: Dante vivo || White Silence

© Julia Bolton Holloway, Sweet New Style: Brunetto Latino, Dante Alighieri, Geoffrey Chaucer, Essays, 1981-2011,  E-book




On October 15, 1981, four Dante scholars, William Stephany, Rachel Jacoff, William E. Gohlman and myself, gathered at Attica Correctional Facility at the invitation of the State University of New York's University College of Arts and Sciences at Geneseo and the Genesee Community College's education program. Ronald Herzman and William Cook noted in their introduction to the Conference, titled Learning in Exile: Dante in Attica, held to commemorate the Attica Prison Riot of 1971, that this was a unique event in the histories of prisons and academia. The four of us talked on different aspects of Dante to an audience of Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans for the most part, a third of whom were murderers. We were searched at the entry of the prison. We walked to the lecture hall through a multitude of gates that had to be specially unlocked by guards. It was as if we were in the landscape of Dante's poem.

William Stephany of the University of Vermont gave the first paper on "Dante's Exiles," describing Dante's paralleling of Pier delle Vigne, the prisoner who commits suicide and who is met by Dante in Hell where he has become a tree whose branches bleed and speak when broken, and of Romeo, the pilgrim in Paradise. Both men were unjustly accused of crimes they had not committed, like Dante himself, and had then responded, in the first case by suicide in prison, in the second by leaving the court, penniless, possessing only a staff and a mule and going forth on pilgrimage. Rachel Jacoff of Wellesly College gave a paper on "Dante and Virgil." She stressed the poignancy of Virgil as the pagan, as the outsider, who is the instrument of Dante's salvation but who is himself damned to remain in Hell for all eternity. The final paper, by William E. Gohlman of State University College of Arts and Sciences at Geneseo, on "Dante and Islam," was of interest to the audience, many of whose members were Black Muslims. William Gohlman stressed the universality of Islamic beliefs, its respect for Judaism and Christianity, the "Peoples of the Book," and of Dante's interest in Islam.

My paper, "Boethius the Prisoner, Dante the Exile," was the second to be given. As you read its words, imagine yourself not in your comfortable study chair but instead as in its audience, composed of young "lifers," who are in the prison's college program, in a room with bars on the windows, with uniformed guards, many of them surprisingly, women, and also surprisingly, all of them unarmed, standing behind you, and resenting the fact that you have the privilege of hearing this lecture. (Guards with machine guns man the Gothic-styled Disneyesque outer towers of the prison, but since the Riot, guards on the floor of the main prison, which is built like a Romanesque dungeon and fortress, are never armed.) The lecture will be interrupted by walkie-talkie's noisy commands and guards calling out individual inmates' numbers, not names, who will momentarily stiffen in resistence, then obey, and leave the room.


Boethius the Prisoner, Dante the Exile

This would be an easy lecture to give on the outside. In the present context I find giving this lecture both humbling and intense. I feel that I am inadequate to give it to this audience and yet that this material is far more meaningful here than in a more ordinary institution.

I should actually like to begin with a story that happened in Italy, in Rome. I was there when it happened. The Italian Cardinals had elected an old man to be Pope, thinking that he would die soon and wouldn't be a nuisance. Pope John XXIII, however, was of peasant stock, the kind of person who would take the Christian Gospel very literally. One morning, and I heard them, the Italians in Rome were saying to each other: "Do you know what the Pope did this morning?" "He went to Regina Coeli prison and visited the prisoners." The Regina Coeli prison means the Prison of the Queen of Heaven, of the Virgin Mary, a beautiful name, like Attica, for a terrible place. The Romans were delighted at what he had done. The Pope's actions, which obeyed Christ's command in the Gospel that Christians visit prisoners, seemed to say that even the most sinful had the chance of being forgiven by the most holy, and this made everyone happy that morning, everyone could forgive themselves. A much loved photograph of Pope John XXIII shows him with a striped-pajama'd prisoner of Rome's Regina Coeli Prison.1


I am going to talk about two Italians, Dante and Boethius, both of whom were punished for crimes they had not committed. Boethius was exiled, imprisoned, and executed in a most brutal manner, ropes being twisted around his head until his eyes burst out, and he was finished off with a bludgeon and an axe. While on Death Row, awaiting his execution, he wrote a most remarkable book which he called the Consolation of Philosophy. Dante, when exiled from Florence, was to turn to that book for consolation and to use its patterning for writing the Divine Comedy. Dante and Boethius lived many years, centuries even, apart. Boethius (470-524 A.D.) lived in the twilight of the Roman Empire. He was one of the last men, until the Renaissance, to know of both Greek and Latin philosophy. He was a Senator of Rome, descended from ancient Romans, but his Emperor was a Barbarian, Theodoric the Ostrogoth. That was in the fifth century after Christ. Ten centuries before that, Socrates had been tried and imprisoned and forced to drink the hemlock in Attica, in Athens, in the fifth century before Christ. Boethius knew the texts, written by Plato, describing the last days of Socrates, about Socrates on Death Row, and so he modeled his Consolation of Philosophy upon those works. Dante was to be exiled from Florence and to write the Divine Comedy in the fourteenth century. During the nine centuries in between and beyond Boethius' word was read, copied and loved by all who knew it, at a time when Plato's work concerning Socrates' imprisonment in Athens of ten centuries earlier was lost. The Consolation of Philosophy was translated into our language by King Alfred, by Geoffrey Chaucer, and by Queen Elizabeth.2

