DEATH AND THE EMPEROR
IN DANTE, BROWNING,
DICKINSON AND STEVENS
n the fifteenth century, under the impact of the Black Death, a popular theme in art came to be that of the figure of Death confronting individuals of differing social ranks, including among their figures that of the Emperor, as well as that of the Pope, the Cardinal, the Archbishop, the Marchant, the Scholar, the Poet, the Clown, the Widow, the Wife, the Maiden, the Child and more. Hans Holbein the Younger's engravings of these figures of the Dance of Death are especially famous. However, the theme of Death and the Emperor in the poetry of fourteenth-century Dante Alighieri, nineteenth-century Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Dickinson and twentieth-century Wallace Stevens is instead the confrontation of an Emperor, not so much with Death as with a woman; in the first and second instances, with a widow whose son is murdered and who demands justice of the Emperor, in the third and fourth instances, because of Emily Dickinson's misreading of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and non-reading of Dante, with an Emperor and a dead woman. Each poet makes use of the theme, yet each has it undergo a metamorphosis into something new and strange, a marvelous sea change. The multiple borrowing, in the manner of the epic, is indicative not of poetic poverty, but of riches.
In Purgatorio X.73-93, Dante describes a scene sculpted in marble upon the mountain side which has caused the pilgrims to pause and, marvelling, to gaze upon it:
There was storied the high glory of the Roman prince whose worth moved Gregory to his great victory; Of Trajan the emperor I speak: and a poor widow was at his bridle in the attitude of tears and grief.Dante pretends he uses his art in order to report the art of another. In fact, the scene he describes was not so much one of sculpture as one of words. It was a tale famous throughout the Middle Ages, describing the Christian Pope's prayer, said to have been granted, for the salvation of the soul of the pagan Emperor who saw this scene sculpted in the Forum in Rome. Its central characters are Pope Gregory,* the Emperor Trajan and the Widow bereft of her Child. Dante makes use of it to exemplify humility - especially amongst artists and poets.
Round about him appeared a trampling and throng of horsemen and the eagles in gold above him moved visibly in the wind. The poor creature among all these seemed to say: 'Lord, do me vengeance for my son who is slain, whereby my heart is pierced.'
And he to answer her: 'Now wait until I return.' And she, like a person in whom grief is urgent: 'My Lord, if thou do not return?' And he: 'One who shall be in my place will do it for thee'. And she: 'What to thee will be another's good deed if thou forget thine own?'
Wherefore he: 'Now comfort thee, for needs must I fulfil my duty ere I stir: justice wills and pity holds me back.
It is a scene that, touching in its majestic humility, affected the poetry of a Victorian woman, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who in Aurora Leigh II.966-987 wrote:
Then I said,Amidst references to modern Victorian railroads Elizabeth refers obliquely to the episode in Dante's Purgatorio X. But she has the male character, Romney Leigh, play the role of the supplicating Widow, Aurora, that of the Emperor, in an interesting reversal of the sexes, a reversal that is common in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry's use of episodes from male poetry in the past. Also, she has added to Dante's drama a setting that is tomb-filled and she makes use of the common classical epitaph, 'Siste, viator' [Pause, Traveller]. That landscape of the tomb-lined Appian Way is a quite logical one for the legend of the Emperor Trajan and the Widow, though the setting is unstressed in Dante's version. Elizabeth Barrett Browning brings to her poetry her own familiarity with Italian landscapes as well as her knowledge of Italian medieval poetry, superimposing these upon the English setting of a farewell of a woman writer rejecting her lover for her art.
'Farewell, my cousin.'
But he touched, just touched
my hatstrings, tied for going (at the door
The carriage stood to take me), and said low,
His voice a little unsteady through his smile,
'Is there time', I asked,
'In these last days of railroads, to stop short
Like Caesar's chariot (weighing half a ton)
On the Appian road, for morals?'
'There is time,'
He answered grave . . .
Emily Dickinson greatly admired the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and treasured a post card of her tomb in Florence's English Cemetery.
The photo to the right is from before the demolition of the medieval wall, therefore between 1863 when this monument was put in place and 1869 or thereafter when the wall was destroyed.
Jack L. Capps in Emily Dickinson's Reading, 1836-1886 correctly notes Emily Dickinson's use of the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her own, Ellen Moers again calling attention to this borrowing by the one poet from the work of the other. He notes the above lines from Aurora Leigh as reappearing in
Tie the Strings to to my Life, My Lord,But he does not notice the likeness to another and most famous poem of Emily Dickinson:
Thus, I am ready to go!
