Pamela Dellal, mezzo soprano


uncommon intelligence, imagination and textual awareness...



Two Views of Heaven: Dante and Goethe in Paradise
Verdi's Quattro Pezzi Sacri and Boito's Prologue to Mefistofele

talk presented at the Berkshire Choral Festival July 2005

This week we confront two of the greatest poets in the history of the Western world, Dante Alighieri and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  One wrote at the end of the Middle Ages, constructing an immense vision of the universe and humanity’s place in it through a story of one man’s journey in the afterworld. At the very end of his great poem, we are brought to Paradise itself, as Dante prepares to look directly on the face of God.  Leading up to this climax is the great prayer to the Virgin from Canto XXXIII, set to music by Verdi in the Quattro Pezzi Sacri.  The other wrote at the cusp of the 19th century, constructing an immense vision of the universe and humanity’s place in it through the legend of Dr. Faustus.  At the very beginning of his great poem, we find ourselves in Paradise itself, hearing the conversation between Mephistopheles and God that sets the story in motion.  Boito seizes upon this vision to create a memorable scene opening his operatic version of Faust, Mefistofele.

Dante’s La Commedia, (known to English speakers as the Divine Comedy) or at least the first part, Inferno, is so famous as to be part of everyday language.  Many well-educated people know that the complete poem consists of two more sections, Purgatorio and Paradiso, but many fewer people know much about these sections and even a smaller percentage have read them.  This is not the case in Italy, where Dante is as revered as Shakespeare is in our culture and all school children can quote many passages.

The plot, in brief: Dante finds himself lost in a dark wood “in the middle of our life’s journey.” He tries, but is unable, to climb a mountain illuminated by the sun, finding his way blocked by three fearsome beasts.  As he returns to the wood in despair, a figure appears to him, who identifies himself as the spirit of the poet Virgil, who has been sent to him by Dante’s beloved Beatrice, now a saint in heaven.  Virgil offers to lead Dante ‘by another path’ to safety, to Beatrice, and to salvation.

This path leads straight to the bottom of Hell.  Along the way it transpires that part of the reason for the journey is for Dante (called ‘the Pilgrim’ to distinguish him from the author) to observe the state of souls after death in order to record his vision as a poem. He experiences the nine circles of Hell and meets Lucifer himself: a monstrous giant, hideous and impotent, imprisoned in a hole at the very center of the earth.  He does not speak and serves as a passive conduit for Dante and Virgil to climb out of hell ‘the opposite way’ through the center of the earth up to the other side.

There Dante discovers that on the other side of the world there is a very tall mountain surrounded by water. This is Purgatory, and souls that have been saved come here after death to make themselves ready for heaven. Purgatory is filled with souls that are hopeful and sociable, amiably human as they suffer to purge themselves of their remaining earthly flaws in order to reach Heaven.  Purgatory is paced by the rising and setting sun, and Dante learns from musicians, artists, and poets about the pervasiveness of God’s love for His creation.  When the Pilgrim finally reaches the top of the mountain, he discovers there the Garden of Eden, preserved as a waystation for souls about to depart the earth for their heavenly destiny.  He finally meets Beatrice again, who scolds him for turning away from her and her influence after her death, wringing from him a confession and repentance.  Virgil, however, disappears and is not seen again.

Which brings us to the Paradiso: the least-read and least familiar section of the great poem.  One reason it is less-often read is because there is overtly much less drama (none, in fact) in the plot.  Rather, as has been said, “it is the poet who struggles while the pilgrim is safe.”* The plot, in fact, is terribly simple: Dante and Beatrice rise through the nine spheres of heaven, stopping at each of the celestial bodies (Moon, Mercury, etc) and encountering blessed souls who speak to Dante.  This hierarchy is not only disturbing to modern readers (why would someone be ‘less’ blessed than someone else, and relegated to the Moon?) but disturbing to Dante-pilgrim as well, and in response to his question receives this astonishing answer: all the souls actually dwell in the Empyrean, the ‘true’ Paradise outside of space and time, and are made visible to him in the celestial spheres as a type of ‘command performance’ solely for his benefit.  They are grouped by their various virtues and situations in life: the scholars inhabit the Sun, the warriors (esp. Crusaders) Mars, and the rulers Jupiter.  Dante is thrilled to meet many famous saints and historical figures, particularly his ancestor Cacciaguida in the heaven of Mars. Later, he undergoes a ‘catechism’ of sorts from Sts. Peter, James, and John.

In Canto 30, Dante finally reaches the Empyrean and leaves the physical world.  True to expectations, he is dazzled and at first does not understand what he sees.  After the pilgrim’s eyes have adjusted to the brilliance of Paradise, he sees the blessed souls seated in tiers in what looks like a large white rose.  As he stands in the center, suddenly Beatrice is gone and St. Bernard is next to him.  As a mystic and great preacher known for his devotion to and veneration of the Virgin, he is the most appropriate person to make this plea on Dante’s behalf for the ultimate grace; the ability to look upon God face to face.

