The Shadowy Selva Oscura: Predecessors and Legacies
This wood burns a dark
Incense. Pale moss drips
In elbow-scarves, beards
From the archaic
Bones of the great trees.
Blue mists move over
Dark Wood, Dark Water by Sylvia Plath
The search for Dante’s influence of the selva oscura is certainly never ending, unless, of course, a letter or writing from Dante expressing his own influence is found. Furthermore, the influence of Dante’s dark wood metaphor for being lost, mentally and spiritually, has crossed borders, literary movements, and arguably into colloquial idioms (“mid-life crisis”). One arguable reason for Dante’s trope to stand the test of time is it has been recorded, it is highly likely texts using a “dark wood,” which might have inspired Dante, had been written prior to the poet’s time. Nevertheless, his masterpiece is recorded, it has been translated, it has crossed boundaries, and has entered other multidisciplinary works outside of poetry and prose and into cinema and video gaming.
The prologue scene, or more appropriately the “passage” of Dante’s Inferno opens with one of the most notorious stanzas and has helped to produce some of the most influential poetic landscapes (pathless dark wood) through the Dark Ages, into the Renaissance, and has not lost its propulsion through Modernism and Post-Modernism respectively. This paper will attempt to uncover the earliest usage of the dark wood metaphor and examine the borders it has crossed both with countries and literary movements, and, I submit, this influence will be never ending in the scope of other multidisciplinary works.
“Midway in the journey of our life I found myself in a dark wood, for the straightway was lost” (Inferno 1.1-3).
Though the scholarly criticism is widely undisputed and as Robert Pogue Harrison summarizes this theory effectively as: “Sinfulness, error, errancy, alienation from God – these are the allegorical associations of Dante’s selva oscura, or dark forest,” (Harrison 82). the bigger scope of research can be observed in the earliest findings of the dark wood trope and how it has influenced later in other multidisciplinary creative works, not just poetry itself. With sources stemming from Virgil to Augustine to Dante, revolutionary translators and commentators (Harrison being the most iconoclastic) have agreed that the midway of life’s journey is not a linear vector, but a “turning point” to spawn a Christian conversion, a turning around to avoid further alienation from God. In fact, Harrison points out it is the linear trajectory that caused Dante to get lost in the first place. However, Harrison’s thesis of this straight path leading Dante astray goes against the Inferno text itself as Dante “wandered away from the “diritta via,’” (Warner). but the former sources do confirm Dante is spiritually lost.
Lawrence Warner proposes the dark wood does not “represent Dante’s errant will, but instead the salvific obscurities of the holy scriptures; its dark appearances does not signal its inherent danger, but instead reflects the darkness that is the pilgrim’s mind” (Warner 450). This arguments correlates with Giuseppe Mazzota’s extensive analysis that the Commedia is a “book about books” but counters the conclusion of its “historical awareness.” Mazzotta argues that Virgil’s summary of the Aeneid in Inferno 1.67-75 marks the appearance of an “awareness of history” that “represents for the pilgrim lost in the forest a crucial detour from the vain attempts to reach salvation through philosophy: the philosophical quest is vain because its abstract, forever valid paradigms do not give access to the irreducible historicity of the self, the depth of one’s inferiority and confusion” (Mazotta 153). Warner goes on to explain his proposal does take into account the historical awareness found in the Aeneid, but also includes and emphasizes the salvific history of the Bible. This “Bible-as-forest” topos was widely enjoyed throughout the Middle Ages and exemplifies in the texts of Augustine as he explains the dangers of the scriptures to “unprepared readers of their respective eras.” And though the Bible was still in its infancy during Augustine’s writings, he shows the obscurities prompted academic enthusiasm, rather than theological terror and confusion. This is shown in De Doctrina Christiana, in which he shows the positive nature of the dark wood in which there are resting deer found in Psalm 28:9:
largire inde spatium meditationibus nostris in abdita legis tuae, neque adversus puisantes claudas earn, neque enim frustra scribi voluisti tot paginarum opaca sécréta, aut non habent illae silvae cervos suos, recipientes se in eas et resumentes, ambulantes et pascentes, recumbentes et ruminantes.