Socrates was imprisoned and executed largely for political reasons. Boethius was likewise exiled from Rome, imprisoned, and then executed for political reasons. Dante had grown up in the city of Florence, had been intensely involved in his city's politics (a word which literally means the affairs of the city) and had then had to go into exile when his political party lost power. Both Boethius and Dante first knew success, then utter failure. Both men found consolation in their writing and in turn their works consoled their readers.

I shall need to discuss, for a moment, what were the customs in the ancient world for the punishing of traitors and criminals. The Mediterranean civilization insisted that the stranger, the pilgrim, the exile be treated with respect, as if he were a god, or God, in disguise. If a man committed a murder, or were, for political reasons, sent into exile from his city, he had to leave his immediate surroundings and journey elsewhere, receiving shelter, bread, and water, wherever he went. Homer's Odyssey and Aeschylus' Oresteia show this. In the Greek world such a stranger, such an exile, was considered to be under Zeus' protection. He was paradoxically sacred, though a criminal. He was considered to be as if one of the sacred gods in disguise visiting mortals to test their piety. If such a person did not go into exile as a pilgrim, then he would be imprisoned and executed, as was Socrates. Socrates preferred the latter because he could not conceive of the idea of living away from his beloved city of Athens, in the region of Greece known as Attica. Boethius later had to endure both imprisonment and exile, meeting his death in the city of Pavia, not the city of Rome of which he was Senator. Dante is forbidden to return to his city of Florence, of which he had been Prior, unless he would publicly undergo a humiliating penance in the Duomo or Cathedral of St. John; failing that he would have been publicly executed by burning if he were to have returned unrepentant. Instead, he chose to live as a pilgrim exile, traveling to the cities of Arezzo, Verona, Rome, Ravenna and other places and composing the Divine Comedy, all the while eating the bitter bread and climbing the hard stairs of others, as he states in his writings.3

Christian pilgrimage and exile had inherited both the concept of the Greek exiled stranger, who was to be under Zeus' sacred protection, and also the Judaic story of Cain, who had murdered his brother Abel, and who was marked by God to signify that no man was to slay him in turn while he wandered homeless about the earth. We witness such brands being used upon the forehead in Boethius' account of his accusers, Opilio and Gaudentius,4, and also in Dante's Purgatorio, Canto IX, where Dante himself is branded by the angel with seven P's, cut by a sword blade, upon his brow, seven letter P's which signify the seven deadly sins, peccati, that he has committed and which are then to be erased one by one by an angel's feather upon each of the terraces in turn.5 Pilgrims wore such badges which both marked their shame and yet paradoxically protected them from harm from others. A further story, a Gospel account in Luke 24, told of Christ himself going about disguised as a pilgrim, a stranger, not recognized by two of his disciples who traveled with him. That tale made the medieval world treat the stranger, the pilgrim, as if he might be Christ in disguise, though he might be a Cain-like murderer. Dante refers to that story in Purgatorio XXI. Medieval law stated that no pilgrim could be killed, even though he were a murderer; if he were to be killed, his murderer in turn was to be instantly slain. It is for these reasons that Dante has himself and Virgil be as pilgrims who meet others upon their pilgrimage; in Purgatorio all of them expiating their crimes, in Hell to be exiled, unrepentant and damned for ever.

