By Nancy E Rapp
In the fall of 2003 I found myself intrigued by the lyrics of Loreena McKennitt’s song,
Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me.
I wondered what it was that McKennitt wanted us to remember about Dante, who was, to me, a rather mysterious figure from the Middle Ages. I did a little research into the historical Dante Alighieri, and some of what I discovered struck me as significant in today’s post-9/11 world.
Dante began to write The Divine Comedy two years after he was exiled from Florence for political reasons. I found it fascinating that he did his finest work during the nineteen years that he was barred from his beloved city, forced to rely on the charity of foreign patrons. He expressed his distaste at the burden of his outsider status in these lines:
You shall leave everything most dearly loved!
You shall discover how salty is the savor
Of someone else’s bread
For Dante, a native of Florence where even today bread is made without salt, the taste of salted bread was a visceral symbol of his exile. Perhaps it was that sense of displacement, that loss of all that was familiar and precious that compelled him to begin the poem that would become his masterwork. The sympathy that I feel for the tragedy of his exile however, is tempered by the knowledge of how passionate he must have felt about his great poem.
Pincio Gardens, Rome
What, then, is the â€˜salted bread’ of our lives? Maybe it is the bizarre and frightening array of headlines that bombards us daily. More than ever before, I am aware of the cracked mirror of history, the collapse of governments and the breath of the cold river of the future ahead of us. Natural and man-made disasters are on the menu â€“ and sometimes seem like the main course â€“ of our contemporary times. The choices that we make to survive, physically and mentally, are crucial. In an atmosphere like this, how do we create anything of beauty?
After 9/11 my own passion for creating something new in the world was stunted by picture after picture of black smoke rising into the perfect blue of a September sky. Perhaps that is why I was so struck by McKennitt’s song and its suggestion that we look to the past for examples of courage in unsettled times. In reflecting back to Dante’s time and place, I sought new ideas and a fresh wave of inspiration. I imagined Dante’s hand as he began the first line of what would become The Divine Comedy. Carefully he would dip the quill into ink the color of overripe blackberries. He would tap the sharpened tip lightly against the rim of the container, then place it against the vellum and begin to write. The rest of the world â€“ sorrow, exile, the hatred of men â€“ would fall away. Despite everything thrown into his path â€“ war, unjust prosecution, permanent banishment from his home and the seizure of his family assets â€“ Dante prevailed, and by prevailing he left us a blueprint to follow: Never lose sight of the goals that you have set for yourself.
I often think of Dante’s wanderings as I am walking the hills of Marin under a cloudless sky that can be both horizon and ceiling. As I run my fingers across the wind-tossed velvet of new clover or scan the variety of wildflowers within my reach, I am humbled by nature’s beauty. The oak and laurel trees in the distance stand as tribute to a vastness that I can never completely understand. On days like this, the recognition that “Nature is the Art of God” (Dante’s words) is one compelling reason to keep going. To turn away from Nature is to turn away from Art, and from Life.
Though we share this humble path, alone
How fragile is the heart
Oh give these clay feet wings to fly
To touch the face of the stars
Surely in these words McKennitt has described the writer’s task â€“ to touch the face of the stars, to travel as far as you can with your imagination as companion. It is what Dante did by penning his magnificent poem. And, in his case, the image of feet on a humble path is not merely symbolic. He spent almost twenty years traversing the Italian countryside in his exile. Nevertheless, when he died in Ravenna in September, 1321, he was buried with a crown of laurel in recognition of the stature that he had attained through his writing. In spite of adversity, Dante had created a masterpiece
It will soon be the fall of 2005, and I have not yet regained the feeling of security that I enjoyed in pre-9/11 days. Maybe I never will. However, if I can sit in the warm afternoon light of autumn with a plate of fresh figs, golden pears and tart olives for a snack, and a pen and paper for my words, then maybe, for today, it is enough.
Nancy E. Rapp is one of the founding members of Left Coast Writers. Although she grew up in Southern Illinois, she has lived in Marin County for the past 33 years. She is married, with two grown children. When she isn’t contemplating Dante over a plate of figs, Nancy can be found at the Marin County Library, where she has worked for many years.