Canto 8: Seeing Beyond the Veil

Choir-Medieval-LadiesBy Aaron James

It is dusk in the Valley of the Rulers, and Dante obligingly paints the picture for us, with a description of sunset that is memorable for its melancholy beauty:

“That hour had fallen when the sailor bends
his yearning and his softened heart toward home,
the day he’s bid farewell to his sweet friends;
The hour that wrings the pilgrim just away
should he hear home’s beloved bells afar,
that seem to knell the dying of the day. . .” [lines 1-6]

Dante’s evocative description of twilight has been rewritten by later generations of poets, and English-speaking readers may well hear echoes here of the “knell of parting day” in Thomas Gray’s famous “Elegy,” or the “violet hour” in Eliot’s Waste Land where “the eyes and back / turn upward from the desk.” The autumnal, elegiac tone of this opening is lulling, and Dante sets us up to expect a kind of enjoyably wistful reverie: the sun is setting, and the souls gathered in the valley have joined together to pray the nighttime hymn Te lucis ante terminum before going to sleep. But as we are contemplating this beautifully calming scene, Dante suddenly turns to us and tells us to snap out of it:

“Reader, my veil is woven now so thin,
sharpen your eyes to look upon the truth
and easily shall your vision pass within.” [lines 19-21]

Dante wants us to pay attention, because something crucial is about to happen: two angels with swords descend from above, guarding the souls in the valley and repelling the attack of an evil serpent. If we ask why Dante is so insistent that we notice these details, it is probably because they barely registered in the poet’s own vision during the narrative. Dante only sees the arrival of the angels because he notices the spirits looking upward expectantly [lines 23-24]; he is frantic with fear at the thought of the serpent’s arrival but cannot see it anywhere [lines 40-41]; he misses the serpent’s approach until it is pointed out by Sordello [lines 94-96]; and he sees only a blur of motion in his peripheral vision when the angels move to attack the serpent [lines 103-105]. At every crucial juncture in the narrative, Dante is looking in the wrong place and attending to the wrong thing, and when he tries to look directly at the angels he finds that he cannot: his vision is too dazzled by the brightness of their faces [lines 34-36]. His vision must be purified and corrected before he can view this scene rightly and understand what he sees.

The interpretative key to this episode may be the evening hymn that the spirits sing in the opening scene. Dante gives us only the first few words of the Latin text (Te lucis ante [terminum]: “To you before the fading of the light…”), but the full text of the hymn asks God to guard and protect the singers, and to banish the enemies that threaten them. The angelic guardians who drive away the tempting serpent, we realize, are literally fulfilling the petition that the souls have just made in song. The singing of an evening hymn, which may have initially seemed a piece of pious window dressing, seems in retrospect to have been a matter of life and death.

The hymn Te lucis was sung each day in Dante’s time as part of the Office of Compline; it is still used, with a few changes, in the modern Liturgy of the Hours. In singing this text, the souls of Purgatory are allying themselves to the liturgical pattern of the Church on earth, and it is clear that this pattern serves the same function for them as for the living: it sanctifies their experience of time by connecting the mundane experience of measurable time to the spiritual realities of salvation history. It seems clear that the arrival of the angels and the defeat of the serpent, like the singing of the hymn, is a kind of ritual: the spirits expect this drama to unfold and point it out to Dante in advance. Unlike Dante, the inhabitants of the Valley of the Rulers have allowed their senses to be re-educated by the Church’s liturgical patterns, so that where Dante sees a beautiful sunset they see not only the beauty of the scene but also a call to a deeper spiritual reflection.

Are we wrong to take pleasure in evocative scenes like the one at the opening of this canto? A simplistic reading might suggest this: after all, isn’t it through his luxuriance in a kind of pleasurable reverie that Dante is diverted from the spiritual drama unfolding before him? But this is not quite right. Dante’s aim is not to chastise us for our untutored responses to beauty, but to encourage us to look deeper. As T. S. Eliot puts it, “[N]o emotion is contemplated by Dante purely in and for itself. The emotion of the person, or the emotion with which our attitude properly invests the person, is never lost or diminished, is always preserved entire, but is modified by the place assigned the person in the eternal scheme.” The goal in this place of purgation is not to smother our instinctive reaction to beauty, but to sharpen and focus it, so that our vision is conformed to the divine beauty that Dante will encounter at the end of the Paradiso. Dante’s inability to process even the more distant signs of God’s presence that he encounters in this valley reminds us that he has a long climb ahead of him still.

Dr. Aaron James is director of music at St. Mary’s Church in Auburn, NY, and an Instructor of Music History at the College Music Department of the University of Rochester. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music, where he earned two doctoral degrees: a Doctor of Musical Arts in organ performance, and a Ph.D. in historical musicology. His research focuses on the Latin motet in the mid-sixteenth century.

Posted in Purgatorio

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