The Consolation of Philosophy, written by Boethius when imprisoned and in exile, is a deeply moving book. It is not an academic text at all. I turn to it when I am in despair. It is a book that functions towards its readers as if it were the most humane and wise, compassionate and effective psychiatrist treating his favorite patient whose restoration to sanity he most wishes to achieve, but such psychiatrists would be rare in reality. A modern parallel could be Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice, likewise written in a prison context and likewise speaking of hope, rather than despair, understanding, rather than negative bitterness, a mental freedom that can, in one's thoughts, cancel out physical imprisonment.6

The Consolation, modeled on Plato's account of Socrates' imprisonment, has two main characters. Plato had described Socrates speaking of a beautiful woman who came to him, clothed in bright garments. Just so Boethius describes himself in prison visited by Lady Philosophia:

While I silently pondered these things and decided to write down my wretched complaint, there appeared standing above me a woman of majestic countenance whose flashing eyes seemed wise beyond the ordinary wisdom of men. Her color was bright . . . and yet she seemed so old that she could not be thought of as belonging to our age. Her height seemed to vary: sometimes she seemed of ordinary human stature, then again her head seemed to touch the top of the heavens . . . At the lower edge of her robe was woven a Greek P, at the top the letter TH [for practical, praxis, and theoretical, theoria, applied and pure philosophy, the letters really being the Greek Pi and Theta], and between these were seen clearly marked stages, like stairs, ascending from the lowest level to the highest.7
Medieval manuscripts of this scene show Philosophy with an embroidered ladder on her dress between the two letters.

The two dialogue with one another. Boethius the prisoner is presented as despairing, stupid, and self-pitying. Lady Philosophia, who is really a part of himself, her name in Greek meaning "Love of Wisdom," is shown as wise, sane, optimistic, looking on the bright side of things. The two characters in the literary work are really the two sides of Boethius' own personality, one being the willful, self-destructive, despairing side, the other, the wise, creative, and hopeful one. The one behaves like a stupid student, the other like a wise, tolerant, forgiving, inspiring teacher. But this is really a work of self-teaching, of self-consoling, of self-help, and it teaches its readers to choose to laugh at their own self-pity and to cast it aside. Boethius is presenting a dialogue between his foolish side and his wise one. Boethius spends most of his time with Philosophy going over the accusations against him and complaining about how fickle Fortune has been to him. Philosophy gets him, slowly, to realize that all this is a question of perspective, of seeing things in proportion. She gets him to stop thinking of himself as a mere pawn who has been manipulated by events and to see that he has himself partly shaped his present predicament, that he has himself chosen to consider himself as a victim and to wallow in self-pity, when he could rise above that state and look at events clearly while standing apart from them. He asks her whether she is also not a prisoner.8 Her answer is "No," and she adds that while he may consider himself such he nevertheless helped his own becoming a prisoner because he has chosen to "fasten the chain by which he will be drawn."9 She chooses not to share in his dungeon of despair, in his agony over the loss of his library, in the bitterness of his exile.10 She tells him that Philosophy dwells in the mind rather than in books on shelves. She points out that while he complains of being an exile he is living in a place that to others is home.

She then teaches him to appreciate "the love that rules the earth and the seas and commands the heavens,"11 a phrase that will be echoed and reflected and repeated more and more in the last lines of the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso, culminating in "the love that moves the sun and the other stars" of Paradiso XXXIII.146. She next speaks of Fate, whose other names are Fortune and Lady Luck, and its reverse, or perhaps, obverse, Freedom. These contraries she analogizes to the circle and the center. For Philosophy evil does not really exist; it is simply the tending toward non-being, the choosing to depart from the center into the greater spaces of the exterior circles, the choosing to depart from God "whose service is perfect freedom." Chaucer translated this as the departing "into the greater envirownings." Boethius, no longer self-pitying but caught up in the intricacies of her arguments, protests, and does so by writing, like Dante, in the first person:

"You are playing with me," I said, "By weaving a labyrinthine argument from which I cannot escape. You seem to begin where you ended and end where you began. Are you perhaps making a marvelous circle of the divine simplicity? A little while ago you began with happiness, declared it to be the highest good, and located its dwelling in almighty God . . . . You also affirmed that God rules the universe by the exercise of his goodness, that all things willingly obey him, and that there is no evil in nature. And you proved all this without outside assumptions and used only internal proofs which draw their force from another."
Philosophy answered, "I have not mocked you at all . . . . For it is the nature of the divine essence neither to pass to things outside itself nor to take any external thing to itself. As Parmenides puts it, the divine essence is `one body like a sphere, perfectly rounded on all sides'; it rotates the moving orb of the universe while it remains unmoved itself. You ought not to be surprized that I have sought no outside proofs, but have used only those within the scope of our subject, since you have learned, on Plato's authority, that the language we use ought to be related to the subject of our discourse."12
The intellectual construct that results from Philosophia's argument and which shaped medieval thought is a simple one of a circle and its center, the circle representing fate, time, man, the lessening of being (the only evil there is); the center, freedom, eternity, God, being. It is the same scheme that is found in Augustine's and Aquinas' writings. It is both shaped by Plato and by Aristotle, while having its roots in the Presocratics.13 Philosophy explains:
Consider the example of a number of spheres in orbit around the same central point: the innermost moves towards the simplicity of the center . . . whereas the outermost, whirling in a wider orbit, tends to increase its orbit in space the farther it moves from the indivisible midpoint of the center. If, however, it is connected to the center, it is confined by the simplicity of the center and no longer tends to stray into space. In like manner, whatever strays farthest from the divine mind is most entangled in the nets of Fate; conversely, the freer a thing is from Fate, the nearer it approaches the center of all things. And if it adheres firmly to the divine mind, it is free from motion and overcomes the necessity of Fate. Therefore, the changing course of Fate is to simple stability of Providence . . . as time is to eternity, as a circle to its center.14
Dante, before his exile, is to make use of this image of the circle and the center in the Vita Nuova in which he has Love appear to himself, telling Dante: "I am at the center of the circle, equidistant from all parts; but you are not." In the Divine Comedy the image of the circle and the center will be paramount. I especially love one example. Dante has taken it from a line in Virgil, about the reflections of water in a golden bowl as being analogous to thought within the mind. But here he is speaking of the relationship of man and God as a two-way communication, both from the center and from the circle, a reaching out to each other. In Paradiso XIV, Dante tells us:
The water in a round vessel moves about
   from center to rim if it is struck within,
   from rim to center if it is struck from without.
I knew about ripples in a pond circling ever outwards, but not of this other movement. I was studying Dante in graduate school and came to this line, so I asked my children about it. We got down our big bread-making bowl and tried it out. Yes, Dante is right, when the outside of the bowl is banged the ripples go ever inwards meeting at the center.