[From them grant us space for our meditations on the secret recesses of your law, and do not close the gate to us as we knock. It is not for nothing that by your will so many pages of scripture are opaque and obscure. These forests are not without deer which recover their strength in them and restore themselves by walking and feeding, by resting and ruminating.] (Confessions 11.2.3).
Drawing focus on the opaca secreta phrase points to a few things within the Inferno. First, it points to Dante’s selva oscura, as well as segrete cose [“secret things” Inferno 3.21]. This, as the reader should recall, is a threshold scene—Virgil leading Dante through the gates of hell. Furthermore, the calmness of the forest Augustine creates alludes to the prologue scene of the Inferno, “After I had rested my tired body a little,” (Inferno 1.28) but the pilgrim can only rest “un poco,” suggesting a counterpoint to the peaceful Augustinian resting exegetes.
Though the allegorical and critical context of the prologue scene is accepted as Dante being spiritually lost, subtopics and interpretations are also theorized and analyzed. For John Freccero, the prologue appears to be less concrete and is blurred. A “shadowy world” where “things both are and are not what they seem” (Freccero 189). Though he admits Dante was influenced by Augustine’s seventh book of the Confessions, Freccero proposes the landscape of the prologue scene parallels the seventh book to the “region of unlikeness” Augustine finds himself in. He also proposes this is not the only paralleling fact, but another resemblance is found with the goal of Dante’s poem being spiritual conversion, thus making the entire Commedia structurally Augustinian and in turn, a spiritual autobiography of Dante. The “ambiguous nature of the moral landscape” is subject more for analyzation and aligns with the pilgrim’s journey and a failure of the poet’s journey. In short, Freccero’s analysis of the dark woods for Dante, parallels that of Augustine, but the allegorical standing is an overarching thought of going from unlikeness to likeness—from blurred to concrete. Whereas Augustine’s journey to hell was metaphorical, Dante’s journey was dramatically real, but they were both a first step to the journey of truth. However, the resemblance and “the image of the forest had been a favorite in the patristic tradition at least since Augustine (In Ioannem V, tr. xvi, 6: In hac tam mmensa silva plena insidiarum et periculorum [In this forest so immense and full of snares and dangers])” (Cassata 14). Therefore, the familiarity of the metaphorical forest must have been familiar to readers by the time of Dante’s usage of the selva oscura.
G.H. McWilliam has a slightly tweaked version of the examination of the dark wood, and more so on the short passage of Dante’s “midway through life…” Of course, the correlation of a biblical allegory stands true, as he references the ninetieth psalm “the days of our years are threescore and ten” and a reference to the book of Isaiah, thirty-eighth chapter, “I said in the middle of my days, I shall go to the gates of Hell” (McWilliam 17). Why is the threescore and ten years applicable to the book of Isaiah? If this age is the epitome of biblical lifespan, then Dante’s journey (mimicking the book of Isaiah) correlates with Dante’s age at the time he finds himself in the dark wood, thirty-five. However, Dante and Isaiah have much more in common than they do not. Sure, they are separated by 2000 years, a gulf sea, one a prophet the other a poet, but for William Cobb the correlations they share are more important and applicable:
Each was a patriot statesman, who suffered at the hands of a fickle and ungrateful people. Each has suffered since from a class of commentators, who think to measure the creative intellect by the two-foot rule. As Dante pierced to the reality under the false forms of the multitude around him, so Isaiah wielded the very spear of Ithuriel. (Cobb 99).
This correlation drawn over two millennia further cements the influential predecessors of Dante, even pre-dating that of Augustine. Furthermore, the linkage of feet and verse between the two writers, despite the debate of scholars over Isaiah’s verses, once again solidifies the evidence that Dante was highly influenced by these prophetic writers.
McWilliam continues his examination of the opening canto (which he points out has been called everything from a prologue to a poem to an overture, and he proposes it is only a matter of time it will be referred to as a trailer with the cinema terminology invading the literary world) in regards to its literal time and landscape. The text further exposes Dante is lost on the morning of Good Friday:
This fell at the first widening of the dawn
as the sun was climbing Aries with those stars
that rode with him to light the new creation
Thus the holy hour and the sweet season… (Inferno 1. 37-40)
This time is highlighted by the landscape shown once Dante emerges from the dark wood to find a barren and deserted scene, or as the poet uses, “…that dead slope…” (1.30 Norton). This dark wood, McWilliam submits, was not only referencing being lost spiritually, but also a mental confusion—a mentally spiritual state of sin. Though the commentator admits to a speculation of Dante’s “main” sin (pride), he does narrow his analysis to include lust. This examination is a combination of analyzed passages from the Commedia to show Dante’s pride, but his lust is referenced back to a single line of Dante’s earliest commentaries, Boccaccio.
