Rhymes and reasons

Rhymes and reasons

In Brief

As he continues to mull the embryonic and derivative verse fragment from Proteus, Stephen turns his mind to the Divine Comedy, apparently hoping that this masterpiece of rhyming verse will offer hints for how to turn rhymes like "mouth" and "south" into a poem. Far from discovering poetic inspiration, he sees only how meager his talent is compared to Dante's. This fact is perhaps ironically suggested by the headline of this section, "RHYMES AND REASONS," which plays on the expression "without rhyme or reason." But Stephen does have some interesting reasons for thinking about Dante's rhymes. Jumping back and forth between a passage in Purgatorio 29 and one in Inferno 5, and then forward to another in Paradiso 31, he explores the quirky idea that rhymes may be like people––colorful people.

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His rhymes seem like a pair of men: "Mouth, south. Is the mouth south someway? Or the south a mouth? Must be some. South, pout, out, shout, drouth. Rhymes: two men dressed the same, looking the same, two by two." Gifford plausibly suggests that, "In view of the freewheeling associations from Dante that follow," they recall two men seen at the end of the revelatory procession in Purgatorio 29: "I made out two old men, unlike in their attire / but alike in bearing, honorable and grave" (134-35). These men, St. Luke and St. Paul, are not "dressed the same," but they do look alike, and since Stephen soon thinks of three ladies who come just before them in the pageant (lines 121-29), it is reasonable to suppose that he has them in mind. This impression is strengthened several sentences later when, after recalling various women in Dante's poem, Stephen again thinks of his rhymes as men, who are now "old": "But I old men, penitent, leadenfooted, underdarkneath the night: mouth south: tomb womb."

Dante's rhymes do in a sense go "two by two," in that his poem is composed of tercets bookended by pairs of rhymes (ABA), but each pair brackets a new sound that will form the next rhyming pair (ABA, BCB, CDC), so it is truer to say that the terza rima verse goes "three by three." Stephen introduces this shift from twoness to threeness, and also from maleness to femaleness, by recalling three linked rhymes from Inferno 5:

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .   .  . la  tua  pace
.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . che parlar ti piace
.  .  .  . mentreche il vento, come fa, si tace. (92, 94, 96)
The speaker is Francesca da Rimini, the charming adulterer with whom Dante converses in the circle of lust. She says, "if the King of the universe were our friend / we would pray that He might give you peace (la tua pace), / since you show pity for our grievous plight. / We long to hear and speak (parlar) of that / which you desire (vi piace) to speak and know, / here, while the wind has calmed (ci tace)." (Stephen's memory of the lines is not perfect.)

Having recalled this woman's three rhymes, Stephen now visualizes them as the three women of Purgatorio 29: "He saw them three by three, approaching girls, in green, in rose, in russet, entwining." In Dante's parade three women pass by in bright shades of emerald green, fire red, and snow white (not green, pink, and reddish brown), representing the "theological" virtues of hope, love, and faith. Gifford suggests that Stephen's quasi-synesthetic notion that they are rhymes was inspired by a fancy attributed to Dante himself, one of whose earliest commentators, Benvenuto da Imola, reported the "quaint conceit" of another admirer: "When Dante first set about the composition of his poem, all the rhymes in the language presented themselves in the guise of lovely maidens, each petitioning 'to be granted admission' into The Divine Comedy. In answer to their prayers, Dante called first one and then another, and assigned to each its appropriate place in the poem, so that, when at last the work was complete, it was found that not a single one had been left out."

Stephen now briefly returns once more to Inferno 5 with the thought that the three girls move "per l'aer perso, in mauve, in purple." Francesca uses this Italian phrase when she first responds to Dante's call. She addresses him as a kind stranger who comes "through somber air (per l'aere perso) to visit us" (88-90). The word perso means lost, wasted, ruined––a sense which suits the gloom of Hell––but it can also mean dark or deep purple. Slote quotes an apposite sentence from Dante's Convivio: "Perse is a color composed of purple and black, but black predominates."  Why, one may ask, does Stephen apply this somberly colorful adjective from the Inferno to the three girls of Purgatorio, thinking of them as dressed "in mauve, in purple"? The reason can be found in a single tercet between the descriptions of the three ladies and the two old men: "Four other ladies, dressed in purple (in porpore vestite), / were dancing at the left" (130-31), their color emblematic of the four "cardinal" virtues of Roman antiquity.

The purple women give way in Stephen's thoughts to a golden one: "quella pacifica oriafiamma, in gold of oriflamme, di rimirar fè più ardenti." Here he recalls the moment in Paradiso 31 when St. Bernard directs the pilgrim's gaze upward to Mary, the queen of Heaven, who looks like the glow of the sun about to rise in the east. When Dante calls her "that peaceful oriflamme (quella pacifica oriafiamma)" in line 127, he is referring oxymoronically to the battle standard of French kings, which displayed an aurea fiamma (Latin for golden flame) on a darker background. Once again it seems that Stephen may be making an uncannily perceptive connection between the colors in widely separated parts of Dante's poem, because early oriflamme banners were predominantly purple. Slote quotes from J. W. Mollet's Illustrated Dictionary of Antique Art and Archaeology (1987): "The ancient royal banner of France, coloured purple-azure and gold. It was split into five points, and sometimes bore upon it a saltire wavy, from the centre of which golden rays diverged." Slote observes that "Later oriflamme flags were fiery red."

Stephen now jumps ahead 15 lines to the end of the canto when, having joined Bernard in looking at Mary, Dante sees that his guide's eyes are so loving "that he made mine more ardent in their gaze (che' miei di rimirar fé più ardenti)." Here all consideration of rhymes seems to get left aside in the interest of reflecting on Dante's ecstatic tone. But the goldenness of Mary lingers, and she seems to have been included as one more instance of female principles whose colors signify rhyming harmony.

Stephen concludes his long reverie by contrasting the colorful female splendors of the Commedia with his own poor attempt at poetry: "But I old men, penitent, leadenfooted, underdarkneath the night: mouth south: tomb womb." Lead is the dull metallic antithesis of brilliant gold, so this sentence must be read as a despairing confession of poetic incompetence. The final pages of Aeolus show Stephen trying his hand at a different kind of literary art, prose fiction. But his off-the-cuff, from-memory reflections on the Commedia evidence rich poetic sensibility. Starting with a fanciful conceit supposedly entertained by Dante himself––that rhymes are like beautiful women––he blends it with color references from all three parts of the great epic poem to find reasons in rhymes.

JH 2023
Amos Nattini's illustration of the procession in canto 29 of the Purgatorio, with the three brightly colored women at middle left, part of a collection published in 1939. Source: perpetualastonishment.weebly.com.
Gustave Doré's 1857 llustration of Paolo and Francesca in Inferno 5.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Illustration from the cover of R. E. Houser's The Cardinal Virtues, featuring the purple shade iconographically associated with these four virtues.
Source: www.amazon.com.
Gustave Doré's llustration of Mary as heaven's queen in Purgatorio 31.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
15th century representation of the 1356 Battle of Poitiers, with gold-on-red oriflamme standard visible at upper left, held in the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City. Source: Wikimedia Commons.