Now turn to the previous lines at the end of Paradiso XIII:

Let Tom and Jane not think, because they see
   one man is picking pockets and another
   is offering all his goods to charity,

that they can judge their neighbors with God's eyes:
   for the pious man may fall, and the thief may rise.

Those words are spoken by Thomas Aquinas in the poem. Dante's image of the bowl, partly from Boethius, is the thought that comes to his mind as he tries to understand the theologian's paradoxical statement, which to him does not seem to make sense. Dante's text is speaking of the good thief and the hypocritical philanthropist. One is Dismas; the other, Dives, finding tax loopholes.

There are many aspects of the Divine Comedy that are reflections of Boethius' observations in the Consolation. The structure itself of the Comedy has the Inferno be the region of fate, Fortune's Wheel, a labyrinthine prison of eternity, the Purgatorio be a half-way house, and the Paradiso be freedom. Dante, like Boethius, had been accused of a crime he had not committed. In Inferno XIII he shows a person, named Pier delle Vigne, who likewise was accused of a crime which he did not commit, but who in his despair killed himself. We meet Pier delle Vigne, as like a thorny tree, which, when a branch is broken off it, bleeds and speaks in a nightmarish way. Dante himself could have been such a bitter suicide as is Pier delle Vigne had he not heeded Boethius' Consolation against despair. In Paradiso VI Dante meets another person, who also had been accused of a crime which he had not committed. Romeo, whom Dante meets in the realm of the pearl, tells Dante that when this happened to him he had simply asked his ruler for his pilgrim staff and his mule and had then set forth to continue on the pilgrimage which had first brought him to Berengar's court. Dante, likewise, in writing his Comedy, has chosen not suicide, but pilgrimage. Both he and Boethius openly state that they write their Consolation and their Comedy in order that "posterity may know the truth and have a record of these events." Similarly, Dante gives the souls of Pier delle Vigne and Romeo the chance to speak of the false accusations made against themselves, to counter the bearing of false witness against them.

Cicero had earlier written a work called the "Dream of Scipio."15 It was known and loved by both Boethius and Dante. Boethius quotes from it when he speaks of the smallness of the earth in contrast to the rest of the universe: "You know from astrological computation that the whole circumference of the earth is no more than a pinpoint when contrasted to the space of the heavens; in fact, if the two are compared, the earth may be considered to have no size at all."16 Dante knew this statement in Cicero and in Boethius concerning the smallness of the earth, engarlanded by the ocean. In classical and medieval cosmology, astronomy, this small earth was nevertheless thought to be the center of the universe. Galileo was to be in serious trouble with the Church for observing that the earth was not the unmoving center, but instead one of the planets that circled about the sun. But Dante lived before Galileo. In Paradiso XXII Dante looks down from heaven and this is what he sees:

My eyes went back through the seven spheres below,
   And I saw this globe, so small, so lost in space,
   I had to smile at such a sorry show. 133-135
It is almost, but not quite, what the astronauts saw. I do not think we ever realized until those photographs were published from space how beautiful the earth is, how fragile, how delicate.17 Classical Cicero, patristic Boethius, and medieval Dante all thought of the earth as an object of contempt, imperfection, sinfulness, not of exquisite loveliness. It, for them, was fallen, sinful, matter, at the center of their universe, but it was the exact opposite of Boethius' godlike center to a circle of ever-increasing non-being.