For Dante’s pride, the most relevant passage used is when the poet passes through the circle of the proud on Mount Purgatory, in which the poet claims
that he will personally be obliged to spend more time in that circle than in any of the others. As for his lustful nature, this can be assumed, not only from the stunning effect produced upon him by his encounter with the spirits of Paolo and Francesca in Canto V of Inferno, but also from the severe admonition which he receives from the shade of Beatrice in Canto XXX of Purgatorio, especially when she claims that she was no sooner dead than Dante gave himself to another. (McWilliam 18)
As for the poet’s lust, one line of Boccaccio is quoted, “in questo nostro poeta ebbe molto luogo la lussuria (‘this poet of ours was much given to the sin of lust’)” (McWilliam).
What has been exposed in this research is another scholar agreeing to the sinful and confused state of Dante being lost in a dark wood, at the age of thirty-five, on the morning of Good Friday. Dante’s dark wood was inspired by previous biblical texts (mostly correlated with Isaiah), Augustine, and quite possibly someone or something else which has not stood the test of time or records.
So, where does this researched, analyzed, and widely accepted selva oscura guide learned readers and scholars? Where has it pushed its influence? The tangents seem to be endless with many threads woven throughout different eras of literature and religious texts. This metaphor has inspired poetry, prose (both fiction and non-fiction), and visual art. The dark wood trope of sparking a salvific journey has been or could be implemented in an endless amount of literature criticism—as one of the most important fundamental rules of storytelling and writing is to have a character arc. The protagonist, usually, must be elevated in some way from their initial appearance in any creative text. This rule also applies to self-help texts; therefore, drawing parallels to Dante’s dark wood has been implemented in this genre, as well. What many scholars seem to be gravitating toward, in reference to this trope, is the analyzation of identity. Whether it be of the self, time period, or nationality. In fact, one of the more unique finds while researching came from the Journal of Clinical Investigation in which the author uses the analysis of becoming lost with keeping the specific organization mission in line with the ethics of their business.
Organizations are defined by their missions. When they lose sight of them, they risk losing their identity and purpose. Developments in American academic medicine over the last several years point to a loss of focus on the long-term objectives and the big picture. This nearsightedness is a major threat to our enterprise. (Turka).
Turka goes on to use the Dantesque dark wood metaphor to spark the salvific journey of the organization’s ethics, but the implementation of using a five-hundred-year-old text in a clinical investigation journal proves the legacies of Dante, influenced by profound predecessors, surely has no boundaries.
But to keep in line with the intent of the paper and to examine how this trope started and where it is going, a segue to the Romanticism era of the late-eighteenth-and early-nineteenth-century revival of interest in the Commedia is needed to show the transformed landscape of the modern autobiographical genre. This analysis of identity by Joseph Luzzi (who Mazotta was the Dissertation Director) argues that the “shift in the relationship between aesthetic experience and the construction of personal identity between 1750 and 1825 influenced the evolution of the autobiographical genre in Europe. As aesthetic response became less disinterested and more laden with experiential value, the models of personal identity in literary texts shaped how writers constructed their histories of the self” (Luzzi). Romantic critics argued the “world-historical individual” that is, as Hegel describes, the heroic character fully understanding he or she was assuming change on an individualistic epochal level. Luzzi further proposes the abrupt and defined shift in tones of rhetoric toward Dante’s Commedia in Europe between the times as stated above had a direct influence on the way writers wrote their own autobiographies. The points he uses as evidence consisted of two “phenomena.” Luzzi argues that Dante “reconfigures the relationship between poetry and self-representation” and second “the sea change in how European autobiographers in the late 1700s and early 1800s viewed the connection between aesthetic experience and the construction of personal identity” (Luzzi 1). In other words, the shift in response from aesthetic to more experimentalism valued the self-representation in literary texts, which, as Luzzi submits, lead the way in how authors represented the history of their personal selves. So, what does this mean for the selva oscura trope? If the Romantics were experiencing a shift in the way they represented themselves via the influence of Dante’s Commedia, then, I submit, they considered the metaphor of being lost and looking for a salvific spark and implemented this technique into their own personal history writings, propelling them from the grandeur elevated thoughts of Neo-Classicism into the emotional movements and imaginative writings found in Romanticism. This Romantic identity Luzzi addresses is the originality of the Romantics with their commentary of Dante. This originality assumes and expands on the analyses of their predecessors.
