No poem rivals Dante’s Commedia in providing so many opportunities, so many temptations, for a poet (both as the poet recollecting and the pilgrim on a journey) to sigh.
The dead sigh throughout the poem, and they sigh for all of the reasons we would: pity, pain, admiration, awe. The sigh, as an involuntary response, as a gesture of breath prior to or outpacing words, and as a sound common to all animals, but poignant only in relation to absent exchanges of human speech, is perhaps one of the least socially conditioned forms of communication (though I’ve been alerted since publishing the post that sighs have a rich history in Dante’s predecessor Cavalcanti, and are well-established in the conventions of the poetry of Dante’s contemporaries). That the dead do sigh quite often might be in part a sad irony: a reminder of the breath they lack, and a more forcefully physical reminder than words would be, in so far as a sigh is to a word somewhat as a shadow is to a body; and the dead cast no shadows.
The Italian word for sigh is “sospiro”—there is not much leeway for translators (though some find or make it, as when Laurence Binyon, on the first occasion of the Italian word in the poem, gives us the English “groans”), so it is easy enough to trace the word through whatever translation one has, but there is also an online Italian concordance to the poem.
In the guise of the various cognates (sospir, sospira, sospirando, sospiri, sospiro, sospirosa), the word appears 27 times through Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Purgatorio gets the lions share: 14; Inferno: 11; Paradiso: 2.
This feels right: the yearning sigh, the admiring sigh, the regretful sigh, the exhausted sigh all belong to purgatory.
But sighs reverberate throughout the depths of hell, too. The word appears shortly after Dante’s entrance into the dark region, at III.23:
Quivi sospiri, piavi, e alti guai
risonavan per l’aere sanza stelle,
per ch’io al cominciar ne lagrimai.
In Sinclair’s prose translation: “There sighs, lamentations, and loud wailings resounded through the starless air, so that at first it made me weep.” Where there were stars, there are instead sighs; but we should not see sighs and stars standing in simple opposition, since there are sighs, albeit fewer, among the stars of Paradise, and, more frequent than in Hell, beneath the stars that shine above the mountain of Purgatory. These lines, however, do associate, loosely though it may be, sighs with a cornerstone of the poem’s lexicon: the “stelle” that appears at the end of each book appears for the second time in the poem (and first time in the afterlife) here.
The final appearance of the word is in Paradiso 22.100. Taking in the reach of the rhetoric that culminates in the word:
O gloriose stelle, o lumo pregno
di gran virtù, dal quali io riconosco
tutto, qual che si sia, il mia ingegno,
con voi nasceva e s’ascondeva vosco
quelli ch’è padre d’ogni moral vita,
quand’io senti’ di prima l’aere tosco;
e poi, quando mi fu grazia largita
d’entrar nell’alta rota che vi gira,
la vostra region mi fu sortita.
A voi divotamente ora suspira
i’anima mia, per acquistar virtute
al passo forte ch a sè la tira.
In Sinclair: O glorious stars, O light pregnant with mighty power from which I acknowledge all my genius, whatever it be, with you was born and with you hidden he that is the father of each mortal life when I first tasted the Tuscan air; and after, when grace was granted me to enter into the high wheel that bears you round, your region was assigned to me. To you my soul now sighs devoutly that it may gain strength for the hard task that draws it to itself.
We do not need the translation to see that, on its final appearance in the poem, as on its first, “sigh” is united with “star.”
I was hoping as I read this that it would prove to be what it not: Dante’s first sighing in the poem. But that would be perhaps too neat a pattern, or too simple: the beauty of the poem is that it offers wheels turning within wheels, an intricate geometry.
So though I was somewhat disappointed when I found that this was not the first occasion of Dante’s sighing in the poem, it was nonetheless remarkable to find it only the four, with the other three occurring well up the mountain of Purgatory.
27 sighs, then, and only four belonging to Dante; most belonging to the damned or repentant, and two belonging to Beatrice. I will examine Dante’s sighs later–because they relate not only to the world of the poem, to its structure of beliefs, but to Dante’s approach to poetry in general.
First I will take Beatrice’s sighs. These occur at the transition from Purgatory to Paradise: at Purgatorio 33.4 (the final book of the poem) and at Paradiso 1.100:
‘Deus, venerunt gentes’, alternando
or tre or quattro, dolce salmodia
le donne incominciaro, e lacrimando;
e Beatrice, sospirosa e pia,
quelle ascoltava si fatta che poco
più alla croce si cambio Maria. (Purgatorio XXX.1-6)
Sinclair: ‘Deus, venerunt gentes’ the ladies, singing now three or four responsively and weeping, began sweet psalmody, and Beatrice, sighing and compassionate, listened to them, so altered that Mary changed little more at the cross.