So Dante turned the whole thing inside out. He does this in Paradiso XXIII. Beatrice has him look at God and Mary who are within the Rose, around which all sing the anthem "Regina Coeli." (Remember that was also the name of the Roman prison Pope John XXIII visited.) The ordering of the universe, Dante implies, was inside out, and now is the right way round, with God at the center, the humble earth and sinning man at the outermost part of the circle. Yet not so, for sinning man, who is represented by the figure of Dante, has come to the center; the Regina Coeli, the Queen of Heaven, has redeemed the earth and man. It is as if we are caught up in Gödel's Theorem, in the eternity of eight on its side, everything twisted into the true.

But before that happens, and before we find Boethius, where Dante placed him, in Paradiso X, we must still journey through the prison that is Hell and the correctional facility that is Purgatory. Inferno is set in the realm of darkness, of the terrible three days from Good Friday until Easter Sunday, and its similes are set in the season of winter, that season Shakespeare was to call "the winter of our discontent," the winter of despair. Purgatorio returns us to the "sweet season" of the poem's opening, to Spring, to Easter, to Resurrection from death, while Hell had been deadly. Both regions are stony, but upon Purgatorio's cliff walls the sun shines like a blessing. Actually the two places mirror each other. Both are labyrinthine gyres, the first being the inside-out version of the second. Both have entry gates. We remember vividly the horror, the inexorability of the first, its words chiseled upon granite, as upon a tombstone, as Moses' law upon the stone tablets, as upon a Roman triumphal arch: "ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE."

Yet that same gate spoke of itself as made by Sacred Justice, Divine Omnipotence, Primordial Love, and Ultimate Intellect. How could Love create such an artifice, a memorial to despair, to negation, to atheism, one asks? However, there is a similar gate in Purgatorio IX, upon entering which Dante is branded with the seven P's upon his forehead. A fresco in Santa Maria del Fiore, painted by Michelini, shows Dante explaining his Commedia to the city of Florence. The gate to the city of Florence is mirrored in that to Hell. And both of these are shown as the same as that to the cornices, to the terraces, of Purgatory. It is the same gate: but the first time it is entered in a state of despair; in the second it is the Golden Gate of hope. What Dante has done is to present it twice over, the first as if seen by a Boethius wallowing in despair, the second as if by a Boethius imbued with hope by Philosophia. It is the same gate but perceived from a different mental perspective. This time it is more truly the gate of Sacred Justice, Divine Omnipotence, Primordial Love, and Ultimate Intellect. It is not the gate into the prison, but the gate out of it.

My inclinations are to leave Hell far behind. But I must return there to discuss two episodes. In Inferno V Dante and Virgil meet Paolo and Francesca. Francesca tells her tale of woe and includes in it the statement, in the subjunctive, that if God were their friend she would pray for Dante. It is not that God is really their enemy, but only that their perception of God is that he has withdrawn himself from them. In fact, in Boethian terms, they have chosen to withdraw themselves from God and therefore speak of him in the subjunctive, twisting language to match their twisting of truth. It is actually they themselves who do not forgive themselves, not God. Later, in Inferno, the souls will speak of God in ever worsening terms, as the enemy power, the podestŕ, the tyrant, as they will, in the form of that verb that denotes choice, themselves further and further from his presence, voluntarily placing themselves in eternal exile from him.

The other tale is that of Ugolino of Pisa in Inferno XXXIII who, shut up in prison with his little sons for having betrayed his city, in his hunger took to devouring their dead bodies, a terrible act of cannibalism that he now carries out in revenge on the frozen ice upon the head of Archbishop Ruggieri who had so imprisoned him and his progeny. Further on, across the ice, in this realm of uttermost despair, is found Satan, the most imprisoned prisoner in the prison of hell, and he is mirroring the act of Ugolino, as he in turn devours his three sons, Judas, Cassius and Brutus, traitors to the holy cities of Jerusalem and Rome. This devouring of one's progeny, this annihilation of oneself and one's kind, is that Boethian definition of evil, that annihilation of self, that tending to non-beingness, that despair brings about. Despair, in theology, is the worst sin, the sin against God, and against oneself in the image of God.

