Commentary Par I 16-18

This tercet explains its predecessor (i.e., why the poet feels he must turn to 'the Delphic god' [[Par I 32]] now), although it is fair to say that elements in it have remained a puzzle through the centuries.  If previously he has not seemingly needed to appeal directly to a higher authority for inspiration, relying only on the Muses, Dante now turns to the god himself.  Whatever the meanings and references of the details put before us here, almost every commentator agrees that this is their basic significance.

Dante, however, is apparently confused about the configuration of the actual Mt. Parnassus in Greece.  See Tozer's explanation (1901) of this material (which Dante borrows, without perhaps recognizing the problem he inherits in doing so, from his Latin precursors): 'That mountain rises to a single conspicuous summit; and when the Greek poets speak of its two summits (Soph., Ant. 1126; Eurip., Bacch. 307; cp. Ion. 86-8) they mean, not the real summit of the mountain, but the two peaks that rise above Delphi, which are several thousand feet lower.  These expressions were misunderstood by the Roman poets, who regularly describe Parnassus as rising to two summits; e.g., Metam. I.316-317, "Mons ibi verticibus petit arduus astra duobus, Nomine Parnassus" [There Mount Parnassus lifts its two peaks skyward, high and steep--tr. F.J. Miller]; Phars. V.72, "Parnassus gemino petit aethera / colle" [the twin peaks of Parnassus soar to heaven--tr. J.D. Duff].  Dante followed them, and naturally fell into the same mistake.'

Further, Isidore of Seville (Etym. XIV.viii.11), perhaps reflecting texts in Servius (on Aen. VII.64 and X.163, i.e., at the two appearances of the word 'Helicon' in the Aeneid), says that the names of the peaks were Cyrrha and Nissa, but adds that they were also named after the two brothers Cithaeron and Helicon.  Since Helicon is another mountain entirely, certain confusions have resulted; it is difficult to be certain exactly what Dante here means to indicate.  Did he, conflating Parnassus (associated with Apollo) and Helicon (associated with the Muses), believe (or decide) that the two peaks of Parnassus 'belonged' to Apollo and to the Muses, respectively, i.e., Cyrrha and Helicon?  Here is Tozer again: 'In fact, the only passage which may be taken to imply this is found in the Scholia in Bucolica et Georgica attributed to Probus the Grammarian (Georg. III.43), and there is no reason to suppose that Dante knew that work.'  Thus, even if we cannot be sure of what Dante knew or invented about the actual mountain, that possibility is perhaps the best one we have to explain the passage -- if with caution.  And see Paratore (Para.1970.1), pp. 273-74, for a possible Lucanian source for Dante's version of Cyrrha (Phars. V.93-96), a passage which, in Dante's eyes, might have represented Lucan's version of the Empyrean (since the caves of Cyrrha are closely linked with heaven-dwelling Jupiter [tonans]).

Nonetheless, if Dante knew what many of his commentators, from the earliest through those of the last century, report at verse 16 (e.g., the Ottimo, Pietro di Dante, the author of the Chiose ambrosiane, Benvenuto, the Anonimo Fiorentino, John of Serravalle, Lombardi, Portirelli, Tommaseo, Scartazzini, Campi), namely, that Cyrrha was sacred to Apollo, Nissa to Bacchus, how could he have made the second 'peak' of Parnassus sacred to the Muses?  At [Purg XXIX 37-42], Dante's second invocation of that cantica makes reference to the Heliconian residence of the Muses.  However, two other passages in Purgatorio ([Purg XXII 65] and [Purg XXXI 141]) make oblique reference to the Castalian spring on Mt. Parnassus as also being home to these ladies.  It does seem possible that Dante has deliberately conflated two homes of the Muses, the spring on Parnassus with that on Helicon (which Dante may not have known as a mountain but as itself a spring [see Elicona]).

On the other hand, still another (and even more attention-catching) passage in Lucan may lie behind some of the apparent confusion in Dante's account.  Here is the conclusion of the pseudo-dedication (Phars. I.33-66) of the unfinished epic to the emperor, Nero:
                        Sed mihi iam numen; nec, si te pectore vates
                        accipio, Cirrhaea velim secreta moventem
                        sollicitare deum Bacchumque avertere Nysa:
                        tu satis ad vires Romana in carmina dandas.  (Phars. I.63-66)

                        But to me you are divine already; and if my breast receives
                        you to inspire my verse, I would not care to trouble the god
                        who rules mysterious Delphi, or to summon Bacchus from Nysa:
                        you alone are sufficient to give strength to a Roman bard (tr. J.D. Duff).

Three remarks seem called for.  (1) It is inconceivable that Dante would not have paid close attention to this passage, loaded as it is with Lucan's poetic and political strategies that inform the entire work.  Thus he might have noted that his favorite republican poet/historian has situated Apollo and Bacchus, as was only to be expected in the Latin tradition, on the two 'peaks' of Parnassus.  Or, since Lucan is assuming his reader's knowledge of these matters, perhaps Dante did not understand that the passage referred to Parnassus, even with its reference to Nysa (although he surely might have known that this was one of the 'peaks' of Parnassus).  (2) Whatever his understanding of the geography of the passage, he surely understood the only slightly veiled reference to Apollo, to whom he himself will refer in only a few lines as 'the Delphic god' (verse 32).  What may we imagine Dante thought as he reconsidered Lucan's proemial passage (he will later refer to the poem as scriptura paganorum [Epist.XIII.63], a phrase that may be neutral, meaning only 'the writings of the pagans' or that may carry a biblical overtone: 'pagan scripture')?  In contrast with his own proem to Paradiso, he notes that Lucan does not 'invoke' Apollo, as Dante has done (vv. 13-21), but treats the emperor, Nero, as his muse -- no matter how playfully.  Thus Dante does invoke Apollo by name if not in fact, while Lucan apparently bypasses him for the emperor (already semi-divine, in Lucan's devastatingly overstated obsequiousness); the reversals of our expectations are, in both cases, stunning.  (3) If Dante's invocation of Apollo is a response to Lucan's non-invocation in the proem to the Pharsalia, he must have realized that the 'orthodox' companion on the 'orthodox' companion peak was Nissa-based Bacchus and not the Castalian-spring-dwelling Muses.  And thus we would observe yet another example of his bold and sure reshaping of pagan myth to his own Christian purpose.  See, for a discussion of this complicated example of Dantean-Lucanian intertextuality De Angelis (Dean.1993.1), pp. 183-95; De Angelis, however, believes that Dante does think of Bacchus, god of eloquence, as having guided him this far (p. 194), a judgment difficult to accept, given the fact that the first four invocations in the poem were all Muse-directed (see discussion of the invocations in C.Par.I.1-36).