|NUMBER 2||SPRING 1988|
In Inferno XXXI Virgil and Dante are in no specific circle of Hell; no specific sin is punished. They are on the plateau between the eighth and ninth circles: «the infernal journey hastens to its close amid monstrous sights and beings of colossal size» (Croce 150). The giants Virgil and Dante encounter here serve as a prelude to the monstrous evil they must face in the ninth circle of Hell.
Here we find a heightened sense of awareness on the part of Dante the pilgrim regarding the physical aspect and the psychological atmosphere of this part of Hell. Consider that our travelers are near completion of what has been a long and arduous trip. We then better understand the concentrated effort on the part of Dante to report the sights and sounds he witnessed in Inferno XXXI. Leaving the eighth circle, Virgil and Dante traverse the open expanse which gives them time to collect their thoughts. They do not proceed without anxiety, but the simple fact that they are between circles at least allows them to sort out their emotions and take stock of the situation. So on the one hand there is a sense of calm, of placing things in perspective before the plunge into the final circle; on the other hand there is the sheer expectation and fear of what lies ahead in Hell's most gruesome chamber.
This process of accounting for details, of placing facts in order, has begun in the previous two cantos. As recently as Inferno XXIX we learned the size of one circle in Hell: Virgil says: «miglia ventidue la valle volge» (the valley goes twenty-two miles round: XXIX, 9; the translations are Sinclair's all through). Further measurements given in Inferno XXX once more point out the conical shape of the infernal abyss: «ella volge undici miglia, / e men d' un mezzo di traverso non ci ha» (it is eleven miles round and a full half-mile across: XXX, 86-87). The quoting of statistics lends a sense of verisimilitude, but we should bear in mind Charles Singleton's astute observation as we read Inferno XXXI: «Such precise measurements are calculated to add realism to the description of Hell, but they in fact show a curious indifference to reality; for if the 'bolgia' is half a mile or more across, it is hard to conceive the size of the bridge that would be required to span it» (Singleton 558). Above all let us heed Alberto Chiari's assertion that the measurements do not serve mathematical precision; their value is essentially poetic (Chiari 17).
This same desire for exactness permeates Inferno XXXI. As Dante and Virgil move past the giants we are given another measure, the flight of an arrow, to calculate the distance between the giants.
(We made our way, therefore, farther on, turning left, and found the next a bowshot off...: vv. 82-84).
The measurements become seemingly more exact in the descriptions of the individual giants. While the expanse of Nimrod's trunk from waist to neck is first given as taller than three Frieslanders standing atop each other, the same length is also said to measure «trenta gran palmi» (vv. 61-66). An even more accurate unit of measure, ells, is used in the description of Antaeus «che ben cinque alle, / sanza la testa, uscia fuor della grotta» (who stood full five ells, not reckoning the head, above the rock: vv. 113-114).
One of the most interesting and unique measurements in the canto is the comparison of the size of Nimrod's face to a Roman art work «La faccia sua mi parea lunga e grossa / come la pina di San Pietro a Roma» (his face appeared to me to have the length and bulk of Saint Peter's pine-cone at Rome: vv. 58-59). It is noteworthy that in spite of Dante's precision of surveying, his commentators cannot agree on the size of this pine-cone. Sinclair says that it is «about 7 1/2 feet high» (p. 390); Singleton states it is «over four yards high» (p. 569). The issue, of course, is not the exactness of measurement, but rather the concern for order and for the appearance of accuracy. In the personal relationship between Virgil and Dante, we see the renewal of trust and friendship between them that we might expect as a journey's end draws near. At the beginning of the canto, Virgil takes Dante's hand in order to calm him and assuage his confusion concerning what lies ahead (v. 28).
Even more striking is the close of the canto. Beyond the fact that Virgil seizes Dante in his grasp so they can be transported down into the freezing chasm that is the ninth circle, it is significant that here our poet refers to his leader and mentor by name, one of the few times this happens throughout the Commedia.
(Virgil when he felt himself taken, said to me: «Come close, that I may take thee», then made one bundle of himself and me: vv. 133-135).
This scene reflects the charged emotions and special closeness between Dante and Virgil that become evident later, especially in the scene of Virgil's leavetaking, near the end of Purgatory:
(Virgil had left us bereft of him, Virgil sweetest father, Virgil to whom I gave myself for my salvation: Purg. XXX, 49-51).
