Robert Hollander
(Princeton University, Emeritus)
20 October 2013

Inferno IX.58-63: sotto ’l velame de li versi strani

Così disse ’l maestro; ed elli stessi
mi volse, e non si tenne alle mie mani
che con le sue ancor non mi chiudessi.
   O voi ch’avete li ’ntelletti sani,
mirate la dottrina che s’asconde
sotto ’l velame de li versi strani.

The second of these two tercets contains the second address to the reader in the Commedia. It is probably correct to observe that this particular instance of the rhetorical device has caused more confusion than any other found in the poem.[1] In fact, there has been only a single fairly brief period of consensus (reaching from early in the nineteenth century to just before the Second World War) that the passage points the reader back to previous matter, whether primarily to Medusa, to the Furies, or to some combination of these.

To deal with the least likely interpretation first, we may note that the minority of the commentators, those who believe that the passage invites the reader to look forward rather than back, are in accord that it refers to the avenging intruder who is about to appear in order to open the locked gates of Dis, if there is much debate over exactly what the reference to one who is “da ciel messo” (IX.85) signifies. However, it surely seems more natural for the reference to point backward to something already said rather than forward to the messo. An action both noteworthy and surely puzzling has just occurred: Virgil has covered Dante's eye-covering hands with his own hands. If it is this passage (vv. 58-60) that contains the hidden doctrine referred to (and perhaps only a single commentator believes that it is),[2] what the versi strani may suggest is that stoic restraint is not enough to keep a sinner safe from dangerous temptation. In this particular situation, divine guidance is administered through the agency of Beatrice-summoned Virgil; we understand that the protagonist himself is not yet strong enough to manage very much for himself and is thus susceptible to such danger.

In any event, it seems clear that the address points the reader’s attention to material already present in the text, not to matters that have yet to be described. Verse 64, “E già venìa su per le torbide onde,” in fact begins a new portion of the narrative and thus lies outside the parameters of the reference, as several have realized.[3] It is both revealing and surprising that so few commentators have observed this obvious fact. Some of those who fall into this error mistake the matter in question by considering it related to the nature and significance of the advent of the spirit “da ciel messo” (IX.85) in the following passage (IX.64-102); others see a connection to a “hidden meaning” represented by the Medusa and/or the Furies in the first part of this canto; still others generalize the reference of the “versi strani” to almost anything “mysterious” said anywhere in this poem. It is deluding to consult the commentators if one is looking for a convincing statement having to do with the reference and meaning of this phrase.

We heard the first of the poet’s seven addresses to the reader in Inferno at verses 94-96 of the eighth canto: “Pensa, lettor, se io mi sconfortai / nel suon de le parole maladette / ché non credetti ritornarci mai.” At least by the time we have finished reading his poem, we realize that its maker has chosen to address us frequently, even surprisingly often.[4] Are there any other authors of literary texts who address themselves directly to us quite so frequently? This poet has gone to great lengths to make us collaborators in sharing his experiences and his reactions to them, partners in developing a sense of their significance; in some cases we are asked if we grasp the meaning of a passage that challenges our analytical capacities.[5] In all cases we feel drawn into the poem, as though we ourselves were witnessing what the poet has described or were being asked to share with him the difficulty of interpreting some of his material.[6]

It is perhaps worth the effort to present a condensed history of the interpretation of this particular example of appelli ai lettori. The earliest commentators who attempt to deal with the significance of the poet’s claim to have expressed himself enigmatically (Graziolo Bambaglioli, Jacopo della Lana, Guido da Pisa, and the Ottimo) all agree that what needs to be unriddled is the reference to Medusa, if they are not quite in agreement as to what she signifies. With hindsight, we might consider this series of relatively unimpressive efforts among the better efforts in response to this tercet; at least these early practitioners were not making unmistakably incorrect claims. Pietro di Dante (2nd version) receives the credit (in fact, the blame) for being among the first readers to have considered the riddle centered in the identity of the messo (verse 85). Pietro then compounds his error (in this joined only by Boccaccio and, centuries later, by Bosco/Reggio) when he goes on to insist that the messo is to be understood as Mercury, a position abandoned by most other exegetes. It is nonetheless true that later in this canto the angel is portrayed as resembling Mercury when he opens the door to Herse’s chamber (Metam. II.819), as has been noted at least since 1980,[7] if such an understanding surely must have had an earlier history among Dantists, since the reference, at least to this observer, seems obvious. (Herse is also obliquely but clearly referred to at Purgatorio XIV.139. Hardly any commentator on the presence of Aglauros in that verse fails to mention her sister Herse; it would be surprising that no Dantist before 1980 had thought of Herse in connection with this scene; however, while one must be tentative in such judgments, that seems to have been the case.)

