The Commedia’s -ilia rhymes: a reading of Inferno XXVI and Paradiso XXVI

George Rayson (University of Cambridge)

Dante Notes / August 14, 2022

There is a remarkable ‘vertical’ correspondence between Inferno XXVI and Paradiso XXVI which has received almost total critical neglect. Two passages in these numerically identical canti of Inferno and Paradiso share not just a rhyme set, but two out of three of the same rhyme words. The passage from Inferno XXVI is when Ulysses begins relaying to the pilgrim and Virgil the content of his speech to his mariners:

            da la man destra mi lasciai Sibilia,
            da l’altra già m’avea lasciata Setta.
                        “O frati”, dissi, “che per cento milia
            perigli siete giunti a l’occidente,
            a questa tanto picciola vigilia
                        d’i nostri sensi ch’è del rimanente
            non vogliate negar l’esperïenza,
            di retro al sol, del mondo sanza gente. (Inf. XXVI. 110-7, italics mine)[i]

And in Paradiso XXVI, Beatrice restores the pilgrim’s sight after his blinding during the examination on caritas by John the Evangelist:

                        E come a lume acuto si disonna
            per lo spirto visivo che ricorre
            a lo splendor che va di gonna in gonna,
                        e lo svegliato ciò che vede aborre,
            sì nescïa è la sùbita vigilia
            fin che la stimativa non soccorre;
                        così de li occhi miei ogne quisquilia
            fugò Beatrice col raggio d’i suoi,
            che rifulgea da più di mille milia: […] (Par. XXVI. 70-8, italics mine)

The two passages share an -ilia rhyme: Sibilia-milia-vigilia in Inferno and vigilia-quisquilia-milia in Paradiso. What makes this correspondence so special is that these are the only two uses of the -ilia rhyme in the entire poem. This has two significant implications. Firstly, that the rhyme from Inferno may well have been ringing in the poet’s ear as he composed the passage in Paradiso. Such a specific moment of recall leads to the second implication. Namely, that if there is an intersection between the poet’s memory and the composition of the poem, the same might be expected of the poem’s readers. This would be consonant with medieval readerly practice, which is affective and performatively engaged and thus, as Mary Carruthers explains, vital to inventive and compositional practices which might normally be associated with writing.[ii] Because these passages contain the only two occurrences of the -ilia rhyme in the poem, the poem demands we read them together and they are therefore a conspicuous signpost to readerly practice.

Given how conspicuous a pattern it forms, it is surprising that those who have taken on the task of reading the XXVI canti together have not mentioned such an intense and condensed rhyming repetition.[iii] Instead, focus has been drawn onto more general, thematic symmetries. For instance, Peter Hawkins argues that ‘poetry itself undergoes the same process of conversion as […] the pilgrim-poet’ from Inferno to Paradiso.[iv] Against such a palinode is Elena Lombardi, who argues that ‘[w]hen looking at the canto Twenty-Sixes together, it is helpful to drop the distinction between intellectual and erotic desire, secular and divine love’ because ‘[d]esire is trespassing: it is the force, drive, momentum that is in itself neither positive nor negative’ and is something to which both Adam in Paradiso XXVI and Ulysses are prone.[v]. Instead of desire, I would stress the importance of pleasure in these canti. Lexical pleasure is even thematised in Paradiso XXVI when Adam speaks about the mutability of language:

                        La lingua ch’io parlai fu tutta spenta
            innanzi che a l’ovra inconsummabile
            fosse la gente di Nembròt attenta:
                        ché nullo effetto mai razïonabile,
            per lo piacere uman che rinovella
            seguendo il cielo, sempre fu durabile.
                        Opera naturale è ch’uom favella;
            ma così o così, natura lascia
            poi fare a voi secondo che v’abbella. (Par. XXVI. 124-32)