The three repetitions of Virgil's name indicate emphatically to the reader the admiration and need Dante had of him.
For Dante the pilgrim much of his anxiety throughout the journey originates from the unclear nature of the phenomena he encounters and the difficulty he has recognizing and reacting to them. Perhaps this is one of the reasons he is so concerned here with measurements and accuracy __ to help him judge what he is seeing. Thus throughout Inferno XXXI the ambiguous and polysemous quality of the text often offers the possibility of several interpretations. We need look no further than the opening six lines of the canto for a clear example:
(One self-same tongue first stung me so that it dyed both my cheeks, and then it offered me the medicine; so have I heard that the lance of Achilles and his father brought a gift, first of pain, then of healing: vv. 1-6).
As well as opening Inferno XXXI, these lines close the action from the eighth circle that is the subject of Inferno XXX. The primary interest for us is the double nature of the phenomenon __ in this case Virgil's chiding remark to Dante that we read in Inferno XXX __ that Dante himself perceives first as a redress, then as good guidance. This manner of expression binds together the entire story line of Inferno XXXI; for immediately after the self revelation on the part of Dante we have a simile that reinforces the direct action of the adventure __ in this case the allusion to the lance of Achilles. It has been rightly pointed out that «certain visual and verbal images» presented in Inferno XXXI are «crucial for a complete understanding of the entire work», the whole of the Commedia (Kleinhenz 271).
After these introductory lines that close Inferno XXX and usher in the controlling emphasis on clear perception that will be such an important part of Inferno XXXI, we find that the remainder of the canto is clearly structured. Virgil and Dante proceed across the plain and in turn meet three giants, the last of whom transports them down to the lowest reaches of Hell. Their movement has a laborious quality as indicated by the repeated reports of transitions: «Noi demmo il dosso al misero vallone» (we turned our back on the wretched valley: v. 7); «Facemmo adunque più lungo vïaggio» (we made our way, therefore, farther on: v. 82); «Noi procedemmo più avante allotta» (we went farther on: v. 112).
The initial lines of Inferno XXXI present the ambiguity one set of phenomena can release, and suggest that the skills of observation will continue to be tested in this canto. The first example, the lance of Achilles, involved the sense of touch; as we have seen, the opening of Inferno XXXI illustrates that care must be exercised in determining the correct response, or at least multiple possibilities of response, to a given situation. We shall have even greater emphasis on the senses of hearing and sight, for we are soon to learn in a most direct manner how important it is to observe closely before judging what it is that we hear or see. This is nothing new to Dante; he has had to practice this art throughout his journey; nevertheless, the preparatory step leading to the descent into the deepest circle of Inferno is a good place to reaffirm the need to react cautiously.
The predominant image of Inferno XXXI is the tower. When Dante informs us that he sees many towers and wonders what city they have come upon, Virgil's reply presents to us as well as to Dante the key issue of this canto __ the need for clear perception.
(I had not long kept my head turned that way when I seemed to see many lofty towers; I said therefore: 'Master, tell me, what city is this?' And he said to me: 'It is because thou piercest the dark from too far off that thou strayest in thy fancy, and if thou reach the place thou shalt see plainly how much the sense is deceived by distance': vv. 19-26).
Almost immediately after Virgil's matter-of-fact explanation, we have the following image. This indicates how first impressions often distort reality as does the mist; and how, little by little, the true forms appear as the mist wears away. The mist seems to slide away with the insistent «s» and «k» sounds in the verses.
(As, when mist thins off, the sight little by little re-shapes that which the vapour hides that loads the air, so, as I pierced the thick and murky atmosphere and came on nearer to the brink, error fled and fear grew in me: vv. 34 39).
As quickly as Virgil resolves Dante's misconception that the giants are in fact towers, we find the poet immediately using the simile of medieval towers that stand guard over the approaches to the cities. He describes the panorama spread out before him:
(For, as on the circle of its walls Montereggione is crowned with towers, so on the bank encompassing the pit towered with half their bulk the horrible giants whom Jove still threatens from Heaven when he thunders: vv. 40-45).
