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Séjour des enfants morts avant d’avoir reçu le baptème

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CAT 89. Etienne Achille Réveil after John Flaxman. Séjour des enfants morts avant d’avoir reçu le baptème. Plate 10 (from canto 7) in Purgatoire du Dante. Paris: Audot, 1833. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

As Sordello takes Virgil and Dante to the valley of the negligent rulers in canto 7, Virgil explains that he after death has been in limbo, where “I with little innocents abide, / Who by death’s fangs were bitten, ere exempt / From human taint” (7.31-33). From this passing remark, Flaxman creates a striking image. His high abstracting power enables him to translate into graphic form Dante’s idea of “death’s fangs” open to “bite” the bodies of those “little innocents” who died before Christian baptism could cleanse them from their human stain (a condition Réveil foregrounds in his French title). Virgil, for all his human wisdom, “abides” in Limbo with these “little innocents” because he shared their common fault of not having been exposed to the “three holy virtues” of the Christian faith, identified as “Faith, Hope, and Charity” in Cary’s footnote (7.33-34). At the beginning of this canto, in response to Sordello’s query, Virgil declares simply, “I am Virgil; for no sin / Deprived of Heaven, except for lack of faith” (7.6-7).

Virgil, though lacking faith in life, is helping Dante seek those “spirits worthy of ascent to God” (7.4). This action shows that his own spirit “can neither believe, nor rest comfortable in his unbelief”—in the words with which Hawthorne had characterized Melville when Melville saw him in Liverpool on the way to the Holy Land in 1856. Hawthorne could not understand Melville’s “persistence” in “wandering to and fro over these deserts” of speculation, “as dismal and monotonous as the hilly dunes amid which we were sitting” beyond the city (Leyda, Melville Log, 2:529). Melville’s spirit in those wanderings was as actively purgatorial as those of Virgil and Dante in Cary’s rendering of Dante’s Purgatory—or in Réveil's rendering of Flaxman’s Purgatoire. In the chapter of Mardi whose title Melville took from a footnote in Cary’s translation, “L’Ultima sera,” Media’s contention that “to have been quenched in infancy seems a mercy” is answered by Babbalanja’s belief that it is “still vainer to say . . . that this life is a state of probation: that evil is but permitted for a term” (NN M 619-20).

Although Flaxman does not include Dante or Virgil themselves in this depiction of the Limbo of the “little innocents,” their actively purgatorial spirit is strongly felt in the “horrific and fantastic” power of Flaxman’s style, whose “insistent primitivism . . . flattens and schematizes all forms, whether clouds or children, in the interest of geometric and linear purism” (Rosenblum 177).