct tension between the urge to celebrate the past and the urge to innovate — to discover what new kinds of literature one can produce when surrounded by books.

The scholar-poets of Alexandria, or in Bing’s phrase, "the Hellenistic avant garde," were the first Greeks to acknowledge the central role of literacy in their poetic identity (Bing 54). They soon developed "modern, self-consciously literate poetic conventions," in which traditional poetic conceits were questioned and the boundaries between reality and artificiality were tested (Bing 11). Among these tests was "the deliberate and novel conflation of elements from separate genres," such as a dialect abnormal for its meter or a meter abnormal for its content (Hutchinson 15). Like Pound and the Modernists 2200 years later, Callimachus and the Hellenistics felt that old categories were no longer valid, and they grew skeptical of the traditional view of poetry as a holistic and epichoric art. They began to blend and cross-reference different traditions, filling their poems with quotations, allusions, and obscure words from a huge variety of sources: "One is always left with the impression . . . that the Alexandrian poets wrote with their ‘glossai’ [glossaries] close at hand" (Bing 54).

Considering that "the real world for such a scholar or poet was largely the world of books . . . distinctions that had previously held true when the outside world was primary are here no longer valid. Regional boundaries, for instance, can now be stressed, now ignored. A person or place can exist wherever one finds it in a book" (Bing 37).

Leigh Walton said...

Milton seems like the ultimate form of this tendency. His project is so goddamn ambitious -- to explain the entire universe in a poem -- that he really tries to fit in every piece of his massive education into the thing.

What's interesting about the Alexandria connection is this idea that the Alexandrian poets wrote such hyper-referential poetry, not just because they were the first generation of poets to write supported with the resources of a library, but also because they were overcompensating for the anxiety produced the sense that the Golden Age was over.

What's Milton's excuse? He was a bit of a classicist, but surely he was not anxious about the value of his own work? Why throw in the kitchen sink?

I also like the idea that if you have grown up surrounded by books, you are experiencing bits of culture divorced from their geographic and cultural contexts -- it used to be that you would only know about a given dialect or ritual or lake if you physically traveled there, but books bring the world to you.

But maybe it's also a consequence of the epic form -- epic is sort of designed to be all-encompassing, isn't it?