Adam’s thesis is that all language is mutable, and thus linguistic difference is tied to the whims of human pleasure. But as Teodolinda Barolini demonstrates, this is not just ‘said’ by Adam, it is performed by his very lexical choices. The words ‘are freed, and their freedom is expressed in language whose very beauty […] surely reflects the pleasure of the poet who wrote those words’, and specifically, ‘the poet chooses the verb rinovellare, enshrined at the end of Purgatorio as a signifier of positive human change, and the verb abbellare, associated with lyric love poetry, to indicate the beauty that human choice can produce’.[vi] Adam does not just present a thesis advocating for the pleasures in lexical choice, his words perform this very thesis through their beauty. Beauty, but also the careful attention that the poet applies to his lexical selections. 

Lombardi notices, with ‘abbella’, ‘a beautiful thread that joins Paradiso xxvi to Purgatorio xxvi’.[vii] Arnaut Daniel, who at the end of Purgatorio XXVI speaks in a version of his own Occitan tongue, begins his speech with: ‘Tan m’abellis vostre cortes deman,/qu’ieu no me puesc ni voill a vos cobrire’ (Purg. XXVI. 140-1, emphasis my own). Dante repeats Purgatorio’s ‘abellis’ in the ‘abbella’ of Paradiso, a repetition across identically numbered canti which weaves a rich filigree based on the pleasures of lexical attention, and the joy to be found in their phonic arrangement. And because it is derived from pleasure, which is by its very nature disinterested, such a connection rebukes anything so teleological as a palinode. Instead, we have something akin to the stilo de la sua loda of the Vita Nuova, ‘whereby’, as Lombardi puts it in another essay, ‘the aim of love and the lover’s fulfilment […] are no longer reward or recognition on the part of the lady, but the words themselves.’[viii] Pleasure in the individual word is based on its own immanent, specific morphological structure, which stimulates an affective engagement through the words’ phonics.

To examine the full extent of Dante’s investment in lexical pleasure, I will turn to the word ‘quisquilia’ (Par. XXVI, 76), which is found only once in the Commedia.[ix] Its status as a hapax legomenon, in conjunction with its situation in rhyme position bring into relief the word’s extravagant phonic features, immediately drawing readerly attention. Reader and poet are unified in compositional practice through a shared pleasure in lexical choices, a pleasure which finds no better object than ‘quisquilia’. Before this, however, I will consider the rhyme words that the two passages have in common because they are central to understanding Dante’s attitudes to language throughout the poem. On one level, these passages ratify K P Clarke’s thesis of rhyme’s unique capacity for forming intratextual links: ‘the deployment, reuse and repetition of a rhyme word offers the reader a point of privileged intratextual access, acting like a lightning rod that runs vertically along the entire length of the poem’.[x] A rhyme with only two occurrences in the poem is surely the most powerful instantiation of such a lightning rod. The strength of this lightning rod is then bolstered by the fact that the two passages share two of the same rhyme words, not just the rhyme: ‘milia’ and ‘vigilia’. The fact that these are the only two times ‘milia’ and ‘vigilia’ appear in rhyme position in the poem means that they bring the oral qualities of language into relief. The two passages invite us to consider what emphases are put on words when they are spoken, what affective qualities reside in a word’s phonics.

There are different motivations behind these questions between the passage of Inferno and that of Paradiso. Firstly, ‘milia’ may be repeated, but it has different meanings in the two canti. In Inferno, Ulysses uses it as a number, ‘cento milia’, to exaggerate the quantity of dangers he and his mariners have faced together, strengthen the sense of camaraderie between them, and thus convince them to sail with him at the end of their lives to discover new worlds. In Paradiso, it means ‘miles’ as we are told the distance across which Beatrice’s eyes shine. Ulysses’ ‘cento milia’ is a larger number than the ‘mille’ used to describe Beatrice’s sight, and is certainly less truthful, (especially given that Ulysses is being punished in part for fraudulent speech), but the difference in phonic singularity is significant. The individual parts of ‘cento milia’ are more discrete than in the liquid assonance of ‘mille milia’. In Paradiso, the near repetition of ‘mille milia’ activates the phonic qualities of the words, soldering them together, doubling up the sounds and multiplying them outwards. The repetition performs the very expansiveness described, an expansiveness which is embedded in the phonic materiality of the words. Ulysses’ exaggerative stretching does not rely on the words multiplying centrifugally, as the phonic separation of ‘cento milia’ indicates an exterior imposition of lexical difference. Ulysses’ motives precede his rhetorical stretching, and result in his deliberate imposition of lexical difference, whereas in Paradiso, the effect is made to appear organic.

