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Le Dante pendant son sommeil, croìt être ravi par un aigle jusqu’à la sphère du feu

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CAT 91. Etienne Achille Réveil after John Flaxman. Le Dante pendant son sommeil, croìt être ravi par un aigle jusqu’à la sphère du feu. Plate 12 (from canto 9) in Purgatoire du Dante. Paris: Audot, 1833. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Flaxman’s depiction of Dante’s Dream is the first of two drawings from canto 9. Dante, through “a holy divination” in his dream, did “seem to view / A golden-feather’d eagle in the sky, / With open wings, and hovering for descent” (9.16-19). Then, before he knew it, that selfsame eagle “rush’d he down, / And snatch’d me upward even to the fire. / There both, I thought, the eagle and myself / Did burn; and so intense the imagined flames, / That needs my sleep was broken off” (9.27-31). As Dante slowly awakens from the sudden flames, he finds that the lady Lucy had in fact transported him, as he was dreaming of the eagle, up the mountain to the gate of Purgatory itself. 

Flaxman in this plate gives Dante such a face as he felt upon awaking from his dream: “deadly pale, / Like one ice-struck with dread” (9.37-9). The poet’s limp body in the eagle’s talons signifies the involuntary nature of the dream; the extent to which the glorious spread of the poet’s cloak extends the spread glory of the bird's wings signifies the extent to which the poet will make this flight his own. Flaxman’s licking flames could signify the Godhead, the sun, or the wings of an ascending soul aspiring higher yet. Such burning radiance and individual ascent are at once extremely exhilarating and potentially lethal, as all since Icarus have known. Yet Dante in this same canto invites his reader to “marketh how my theme doth rise” higher still (9.64). From the time Melville lifted his own art into the empyrean in the “Dreams” and “Sailing On” chapters of Mardi, and sailed higher yet in Moby-Dick before being dropped into the deepest reaches of Dante’s inferno in Pierre (a book with its own Lady Lucy), he knew the grasp of the eagle’s talons, and the unpredictability of its flight path, as well as he did the back of his own inditing hand.