The seeming contradiction of correcting the mistaken belief that the giants are towers and then providing a descriptive comparison of the giants as towers reinforces the often fine line between appearance versus reality and the need to always observe closely in this canto. As we shall see, this particular technique serves the poet to the end of the canto. Furthermore, the special vocabulary of the verses just cited cannot go unnoticed. Dante coins a word that calls our attention even more forcefully to the giants as towers, for the giants «tower» over the pit that they circle «torreggiavan» being probably Dante's verb form derived from the noun. Sinclair provides full expression of the «torre/torreggiavan» derivation; Singleton's version loses the sound effect, the initial echo of the «t», but preserves Dante's spirit of language creation: «so here the horrible giants . . . betowered with half their bodies the bank that encompasses the pit»; Ciardi's translation is devoid of both Dante's creativeness with the language and the heightened focus of the image provided by «torreggiavan»: the giants «raised from the rim of stone above that well the upper halves of their bodies».
After this panoramic view of the several giants who stand with half their bulk exposed, surrounding the pit through which Dante and Virgil must descend to reach the last circle of Hell, attention now focuses on an individual giant. Virgil, of course, knows who the monster is; the problem is the impossibility of deciphering what the giant says. Certainly the most famous line of Inferno XXXI, and one among those most discussed of the entire Commedia, is the nonsense verse of Nimrod. Let it suffice to say we cast our lot with those who contend that Nimrod's speech was written as unintelligible and remains so by design of the poet, all attempts to translate the «code» notwithstanding. Nimrod's appearance occupying the central lines of the canto, the giant underscores the motif of understanding and perception. As Virgil explains to Dante, this giant can neither be understood nor understand the language of others. Yet Virgil deigns to speak to Nimrod, to castigate him, although he instructs Dante not to waste time speaking to the giant: «chè così è a lui ciascun linguaggio / come 'l suo ad altrui, ch'a nullo è noto» (for every language is to him as his to others, which is known to none: vv. 81-82). Virgil gives Dante this advice immediately following a six-line rebuke to Nimrod:
(«Stupid soul, keep to thy horn and vent thyself with that when rage or other passion takes thee. Search at thy neck, bewildered soul, and thou shalt find the strap that holds it tied; see how it lies across thy great chest»: vv. 70 75).
There is a linguistic register at work here that defies knowledge of the literal meaning of the words, leaving little doubt that Virgil knows Nimrod will understand him. The staccato of short phrases with the rhythm of reproach and command reinforced by alliteration and the repetition of the plosives «b» and «g» make clear the meaning even for the uninitiated in the language of the original.
The ironic comprehension of language by one to whom language has no meaning enhances the contention that the phenomena present in this canto point constantly to an ambiguity that is unavoidable. It is not surprising, then, that Virgil chooses not to reveal the identity of this giant to Dante until both he and the giant have spoken and he is ready to continue the journey. When so revealed, Nimrod recalls to us not only the use of a universal language to organize a revolt against God, but also the plan to reach Heaven by building a tower, thus the Tower of Babel becomes part of the reader's perception of the scene. Up to this point we have seen two types of towers that reflect one of the major dichotomies running throughout the Commedia __ the power of God and the power of the medieval princes.
The encounter with the second of the three giants functions as a stepping stone and a foreshadowing of events for the pilgrims. Dante seems so unimpressed with Virgil's short biographical presentation of Ephialtes that he asks instead to see another giant, Briareus. Virgil seems to ignore Dante's request; he first reveals the itinerary that will conclude Inferno XXXI: they will soon arrive at the pit where Antaeus will transport them down into the ninth circle. Finally Virgil notes casually that Briareus is just like Ephialtes, except he looks «more ferocious» (v. 105). The reaction excited from Ephialtes by Virgil's remark provides the key passage to this section of the canto:
(Never did mighty earthquake shake a tower so violently as Ephialtes shook himself of a sudden; then more than ever I was in fear of death, nor was need of more than the terror, had I not seen the fetters: vv.106-111).
The image in the first tercet refers to no tower in particular, but serves to reinforce the likeness of the giants to towers, regardless of Virgil's warning at the outset of the canto that Dante's faulty perception and hurried steps are responsible for the mistaken belief that the giants are towers. To the contrary, throughout this episode Dante the poet continually reuses the tower image as a constant reminder of the need to observe closely, to perceive as clearly as possible.
