Monday, September 26, 2011

Dante, quotation, rhyme (more on time and the other)

A quick note on Dante and his rhyming: I've been interested for a long time in poems that quote other poems, importing lines into a prosodical context different from the context of their origin.

Importing lines this way, quoting them, concentrates the effect of all quotation: it puts the quoted words into a context provided by the quoter; it frames the quotation as the quoter wishes to frame it, against a sometimes contrasting background different from the ground the words originally belonged to (whether as figure or ground or both: reading is the progressive shifting of the figure of the phrase being read against the semi-opaque anticipation of words to come and the less vague but still simplified and abstracted memories of phrases already read: we are always cresting into the present in a standing wave of arrival, as Ashbery puts it).

In Canto XXX of Purgatorio, Beatrice arrives and Virgil disappears. Her arrival is heralded by the singing of a hundred ministers and messengers of eternal life, who quote the Vulgate, as it has been quoted throughout Purgatorio, beginning with the beatitudes that the repentant sinners chant on every terrace.  On each terrace two allegorical narratives present themselves, one from Scripture, a parallel one from classical mythology, in conformity with Dante's reconciliation of his classical and his Christian forebears (whom Virgil, misspelled in the tendentious medieval way with an i, as in Virgin, embodies in the Pisgah sight given to him in his Fourth Eclogue, read by his Christian interpreters as prophesying the virgin birth of Christ.) Those earlier Biblical quotations have always seemed uncontroversially apposite, but here things are somewhat different:

Quali i beati al novissimo bando
surgeran presti ognun di sua caverna,
la revestita voce alleluiando,

cotali in su la divina basterna
si levar cento, ad vocem tanti senis,
ministri e messaggier di vita etterna.

Tutti dicean: "Benedictus qui venis!"
e fior gittando e di sopra e dintorno,
"Manibus, oh, date lilia plenis!"  (XXX, 13-21)


As all the blessed, when the trumpet sounds,
will rise up singing, ready, near or far,
to "Hallelujah!" their return to bodies' bounds,

reclad in flesh: so in that sacred car
a hundred angles, ad vocem tanti senis,
rose: ministers of things that ever are.

All said together: "Benedictus qui venis!"
and, strewing flowers high up and all around,
"Manibus, oh, date lilia plenis!"
The Latin phrases may be respectively translated: "At the voice of so venerable a man" (someone has just been singing from "Song of Songs"); "Blessed are you who come"; and "Give lilies with full hands."

The first phrase is not a quotation at all; it's Dante setting up rhyme and context for the two quotations to follow.  As Singleton suggests, no Italian words rhyme with "venis" and "plenis," so Dante prepares the Latin rhymes by giving them a Latin context: the voice of the old man  makes rhyme possible: to refer to him (as senis) is to structure the rhymes.

The next Latin line is a near-quotation of Matthew: "Benedictus qui venit," blessed is he who comes.  Although it transpires that the singers are praising the arrival of Beatrice, they use the masculine form appropriate to Christ, not to Beatrice.  That's to be expected: the line is too much associated with Christ to bear a change in grammatical gender.  But Dante does change its person, from third- to second-person singular: "Blessed are you who come."  Why does he make the change?

He does this, it must be, for the rhyme, so that he can rhyme it with another line which he wishes to quote with verbatim accuracy.  That's what I want to note here: the hierarchy of rhyming in these lines.  The last line -- "Manibus, oh, date lilia plenis!" -- is the line that controls the other two and dictates what they will be: the unprecedented Latin description of the old man's voice in the first of the three rhyming lines, and the alteration in the second of the three of the Biblical verse to make it second person.  The unaltered last line is from Vergil: it is nearly the very last line that Anchises speaks to Aeneas among the dead, and here (as Singleton points out) its true meaning, beyond its manifest content, is a similar farewell to Virgil whom Dante the pilgrim is about to lose forever.

Anchises's last lines in the Aeneid were added after the early death of Octavia's son (Augustus's nephew) Marcellus, and it is this that Anchises laments to Aeneas in lines that Vergil read aloud to her brother Augustus and Octavia, lines which made her collapse with intolerable grief. Anchises calls for lilies to mourn the death he foresees: it is under the sign of the death of the child that the father and son separate in the Aeneid, and the perfect accuracy of the quotation of that lament confirms Singleton's characterization of "This most remarkable farewell verse....  It bears the haunting sadness of its context in the Aeneid and functions as a climax to the whole strain of pathos that has attached to the figure of the 'sweet father,' as he will now be called when suddenly he is no longer by Dante's side."

It is remarkable.  Literary quotation is what happens when what's left are the words which once made the other present (the writer as a psyche, as someone alive in our life, someone we can interact with, even bargain with), words now elevated (in a Hegelian -- better, in a Longinian sense), decontextualized and purified into the intensity of their own self-reference, hermetic but all the more generous for being so.  They don't do anything but quote themselves, exist like a motto or epigraph or quotation out of context, abbreviating, not their original context, but its loss, the loss of the psyche behind them, the psyche now absorbed and condensed into only the words themselves, the written words of one who has become at last a writer only.

