Monday, March 16, 2009

"Time does not bring relief; you all have lied"

Daylight saving time gets me thinking about clocks and hours and all that business by which I live my life.

Timing is extremely important in the Divine Comedy too. There have been a hundred million commentaries written on the thing, and somewhere along the way people figured out not only the exact dimensions of Hell, but the exact position of the stars in the sky at any given moment. Each canto has a specific time attached -- Dante's journey through the afterlife is meticulously timed.

So I started to

They didn't even have mechanical clocks in Europe until what, 1270? 1280? And the Comedy was written less than 50 years after that, so timekeeping wasn't all that important. They certainly wouldn't have had clocks in houses -- just church bells, set to local noon. Because it didn't matter what time it was anywhere ELSE. Each town just set the clock to noon when the sun was highest and then forgot about it. I think in a lot of the Western World they would still have been using temporal hours* instead of 60-minute hours.

So I asked Robert Hollander about it** and he referenced a passage from Paradiso:
Then, like a clock that calls us at the hour
when the bride of God gets up to sing
matins to her bridegroom, that he should love her still,
when a cog pulls one wheel and drives another,
chiming its ting-ting with notes so sweet
that the willing spirit swells with love,
thus I saw that glorious wheel in motion,
matching voice to voice in harmony
and with sweetness that cannot be known
except where joy becomes eternal.(X.139-148)

He then cited another scholar who claims this is the first literary reference to a mechanical clock. Apparently this scholar (Scott) thinks Dante might have seen one in Milan. Obviously this passage isn't about a clock in a room, since that would be ridiculous. It's probably about a town clock tower.

Another theory I have is about Italian time, which is a system of 24 hours beginning at sunset. Apparently it was useful for people whose day of work needed to end at sunset because they didn't really have access to artificial light. First of all, it was used in Italy until the 1700s, and second -- look at the Comedy! It makes sense! He starts at sunset in the dark wood, near to the time an Italian hour cycle would be starting!

So that's my theory. But really I'm just struck by how odd it is that commentators have been so hung up on the timing in Dante, when exact time mattered so little in the 14th century.

*OK, so you tell time by putting a stick in the ground and watching the shadows it casts based on the position of the sun. When the sun is right overhead, it's noon. So originally the way to divide time into hours was to see how long it took for the shadow to get a certain amount longer. Thing is, at different times of the year, that would take more or less time. That's a temporal hour -- it varies in length depending on the time of year.
**So last week I sent a fangirlish "I just love your Dante translation" e-mail to Robert Hollander, the translator I liked so much. Ever since then we've been corresponding back and forth about Dante -- he's really nice and helpful, and likes the idea of the Iditarod.

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