The second tercet focuses on another aspect of perception, the relationship between circumstance and the resulting emotional response. We have here the second of three examples in Inferno XXXI in which Dante's first reaction changes immediately when he recognizes more accurately what it is that stands before him. In this and the other two examples, the realization of the hugeness and ferocity of the tower/giant strikes terror in Dante, except that in this case he knows that Ephialtes is tightly bound and thus pays less heed to his fierce anger and shaking. Important to note here and in the other examples is the possibility of two valid reactions to a single phenomenon. This concept focuses on the repeated interplay of fright and comfort («sgomento» and «conforto»: Chiari 9) that we observe throughout the canto. These reactions are the direct result of the illusion of towers that are in fact giants; we have the constant association of «torre/paura» (Esposito 755). The first example involves the image of the mist burning off as the sun rises in mid morning to reveal the true nature of things. The result for Dante was the unexpected sight of the threatening giants as opposed to the cold stillness of the massive but inert towers he had expected. His misperception turns his reaction suddenly from error to fear. Even the metric rhythm of the verse gives the effect of the see-saw from one position to another: «fuggìemi errore e crescìemi paura» (error fled and fear grew in me: v. 39).
As Virgil and Dante proceed to meet the third and last giant of this episode, we see the final example of this quick change of emotional response due to clearer perception. Virgil has already announced that Antaeus will be the vehicle of transportation to lower Dante and him to the icy tundra of Cocytus; this giant serves as the counterpart to Geryon and the gentle lift he provided into Malebolge in Inferno XVII. Dante's initial terror at the thought of entering Antaeus' grasp quickly dissolves, and the gentleness of the trip dissipates the fear:
(As appears the Carisenda seen from beneath the leaning side when a cloud passes over it against the direction in which it hangs, so did Antaeus appear to me while I watched to see him bend, and it was such a moment that I would fain have gone by another road. But he set us down lightly on the bottom which engulfs Lucifer with Judas: vv. 139-143).
The cause of Dante's fear in this situation is really the massive specter of Antaeus as he moves to take Virgil and him and lowers them to the ninth circle. This action brings the canto to a close and the final image drawn is again that of the giant compared to a tower. Earlier, Ephialtes' anger was compared to a physical phenomenon well known to common experience, the shaking caused by an earthquake. The image that closes Inferno XXXI is more descriptive and creative than the others, and yet the only one to follow the most common form of simile in the Commedia: the straightforward, two part comparison that is connected by such conjunctions as "quale ... tale" (Lansing 17). The other images are hypothetical or negative similes that seem to lack the contemplative quality of the above. As Antaeus bends to Virgil and Dante, the poet recalls the visual effects of the clouds as they pass over the leaning tower of Garisenda in Bologna, a vision of rich invention that recalls vividly reflections of the real world so far above these last reaches of Inferno.
The closing lines of the canto leave no doubt that a change of venue has taken place, that Malebolge is behind Virgil and Dante, and they now stand locked in Hell's most gruesome chamber. For as Antaeus delivers Virgil and Dante and then rises upright to again guard the pit leading to the eternal prison of God's archenemies and the ugliest of sinners, Dante's poetry allows us to hear the prison door shut, drawing to a clear close the episode of the towering giants. The tone of finality in the closing tercet informs us that we will not experience the sense of carryover from Inferno XXXI to Inferno XXXII that we felt at the beginning of this canto:
(But he set us down... and he did not stay thus bent, but like the mast in a ship rose up: vv. 142-145).
The dungeon door slams in the juxtaposition of the last pair of rhymes in the canto: we hear it resoundingly as the «ci sposò ... si levò» seems to close Virgil and Dante inside the deepest region of the Inferno. The accented rhyme that closes the canto and the visual images of towers presented throughout Inferno XXXI illustrate the emphasis that Dante's poetry here places on the idea of clear perception. From the landing above on which the canto begins, to the entrance below at the end of the canto from which they must proceed through the ninth circle, Virgil and Dante together with the reader have prepared well their sensory receptors. They are now ready to abandon themselves to the terror of expectation of what they will encounter in their last steps through Hell.*
*Lecture given at the University of Virginia on April 16, 1986.
Chiari, Alberto. Il canto XXXI dell'Inferno. Firenze: Le Monnier, 1962.