Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 1 | Summary

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Summary

Before resuming his narrative from Purgatory, Dante invokes the Greek god Apollo to bless his poem. He then picks up where the previous volume left off: it is noon, and Dante stands with his beloved Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise atop Mount Purgatory. Beatrice turns her eyes toward the sun, and the two begin to rise into the sky. Dante, awestruck, wonders whether he is having an out-of-body experience. As they ascend through the atmosphere, he and Beatrice pass through a layer of fiery light.

Sensing Dante's curiosity about all that is happening, Beatrice offers an explanation. Human souls, she says, have an innate tendency to rise toward God when they are not deluded into shunning Him. Since Dante has been purified of his sins in Purgatory, he is now subject to this force of attraction. God draws him upward through the heavens as naturally and unresistingly as flames rise or water flows downhill. The real marvel, she says, would be if Dante were "free of all impediment"—as he is now—but somehow remained on Earth.

Analysis

It may seem odd for a medieval Christian poet writing about the Christian afterlife to invoke a Greek deity. The intermingling of Christian and classical Greco-Roman motifs is, however, a frequent feature of Dante's writing. In this canto it's important to realize Dante is not literally praying to Apollo, which would be blasphemous according to the tenets of Christianity. Instead he is invoking the Greek god of song and poetry as a sort of brilliant emblem or mascot, just as he previously invoked the Muses in Purgatory. By leaping over the heads of the Muses and choosing a high-ranking Olympian deity, Dante signals the difficulty of the task for which he is bracing himself. So far, he says, one "summit"—Helicon, where the Muses dwell—has been sufficient to inspire him. Now, however, he needs inspiration from "both"—meaning both Helicon and Cirra, the peak sacred to Apollo in order to succeed in his dangerous odyssey.

Curiously, Dante associates poetic inspiration with a kind of agony, as evidenced by his invocation of the Flaying of Marsyas: "Enter my heart and breathe in me, as when / you flayed defeated Marsyas." In the mythological episode to which these lines allude, Apollo skins the satyr Marsyas alive after defeating him in a flute-playing contest. As a show of his zeal, Dante utters a plea to be, like Marsyas, "drawn out" from himself. In other words he wishes to be stripped of his mortal limitations, however violently, and set free to tell his story for the benefit of all who need salvation; that is, everyone.

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