Posts Tagged ‘Robert Fitzgerald’

Dante and crowds

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012
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Gustave Doré's version of Canto III: "...like a bird at its call."

Dante‘s Divine Comedy is brimming with crowd scenes.  Take this one, in Canto III of the Inferno, as Dante visits the damned souls who are waiting to be ferried to hell:

Come d’autunno si levan le foglie
l’una appresso de l’altra, fin che ‘l ramo
vede a la terra tutte le sue spoglie,
similemente il mal seme d’Adamo
gittansi di quel lito ad una ad una,
per cenni come augel per suo richiamo.

In Charles Singleton‘s translation: “As the leaves fall away in autumn, one after another, till the bough sees all its spoils upon the ground, so there the evil seed of Adam: one by one they cast themselves from that shore at signals, like a bird at its call.”

In a recent lecture, Robert Harrison pointed out the classical sources for the image of leaves: Aeneas sees the same infernal scene in his visit to the underworld in Book 6 of the Aeneid.  Since Virgil was by Dante’s side during his otherworldly excursion, the comparison would have been on his mind. Here’s Virgil’s version (in Robert Fitzgerald‘s translation)

..as many souls
As leaves that yield their hold on boughs and fall
Through forests in the early frost of autumn,
Or as migrating birds from the open sea
That darken heaven when the cold season comes…

Individual, particular names (Photo: Creative Commons)

But Robert noted that Dante put a new twist on Virgil’s old image, “It’s a traditional epic simile – but he singularizes it.”  Robert compared it to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, whose massive presence resolves, as you draw nearer, into thousands and thousands of individual, particular names.

So the Inferno is composed of carefully delineated individuals – the mass “that swirls unceasingly in that dark and timeless air, like sand when a whirlwind blows” never entirely fades into facelessness.

•••

In all the images of leaves, sand, and birds, this one could easily be overlooked:

E come li stornei ne portan l’ali
nel freddo tempo, a schiera larga e piena,
così quel fiato li spiriti mali
di qua, di là, di giù, di sù li mena;

“And as their wings bear the starlings along in the cold season, in wide, dense flocks, so does that blast the sinful spirits; hither, thither, downward, upward, it drives them.”

It certainly grabbed me: My daughter, Zoë Patrick, is a “birder,” and during a recent trip to Golden Gate Park, she pointed out the drab and speckled birds who could be identified (she said) because they look like “flying cigars.”

They are apparently not native here: a Bronx drug manufacturer, one Eugene Schieffelin, decided to import them, in an effort to have all the birds from William Shakespeare‘s works in the U.S.

Shakespeare, you see, chose to include the starling in Henry IV, when another soldier, the fiery Hotspur says, “The king forbade my tongue to speak of Mortimer. But I will find him when he is asleep, and in his ear I’ll holler ‘Mortimer!’ Nay I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer, and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion.”

That’s because starlings can be taught to talk – see the video below of a starling saying, “Give me a kiss, baby.” Or go here to see a video of an even more voluble starling besotted with its own name, “Damar.”

But why did Dante’s choose starlings for his metaphor of movement?  Christian Stanley Ciesielski let me know what a “murmuration” of starlings can do – see the first video below for that, too.

As Christian suggested, “Imagine a whole murmuration of ‘Give me a kiss, baby.'”   Another expression of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”