Sunday poetry: Dante’s “sweetness of the drink”

The below image (a postcard, I believe) reached me via friend and comrade Howard to whom it had been sent by his friend Amos, who’s living in Florence this year.

purgatorio

The image satirically parodies two of the last lines in Dante’s Puragtory, with a slight distortion (most probably inadvertent) of the text. The author of the postcard transcribes:

    io pur canterò in parte
    lo dolce ber che mai non m’avria sazio

Most scholars would take issue with the accuracy of the transcription (canterò, future, vs. the probably more accurate canterei, present conditional) but that’s no matter nor the point here.

The line is lifted from the famous closing tercets of The Purgatory, the second of three canticles in Dante’s poem, The Comedy. Here they are as translated by professors Robert and Jean Hollander.

    If, reader, I had more ample space to write,
    I should sing at least in part the sweetness
    of the drink that never would have sated me,

    but, since all the sheets
    readied for this second canticle are full,
    the curb of art lets me proceed no farther.

    From those most holy waters
    I came away remade, as are new plants
    renewed with new-sprung leaves,

    pure and prepared to rise up to the stars.

At the end of Purgatory, Dante, who is accompanied by the Latin poet Statius, is instructed by the mysterious Matelda to bathe in the waters of the Lethe river (one of the five rivers of Hell) to erase the memory of sins committed on earth) and then to drink from the Eunoe, a river of Dante’s invention, from the Greek, the eu (beautiful or good) noe (mind), which reminds the penitent of her or his good deeds on earth.

The famous lines would have been very familiar to the author of the postcard, who has parodied Dante’s dolce ber or sweet drink of the Eunoe, the river referred to in the closing lines of the canticle, as alcoholic. The triad Statius-Dante-Matelda also would have been familiar to the author, who probably created this image in the 1920s or early 1930s, gauging from the imagery

The image of Dante is taken from 15th-century painter Domenico di Michelino’s depiction of Dante, now in the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence:

Dante

Here are the two Dantes, side-by-side:

I believe that the other male figure in the panel could be a parody of poet and novelist Gabriele d’Annunzio, who was at the height of his fame when this postcard was printed.

The lady with the tray of glasses completes the triad. To this day, scholars don’t know Dante’s inspiration for Matelda but she is described by him as la bella donna, not just a beautiful woman as in the contemporary Italian, but rather a beautiful noble lady in the Dantean lexicon. Here’s 19th-century French engraver Gustav Doré’s depiction of Matelda bathing Dante in the Lethe:

Of course, in Dante’s text, the waters of the Eunoe do not have any alcoholic content nor do they have any analgesic properties. In fact, the effects of alcohol were associated more with sleep than with forgetfulness in Dante’s time. The lines from The Purgatory are among the most beautiful in the canticle, for many reasons. But I don’t have any more space left here to go into all of that… the curb of art lets me proceed no farther

Buona domenica, ya’ll… thanks for reading!

4 thoughts on “Sunday poetry: Dante’s “sweetness of the drink”

  1. What a coincidence…
    Procrastinating… Reading DoBianchi, while writing about Dante and Natural Law…(Paradiso XXX)- lines 121-123– “There near and far do neither add nor take away, for where God, unmediated, rules, natural law has no effect.”
    According to Dante my concupiscence drives me to think about drinking wine with my wife and not essay writing…
    Thanks for linking Dante with our mutual love of wine

  2. I do remember that post.
    I think it was absolutely profound and appropriate.
    I remember speaking on a similar note to Giampiero Bea last summer about nature and how one should grow (think of the Greek physis – nature coming from growth) wine. It seems that the natural wine movement is hearkening back to a pre-modern conception of nature. Or at least, it is about understanding and letting nature grow as opposed to attempting to conquer nature.
    I promise to tell you more about my work…

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