The remembered voice of the parent, remembered as quotation: this is what you get in Proust too, in the great passage in which he remembers as a talisman or token of his long-dead father how he had relented from his usual strict refusal to cater to his son's neediness:
«Mais va donc avec lui, puisque tu disais justement que tu n’as pas envie de dormir, reste un peu dans sa chambre, moi je n’ai besoin de rien.» «Mais, mon ami, répondit timidement ma mère, que j’aie envie ou non de dormir, ne change rien à la chose, on ne peut pas habituer cet enfant...» «Mais il ne s’agit pas d’habituer, dit mon père en haussant les épaules, tu vois bien que ce petit a du chagrin, il a l’air désolé, cet enfant; voyons, nous ne sommes pas des bourreaux! Quand tu l’auras rendu malade, tu seras bien avancée! Puisqu’il y a deux lits dans sa chambre, dis donc à Françoise de te préparer le grand lit et couche pour cette nuit auprès de lui. Allons, bonsoir, moi qui ne suis pas si nerveux que vous, je vais me coucher.»

On ne pouvait pas remercier mon père; on l’eût agacé par ce qu’il appelait des sensibleries. Je restai sans oser faire un mouvement; il était encore devant nous, grand, dans sa robe de nuit blanche sous le cachemire de l’Inde violet et rose qu’il nouait autour de sa tête depuis qu’il avait des névralgies, avec le geste d’Abraham dans la gravure d’après Benozzo Gozzoli que m’avait donnée M. Swann, disant à Sarah qu’elle a à se départir du côté d’Ïsaac. Il y a bien des années de cela. La muraille de l’escalier, où je vis monter le reflet de sa bougie n’existe plus depuis longtemps. En moi aussi bien des choses ont été détruites que je croyais devoir durer toujours et de nouvelles se sont édifiées donnant naissance à des peines et à des joies nouvelles que je n’aurais pu prévoir alors, de même que les anciennes me sont devenues difficiles à comprendre. Il y a bien longtemps aussi que mon père a cessé de pouvoir dire à maman: «Va avec le petit.» La possibilité de telles heures ne renaîtra jamais pour moi. Mais depuis peu de temps, je recommence à très bien percevoir si je prête l’oreille, les sanglots que j’eus la force de contenir devant mon père et qui n’éclatèrent que quand je me retrouvai seul avec maman. En réalité ils n’ont jamais cessé; et c’est seulement parce que la vie se tait maintenant davantage autour de moi que je les entends de nouveau, comme ces cloches de couvents que couvrent si bien les bruits de la ville pendant le jour qu’on les croirait arrêtées mais qui se remettent à sonner dans le silence du soir.


“Go along with him, then; you said just now that you didn’t feel like sleep, so stay in his room for a little. I don’t need anything.”

“But dear,” my mother answered timidly, “whether or not I feel like sleep is not the point; we must not make the child accustomed...”

“There’s no question of making him accustomed,” said my father, with a shrug of the shoulders; “you can see quite well that the child is unhappy. After all, we aren’t gaolers. You’ll end by making him ill, and a lot of good that will do. There are two beds in his room; tell Françoise to make up the big one for you, and stay beside him for the rest of the night. I’m off to bed, anyhow; I’m not nervous like you. Good night.”

It was impossible for me to thank my father; what he called my sentimentality would have exasperated him. I stood there, not daring to move; he was still confronting us, an immense figure in his white nightshirt, crowned with the pink and violet scarf of Indian cashmere in which, since he had begun to suffer from neuralgia, he used to tie up his head, standing like Abraham in the engraving after Benozzo Gozzoli which M. Swann had given me, telling Sarah that she must tear herself away from Isaac. Many years have passed since that night. The wall of the staircase, up which I had watched the light of his candle gradually climb, was long ago demolished. And in myself, too, many things have perished which, I imagined, would last for ever, and new structures have arisen, giving birth to new sorrows and new joys which in those days I could not have foreseen, just as now the old are difficult of comprehension. It is a long time, too, since my father has been able to tell Mamma to “Go with the child.” Never again will such hours be possible for me. But of late I have been increasingly able to catch, if I listen attentively, the sound of the sobs which I had the strength to control in my father’s presence, and which broke out only when I found myself alone with Mamma. Actually, their echo has never ceased: it is only because life is now growing more and more quiet round about me that I hear them afresh, like those convent bells which are so effectively drowned during the day by the noises of the streets that one would suppose them to have been stopped for ever, until they sound out again through the silent evening air.  (This is Moncrieff's translation, which I have come to prefer, if you need to read Proust in English, even to Lydia Davis's.)
He quotes his father at some length, and then quotes him again saying words he never said: "Va avec le petit."  This isn't verbatim, but his father wasn't a poet.  This is rather the poeticizing quotation or quotational poeticizing of what his father had said (closest in fictional fact was "Va donc avec lui").  These words are the words of the father becoming lost, giving up patriarchal omnipotence (as Virgil has, as Abraham has in a scene, a painting that Proust has invented for his purposes), the father's first step towards mortality in the eyes of the child.  The child sobs and that's one reason why he sobs, and why he can hear those sobs even now ("near or far, cry is cry" is Beckett's version of this).  Longtemps since he went to bed late that night, and longtemps since his father could say those words that he remembers still as a line nearly of verse, as Dante remembers Virgil, remembers the dead Anchises's words to Aeneas.

And that "oh," is amazing: it fills out the meter, sure, but it's the breath of the speaking voice, the lamenting and quoting voice, that we hear in it, the breath that breaths the life it desperately needs into the words it quote.  That desperation is itself the life it seeks.

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