Individuals under stress, such as the stress of imprisonment or the loss of identity that exile brings about, compensate in some cases by creating works that restore meaning to their lives. Carl Jung observed mental patients to create mandalas, labyrinths that restored order to their psyches.18 Thomas Usk, Chaucer's friend, when awaiting his execution, wrote in prison a Boethian Testament of Love which spells out in acrostics a prayer on his behalf to a Margaret, a Pearl, who symbolizes his soul.19 King James of Scotland, when captured by the English, wrote a poem in Chaucer's manner and based on Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, which is known as the Kingis Quair, the King's Book.20 Sir Thomas More, when a prisoner in the Tower of London wrote the Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation in which two Christian Hungarians, an uncle and a nephew, console themselves about the coming of the infidel Turks.21 Sir Walter Ralegh and Jawarlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi's father, when in prison wrote histories of the world.22 Navaho Indians when they are ill have sand paintings done while the narration of the creation of the world is recounted, narrations which name the individual for whom the rites are performed.23 In all these attempts to reorder human lives these accounts, whether on paper or in sand or with the spoken word or with paint, center themselves upon the individual in question, including that person in the totality of the work, and having that person be at the center of the design or order, of the re-creation of meaning and sense and pattern. Similarly, Boethius and Dante place and name themselves within their labyrinth, mandala-like works in which they journey from the outside of the circle, which lacks meaning and sense and has the wrong perspective, to its center where they attain meaning, truth, freedom, and consolation.

We are dealing with a paradox, for that very design, that very order they create is somewhat akin to a prison. Why is it that man has always loved rigorous design and pattern, planning cities out in blocks, designing hell with bolgias and purgatory with cornices, and prisons and monasteries with cells, I do not really know. I do know that while I would gain a certain sense of satisfaction in creating a Utopia, an ordered community, I would not choose to inhabit one designed by others, in which I had no choice as to its shaping. The French Poststructuralist, Michel Foucault, has studied this aspect of prisons and found that the origin of the concept had as its intention the aiding and reforming of prisoners, rather than the destruction of their souls.24 Let us say that, for some, the idea of order is seen as like a paradise; a medieval monastery was understood in this way for its cells centered upon a cloistered garden with a well that thus represented the City of God on earth.25 While for others, such order is the stuff of nightmares. Dante's Hell is most certainly that. Interestingly it was partly modeled upon the medieval tale of St. Patrick's Purgatory as seen in the Vision of the Knight Owain. He had slept in St. Patrick's Cave, which was on an island in the middle of a lake in Ireland, and there he had dreamt a most fearsome dream of bridgy chasms, bolgias, catwalks, from which he nearly did not emerge alive.26 In the nineteenth century the English essayist, Thomas de Quincey, described Coleridge showing him Piranesi's prints, called the Carceri, the Prisons, prints which the Italian Renaissance Piranesi engraved in the aftermath of a fever delirium, of terrible stone vaulted prison cells that went on forever, with awful instruments of torture upon the floors, great racks and wheels, while balustrades and terraces lead from one tier to the next, upon which one can see the diminutive figure of Piranesi himself, striving to escape from one region of the prison only to find himself in the next.27 I have always wanted to do a production of Shakespeare's Hamlet with these scenes as scrims and backcloth to illustrate its Denmark as a prison.

This is what Dante in a sense himself does in creating his Hell from Virgil's Aeneid VI and placing himself and Virgil within that construct, naming himself within the text, giving himself meaning. He sees the Inferno as a prison of eternity, a nightmare, from which there is no escape for the inhabitants, other than for himself, and his reader mirrored in himself. These prisoners are lifers. They do not themselves even ever wish to earn parole. But Purgatorio is an utterly different kind of imprisonment. It is willed and chosen by its participants, much as the inhabitants of a medieval monastery chose for themselves their lives of orderliness. The Purgatorio's inhabitants are not static exiles at the outside of being, but can choose to ascend from one cornice to the next, journeying as pilgrims towards the center whenever they themselves know they are ready to do so. The inhabitants of Purgatorio have sinned the same sins as the inhabitants of Inferno, but their attitude is different. They have died in hope of redemption, not despairingly convincing themselves they are damned. The Purgatorial mountain is thus a penitentiary in the original sense of the word, where pilgrims could atone for and expiate their crimes, after which the slate was wiped clean, the record clear, their debt to man and God paid up. Paradiso is a realm of utter freedom, where the souls are both at the center and wherever else they choose, bringing with them that all-encompassing perspective of the center's freedom even when they descend earthward, as in Beatrice's case when, at the instigation of Mary and Lucy, she even comes to Virgil in the Inferno, these three ladies being the three Graces rather than the three Fates and Furies.