S’ io fui del primo dubbio disvestito
per le sorrise parolette brevi,
dentro ad un nuovo più fu’ inretito,
e dissi: ‘Gia contento requievi
di grante ammirazion; ma ora ammiro
com’ io tascenda questi corpi levi.’
Ond’ella, appresso d’un pio sospiro,
li occhi drizzo ver le con quel sembiante
che madre fa sovra figlio deliro… (Paradiso I.94-102)
Sinclair: If I was freed from my perplexity by the brief words she smiled to me I was more entangled in a new one and I said: ‘I was content already, resting from a great wonder, but now I wonder how I should be rising above these light substances.’ She, therefore, after a sigh of pity, bent her eyes on me with a look a mother casts on her delirious child…
The sighs of the heavenly women, we know, moved Virgil to approach Dante; that the heavenly do sigh has been established. But for Beatrice, sighs are strange: “Beatrice, sospirosa e pia” has the stability of an epithet: we are told that she has suddenly changed, as much as Mary at the cross, and we are told that the change is temporary–she soon rises to speak to others “glowing like fire,” her accustomed poise of divinely sanctioned pride. But we are not to think that her change here is a change from what she usually is: it is just a change from what Dante has seen of her until this point. Beatrice has chastised Dante, remained aloof from the compassionate indulgence of his worldly self; at this moment, we might feel, she reveals an aspect of her essential self. Just as there is a Mary of the Sacred Heart, there is a “Beatrice, sospirosa e pia,” the Beatrice sighing with divine love for Dante’s lost soul. The same sighing Beatrice we see only once more in heaven, where she sighs with pity.
Beatrice sighs with compassion and pity for Dante, deserving; Dante hears the sighs of the damned in Hell, but never once sighs for them, and is chastised (by Virgil) for gestures of pity and compassion. That Beatrice sighs for Dante only once in Paradise testifies to the transformation he has undergone on his journey; that she sighs for him in Paradise at all, once he is past the waters of Lethe, reminds us that he remains a being of the world, his journey incomplete.
Dante, then, does not sigh in Hell, however much he pities the sighs and moans of the dead. To sigh with them would be, perhaps, to join his voice to theirs, or else to lose the articulate reason of Divine Judgment to the wayward lamentations of reprobate emotion.
That he sighs so late in Purgatory suggests not that his sigh is to be accounted something other than the sighs of the dead; instead, it is to suggest the opposite, and to acknowledge how out of place his sigh would be in response to theirs. Perhaps were Dante to sigh with the dead, in Inferno or on Purgatory, he would belittle the sighs that fill those places.
In the case of sighs, as with so much in the poem, the reader’s understanding needs to acknowledge both humane sympathy towards the penitent and lost, and also the ineptness and misjudgment inherent in such sympathy.
We expect momentous feeling–commensurate with what we find from others elsewhere–when Dante first sighs. Purgatorio XXI.102… Statius has just spoken to Dante and Virgil of his love of the latter’s poetry, and of his wish to have lived at the same time as Virgil, even if it would have added to his time in Purgatory (even, we might wonder, if it would have consigned him to Limbo?). He spoke without recognizing Virgil’s shade. What follows, in Sinclair:
These words turned Virgil to me with a look that said in silence: ‘Be silent.’ But the power to will cannot do all, for laughter and tears are so close followers on the passions from which they spring that they least follow the will in the most truthful. I only smiled, like one that gives a hint; at which the shade was silent and looked into my eyes, where the expression most holds its place, and said: ‘So may thy great labour end in good, why did thy face just now show me a gleam of mirth?’
Now I am held on the one side and the other, the one makes me keep silence, the other conjures me to speak, so that I sigh and am understood by my Master, and ‘Do not fear to speak’, he says to me ‘but speak and tell him what he asks so eagerly.’
The sigh as the estuary between speech and silence, but not occasioned by pity or compassion for a spirit suddenly encountered (think that not even Latini gets a sigh)— but by a sudden wariness of, uncertainty towards, what to say and whether to say it; and this wariness is in turn inspired by Dante’s love, not for the Divine, not for Beatrice, but for the pagan poet Virgil. He would not betray Virgil’s identity, would not give Virgil away, reveal and expose him, by speaking; so he sighs.
