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Le Dante près de quitter le cercle des âmes colères, sent comme un battement d’ailes qui vient le rafraîchir

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CAT 100. Etienne Achille Réveil after John Flaxman. Le Dante près de quitter le cercle des âmes colères, sent comme un battement d’ailes qui vient le rafraîchir. Plate 21 (from canto 17) in Purgatoire du Dante. Paris: Audot, 1833. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

In canto 17, after the sun breaks through the acrid cloud and Dante’s imagination pictures a whole sequence of figures still purging themselves of wrath, an angel of meekness arrives to lead them to the next stage of their ascent. The angel first appears as a “light” that “strikes” Dante’s face “outshining far our earthly beam,” followed by a voice saying, “Here ye mount” (17.44-47). Then, as Dante approaches the first “stair,” he feels what seemed “the waving of a wing, / That fann’d my face, and whispered: ‘Blessed they, / The peace-makers: they know not evil wrath’” (17. 65-68). Raised to the next level of purgatory as the sun goes down, Dante and Virgil pause for Virgil’s discourse on love, natural and otherwise, that concludes the canto.

Flaxman’s illustration for this canto shows Dante and Virgil in arrested motion, probably as Dante feels the fan of the cheek from the angel above (as that is the poetic fragment with which Flaxman accompanied this illustration). Réveil refers to both the wrathful souls and the fanning wings in the title he supplies in French (whereas Flaxman entitled the Piroli engraving simply The Choir). Graphically, this image is notable for being yet another new way in which Flaxman imagines the figures of Virgil and Dante in spatial proximity to each other. In literary terms, the blessing on the “peace-makers” who “know not evil wrath” is of particular interest in relation to Billy Budd, for Billy is presented pre-eminently as a “peacemaker” on the Rights of Man (NN BBO 6) before he is impressed onto the man-of-war Bellipotent, where he in “wrath” will strike Claggart immediately upon being falsely accused. Whether this kind of “wrath” be “evil” is exactly the kind of distinction Virgil endeavors  to discern in his discourse on “natural” versus unnatural love, the former being instinctive and unthinking (as is Billy’s “wrath” for Claggart), the latter having that “excess of vigor, or defect,” which can “let it warp to evil” (as in the case of Claggart’s passion for Billy) (17.89-99).