All this brings us to the final ‘act’ of the poem, the unmediated vision of God.  He turns to look at the point where all the radiance of the Empyrean originates, and his vision of the Deity ends the poem.  It is not possible to discuss this vision without now addressing the poetry itself.  Dante’s use of clear, simple language, and the restrictions imposed by the metrical and rhyme scheme, are the essence of his poetic gift. Throughout the Commedia, he demonstrates the ability to describe, and to characterize, the very lowest and the very highest states of humanity, the rawest urges and the most rarified intellectual concepts, with word, sound, and rhythm.  Dante writes the Commedia in a rhyme scheme he created for the purpose: terza rima.  The verses are grouped in threes (terzine) and the first and third lines rhyme with each other.  The second verse rhymes with the fourth and sixth. A new rhyme is introduced in the fifth line, so the rhyme scheme is open-ended and flows like a linked chain through each canto (approx. 115 lines).  As is common in Italian poetry, the meter is determined by the total number of syllables (in this case, 11) rather than the number of ‘feet’ or accented syllables as is done in English poetry.  Using only these means in the three canticles, Dante engages in poetic contests with Virgil, Ovid, and Lucan; creates indelible characters such as Francesca da Rimini, Ugolino, and Ulysses; indulges in scatological humor and grotesque violence; and creates scenes and images of such tender sweetness that their beauty takes our breath away.

In the Paradiso, even Dante’s prodigious genius finds itself inadequate. In order to describe what, by definition, is beyond human comprehension, the poet is forced to invent new words and create a ‘topos of inexpressibility’ to convey his experiences. This concept, praising to a subject by describing how utterly the poet is unable to do justice to it, originated in the love poetry of the ‘dolce stil nuovo,’ the sweet new style that Dante was born into and transformed. The entire Commedia originated in a promise he made at the end of an early work to praise his beloved Beatrice by saying about her “what had never been said before about any other.” [che mai non fue detto d’alcuna.] Indeed, Dante’s repeated attempts to describe how Beatrice’s beauty becomes more and more radiant as the two ascend higher in the heavens is the perfect example of this type of praise.

In contrast to the passionate emotion Dante employs in writing about Beatrice, his prayer to the Virgin is a balanced, elegant paean. Here he incorporates every technique of eulogy and praise from Latin, Hebrew, and earlier Christian traditions.  The first 21 lines of this prayer (which are the ones set by Verdi) are the portion of the speech known as the ‘captatio benevolentiae’ or the ‘capture of good will’.  It is a typical rhetorical gesture, aiming to win the favor of the person addressed by compliments and appeals to that person’s generosity and power.  It is structured in three parts: the first three terzine describe Mary’s role in history and her unique relationship to God; the second three address her current role as the chief mediator between humanity (both in heaven and on earth) and the Divine Will; and the last terzina sums up all of her good qualities.  Simultaneously proclaiming centuries of Marian dogma and assuming the passionate vocabulary of Bernard, Dante’s prayer distills all the orthodox cliches into symmetrical, elliptical paradoxes. None of the beautiful oxymorons he uses are unique to him. Nevertheless, Dante’s economy of language gives these images a musicality and radiance that makes them sound new. Listen to how he opens up the balance of the contradictory phrases in the first six lines: two in the first line, the third occupying the next two [Vergine Madre, figlia del tuo Figlio - umile e alta] and the third extending over an entire terzina [suo fattore...farsi sua fattura].

Finally, a few words about the end of the poem; the vision of God. Here Dante’s struggles with language become heroic; for every attempt at a description of what he saw come three (exquisite) similes about how the description does not approach the memory, which is also far from equal to the experience.  Never before in poetry has the act of writing been put so much to the test.  Dante succeeds even as he ‘fails’; maintaining until the last his precision of language his vision evolves and deepens, while the beauty of the poetry and the imagery are enhanced by the very simplicity of the diction. Read the selections I have given here and see if you can feel the mingling of sound, emotion, and intellect that is the essence of the Paradiso.

Goethe’s view of heaven is very different from Dante’s.  Like his Italian predecessor, Goethe can use the simplest language to illuminate an idea, and can change registers (noble to coarse speech) in the blink of an eye.  In the Prologue scene to Faust this effect is used for comedy.  This brief scene which opens the poem (after the Prologue in the Theater) begins with speeches by the three Archangels Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael, in which they set the scene of the view from Heaven of the earth and the majesty of the natural processes of day and night, wind and storms. Then Mephistopheles appears and addresses God. In a self-deprecating way he introduces himself as a plain speaker, and as one who does not care for the admiration of stars and worlds; all he cares about is humanity and how depraved it is. God proposes Faust to Mephistopheles as a counter-example, and takes up Mephistopheles’s challenge to steer Faust astray while boasting of Faust’s potential and ultimate triumph.