As ‘milia’ expands, ‘vigilia’ contracts in both canti, referring to a momentary passage of time, except with a change in referent from Inferno to Paradiso. In Paradiso, the ‘sùbita vigilia’ is the brief moment of disorientation upon waking, while for Ulysses, ‘tanto picciola vigilia/d’i nostri sensi’ refers to what remains of the mariners’ life on earth. Ulysses’ expansion of the semantic reach of ‘vigilia’ is consonant with the all-encompassing generality of ‘nostri sensi’, not least in the first-person plural possessive, but also the unspecific use of the word ‘sensi’. Compare that to the specific, technical language used for the separate processes of perception and comprehension in Paradiso XXVI: ‘disonna’ (70), ‘visivo’ (71), ‘gonna’ (72), ‘nescïa’ (74), ‘stimativa’ (75). The attention to detail of the language of the Paradiso canto works alongside the immanent repetitiveness of ‘mille milia’ to outline what can and cannot be made perceptible and intelligible, both at the close quarters of sensory processes and on the macro scale of the expanse of divine light. In Inferno, the material tissue of poetic structure reveals that Ulysses’ use of the word ‘vigilia’ tries to dissemble its misapplication. In both canti, ‘vigilia’ is in enjambement, but in Inferno, this is taken a step further, it ‘enjambs’ into the next terzina. There is a major structural fracture between ‘vigilia’ and ‘nostri sensi’, as if the word ‘vigilia’ were given momentary focus on its own, only for that fixed attention to be swept away into the generality of ‘nostri sensi’. The break between ‘vigilia’ and ‘nostri sensi’ embodies the knowing dissonance between the delicacy, the brevity suggested by ‘vigilia’, and Ulysses’ broad application of it. Both passages, in bringing lexical phonics to the fore, reveal contrasting levels of phonic sensitivity, and thus attention to the material weight of words. For Ulysses, words are a means to an end, lexical difference is brought into the service of his rhetorical purpose. In Paradiso, words are weighed with respect to their immanent qualities. Meaning is allowed to develop, as if organically, from the words’ phonics.  

Of course, a major difference between the two rhyme sets is the order of the rhyme words. In Inferno XXVI, the set moves from ‘Sibilia’ to ‘milia’ to ‘vigilia’, whereas in Paradiso XXVI it is ‘vigilia’ then ‘quisquilia’ then ‘milia’. Ulysses pushes beyond the boundary of ‘Sibilia’, citing the large number, ‘milia’, of dangers in order to stretch the semantic field of ‘vigilia’, to inflate earthly life beyond its rightful value. Arranged next to each other, ‘vigilia’ appears to form a chiastic centre of the rhyme sets. In Paradiso, Ulysses’ expansion of ‘vigilia’ is deflated as earthly life is brought down to a simple, representative moment of awakening, where in one instant a soul can turn to God, as the late penitents of Purgatorio V demonstrate. It is through the eradication of the ‘quisquilia’, the ‘working through’ of this obstacle that permits the pilgrim to participate in the generous breadth of divine sight, stretching for ‘mille milia’. If we were to entertain a palinodic reading of the two passages then Paradiso XXVI would show that the pride of human attainment embodied by Ulysses is futile, instead microscopic processes are enlivened, actors on a micro scale are made agents. This ties into the pleasures available at the level of the individual word, which, in Paradiso, readers have the space to enjoy.

