FYP Texts: Sibyl, T.S. Eliot & Dante

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Tidings.

T. S. Eliot

IN AN ESSAY THAT T.S. ELIOT published in 1929 (simply entitled “Dante”), Eliot particularly emphasizes the quite unexpected allusion to Jason’s great ship the Argo, which occurs in the final Canto (of the total 100) in Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Jason’s renowned feat was to secure “the Golden Fleece” from the kingdom of Colchis, located on the far reaches of the Black Sea. The extraordinary thing about the Argo, according to Greek “prehistory,” is that Jason’s vessel (with 50 oars) was the first ever “to plough the seas” (as the Roman Ovid, among others, confirms).

Depiction of Virgil

Not only was it the first ship ever to dare such a voyage, it was also consecrated for its purpose by the goddess Athena, who assisted with its construction. Athena also secured, for the Argo’s prow, a sacred oak (taken from the grove of Dodona, where oracular pronouncements could be heard as the wind rustled through the trees).

This amazing and brief allusion to the Argo just 50 lines from the end of the entire Comedy is singled out by Eliot because, in coming to terms with the final “divine vision,” Dante allows himself, in a sense, to rehearse the whole history of mankind. This first voyage of Jason’s miraculous vessel was so awe-inspiring that even Neptune (Poseidon) had to sit up and take notice. Within this one stanza, Dante also manages to inform us that Jason’s celebrated expedition took place 25 centuries earlier.

Dante by By Sandro Botticelli

If we remember that the dramatic date of Dante’s Comedy is the year 1300, then, in dates that are rounded off, Christ’s death (see Inferno Canto xxi, lines 112-114) stands at the mid­-way point between the epic voyage of the Argo and Dante’s mid-life “shipwreck” with which the Comedy begins. In the 1st Canto of his Comedy, Dante describes him­self as gasping for breath, having escaped the perilous water”; as he emerges “forth out of the deep onto the shore.”

Dante’s skill is in employing every historical or classical allusion so as to drive his readers forward, even as they are made – simultaneously – to recapitulate all that has gone before. At the very end of the Comedy the allusion to the Argo is itself a review of the whole of human history, but also a sly further honouring of Vergil, whose Aeneid is never neglected. Vergil’s epic serves Dante as a model both for poetic “odyssey” and homecoming.

The Argo, Constantine Volanakis, before 1907

Just a few stanzas before the name of the Argo is anchored into this description of the “divine vision,” Dante makes a more definitive reference to the oracular foliage of prophecy; Dante alludes to the prophetic utterances of the Cumaean Sibyl – whose voice Eliot also records on the title page of The Waste Land. The Sibyl’s prophecies (according to Book iii of The Aeneid) are inscribed on the scattered leaves stored in her cave. Please remember that in Vergil’s Aeneid, it is this Sibyl who acts as Aeneas’ guide into the afterlife, even as Vergil himself adopts the same role in Dante’s Comedy. In Dante’s concluding vision, he tells us that the “leaves” of the Sibyl, blown around in shambles (whenever the cave door opens), are finally fixed properly, and in order, all together in the pages of “a single volume bound,” an image which almost serves as a “stand-in” for the Divine Comedy itself.

The Argo of Canto 100 links the reader (in a surge of her oars) with the whole of human history (past and even future), the epic voyages of Jason and Ulysses, and the sense of an odyssey and a homecoming (nostos) after a long, perilous, and sublime quest.

But it also reminds us of the “shipwreck” with which the Comedy begins. That first epic voyage of the Argo is a world-renowned success, whereas the last voyage of Ulysses (described in Inferno Canto xxvi) ends in “catastrophic” failure and loss of life.

In ancient Greek drama, the “catastrophic” refers to a reversal of fortune. We think of this reversal solely in terms of tragedy, but the Greek understanding also allows the possibility of a reversal for the better. The Comedy begins with a “shipwreck”, and a survivor who is washed upon a deserted beach; in Dante’s “crossing” – described as comedic – the reversal is from shipwreck to an eventual recovery of the home port. All of this and more is suggested by this allusion to the voyage of the Argo right at the conclusion of Dante’s own “odyssey.”

T.S. Eliot has singled out this one tiny reference at the zenith of the Comedy to praise Dante for his unsurpassed ability “of establishing relations between beauty of the most diverse sorts.”

May I be allowed to flatter (sincerely) our Foundation Year Programme tutors as the pilots who guide the vessels entrusted to them in establishing precisely these relations.

After 40 years of FYP, and 225 years of a classical tradition into which our study of Dante at King’s can be embedded, we trust that we shall be able to continue our vocations as navigators for the fabulous voyages which King’s is permitted to launch.

We are committed to the secure sea lanes that Vergil and Dante (and Eliot) have established and hope to be able to sail on them for many years to come.

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FYP Texts originally appeared in Tidings magazine, published on behalf of the University of King’s College Alumni Association. View the archive.

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