Just a look to the Horses -
Rapid! That will do!'
The Soul selects her own Society -The first poem picks up from the lines describing Aurora's putting on her hat and Romney's seeing her go. The second has the Emperor's chariot stopping on the Appian Way by the stone tomb, an image derived from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh and, through it, Purgatorio X. With each poet in turn this tale changes, yet is the same. Emily Dickinson, not reading Dante, is unaware that the Emperor pauses with the entire Roman army solely because of a Widow's entreaties, since that aspect is implied but unverbalized in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's version. Yet Emily Dickinson similarly has the Emperor pausing on his journey to stop for a female, in this case, her soul in its tomb. It is of interest that this incident described by a male poet of the fourteenth century should have, in turn, inspired two female poets of the nineteenth century. It is also of interest that Emily Dickinson should have had Dante's poetry reach her in New England through that of of Elizabeth Barrett of Browning's written in Italy.
Then - shuts the Door -
To her divine Majority -
Present no more -
Unmoved - she notes the Chariots - pausing
At her low Gate -
Unmoved - an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat -
I've known her - from an ample nation -
Choose One -
Then - close the Valves of her attention -
Like Stone -
Then the theme of Death and the Emperor - which in poetry has a different phylum than it has in art - undergoes yet another metamorphosis in Wallace Stevens' 'The Emperor of Ice-Cream'. Here once again there is an Emperor; here once again a woman, though here she is no longer the maiden of Elizabeth's and Emily's poetry but once more the widowed crone of Dante's:
Take from the dresser of dealElizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Dickinson, as Victorian women, were drawn to an account in which an Emperor paused for the sake of a woman. If Wallace Stevens in 'The Emperor of Ice-Cream' is influenced by any of these renditions or by the Holbein theme of the Dance of Death he does not playfully ennoble it; rather he denigrates the dead woman, mockingly calling attention to her poverty, the cheap dresser of deal lacking several glass knobs. Nevertheless the poem raises a smile to its readers' lips in its imperial conquest of the fear of death, turning it to a clownfulness. In the Dance of Death, Death comes for the Clown, for the Emperor, for the Pope, for the Widow. It comes for the consumptive Elizabeth, Wife to Robert Browning, in Florence, for the retiring Emily, Amherst's Maiden and Old Maid, for Dante Alighieri, unjustly exiled from Florence whose Prior he had been, and for Wallace Stevens of Hartford, Connecticut. Each in their poetry knows of this outcome. Each has used poetry to construct a Dance of Death and Life.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the light affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
And here we narrate somewhat of the tears of Roman Saint Gregory restoring the soul of the Emperor Trajan and baptizing it, which is marvelous to say and hear. . . . Now one day when he was going through Trajan's Forum . . . he thought about the work of mercy the pagan had performed, which seemed to him more Christian than pagan. For as he was leading his army forth to fight against the enemy, he was softened by the voice of a widow pleading for mercy, halting the Emperor of the whole world. For she said, 'Lord Trajan, here are men who have killed my son, who will not render me justice'. He replied, 'When I return, speak to me, and I will render justice to you'. And she, 'Lord, and if you do not return, there is none to help me'. Then he acquiesced to the judgement, and from the midst of the bronze armour put together the money that was owed. Thus, St Gregory concluded, he who had not known the passage, Judge the orphan and defend the widow and come and reason together, said the Lord (Isaiah 1.16-17), had done it. And weeping, he entered St Peter's . . .
uses this episode in Purgatorio X, showing the scene
sculpted upon the marble wall of the gallery beside the
Annunciation to Mary. Botticelli and many other artists
illuminated the scene from Dante's text. Langland uses the
figure of Trajan as the virtuous pagan in Piers Plowman.
The Pearl Poet, in St Erkenwald, combines this
story with others from Bede's History of the English Church
and People and Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the
Kings of Britain, to create a similar one whose setting is
St Paul's Cathedral in London. Thus a monk or
nun at Whitby, writing this tale in the eighth century,
influenced further writings, in Europe and in America, from
the fourteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Most
important, he, or she, is Bede's predecessor and thus a source
for the History of the English Church and People, as
well as a source for Dante Alighieri's Divina Commedia.
He or she helped shape the histories of not one but two
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Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Aurora Leigh and Other Poems. Edited, John Robert Glorney Bolton and Julia Bolton Holloway. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1995. xx + 517 pp. ISBN 0-14-043412-7
Oh Bella Libertą! Le Poesie di Elizabeth Barrett Browning. A cura di Rita Severi e Julia Bolton Holloway. Firenze: Le Lettere, 2022. 290 pp.
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