Goethe contrasts the resonant speeches of the archangels, describing the glory of the natural world, with the dry, low speech of Mephistopheles, with whom we immediately sympathize and whose simplicity makes a mockery of the ringing cadences of the angels.  Goethe’s scene is broadly comical, playing off the solemnity, almost pomposity, of the archangels and the high-flown magnaminity of God’s speech with the dry humor of Mephistopheles.  His dead-pan comebacks deflate the oratory and immediately engage the reader’s sympathy.  The breathtaking plainness of his responses are nothing short of brilliant:

Von Sonn- und Welten weiß ich nichts zu sagen;
Ich sehe nur, wie sich die Menschen plagen. 

Da dank ich Euch; denn mit den Toten
Habe ich mich niemals gern befangen.

I have nothing to say about suns and worlds;
I care only about how humanity torments itself.

I thank you for that; since with the dead
I have never enjoyed dealing.

Putting aside the most obvious contrasts - in Dante’s universe the Devil could never conceivably speak to God, much less make an appearance in Paradise - Goethe’s heaven reflects the humanist, anti-religious attitude of the poet and of the intellectual climate of his time, the Enlightenment.  God set the world in motion, and the only activity of heavenly existence is to sit back and observe its perfect workings in peace and admiration. Man, a natural part of the world, fends for himself, whether he seeks the Good or pursues evil or vain goals.  Far from an active contest, the wager between God and Mephistopheles is a challenge for Faust to prove his inner worth and nobility despite the distractions of the Devil. 

Faust, ultimately, transcends any concept of salvation or damnation.  Instead of either resisting Mephistopheles through virtue or yielding to him through vice, he makes yet another bargain with him: the Devil may have his soul if Faust is ever content, ever willing to rest in the present moment. Mephistopheles becomes utterly frustrated by Faust’s changing desires and by his inability to satisfy him. This is played out in Faust’s death scene, where he collapses after having a vision of a peaceful, prosperous future made possible by a land-reclamation project.  In anticipation of this satisfaction, he utters the fateful words “I might say to that moment, ‘stay, you are so fair.’” With his last breath, he finally says that he enjoys the present moment.  This is as close as Faust ever comes to ceasing to strive.  What follows is a ridiculous farce played out between Mephistopheles, his crew of devils, and a band of heavenly cherubim.  While Mephistopheles organizes his crew to finally capture Faust’s soul, the cherubs pelt them with roses and temporarily seduce them, including even Mephistopheles himself.  While he is distracted by desiring the cherubs, they make off with Faust’s soul. No argument is ever made that he has been saved by any repentant action, or by lack of fulfillment of the bargain.  Mephistopheles is left to whine that he has been robbed of his prize.

Boito, to be sure, knew his Dante as well as he knew his Goethe.   Several elements of Boito’s prologue remind us more of Paradiso than of Faust. There are magnificent choirs and the voices of penitents: a reminder, absent in Goethe, that Heaven is the destination of faithful souls.  In this and in other passages Boito tempers the humanist tone of Goethe’s vision.  We can only speculate why this is so. After the first version of his opera failed Boito destroyed all the scores, so there is no way to know what changes were made to it.  His second version was likely altered to please the Vatican censors, who disapproved of the anti-clerical tone of Goethe’s poem.  To this concession we can most likely attribute the changes Boito has made to Goethe’s radical original conception.

Where Goethe’s Faust dies focused, as ever, on his striving, Boito’s Faust achieves salvation in a more traditional way: his vision of the blissful future merges into the singing of the angels, and becomes a vision of heaven itself. He seizes a Bible and triumphantly brandishes it against Mephistopheles as he dies. In fact, his death scene is remarkably similar to a famous last-minute salvation described in Dante’s Purgatorio: the conversion of Buonconte da Montefeltro, excommunicated by the Church and killed in battle, who turned to God after being fatally wounded. In humorous counterpoint to the fate of his damned father Guido, a devil comes to take possession of the excommunicated soul, only to be trumped by an angel who triumphantly displays Buonconte’s repentant tear as his redemption. 

Boito provides one additional link between our two authors. In Boito’s Prologue scene, a quote from the Paradiso is placed in Mephistopheles’ mouth: when he speaks of man’s desire to exceed his nature, he uses one of Dante’s most famous and brilliant neologisms: ‘trasumanar’.  This word describes the state that the Dante-character achieves at the beginning of the Paradiso when, empowered by Beatrice, he gains the ability to rise from sphere to sphere in heaven, making his journey to the ultimate goal: God.  Boito, by using this unmistakable reference (unmistakable at least to an Italian audience), deepens the irony of Mephistopheles’ speech.  The vast gulf between Dante’s ‘trasumanar’–  the blessed soul approaching its Creator –  and Goethe/Boito’s ‘trasumanar’– the arrogance of humanity mired in its own petty nature – is the distance between the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment itself.

© Pamela Dellal

* Marguerite Mills Chiarenza, "The Imageless Vision and Dante's Paradiso," Dante Studies 90 (1972), p. 81