Epic beginnings

Epic poems are like presidential terms, the first 100 days are crucial. The opening verses of an epic poem set the tone for the rest of the composition. Anyone who’s ever read Homer, Virgil, Dante or Milton, even superficially, will recall the opening verses of these poems, even if perhaps not more than that. Some if these opening gambits are downright famous, often to the exclusion of all other lines: sing, o Goddess, I sing of the man and the arms, nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita.

The opening lines establish expectations, lay out the plan for the poem and sketch out the borders within which the poet will deploy the arsenal. Openings, however, can also organise insurrections and signal future transgressions.

Canto II of Dante’s Paradiso opens with one of the boldest statements in the history of epic poetry:

O you who are within your little bark,
eager to listen, following behind
my ship that, singing, crosses to deep seas,

turn back to see your shores again: do not
attempt to sail the seas I sail; you may,
by losing sight of me, be left astray.

The waves I take were never sailed before;
Minerva breathes, Apollo pilots me,
and the nine Muses show to me the Bears.

This is one of my favourite sections of the Comedy. Dante is not original here, but he is majestic and transgressive. The three terzine work as a gloss on the Aeneid. In book 6, Virgil recounts Aeneas’ journey to the Underworld. Dante modelled the entire Divine Comedy, and especially Inferno, on this part of the Aeneid. But when he comes to Paradiso, Dante must leave the Aeneid, and all classical poetry, behind. The journey continues to the Heavens, the underworld realms are far behind/below. Going up means leaving the classical predecessors behind. There is no room for Rome in the Empyrean. But it seems that the past is inescapable, for the opening verses of Canto II of Paradiso quoted above echo the Aeneid loud and clear. In the Aeneid, the Sibyl warns Aeneas that the descent to the Underworld is not for everybody: ‘stay far, far away, you uninitiates’. With these words, Virgil, who was rewriting Ulysses’ own descent to the Underworld in the Odyssey, warns the readers that undertaking such a journey (and writing about it!) is not for everybody. Dante cleverly chose to overlook Virgil’s warning in Inferno, where one expects to find this literary echo, and instead brings it full-on in Paradiso, the most daring part of the Comedy.

Stay far, far, away, you uninitiates, you who are in your little boat, in the wake of my daring vessel. Your only chance of crossing the sea of imagination and creativity is to sail closely behind or get on board, otherwise you’ll drift away and lose yourselves. Inferno had been sailed before, but Paradiso is something else entirely – so stay close, I need divine inspiration, and you need me!

A single line in the Aeneid generates a whole creative world, which Dante sketches in just nine lines. Paradiso, we are told, is not going to be like anything we’ve read. You may see glimpses of Homer and Virgil in Inferno, but Paradiso will be the ultimate challenge. And indeed, what Dante sets out to do in the last canticle of the Comedy is unprecedented. His ‘ship’ will cross the sea of the ineffable, will reach the edge of the imaginable where silence lies, once everything’s been told and revealed.

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