The News You Get from Poems (FNL May/June 2024)

The News You Get From Poems

Mary C. Fuller

Many things are up in the air this week, and the Newsletter’s mode of static publication at a set, future time seems especially ill-suited to current conditions. I certainly feel the need, as I know others do, for a more flexible, better attuned means of communication. That isn’t a reason not to use the ones we have, or to replace reflection with breathless news scrolls, but in the circumstances of late April and early May anything I write about campus may be out of date by tomorrow, let alone two weeks from now.

I’d hoped in this column to write about some of the things faculty have told us were on their minds this year: themes that have come up at random faculty gatherings, drop-in breakfasts and coffees; these have been important conversations. Yet I can’t do it, even with the extended deadline courteously given us.

Dealing with student protests – talking with students, talking with faculty, and talking with senior leaders, on text, on email, on the phone, on Zoom, and in person – has taken up most of the available free time for more than a week now, to the exclusion of much else. It’s worth spending that time on a problem-set so crucial to MIT as institution and community, but of course that comes at a cost and having the bandwidth to write a reflective end-of-year synthesis is a small part of that cost.

What can be offered instead of that summing up? Well, as I watched the protests and counter-protests unfold last Friday, I was also preparing for a class by reading the Divine Comedy. As colleagues passed by, many of them stopped for some conversation, and some of those conversations were about Dante: the influence of Arabic poetry and learning on a Florentine poet circa 1300, but also the profound timeliness of this very otherworldly medieval poem. Even without having read Dante, you may know the basic outline of the work: in the middle of his life, the speaker of the poem finds himself astray from his path and lost in a dark and trackless wood. He is rescued by the long-dead poet Virgil, who has been sent by a girl Dante once loved – now a powerful force in heaven – to lead him through all the parts of the afterlife as Christians then conceived of it so that he can right his course again. How does this poem land for a reader on campus in early May, 2024?

The Divine Comedy is a deeply religious poem, which is to say that, in addition to expressing his faith in beautiful and powerful form, Dante holds quite a firm line on who does and doesn’t get into Heaven. Virgil, much as he admires him, does not – a fact that Dante makes increasingly poignant as they climb the mountain of Purgatory, and the moment approaches when Dante will prepare to enter Heaven itself, while Virgil will lose the sight of the Sun and be consigned again to Hell. Dante would include many of us out, and that’s an unavoidable truth. You could certainly say the poem has sectarian commitments that, over the course of history, have given rise to terrible as well as admirable things. Like most of the texts I and my colleagues teach, the Divine Comedy cannot be disimbricated from painful controversy (and it is not without challenges for Christian readers). But it’s actually less the religious commitments than the historical and political surrounds of the poet’s life that have been on my mind.

Dante wrote his poem in exile. Why? Because his place of birth, the republic of Florence, had been mired in a cycle of internecine violence for generations. Florence’s wars with neighboring city-states were actually wars between immediate neighbors, as Florentines expelled from their home after factional conflict returned armed and with allies to slaughter and expel their neighbors in turn, razing their homes. The reasons for faction are recoverable, but have little resonance for a modern mind. What remains vivid, though, is the sense of a city and a region where “those now living in you are forever at war, and those whom one wall and one moat enclose are gnawing on each other.”[1] 

For the most part, Dante doesn’t use his poem to settle scores. Great leaders on the other side, even in Hell, merit his respect, and they adjoin leaders on his own side who may indeed be lower down; once he arrives among the saved, factions and battles are no longer of interest to anyone. But the fact of a violence that seemingly can’t be ended, of a structural failure that consumes generations, provides one of the ground conditions of the poem as well as many of the characters the poet encounters. In one of Hell’s lowest circles, people are punished who have created division between those who should rightly be in community with each other; the punishment for these people is to have their (virtual but suffering) bodies violently divided by wounds. There, the man Dante holds responsible for the catastrophic turn in Florentine history holds up the stumps of his severed hands, which bleed on his face as he keens to be remembered – and not remembered, in his infamy and anguish. It’s easy to get carried away by the sublime horror of Dante’s Hell, as a hair-raising aesthetic experience (and maybe this was a little too much information). But if Dante goes a bit far in the way he imagines punishing Mosca dei Lamberti, it was surely because he felt both powerless and appalled by the things he blamed Mosca for, generations later. He knew from conflict, this 13th century poet, between peoples and also within communities.

The first 34 cantos of the Divine Comedy take place in the dark, because Hell is in the center of the earth. As my syllabus usually works out, the characters emerge back into the light just around spring break, and by the last day of class, Dante is poised to be drawn into the heavens from the top of a mountain on the other side of the earth. He spends the last few cantos of Purgatorio (the middle section of the poem) in a return to the original earthly paradise, where he will be reunited with the lost love of his younger days. As he has climbed the mountain of Purgatory on his way there, he has largely been an observer of the ways in which souls make restitution for the wrong things they did in life. Reparative justice, for Dante, looks exactly like more punishment – but luckily for him, he is only passing through and will have the chance to change his life before it’s time for him, too, to be crushed under huge boulders (pride) or have his eyes sewn shut with wires (envy). At first, the climb itself is tough, but the closer he gets to the top, the lighter he feels, until climbing is as effortless as floating downstream. The garden of Eden itself is only just ahead. But. But. It turns out there is a price Dante has to pay after all.

The least grave sin in Dante’s schema is loving wrongly, which is to say, getting distracted from those higher loves that in his universe should be the real object of desire. So the last terrace of Purgatory deals with love that still needs to be corrected. People on this terrace speak to Dante out of the fire they’re being burned in, and then plunge back into the fire “like a fish going into the deepest water” because this fire is in fact remaking and not only torturing them.[2] But the torture is real, and of course Dante still has a physical body, so imagine what he feels when the angel at the next passage tells him there is no going further without going through the fire. And he has to do it. There is no way back, and no way up other than through.

This is actually a beautiful passage in a beautiful pair of cantos; there are some famous poets there in the flames, people whose work has had a formative influence on Dante and of course their speech is correspondingly very powerful. The point, though, is that sometimes you find yourself in a crucible. It’s hot: Dante writes, “I would have thrown myself into boiling glass to be cooler, the burning there was so beyond measure.”[3] But Dante’s fire is making something of him even as it scorches him. Virgil talks him through it, reminding him what’s on the other side. He hears voices on the other side singing. And then finally he’s through.

We’re a bit in the fire now. I don’t know when we’ll get to the other side, or whether we’ll come out having truly found Paradise – or somewhere else.

W.H. Auden said something wonderful (if you’re a literary type) about the profound importance of the news we get from poems. This column won’t and indeed can’t tell you the news of what happened in the first weeks of May at MIT. But Dante’s poem reminds me that other people have been here before us, and that there is an other side to enduring the fire.

[1] Purgatorio, tr. W.S. Merwin (New York: Knopf, 2000), 6.82-84. For readers who have traveled with Dante through the icy bottom of Hell, the language of citizens “gnawing on each other” recalls the terrible punishment visited on a man and his children by a fellow citizen in Inferno, and a fitting revenge meted out by the victim on his punisher in the afterlife where they suffer next to each other forever. If you are a fan of horror, read Inferno 33.

[2] Purgatorio 28.135.

[3] Purgatorio 28.49-51.

MIT Faculty Newsletter, May/June 2024, Vol. XXXVI No. 5