There remain differences between the two rhyme sets which rupture the teleological totality of a palinode, ‘Sibilia’ and ‘quisquilia’. ‘quisquilia’ substitutes in for ‘Sibilia’, which as a name for a place, is the most efficient way of conveying its referent—there is no way to increase the communicative efficacy of the word. This specificity transfers to ‘quisquilia’, albeit in a rather different guise. ‘Quisquilia’ is a hapax in the poem, a Latin word which Chiavacci Leonardi translates as ‘‘piccolezza’, ‘bazzecola’’,[xi] that is a ‘trifle’. In the context of its use in Paradiso, however, it means an eye blemish which is then cleared from the pilgrim’s sight by Beatrice. A more technical explanation comes from Benvento da Imola, who locates the word in a specifically agrarian context: ‘quisquiliae enim dicuntur reliquiae foeni quae remanent ante animalia’.[xii] Such specificity explains the fact that the word seemingly has only one attestation in vernacular Italian prior to the Commedia, in the vernacularisation of Bartolomeo Anglico’s De proprietatibus rerum by the Mantuan Vivaldo Belcalzer.[xiii] It is not even used in the main body of the text, but as a rubricked heading—presumably the word has a technical application in the world of natural sciences. Quisquilia also does not appear to have been particularly attractive to other authors of the period, perhaps because of its specific technical valence. Within the chronological scope of Corpus OVI, the word is only used on one other occasion than in Belcalzer or the Commedia and its commentaries. The Veronese poet Gidino da Sommacampagna uses it in verse, in his Trattato e Arte deli Rithimi Volgari.[xiv] There, it is in rhyme with a different place name, ‘Sicilia’, whose significance to the origins of vernacular poetry in Italy might act, as Barolini argues for abbellare, as a means of elevating ‘quisquilia’ to a higher poetic register, thus embedding it in a technical poetic language.

Quisquilia is also, according to Hollander, a hapax in the Bible, used at Amos 8:6 and ‘indicating the chaff from grain’, for the selling of which God admonishes the Israelites.[xv] This discovery embeds the word further in a technical language of agrarian labour as it refers to a specific practice, enmeshing this material history of labour with the labour of the text. This is of a piece with another image in Paradiso XXVI as the pilgrim’s answers to John will be through a ‘più angusto vaglio’ (Par. XXVI. 22), ‘a narrower sieve’, where ‘angusto’ and ‘vaglio’ are also hapax in the Commedia. Much as the individual processes of awakening and the adjustment of the soul to new sight are compartmentalised, each part seemingly given by a hapax, so here there is a totality of representation of the labour of the millworker. The sieve, its holes and that which is passed through them are given special, hapax-described focus.

Such an investment on Dante’s part in the lexicon of a sieve typifies Karla Mallette’s argument about Dante’s ‘keen interest in the technology and technical terminology of his age’. In Mallette’s case, it is not the sea which interests Dante, rather it is ‘the technologies and concepts that reached Italy from across the sea’ that ‘enchant him’.[xvi] This is, for one, further evidence to bolster Stefano Selenu’s advocation for greater attention to Dante as a ‘poeta della prassi’.[xvii] But I think there is more. It is possible that, as this hapax catches our eye—or rather, ear—on the page of the Commedia, it could also have jumped out, as a strange and singular usage, to Dante’s ear in his reading of the Bible. And it is because ‘quisquilia’ is a hapax that we are made to reflect on the historical reality of Dante’s compositional practices. A hapax reminds us that each word is weighed on its own merit, that its particular phonic qualities are valuable, that even a synonym will not do precisely the same work as the word chosen. Dante is known for creating words new to the Italian lexicon, but a focus on hapax rather than neologism demands a reconsideration of the poet’s labour. Rather than a ‘fabbro’ (Purg. XXVI. 117) forging words, the labouring poet is one who is attentive to the specific qualities of words which might already exist, and then tailors them specifically to the poetic work, like an artisan. A hapax demands singular attention from readers, which makes it reasonable to assume that such a word’s position in the poem, and attendant affective responses, are specifically furnished by the poet. The hapax status of a word thus forges a particularly potent covenant between poet and reader, as the affective responses of both are stimulated by the same singular word.