Virgil occasions Dante’s first sigh because Virgil masters, and is master of, Dante’s language.
In my small Dante training, I came to especially admire critics including Teodolinda Barolini, Winthrop Wetherbee (with whom I briefly studied Dante), and Eric Griffiths (whose introduction to the Penguin Dante in English is an excellent more-than-introduction to the poet): these critics are eager to see in Dante a more humanly divided figure than the patristic critics, who seem at times to read the poem as confirming and dramatizing a series of dogmas erected by medieval theologians. The sigh on this occasion—Dante’s first sigh—betrays, or proclaims (it is easy to disagree), Dante’s allegiance to what Wetherbee used to call, with stubborn defiance, “poetry as poetry,” setting it against “poetry as philosophy” or “poetry as theology,” and not seeking any further definition,
I do not think that this (or any other) instance shows Dante turning away from God, but the sigh of pity might be understood within the context of Dante’s allegiance to poetry as poetry: here are two poets, both influential on Dante, one, Virgil, a greater poet and Dante’s guide, of greater influence; the other, Statius, of import nonetheless; one, damned to Limbo; the other, saved; and that salvation coming, as Statius and Virgil know full well, and several times mention, as a matter of what seems, to human understanding, chance: one was born and died too early in history and the other did not.
Dante sighs because of his allegiance to Virgil, but he sighs here in pity for himself: he knows himself to be torn, not only between two poets he admires, but between the-poet-he-loves-the-most-who-is-not-blessed and a-poet-he-loves-a-great-deal-who-is-blessed. In this scene, Dante’s divided allegiance between poetry and divinity coincides with a divided allegiance to two poets. Knowing himself unable to choose, it may be that he knows himself to be, still, lost; still far from the heaven that does not honor the worldly words of poets as possessing, in themselves, divine merit.
Dante’s only sighs in Purgatorio, his only sighs in the poem aside from his sigh in Paradise, are sighs for himself:
The other two sighs occur in close proximity to one another, in Canto XXXI, as Beatrice accuses Dante, demands of him that he confess and explain why he strayed in his devotions from God, looking instead to earthly objects and pursuits:
In Sinclair (translating lines 10-21):
She forebore a little, then said: ‘What thinkest thou? Answer me, for the sad memories are not yet destroyed in thee by the water.’
Confusion and fear mingled together drove forth from my mouth a Yes such that to hear it there was need of sigh. As a cross-bow shot with too great strain breaks the cord and bow and the shaft touches the mark with less force, so I broke down under that heavy charge, pouring forth tears and sighs, and my voice failed in its passage.
When, in response to this “pouring forth” of tears and sighs, Beatrice confronts him once again, Dante responds (ll. 31-36):
After heaving a bitter sigh I had hardly the voice to answer and the lips shaped it with difficulty; weeping, I said; ”Present things with their false pleasure turned my steps as soon as your face was hid.’
At the moment when he must account for himself as a witness to himself, as a witness to his own sins, and not only to the sins of others, Dante breaks forth in sighs; he has become one of the penitent. In the Commedia, the sighs, until Paradise is reached, are always sighs for oneself.
The sighs in the poem are the sighs of the sinners, damned, blessed, and Dante the Pilgrim (as the journeying character is called); but what of the sighs of Dante the poet?
Although it cannot be so easily—especially when, as in this case, it is absent—substantiated a claim, I find one of the most powerful lessons and achievements of the poem to be its utter refusal to sigh over the images that it presents; I do not only, to hammer away at what may already have been driven home, mean that Dante the Pilgrim does not sigh. I mean that Dante the Poet, as he writes the poem, does not sigh: he does not lose his words to breathless admiration, awe, wonder, or feeling, in the face of his own creation. It may be that there are occasions when he nearly does so, or is tempted to do so, but nowhere are we aware that he succumbs. The grounds for sighing are often perceptible; the sigh over the creation is unheard.
I do not know why I think this so sound a principle—do not sigh over your creation—but there are enough instances to show how difficult it is for artists to follow. Perhaps it would in some way undermine what Barolini calls the “credibility” of the poem, since only a human artifice would inspire a sigh (genuine creation, the creation of the world, which the poem purports to record, demands other forms of admiration and devotion). Perhaps it is inspiring proof of Dante’s confidence that he does not preen; that he creates and understand without a self-serving self-directed performance inarticulacy. Perhaps he does not sigh over his creation because he respects its implications: only the damned and penitent have need to sigh over their conditions and states.