On the topic of influence and identity, the shift to the American Romantics is most applicable, as the literary movements of America usually lagged a bit behind their across-the-pond colleagues. Three decades after Emerson published his Nature essay, the American culture identity was (for the use of puns and paper topics) lost in the dark woods. The Harvard Brahmins seemed to control the trajectory of canonistic texts, and writers like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow focused on European models, especially that of Dante, to typify the common viewpoint of the Harvard Brahmin. Igor Candido proposes that Longfellow successfully revives the Middle Ages of Dante and uses it to introduce into the American New World’s culture, society, and discourse—referencing an Ernst Robert Curtius passage from “The Medieval Bases of Western Thought (1950), in which he claims:
the American conquest of the Middle Ages has something of that romantic glamour and of that deep sentimental urge which we might expect in a man who should set out to find his lost mother. If the story of the American conquest of the Middle Ages were told, it would have to dwell on the study and the cult of Dante which flowered in New England and which is again flourishing in T. S. Eliot. To the mind of the Bostonians in the 1880’s, Dante was not merely one of the world’s greatest poets. They were of the opinion, as Van Wyck Brooks has it, that the world had been going to the dogs ever since the time of Dante. Dante, to them, appeared as the perfect expression of a perfect state of society. It was a romantic vision of the same kind as that which set the German romantic poets of 1800 dreaming about the ideal Middle Ages (Candido 106).
The desire to examine Dante’s “perfect language” obligated intellectuals (at this time Longfellow) to embark on a Dantesque study of his works in the form of, but not limited to: analyzation, translation, and comprehension. Furthermore, Emerson shows, through his journals and essays, he relied on the same sources of Longfellow to “entertain the idea of a Dante prophet belonging to a savage but uncorrupted primitive age when language was still closely allied with nature” (Candido 109). Longfellow shaped this new spirit of poetic contamination in a New World searching for its own identity, while still relying on the lag of European literary movements. After his resignation from Harvard in 1854, Longfellow devoted himself to his poetry and the completion of his Dante translations. His most Dantesque influenced works include:
two lines alluding to Dante’s exile in Prometheus (1854), two to Francesca’s native land in My Lost Youth (1855), two echoing Piccarda singing in Hiawatha (1854-55), and another pair imitating Dante’s words in the dark forest in Hawthorne (1864). But it is only with the six sonnets called The Divina Commedia that Dante becomes the unique source of his inspiration, something that was doubt less unprecedented in the history of American poetry (Candido 119).