What is especially important to realize in Dante's text is that the inhabitants of Hell's bolgias and circles, while they consider themselves fated and imprisoned by God, the enemy power, have, in fact, chosen freely, in bitterness and self-pitying rage, to pervert the truth and the reality of their existence, blaming another for what is their doing. They have chosen, freely, to believe that they are fated and punished and damned; they have done this to themselves and it is not the deed of another. God, who upon the Gate of Hell is noted as being Power, Love, and Wisdom (in some translations, Omnipotence, Love and Intellect), has created these beings in his image, so that they share his power, love and wisdom as well, if they choose to do so. Or they may just as freely choose to relinquish that power, that love, and that wisdom, becoming powerless, hateful, and mad, and thereby alienate themselves from God; which, in fact, they have done. Dante, in creating these bitter, proud and willful souls has shaped them, and also himself, in the image of the foolish Boethius in the Consolation. And through the pages of the Comedy, he journeys away from that foolish self to the wisdom of Philosophia and Beatice, he journeys quite literally from the tragedy of Virgil's pagan Aeneid to a Christian comedy of salvation attained through the choice made to know himself, to forgive himself, and to purge himself, the medieval rites of confession, contrition, and satisfaction, which includes restitution to one's victim and to society.

A quality all these works share is that the author quests or meets another, who is female, rather than male. This occurs in Boethius' Consolation, in Dante's Commedia, in Usk's Testament, and in King James' Book or Quaire. This female represents the author's soul, from which he is no longer alienated when he attains wisdom. (In the same way, Shakespeare has Lear's soul be Cordelia, Prospero's, Miranda, Leontes', Perdita.) Her love is at the center. There, as well, is her power and her wisdom. For Socrates in prison in Attica this was Diotima. For Boethius in prison in Pavia this was Philosophia. For Dante in exile from Florence this was Florentine Beatrice. For Thomas Usk this was Margaret and for the King of Scotland the woman he glimpses through the bars is to be his wife and Queen. For Eldridge Cleaver, writing Soul on Ice in prison in San Quentin, this is the Black Queen of the Song of Solomon in the Bible. By these means, on a mental plane, these writers cancel out the horror of imprisonment and exile.

Let me end this prison talk by noting that when Dante meets the soul of Boethius in Paradiso X he speaks of him as having come

to this peace . . .
from exile and martyrdom. 128-129
In those words Dante mirrors his own journey from despair to hope, from fate to freedom, and from the bitterness of his own exile to that 'vision of peace', the meaning of the word, "Jerusalem," he so joyously celebrates in the Comedy's Paradiso.

That was my paper at Attica State Prison, or rather, Attica Correctional Facility. We mentioned to the guards how attentive and how perceptive the inmates had been to us. A guard's angry reply was that they had only behaved well in order to have another such conference. During the Symposium on Learning in Exile the guards shuffled their feet and the chairs, talked on their walkie-talkies, called out the prisoners by number rudely and loudly, and rattled plates. The prisoners sat in such rapt attention that a pin could have been heard dropping, and they won our hearts by conveying to us that they were people of dignity and worth. They made comments, relating the texts to themselves, noting they had been like the souls in Hell, blaming everyone but themselves, with disarming honesty.28 One young Hispanic asked whether we could include Spanish and Caribbean texts in our material next time. I told him of Juan de Mena's Laberinto, a Spanish Commedia, and of Jorge Luis Borge's writing on labyrinths,29 but confessed my ignorance of Caribbean poetry and apologized. Another, Black, asked me whether it was not the difficulties and vicissitudes (yes, that was his vocabulary) of Dante's life that had caused him to write such an exquisite and powerful work as the Commedia. A third, Native American, made a similar comment. We went to Attica State Prison, now euphemistically named Attica Correctional Facility, thinking we would be teaching; instead we learned, we were taught, and in that prison found Philosophia, Lady Wisdom, for her home is less in a university library than it is in a place of misfortune.

The Symposium lasted most of the day. We came back again that evening to meet with the class that had been studying Dante that semester. Once again we were escorted past many locked gateways by guards. As we went down one corridor, Ron and Bill were telling us that the rioting and shooting of ten years before took place in the courtyard we could see outside that corridor's windows. That night it looked strangely peaceful. The next evening we went to Vespers at the Cistercian Abbey of Genesee. It felt right to combine a prison and a monastery. We spent hours talking together about the experience at Attica and of our research on Dante. The prisoners taught us much about the outsiders, Virgil, Boethius, Dante, Saladin, we had half-encountered within our texts, and also they taught us about themselves in such a way that we found ourselves fully being, understanding ourselves and others.30 They, like Beatrice, led us to the center.


