Rubrica a cura di Sinclair de Courcy Williams
Talking Dante, Episode 4
The second sonnet sequence consists of a kind of meditation on the first four words of The Divine Comedy: ‘Nel mezzo del cammin …, which basically means ‘Half way down (life’s) road …’ My question was, what does that mean – how can we be sure at any point that we are half way down life’s road?
Dare (osare) is a verb that means have the courage or impudence (sfacciataggine) to do something. The strange thing about the verb dare is that it can function like a modal auxiliary. You say, for example How dare you? (come osi? – not *How do you dare?). I dare say … is an expression that means something like ‘Well yes, that may be true / I grant you that (te lo concede), but …’: ‘He was a great man!’ ‘I dare say, but he still made a lot of mistakes.’ In other cases, however, dare can function like a normal verb I dare not speak or I don’t dare to speak. The verb dare somebody to do something means defy (sfidare) or challenge (lanciare una sfida a) somebody to do something or to take a risk. The adjective is daring (audace). The noun is a dare (una sfida) or a challenge. A daredevil is a very daring, even reckless (incosciente, avventata) person.
Dante dared more than most (più della maggior parte della gente) because, in a sense, writing the Divine Comedy was an act of courage. He wrote it in the vulgate (volgare), that is to say in the (for him) modern Tuscan dialect, and not in Latin, which was, believe you me (credetemi), a very important decision to make. Another daring thing about the Divine Comedy is that in it Dante names names (fa nomi). He puts popes in hell. There is a story that once he was even physically assaulted (aggredito) by the family members of someone he had put in hell. In Canto 33 of the Inferno, he is surprised to meet the spirit of Friar Alberigo because the man himself is still alive! The friar explains that hell can take possession of a particularly evil man’s soul even before he dies! When Dante arrives to the very (proprio) bottom of Hell (il ‘triste buco’, he calls it – ‘the sad hole’), he wonders (si chiede) if he will be able (se sarà in grado) to describe il ‘fondo di tutto l’universo (the bottom of the whole universe)’ in the same language that he once used to call his ‘mummy’ and his ‘daddy’: ‘non è impresa da pigliare a gabbo,’ he says: ‘discriver fondo a tutto l’universo, né la lingua che chiami mamma e babbo.’ (It is no joke to describe the bottom of this whole universe in the same language that you used when, as a child, you called your mummy and your daddy).
There is very little fire in Dante’s Inferno, but there is an awful lot of (davvero moltissima) water, and, at the bottom of hell, there is this terrible lake of ice (lago di ghiaccio), Cocytus (Cocito). Dante wants us to understand that real evil (il vero male) is a frozen (congelato), gelid, lifeless thing (cosa senza vita). And yet, as far as I know, Dante is unique amongst all Christian writers because he indicates in the Divine Comedy that there really is a way out of hell!
As well as that (inoltre), Dante refuses to renege (sottrarsi a) his beloved Classical culture. He creates a special place (un nobile castello – a noble castle, based probably on Frederick II’s extraordinary and very mysterious castle in Puglia, in the south of Italy, Castello del Monte) in Limbo for the great men and women of the past, even if they were not Christian. In one case, he even puts a pagan – the Roman emperor, Trajan (Traiano) – in a central position in Paradise. Dante says that the Divine Comedy is ‘’l poema […] al quale ha posto mani e cielo e terra’ (the poem in whose creation both the skies and the earth had a hand), but it was on a number of occasions accused of heresy, and risked, at the very least, being blacklisted (messo all’indice) by the church and possibly even burnt.
In any case (in ogni caso), it takes real courage to write a poem like the Divine Comedy. Possibly, it takes courage to write anything at all!