One of the most notable American Romantics, directly influenced by Longfellow and Dante, respectively, was Nathaniel Hawthorne. His experience of his surveyor job at the Salem Custom-House was, as Carlanda Green explains, Hawthorne’s Hell. He describes this experience in the preface of The Scarlett Letter in a way that mirrors that of his classical predecessors (Homer, Virgil, Dante) and their own descent into hell. “He chooses such motifs of the infernal journey as the descent into the world of the dead, the talisman of the visitor, portraits of the dead, and the return to the living” (Green 184). However, as Green submits, what arises to be more important is the moral necessity for the pilgrim to learn not only who he is, but also what life is. Mirroring Dante, the pilgrim is an artist and descends into hell and ascends a revived and inspired person, possessing more knowledge and understanding from the Divine. “Whereas Odysseus made his trip to discover his own fate, Aeneas to discover the future of the Roman nation, and Dante to find the fate of the mortal soul, Hawthorne makes his journey to find his own artistic fate” (Green 184). This is not to suggest Hawthorne pre-empted his journey into the Custom-House with a question in mind, rather he found his artistic identity along the way. Furthermore, where Dante attempts to climb the hill of the dark wood, Hawthorne pauses outside the threshold of the Custom-House (which will become his underworld) to examine the town of Salem and align it as a “vestibule to Hell.” Hawthorne emerges from the hellish darkness and obliviousness of reality, which is that of the Custom-House, as a “literary man,” balanced and in harmony with himself and his art—to serve his community through the work allegorical storytelling of the scarlet letter of Hester Prynne (Green 194). Therefore, the Custom-House stands for Hawthorne’s metaphorical salvific transformation to redefine himself. In turn, his technique mirrors that of his epic predecessors and elevated himself and his creative works to help define American identity and shape the American Renaissance.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was not the only American writer to be influenced by Dante, and though this statement may be a keen perception of the obvious, one more piece of evidence will broaden and solidify this. However, rather than counting the references “influenced” by Dante, one scholar speaks of “an elective affinity which made Melville recognize a vital part of himself, across a yawning gap of history, in the Italian poet’s ‘power of blackness’” (Cambon 219). And though Ahab in Moby-Dick would have been conjured up in the Faustian style without his reading of Dante, the development of Ahab paralleling Dante’s Ulysses as “Heaven-defying seekers of experience, of knowledge at any cost, and they are rewarded by the same nemesis” (Cambon 219). Camdon chalks up Melville’s metaphorical masterpiece to a bit of luck and fortune by stating:
It was fortunate that Melville came to read the Inferno in the very years in which the myth of Moby Dick was taking shape in his imagination, for the Ulysses figure as reinvented by Dante in his “lucky ignorance” of the Homeric source, and possibly compounded with a blaspheming hero of hatred like Capaneus, powerfully contributed to summoning into sharp focus the haunting phantom of the whale-hunter from Nantucket. (Cambon 219).
This Romantic vision of the Americans mirrored so much of the selva oscura metaphor, most appropriately in the light of “conquering” the New World, and justifying the colonial expanse, finding their light in the dark woods, and alluding to conversio in this manifest destiny mindset of spreading the Christian doctrine. Their fear of the unknown, coupled with their religious rearing, propelled the dark wood narrative into American culture, identity, and literature/discourse. As for the German romantics, their attempt at emphasizing the tensions between daily world and that of the irrational and supernatural ideals of creative projects. This mindset lead these poets to resort back to their medieval predecessors for an archetypal of unity of art and society.
A further examination of the American identity will be later addressed with the examination of the Beat Movement and Allen Ginsberg, but a segue into a quick examination of the translations produced of the Commedia can give some insight for tracing the selva oscura trope and technique, and provide some evidence in tracing Dante’s legacies along with Dante’s worldly fame, which spread slowly but steadily. This pace could also give further insight as to the pace in which the metaphor found itself slowly spreading its own darkness to spark a salvific journey. Starting with two Latin translations, one by a Benedictine monk named Matteo Ronto, and another by Bishop Giovanni da Serravalle around 1417. These translations were followed by two Spanish translations, which were much different of quality, the first done in a Castillian prose style by Don Enrique de Argon, Senor de Villena, in 1428; and a much clear and concise version following the terza rima scheme by Andreu Febrer in 1429. France followed up with an anonymous translation of Inferno around 1500 and then again (anonymously) of the entire epic around 1550. “However, none of these translations was [sic] published till late in the nineteenth century” (Friedrich). Soon followed an anti-Dantesque time, but in the latter half of the eighteenth century the revitalization of Dante began to arise. This revival propelled the translation of Dante’s Inferno in Germany and England in 1767-69 by Leberecht Bache and 1782 by Charles Roger, respectively. Later, between 1785-1802, Henry Boyd published the first English translation of the entire Commedia. Longfellow published the first American translation of the epic poem between 1865 and 1867 (Friedrich). However, one must consider (as per the Dante Society) the importance of translations, mostly because the translator, in the end, seems to hold the power of the “word” in its traditional sense. In other words, it is necessary to note the series of translations (as per this English-speaking author, the examination of the translations into English) can shed light on the shadowy dark wood in its original connotation; therefore, it is arguable the translator holds the power of the translation. For instance, the “dark wood” has been translated everywhere from “a darkling wood” to “a gloomy wood” to “a dark forest” (Wilkins). In other words, an interpretation must occur first, and then the translation is made. Therefore, the translator must be careful not to add more or subtract from the original text, and even more so, be diligent in the act of interpretation: “observing, connecting, inferring, and concluding” (DiYanni 765). This consideration of the different translations holds importance due to the different texts inspired by these translations. For translating Inferno, the struggle to keep the essence of the structure of the poem, in terms of rhyme and construct, must have been a much more daunting task and arguably something they might have lost sleep over in the same manner Dante the poet struggled with his own poetry. For even “Dante is heir to a complex and lively Italian lyric tradition that had its roots in the Provencal poetry nourished by the rivalling courts of twelth-century southern France” (Barolini 14). Am I doing poetry justice and not committing heresy? Or, as Henry David Thoreau writes, very sternly, in Walden:
The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times; and we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have. The modern cheap and fertile press, with all its translations, has done little to bring us nearer to the heroic writers of antiquity. (Thoreau 1033-1034).
