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.


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:


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!

Sunday poetry: Dante and wine

Of the entire corpus of Dante’s writings, his Inferno — the first canticle of his Commedia, with its gallery of eternally damned, their sordid tales, and their punishments — is indisputably the most popular (in part because of its inherently cinematic and more immediately accessible content). The other two canticles are much more dense and more difficult to penetrate but they are equally — and in many cases more — inspired, as Dante travels up toward heaven through Purgatorio (see the terraces of Purgatory left) toward Beatrice in Paradiso.

The word vino or wine appears twice in the Commedia, both times in the Purgatorio. In the first instance (Purg. 15, 123), Dante refers to his fatigue, “like a man overcome by wine or sleep.”

In the second, wine plays a much less mundane role. In Purg. 25, 76-78, the Latin poet Statius compares the miracle of winemaking (natural winemaking, I might add) to how God creates life:

    E perché meno ammiri la parola
    guarda il calor del sol che si fa vino,
    giunto a l’omor che de la vite cola.

    And, that you may be less bewildered by my words,
    consider the sun’s heat, which, blended with the sap [must]
    pressed from the vine, turns into wine.

(You can read the tercet in context at the Princeton Dante Project here and I’ve included the Princeton Dante Project commentary to Statius’s lecture on embryology, the physiology of the spirit, and the formation of the aerial body below, together with a link to the entire commentary.)

I had been thinking about this tercet after I posted in Saignée’s 31 Days of Natural Wine Series on the “miracle” of winemaking. (The series continues through July 18 and is definitely worth checking out.)

This passage from Dante is a great example of how Western thinkers and poets saw winemaking as a divine act. I find it beautiful how Dante (in the voice of Statius) uses the example of winemaking to illustrate how life is formed — a concept not easy for the mortal to grasp. As the heat of the sun starts fermentation, so the miracle of grape juice being turned into wine begins. Juice for thought, no?

Thanks for reading and buona domenica! Tracie B and I are off to the movies now…

From the Princeton Dante Project, a great tool for reading, browsing, and studying Dante’s Commedia:

Statius’s lecture on embryology may be paraphrased as follows. He is willing to deal with Dante’s desire to know how the aerial body is formed ([Purg XXV 34-36]): (1) After the ‘perfect blood’ is ‘digested’ (the fourth digestion) in the heart, having now the power to inform all the parts of body, it is ‘digested’ once again and descends into the testicles; (2) it now falls upon the ‘perfect blood’ in the vagina; it is ‘active,’ the latter ‘passive’; (3) the male blood now informs the soul of the new being in the female; (4) but how this soul becomes a human being is not yet clear ([Purg XXV 37-66]). Once the fetal brain is formed, God, delighted with Nature’s work, breathes into it the (rational) soul, which blends with the already existent souls (vegetative and sensitive) and makes a single entity, as wine is made by the sun ([Purg XXV 67-78]). At the moment of death the soul leaves the body but carries with it the potential for both states, the bodily one ‘mute,’ the rational one more acute than in life, and falls to Acheron (if damned) or Tiber (if saved), where it takes on its ‘airy body,’ which, inseparable as flame from fire, follows it wherever it goes; insofar as this new being ‘remembers’ its former shape, it takes on all its former organs of sense and becomes a ‘shade’ ([Purg XXV 79-108]). This ‘lecture’ is put to the task of justifying Dante’s presentation of spiritual beings as still possessing, for the purposes of purgation, their bodily senses even though they have no bodies. Souls in Heaven, we will discover, have no such ‘aerial bodies,’ but are present as pure spirit.