1 John Robert Glorney Bolton, Il Papa (Milan: Longanesi, 1959), p. 272; Living Peter (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1961), pp. 185-186.
2 Trans. King Alfred, ed. John Walter Sedgefield (Oxford: Clarendon, 1900); trans. Geoffrey Chaucer, in The Riverside Chaucer; trans. Queen Elizabeth, in Queen Elizabeth's Englishings of Boethius, Plutarch and Horace, ed. C. Pemberton (London: Early English Text Society, 1899), EETS OS 113.
3Convivio I.iii; Paradiso XVII.58,60. To this day Florentine bread is not salted.
4 Of his accusers, Boethius says, "One of them was Basil who had earlier been expelled from the King's service and was now forced by his debts to testify against me. My other accusers were Opilio and Gaudentius, also men banished by royal decree for their many corrupt practices. They tried to avoid exile by taking sanctuary, but when the King heard of it he decreed that, if they did not leave Ravenna by a certain day, they should be branded on the forehead and forcible expelled. How could the King's judgement have been more severe? And yet on that very day their testimony against me was accepted." Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. Richard Green (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1962), p. 11.
5 I saw, at the dispensary at Cistercian Casamaris Abbey in Italy, monks dispensing penicillin, but also dressing sores by applying lotion with a bird's wing feather from a jar.
6 Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice (New York: Delta, 1968).
7 Pp. 3-7.
8 P. 7: "Mistress of all virtues," I said, "why have you come, leaving the arc of heaven, to this lonely desert of exile? Are you a prisoner, too, charged as I am with false accusations?"
9 P. 9.
10 He speaks of ivory and crystal bookcabinets.
11 P. 41, Book II, Poem 8.
12 Pp. 72-73.
13 Alexander P. D. Mourelatos, "The Philosophy of Parmenides," Ph. D. Dissertation, Yale University, 1963.
14 Pp. 91-92.
15 Cicero, "Dream of Scipio" in Chaucer: Sources and Backgrounds, ed. Robert P. Miller (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 96-105.
16 P. 37.
17 A prisoner said here, "It was beautiful!" when I asked them what the earth was like in those pictures.
18 Carl G. Jung, Mandala Symbolism, trans. R. F. C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972).
19 Thomas Usk, "The Testament of Love," in Chaucerian and Other Pieces, edited, W. W. Skeat, (London: Oxford University Press, 1897), vol. VII.1-145.
20 King James I of Scotland, The Kingis Quair, John Norton-Smith (Leiden: Brill, 1981).
21 Sir Thomas More, A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, edited, Louis L. Martz and Frank Manley, in The Complete Works of St. Thomas More (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), vol 12.
22 Sir Walter Ralegh, The History of the World, ed. C.A. Patrides (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1971; Jawaharlal Nehru, Glimpses of World History: Being Further Letters to his Daughter, Written in Prison, and Containing a Rambling Account of History for Young People (New York: John Day, 1942).
23 Mircea Eliade, Aspects du myth (Paris: Gallimard, 1963), pp. 33-70.
24 Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir (Paris: Gallimard, 1975).
25 Herrad von Landsberg, Hortus Deliciarum, ed. Rosalie Green (London: Warburg Institute, 1979); George Williams, Wilderness and Paradise in Christian Thought: The Biblical Experience of the Desert in the History of Christianity and the Paradise Theme in the Theological Idea of the University (New York: Harper, 1962).
26St. Patrick's Purgatory: The Versions of Owayne Miles, ed. Robert Easting (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), EETS 298; Victor and Edith Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978).
27 Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater (Oxford: Woodstock Books, 1989).
28 I now recognize that this ability to be honest comes from the procedures, which are self-taught, of the Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Steps. I wish university administrators and faculty, politicians and their voters, could work the same Twelve Steps.
29 Juan de Mena, Laborinto de Fortuna, ed. Louise Vasvari Fainbag (Madrid: Alhambra, 1976); Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths (New York: New Directions, 1962); El Aleph (Madrid: Alianza, 1971).
30 Leslie A. Fiedler, The Stranger in Shakespeare (New York: Stein and Day, 1972).

Go to:

Brunetto Latino and Dante Alighieri
I Bankers and Their Books: Italian Manuscripts in French Exile
II Brown Ink, Red Blood: Brunetto Latino and the Sicilian Vespers
III The Vita Nuova's Pilgrimage Paradigms
IV Stealing Hercules' Club: Inferno XXV's Metamorphoses  

Geoffrey Chaucer
V Black and Red Letter Chaucer
VI Fact and Fiction: Women in Love
VII Convents, Courts and Colleges
VIII The Tomb of the Duchess Alice

Terence, Dante, Boccaccio and Chaucer
IX God's Plenty: Terence in Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare Newest

Epilogue: Attica State Prison, Boethius the Exile, Dante the Pilgrim


This is a Chapter from the Book, Sweet New Style: Brunetto Latino, Dante Alighieri and Geoffrey Chaucer, created, 1993; 'Sweet New Style' e-book Website created, Pentecost 2003-10


For a recording of the Commedia in Italian by LibriVox:

Italian Dante Manuscripts Website§

Italian Text, with Commentary§

Columbia, Digital Dante§

The Princeton Dante Project§ 

: Dante vivo || White Silence