Thoreau later attempts to motivate the reader and encourage them to learn even a few words of an “ancient language,” because “those who have note learned to read the ancient classics…must have a very imperfect knowledge of the history of the human race…” (Thoreau 1035).
Have the translated texts being so different kept the metaphor true, or has it altered it? The following legacies will attempt to show the metaphor stays true and the tweaked translations further elevate Dante’s influence across the globe.
Tracing this interest in translations could assist in following the dark wood/selva oscura metaphor and how it was used in the past and how it has influenced works throughout literary movements. So far, the influential poet has been traced across Europe and echoes into America.
Following these traces of interest will show Dante’s direct influence. For instance, Dante shows up as a character in Francisco Imperial’s Decir de las siete virtudes written in Spain around 1400, Byron’s Prophecy of Dante, Bornier’s drama, Dante et Beatrice, and Victor Hugo’s La vision de Dante. However, none of these texts (as per the research of my English language and somewhat limited database) use the selva oscura metaphor, and their inspiration of Dante consists of Dante being a leading character in their texts. So, what is the importance of the digression from the examined metaphor and a look into translations? Not ironically enough, the spread of Dante coincides with the order the translations were produced. Though further research should be conducted, especially with an assistant or director well-versed in other languages, the legacies of Dante bloomed early and gradually took off to spread across the globe. However, during the Protestant uprising, De Monarchia was declared the “forerunner of Luther” (Freidrich). Furthermore, the Renaissance men disfavored Dante as they felt the text was still stuck in the grotesque “dark” Middle Ages. But Dante’s shadow of influence was already cast and his masterpiece was blotting out the critics, and would soon cross the Atlantic with the colonization of the New World.
Where is the end to this selva oscura shadow? Is it such a basic metaphor it could be read into many texts? One scholar, W.H. Hutton, considers Dante’s influence on the Spanish Iberian Peninsula to help answer some of these questions. Hutton sifts through the writings of “Signor Farinelli (Appunti su Dante in Ispagna nell’ eta media in the Giornale Storico della Letteratura Italiana, supplemento no. 8, Torino, 1905), of Dr Paolo Savj-Lopez (Dantes Einfiuss auf spanische Dichter des XV. Jahrhunderts, Neapel, s.d.), and Signor Sanvisenti (I prizi influssi di Dante, del Petrarca, e del Boccaccio sulla Letteratura Spagnuola, Milano, 1904)” (Hutton). He does this to find evidence of where their own identity and expressed opinions vary and coincide with one another. The shear proximity of France to Spain held an elevated influence in its literature text (as shown previously, France produced the first translation of the Commedia), but the early development of the French language attributed to much of the Spanish literature technique—how words could be formed and used effectively. The previously mentioned writers were all, in one way or another, linked to Southern Gaul in their early days. This literary evolvement helped to churn a new Spanish identity and express common ideas. In fact, Hutton submits, it is not so much surprising of the French influence, rather the influence was not more prominent and play a bigger role. This could be to the counter swing of the influence the invading Arabs had, which scholars dismissed for a long time. The literary and linguistic assimilation can be observed with a quick look into the surrender of Granada in 1492—where not “a thousand Arabs could speak their native tongue” (Hutton). This influence was not only subject to the Spanish constitutional life, but also its literary culture and discourse. The critic, Dozy, “showed how the typical Spanish- hero was half Moor, and how the Cronica general contained large extracts, translated, from Arab chronicles: Julian Ribera has shown how the characteristic institution, the Justicia, of Arag6n, is derived from a Moorish original” (Hutton 106). This correlation to selva oscura may only be possible to examine by an Arabic speaking scholar who is also familiar with Spanish literature, and as one scholar submits, there is still an unsolved problem with Dante’s fame after 1500 which, “has not been treated satisfactorily and to urge some young scholar to investigate this matter. There exist excellent studies on Dante’s influence in France, in England, and in Germany” (Unsolved Problem, Freidrich 160).