One of the major affective responses invoked by ‘quisquilia’ is pleasure. Dante’s delight in the details and lexicon of particular labouring practices is conveyed to any reader of Dante with an interest in the Commedia’s lexicon—it requires some etymological excavation to unearth its meaning. Aside from the pleasurable challenges posed by its rarity, it is also quite an amusing word to pronounce. The word invites pleasure even in the formation of its very sounds, a pleasure which Dante categorises in the De vulgari eloquentia. The fact that ‘quisquilia’ has four syllables means it is not definitively excluded from the family of words which Dante terms ‘pexa’, (‘combed’), those ‘having three syllables (or very close to that number)’. Pexa words have ‘neither aspiration, nor acute or circumflex accent, nor doubled z or x, nor twinned liquid consonants, nor such consonants placed immediately after a mute’, and neither does ‘quisquilia’. The significance of Dante’s lexical taxonomy in the DVE to the present study lies beyond arguing that ‘quisquilia’ must be pexa, however. Rather, when Dante states that pexa words ‘leave a certain sweetness in the mouths of those who utter them’,[xviii] he excavates from his analysis of phonetical structure a reflection on affective responses to words which are activated orally. Dante has already germinated in his own writing a way of thinking about words that is central to the present study on ‘quisquilia’. According to Dante in the DVE, words can be pleasurable in the mouth of the one pronouncing them, and this pleasure is located in the granular structure of the words themselves.

Dante gives us the tools for thinking about the word ‘quisquilia’ as pleasurable in its very basic structure. The poet further allows us to consider the word ‘quisquilia’ in terms of pleasure by situating the word in a section of the poem that is about heavenly pleasures. The word ‘quisquilia’ shuttles between micro and macro pleasures because it represents the fact that there is nothing, not even the smallest thing, clouding the pilgrim’s vision anymore. Its stated absence, which is to say its presence in the lexical tissue of the poem, is evidence of the pilgrim’s increased clarity of vision and thus increased participation in the pleasures of heaven. Dante uses a hapax here then, a rare and morphologically outlandish one at that, to refer to something that is no longer there. Even though it is because there is no ‘quisquilia’ that the pilgrim’s heavenly joy increases, the extravagant phonics of the word plus its singularity suggest we not disregard the blemishes that precede the pilgrim’s return of vision. For one, the polysyllabic structure of ‘quisquilia’ draws readerly attention to the realm of the minute which is the word’s referent. This attention to detail means that the pilgrim can be secure in his new unblemished vision. Without considering every ‘quisquilia’, the pilgrim would not have passed his theological examinations, and Beatrice would not have fully cleared the pilgrim’s sight.

Rumination on detail has its own pleasures that are clearly felt by the poet in his selection of technical vocabulary. While the pilgrim is pushed for details in his theological examinations in the Heaven of the Fixed Stars, we already know that he is going to pass them. This suggests that the examinations operate within a different paradigm to pass/fail. It is as much about the process as the end result, a way of thinking which underwrites the lexicon of the stilo de la sua loda. ‘Quisquilia’ is not selected to directly communicate a present reality, rather it enriches an absent reality (that of when the blemishes were present) and in selecting it, the poet demands we read words not only for their communicative efficacy but also for their phonic pleasures. An irony of the word referring to something absent is that its primary internal repeated unit is ‘qui’, ‘here’. But this repetition is more than just a joke. Its emphatic use of deixis stresses that lexical pleasure need not be found anywhere other than ‘qui’, ‘here’, in the immanent phonic-morphological structure of the word itself. A hapax is also decidedly immanent. In a way, its singularity means that it says no more and no less than what it says. Pleasure needs no explanation, and it is because of pleasure that a hapax forges a powerful affective covenant between reader and poet.