Let us return to the proposal with which we started: The poet’s phrase “versi strani” refers to Virgil’s covering Dante’s hands with his own. It is strange that hardly any commentator even mentions this detail; it seems, to this reader at least, to call out for close consideration: “elli stessi / mi volse, e non si tenne a le mie mani / che con le sue ancor non mi chiudessi” (verses that I would paraphrase as follows: “he turned me around, not trusting my own hands so much that he failed to cover them with his own”). It is this tercet, I believe, that is the focus of the poet’s attention when he speaks of “la dottrina che s’asconde” under the veil of allegory. Within the conventions of Dante’s underworld, demonic presences – like those of Medusa or Geryon or Anteaus – are to be taken first and foremost as “historical,” as actual presences involved in actual events. This gesture on the part of the protagonist’s guide is also “historical”; nonetheless, it seems like the sort of “event” one finds only in fictions. It is for this reason that our playful poet resorts to the language of allegorical analysis to explain its meaning.

[1] For a wide-ranging discussion of the “dottrina che s’asconde,” one that does not, however, note the precise resonance of the passage from the immediately preceding tercet, see Amilcare Iannucci, “Dottrina e allegoria in Inferno VIII.67 – IX.105,” in Dante e le forme dell’allegoresi, ed. M. Picone (Ravenna: Longo, 1987), pp. 99-124; see note 2, pp. 99-100, for bibliography relating to our problematic text found in Francesco Mazzoni's edition of the commentaries of Casini/Barbi and of Momigliano as well as for Iannucci’s notice of more than a dozen other relevant discussions.

[2] See Hollander, Allegory in Dante’s “Commedia” (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 239-46; “The Tragedy of Divination in Inferno XX,” in Studies in Dante (Ravenna: Longo, 1980), pp. 180-1, and my commentary to Inferno (New York: Doubleday/Anchor, 2000, ad loc. [also available in both DDP and PDP]).

[3] This simple and necessary observation has been offered by surprisingly few commentators on verses 61-63, first by Francesco da Buti (1385), then, after what may seem a surprisingly long time, by Landino (1481), by Castelvetro (1570), and then – only much later – by several among the moderns, e.g., Tozer (1901), Grabher (1934), and Porena (1946).

[4] See three oft-cited and valuable discussions of the poet's addresses to his reader: Hermann Gmelin, “Die Anrede an den Leser in der Göttlichen Komödie,” DDJb 30 (1951): 130-40; Erich Auerbach, “Dante's Addresses to the Reader,” Romance Philology 7 (1954): 268-78; and Leo Spitzer, “The Addresses to the Reader in the Commedia,” Italica 32 (1955): 143-66. For a more recent and theoretical treatment of Dante's use of this form of apostrophe in general, see William Franke, “Dante’s Address to the Reader and Its Ontological Significance,” MLN 109 (1994): 107-27.

[5] See Vittorio Russo, “appello al lettore,” ED.I.1970, pp. 324-26, for the following list of nineteen occurrences of the phenomenon: Inferno VIII.94-96, IX.61-63, XVI.127-132, XX.19-24, XXII.118, XXV.46-48, XXXIV.22-27; Purgatorio VIII.19-21, IX.70-72, X.106-111, XVII.1-9, XXIX.97-105, XXXI.124-126, XXXIII.136-138; Paradiso II.1-18, V.109-114, X.7-27 [which, in my opinion, contains two separate appelli, at vv. 7-21 and 22-27], XIII.1-21, XXII.106-111. For a downward revision in my own accountancy, from twenty-one to twenty addresses to the reader in the poem, see the revised note to Par. IX.10-12 in either the DDP or the PDP.

[6]These addresses are a sub-group of the classical rhetorical figure apostrophe, which is more than amply used by this poet. See Francesco Tateo, “apostrofe,” ED.I.1970, pp. 319-21.

[7] See Hollander, Studies in Dante, p. 181n.