Dante’s influence crossed the European borders and crossed into the Eurasian country of Russia. The Russian response to the 600th anniversary of Dante’s death marked an extraordinary time in the country. It was just four years after a revolution, still in the grasp of civil war and famine; 1921 Russia had a “flood of testimonials, literary evenings, poems, essays, lectures, and popular monographs destined for readers ranging from the intelligentsia to school children” (Kopper 25). The years preceding the anniversary hosted a new wave of Russian translations inspired the scholarly community to elaborate new interpretations of Dante and propelled these analyses into religious and modernity debates. The reception of these new interpretations and examinations alludes to “the preconditions for constructing Russian cultural icons in general and at the same time speaks to the distinctiveness of Russian Symbolism within a pan-European context” (Kopper 26). Kopper traces the influence of Dante in a year-by-year review within existing publications to prove Dante as a symbolist hero in Russia during this time. The reception of Dante was extraordinary and unprecedented, even considering the nineteenth-century Russian writers exhibiting their interests.
The formation of a Russian Dante had found no collective echo in the literary discourse of their time. Pushkin was well acquainted with The Divine Comedy, and his characteristically complex blend of irreverence and respect had led him to inaugurate use of the terzina in Russian poetry (“At life’s start I remember school” [V nachale zhizni shkolu pomniu ia“]) and to write the first Russian parodies of Dante (“Then we moved on . . .” [“I dale my poshli . . .”] and “Then I saw a black swarm of demons” [“Togda ia demonov uvidel chernyi roi”]). (Kopper 27)
This later inspired Gogol to write his own “sin-to-salvation” trilogy and influenced his own Dead Souls metaphor. Herzen, would follow-up these works with a Dantesque metaphor of exile with that of Nikolaevan Russia. This love for Dante in post-1900 Russia was revived by the interest of the Italian Renaissance, which was brought about by translations of Renaissance works, Dante, and early modern Italian texts. Dante became the “unshakeable and transcendent moral authority” of Russian imaginative writers. Another Russian writer, Alexander Blok, provides a clear lens into the Dante Russian revival, exemplifying Dante as the “artist-moralist” and became entranced with Dante after his trip to Italy in 1908-1909. Blok seemingly became obsessed with this trip:
Blok’s construct of Dante at this time is largely reminiscent of Briusov’s. On 2 October 1909, Blok wrote him, ‘It is entirely understandable why Dante found asylum in Ravenna. This is a city for rest and quiet death.’ Blok often confines himself to a historical Dante that obeys the formulas of the time, as the 1909 poem Ravenna shows: ‘Dante’s shade with its aquiline profile sings to me of a New Life.’(Kopper 39)
As one can blatantly see the correlated influence of Dante the predecessor into a pan-European Russian legacy, the Russian Dantesque idea considered the selva oscura metaphor for a salvific journey and a spark for a nuanced identity, panning that of culture, discourse, and art.
