Thow oon and two and thre, eterne on lyve,
That regnest ay in thre and two and oon,
Uncircumscript, and al maist circumscrive,
Us from visible and invisible foon
Defende, and to thy mercye everichon,
So make us Jhesus, for thi mercy digne,
For love of mayde and moder thyn benigne. Amen.
(Troilus and Criseyde V.1863-1869)
For the twenty-fifth year, New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine followed Maundy Thursday’s washing of feet and stripping of the altar with a host of poets reading from Dante’s Inferno as well as his Paradiso’s final, hopeful canto. The 2018 gathering, overseen by the cathedral’s current poet-in-residence, Marilyn Nelson (known to Chaucerians for The Cachoeira Tales ), featured 29 poets (including my CCSU colleague, Leslie McGrath), translators, and other Danteazzi successively reading half cantos in the darkened, spare cathedral as Maundy Thursday night turned to Good Friday morning.
The fabulously unfinished cathedral, “chartered as a house of prayer for all people and a unifying center of intellectual light and leadership,” provided the perfect atmospherics. Overwhelmingly large yet gratifyingly peaceful and welcoming, the cathedral transformed everyone there, reducing everyone there to tiny specks and essential parts a larger communion. The vaulted, elongated space meant each reader’s voice reacted differently to the sanctuary’s acoustics, some distorted and muffled by the reverberations, others ringing crystal clear. In these conditions, I found that the readings allowed—maybe forced—me to turn away from Dante’s underlying theology and politics, to surrender to the verse’s imagery.
Three or four half cantos were read in Italians. The rest came from wide range of translators, including Dorothy Sayers, Mark Musa, Steve Ellis, Robert Pinsky, Michael Palma, and Mary Jo Bang. A few read their own translators. Others did not announce their source. I would love to compile an accurate list because hearing the lines made me think differently about some of the translations and some of the cantos than reading the lines.
The cantos chosen from the reading include some of the most poignant in the Inferno, where we watch Dante losing his way, encounter Virgil, approach the gates of Hell (a canto read in Italian, so I missed hearing “Abandon All Hope”), witness Francesca and Paolo blowing in the whirlwinds of desire, listen to the forest of suicides, stumble onto his former teacher, interrogate Ugolino, and absorb the horror of treachery. After the deep darkness ending the Inferno, it was an inspired decision to counter it with the bright light overwhelming Dante at the end of Paradiso.
The event concluded with an organ “meditation” that was anything but quiet and inward. Its sound was massive, insisting on being heard and cancelling out all other thoughts. By this time, early morning had overtaken the night, and I faced a three-hour trip home. I was simultaneously overwhelmed and drained.
The evening made me think about the conditions under which Chaucer first encountered Dante’s Commedia. Did he read it privately? Or did he hear it read aloud? Was it in a small gathering? Or was a situation akin to the public lectures Boccaccio delivered to Dante’s Florentine admirers, communal, learned, and rapturous? If the latter, then those gathered at St. John the Divine on Maundy Thursday drank from the same cup 650 years later.