[i] For the text of the poem, I use Commedia, ed. by Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi, 3 vols (Milano: Arnoldo Mondadori, 1991-97).

[ii] Mary Carruthers, ‘Reading’, in The Oxford Handbook of Dante, pp. 34-48 (p. 37). See too Elena Lombardi, Imagining the Woman Reader in the Age of Dante (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[iii] For ‘vertical’ readings of the XXVI canti, see Peter Hawkins, ‘Virtuosity and Virtue: Poetic Self-Reflection in the Commedia’, Dante Studies 98 (1980), 1-18; Franco Fido, ‘Writing Like God – or Better? Symmetries in Dante’s 26th and 27th Cantos of the Commedia’, Italica 53 (1986), 250-64; Purgatorio, ed. and trans. by Robert M. Durling, intro. and notes by Durling and Ronald L. Martinez (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 454-5; Sebastiano Valerio, ‘Lingua, retorica e poetica nel canto XXVI del Paradiso’, L’Alighieri 44 (2003), 83-104; Elena Lombardi, ‘26. The Poetics of Trespassing’, in Vertical Readings in Dante’s Comedy, ed. by George Corbett and Heather Webb, 3 vols (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2015-17), III (2017), pp. 71-88.

[iv] Hawkins ‘Virtuosity’, p. 2.

[v] Lombardi, ‘Trespassing’, p. 84.

[vi] Teodolinda Barolini, ‘Difference as Punishment or Difference as Pleasure: From the Tower of Babel in De vulgari eloquentia to the Death of Babel in Paradiso 26’, Textual Cultures: Text, Contexts, Interpretation, 12 (2019), 137-54 (p. 152).

[vii] Lombardi, ‘Trespassing’, p. 79.

[viii] Elena Lombardi, ‘Poetry’ in The Oxford Handbook of Dante, ed. by Manuele Gragnolati, Elena Lombardi and Francesca Southerden (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), pp. 318-33 (p. 327).

[ix] My source for identifying hapax in the Commedia is Robert Hollander, ‘An Index of Hapax Legomena in Dante’s “Commedia”’, Dante Studies, 106 (1988), 81-110

[x] K P Clarke, ‘10. Humility and the (P)arts of Art’, in Vertical Readings in Dante’s Comedy, I (2015), pp. 203-21 (p. 206).

[xi] Chiavacci Leonardi, Paradiso, p. 724n76-8.

[xii] Cited from the commentary to Paradiso XXVI. 70-78 by Benvenuto da Imola, Benevenuti de Rambaldis de Imola Comentum super Dantis Aldigherij Comoediam, nunc primum integre in lucem editum sumptibus Guilielmi Warren Vernon, curante Jacobo Philippo Lacaita. (Florentiae: G. Barbèra, 1887), as found on Dante Lab,

[xiii] ‘quisquil* (1)’ in Corpus OVI <> [accessed 25 Nov 2021].

[xiv] ‘quisquil* (6)’ in Corpus OVI [accessed 25 Nov 2021].

[xv] Cited from the commentary to Paradiso, XXVI.76 by Robert Hollander, Inferno (2000), Purgatorio (2003) and Paradiso, translated by Robert and Jean Hollander, (New York: Doubleday/Anchor, 2000-2007), Dante Lab.  

[xvi] Karla Mallette, ‘The Mediterranean’ in The Oxford Handbook of Dante, pp. 368-82 (p. 371).

[xvii] Stefano Selenu, ‘Nella caccia della lingua: la gioia di Dante e lo spettro di Babele tra volgare, vita e arti meccaniche’, Dante Studies 132 (2014), 59-85.

[xviii] De vulgari eloquentia, ed. and trans. by Steven Botterill (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996), p. 69.