But Blok saw in Dante far more than an enchanting model of medieval sensibility. In the 1909 essay “The Lightning of Art” (“Molniia iskusstva”) Blok wrote, ‘It is good if you carry in your soul your own Vergil, who can say, Do not be afraid, at the end of the path you will see Her Who sent you.’ And in the 1918 sketch of the foreword to an unpublished edition he added, ‘I felt myself astray in the wood of my own past until it occurred to me to use the device which Dante chose when he was writing the Vita nuova’ (Kopper 39)
For the Russian artists, Dante grounded the “rendition of ecstatic experience to a rigorous religious metaphysic” (Kopper 44). The image of Dante appealed to the Russian modernists, and the popularity of the Inferno epitomizes an era that incorporated many hierarchical religious organizations, especially “Catholicism and various theosophical movements” to aim for unity. But what should more importantly be taken from this examination is the Russian Modernists used Dante to “define non-Russian beliefs as non-Christian” (Kopper 45). The Dante Symbolists of Russia experienced an update of Dante and propelled the Russian literary movement into a progressive identitfication which exceeded anything European letters had produced before. And as Kopper submits, “the transposition of the Symbolist interest in tutelary figures onto the image of Dante, who is qualified to serve as the eternal mentor; the evolution of Ivanov’s poetic persona, which the poet himself as well as those about him associates with a Dantean tradition; and the union of two poets, one medieval and one contemporary, when Blok becomes Dante” (Kopper 45). If is also important to note experts do claim Alexander Blok is the epitome of reception in the Russian literary tradition. He stands as a figure, which has inspired an astonishing number of other artists.
As the Russian Symbolists responded to revolution and famine by looking at Dante, the American Beat Movement artists were responding to post-World War II culture and politics. Their focus of elements in the rejection of canonistic literary values, spiritual quests, a revival of world religions, and minimalistic living echoed from the Transcendentalists launched these new artists to push publishing in a progressive and liberalized the United States literary narrative. Allen Ginsberg is one of the most notable poets of this time, and his creative work, Howl, stands as the forerunner. Jeffery Meyers examines the structural correlation of Ginsberg’s masterpiece with Dante’s, whereas:
section I, a long series of laments, beginning with the pronoun “who,” about chastisements and tortures, and section II, a condemnation of the materialistic and repressive society symbolized by the Canaanite fire god Moloch, whose worshippers had to sacrifice their own children, are Ginsberg’s Inferno. (Meyers89).
In Howl, Moloch is Ginsberg’s Lucifer, which Dante sees accompanied with Judas. The next section narrates an homage to a fellow poet of Ginsberg, Carl Solomon, who spent some time with Ginsberg in Colombia Psychiatric Institute (1949), in this section, Solomon is passing through Purgatorio. Finally, in section IV, Ginsberg uses an anaphora writing technique, “Holy, holy, holy…” which, as Meyers submits, begins Ginsberg’s Paradiso section. This anaphora echoes Isaiah 6:3 with, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory” (Meyers 89). Structurally, we see Howl fitting that of the entire Commedia, but there is more evidence to align these parallels. Both masterpieces combine punishments and pain of the Old Testament with salvation of the New Testament. This is directly seen with Ginsberg quoting Christ’s last words on the cross. Ginsberg further creates a Dantesque timeless and unreal reality with reminiscent phrases like, “the motionless world of Time between” along with a contrapasso portrayal of the hellish New York subways: “men ‘chained themselves to subways,’ ‘howled on their knees in the subway’ and—in a phrase deleted from the first line of section II— ‘Whose hand bashed out their brains on the subway wheels’” (Meyers 90). This brilliant metaphorical allegorical trope, influenced from the translations of Dante’s dark wood, casts Ginsberg’s own selva oscura to the front of the Beat Movement—a threshold of American identity following WWII and a fear of the unknown—the Cold War.
Dante’s predecessors are traceable only through research and theory, but his legacies sustain more permanent and solidified, as through letters and writings have been preserved. Dante struggled with what poetry should do and how it should be used, but his legacies seemed less inclined to the salvific weight and more on the answer to identity. Dante’s selva oscura, shadowy, gloomy, dark wood metaphor stood at the forefront of artists’ minds, especially in a threshold of literary movements. It has cast its shadow across the world, and has spanned for over five centuries, finding itself in other multidisciplinary works from music to video games. The translators struggled to keep not only the structure of the masterpiece, but the original artist’s meaning of each word, and still the selva oscura finds its light amongst its own shadow.
Harrison, Robert Pogue. Forests, edited by Robert Pogue Harrison, University of Chicago Press, 2009. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.vortex3.uco.edu/lib/ucok-ebooks/detail.action?docID=547705.
Turka, Laurence A. “Lost in a Dark Wood.” Journal of Clinical Investigation 117.7 (2007): 1734–1735. PMC. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.
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