Lightness in Dante Purgatorio, Canto 9

Peter Y. Chou

Kay Ryan's Stanford Poetry Workshop
(English 192V) Winter Quarter 2010

In her first class of Stanford's English 192V "The Occasions of Poetry", Kay Ryan, current U.S. Poet Laureate (2008-2010) gave us Chapter 1 "Lightness" from Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium to read. The assignment was to bring in a poem (not our own) on the theme of lightness to share with the class. I had already composed a web page "Dante's Paradiso I.91-105: The Lightness of Being" (9-26-2008), but realized another episode in Dante's Commedia conveying lightness. During Kay's class, she asked us to introduce ourselves and think of some mnemonic device to remember the names. When the student next to me said her name is Lucia, I thought of Lucia, the Patron Saint of Florence who carried Dante up Mount Purgatory while he was dreaming of Jupiter snatching Ganymede up Mount Olympus to be his cup-bearer (Purgatorio, 9.19-63). Since Ganymede became the cupbearer to the gods, after Dante's purification by fire, his poem is exalted so that he's bearing a spiritual message from the gods to the reader. Beatrice, Lucia, and Mary are the three blessed ladies aiding Dante's pilgrimage to paradise (Inferno 2.124), so Dante places Lucia at Purgatorio 9.55 because of the importance of his spiritual ascent in this canto. The symbolism of 9 as square of the Trinity as well as Beatrice's number (La Vita Nuova 29) and 55 as Plato's Cosmic Soul number are perfectly fitting for Lucia— “eagle of light” carrying Dante upward to paradise.

Dante, Purgatorio, IX.21-30
Gustave Doré (1832-1883):
Dante's Dream of Flight (1867)
Postage stamp, San Marino #624
(issued November 20, 1965)

Dante, Purgatorio, IX.55-57
William Blake (1757-1827):
Lucia Carrying Dante (1825)
Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University,
Cambridge, Massachusetts

In his essay on "Lightness", Italo Calvino said "At certain moments I felt that the entire world was turning into stone." With this heaviness weighing down on him, Calvino turns to the mythology of Perseus. This Greek hero killed Medusa, the snake-headed Gorgon who turns people to stone who gazed upon her. Perseus accomplished this by indirect vision, seeing Medusa on his shining shield and cutting off her head. Out of Medusa's blood, sprang the winged horse Pegasus that lifted Perseus aloft. Pegasus is also a metaphor for poetry which Dante calls "the bread of angels" (Paradiso, 2.11) that lifts our mind upward.

I chose Dante's Purgatorio 9.21-30 as an example of lightness, since Dante is dreaming the mythology of Jupiter and Ganymede. Dreams by their nature are lighter than the waking state of our material world which is dense and concrete. Since Calvino said that "a bird is light, a feather is not", the image of Jupiter as eagle in flight conveys this lightness. Ganymede is a beautiful youth of Phrygia. He was taken up to Heaven by an eagle (Jupiter) as he was tending his father's flock on Mount Ida, and he became the cup-bearer of the Gods in the place of Hebe (also named Ganymede, a goddess). This story is recounted by Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book X, v. 155 and Ganymede is cited in Virgil's Aeneid, Book 5, v. 252.

I chose Dante's Purgatorio 9.55-57 as an example of lightness, for Lucia, the Patron Saint of Florence carried Dante who is asleep up Mount Purgatory. The sleep state is even lighter than the dream state since it is devoid of both the waking world as well as the dream world. In essence it is empty (Buddhist: sunyata). Vedantic sages say that which is most subtle is closer to reality and that which is dense is illusion (Sanskrit & Buddhist: maya). So deep dreamless sleep is more real than the waking or dream states. What could be lighter than an empty vacuum? Also Lucia is an anagram for acuila or aquila (Latin for eagle), so Lucia which is etymologically connected to lucent (light) also conveys the theme of lightness. The eagle is the only creature that can gaze directly at the sun without being blinded. Dante alludes to this comparing Beatrice seeing the sun as an eagle (Paradiso 1.46-48). Thus it's interesting that Lucia is synonymous with both light and eagle. Light is dematerialized matter or photons and also equated to energy divided by mass from Einstein's E=mc2, where c = speed of light. And nothing is faster than the speed of light. It's interesting that Italo Calvino's following chapter in Six Memos for the Next Millennium after "Lightness" is "Quickness".

I chose Dante's Purgatorio 9.61-63 as an example of lightness for it conveys Calvino's "gesture of refreshing courtesy" which Perseus showed Medusa after killing this monstrous Gorgon. "Perseus makes the ground soft with a bed of leaves, and on top of that he strews little branches of plants born under water, and on this he places Medusa's head, face down." (Ovid, Metamorphoses, IV.740-752). Virgil tells Dante after Lucia carried him up Mount Purgatory:

"And here she set you down, but first her lovely
eyes showed that open entryway to me;
then she and sleep together took their leave."

Saint Lucia (1521)
by Domenico Beccafumi
Pinacoteca Nazionale,
Siena, Italy

This stanza is soft, serene, and sweet in its loveliness. Lucia sets down the sleeping Dante gently. Then she signals to Virgil the entryway, pointing not with her hand but gestures with her eyes. Dante knows that Lucia is the Patroness Saint of sight [See Anthony K. Cassell, "Santa Lucia as Patroness of Sight: Hagiography, Iconography, and Dante", Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society, No. 109 (1991), pp. 71-88]. Lightness is conveyed in the stanza's last line when she (Lucia, angelic saint of light) and sleep (Hypnos, god of darkness) took their leave. Kay Ryan told the class that "Lightness always operate in the realm of the heavy, never alone, only by contrast." The Yin-Yang symbol in the circle of Tao is operating here with Lucia/Wakefulness/Lightness/Female & Hypnos/Sleep/Darkness/Male together carrying Dante aloft midway in his journey to paradise (Tao).

— Peter Y. Chou
January 27, 2010