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I'm reading Dante's Inferno, and towards the beginning, I came across this line:

And as one who is eager in gaining, and, when the time arrives that makes him lose, weeps and afflicts himself in all his thoughts;
such that restless beast made me, which coming against me, by little and little drove me back to where the Sun is silent.
Canto I (translation by John A. Carlyle, 1867)

This strikes me as a bit of an odd phrase; we generally don't talk about the sun as making much noise, so mentioning "where the sun is silent" seems a strange way to refer to, presumably, the darkness.

Why was this phrasing chosen? Does this reflect some quirk of Italian phrasing? Is there some hidden meaning aside from "the darkness" that I'm missing?

Why this odd phrasing of "where the sun is silent"?

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The original Italian is "là dove 'l sol tace" and, according to Bianca Garavelli in her notes to Dante's Inferno, it refers to

il buio della «selva». L'immagine fonde i due sensi di vista e udito.

My translation

the darkness of the forest. The image merges the two senses of sight and hearing.

In the notes to the Inferno by Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi she explains the meaning of the expression "là dove 'l sol tace" in this way:

nella selva, dove regna l’oscurità totale. Il traslato dalla vista all’udito (’l sol tace), di origine virgiliana («tacitae per amica silentia lunae»: Aen. II 255), è una delle veloci metafore che Dante spesso chiude in un verbo e che danno forza al suo linguaggio (lo stesso traslato a V 28: d’ogne luce muto).

My translation:

in the forest, where total darkness reigns. The switch from sight to hearing (’l sol tace), of Virgilian origin («tacitae per amica silentia lunae»: Aen. II 255), is one of the quick metaphors that Dante often closes in a verb and that give strength to his language (the same metaphorical use in V 28: d’ogne luce muto).

And in the notes by Maria Teresa Balbiano d’Aramengo you can find this explanation in reference to the "restless beast" (the She-wolf) that appears in your quotation:

Con il suo aspetto pauroso dà a Dante “tanto di gravezza”, tanto gli appesantisce l’anima, da scoraggiarlo nel suo tentativo di ascesa e ricacciarlo “dove il sol tace”: la lupa fa della mente umana una “mente cieca, che non sa vedere... che il numero” (cfr. Canz. “Doglia mi reca”); cieca ad ogni luce di bellezza e nobiltà, a tutto quello che non rende niente di concreto.

My translation:

With its frightening aspect it gives to Dante "such heaviness", it weighs down his soul so much that it discourages him in his attempt to ascend and push him back "where the Sun is silent": the She-wolf makes the human mind a “blinded mind, that cannot see... that the sum" (cf. Dante's canzone “Doglia mi reca”); blinded to every light of beauty and nobility, to everything that brings in nothing concrete.

Alfredo Menetti also explains the following in his book Temi critici danteschi:

Sta di fatto che senza l'intervento dell'intelletto illuminato dalla grazia l'uomo ritornerebbe «là dove il sol tace».

That is,

It's a fact that without the intervention of the intellect illuminated by grace man would return to "where the Sun is silent".

In the book Cuori intelligenti. Mille anni di letteratura: dalle origini al Rinascimento by Claudio Giunta there is an explanation about the meaning of the verse "mi respingeva là dove 'l sol tace" ("drove me back to where the Sun is silent" in your translation) which says:

mi respingeva nella selva oscura, dove non penetra raggio di sole. Da notare la splendida sinestesia, che unisce un'impressione visiva (la luce del Sole, qui assente) a una auditiva (il "silenzio" del Sole stesso, nell'oscurità della selva).

I.e.,

it drove me back to the dark forest, where no sunlight penetrates. Note the splendid synaesthesia, which combines a visual impression (the sunlight, absent here) to an auditory one (the "silence" of the Sun itself, in the darkness of the forest).

In the article “TOWARD ORDER AND TRANSCENDENCE: DANTE’S USE OF SYNAESTHESIA IN THE ‘DIVINE COMEDY’”, published in Romance Notes 21, no. 1 (1980) 111–16 by Kay Dickinson, the author explains that there are lots of instances of synaesthetic images in the Divine Comedy. In the words of Dickinson:

Dante's intense aliveness to the sights, sounds, and other sensory aspects of his surroundings – be they those of Hell, Purgatory, or Paradise – as well as his endeavors to reach language's upper thresholds of expressivity, makes the appearance of synaesthesia in the Divine Comedy almost inevitable. And the poet's use of synaesthetic images seems to have, as this paper will attempt to demonstrate, a particular relationship to two aspects of the poem; namely, its emphasis on order and its movement toward transcendence.

The first synaesthetic image to be found in the Divine Comedy is precisely the one you quoted in your question, that is, the expression "where the Sun is silent":

[...] Dante speaks of the she-wolf driving him back to where the "sun is silent," gains its impact through the dominant role which light symbolism assumes in the poem. The sun itself is "a figuration of divine and intellectual light" – a symbol of God; consequently, Dante's rout to where the "sun is silent" points up the poet's lack of spiritual illumination at this stage in his journey. Further, since in the synaesthetic image of a sun devoid not only of visual but auditory – and, by extension, kinetic - attributes, there is presented the diametrical opposite of the spiritually illuminated singing, circling "suns" appearing in Paradise, the profound extent of this spiritual blindness is adeptly underlined. Indeed, the depiction of the sun as "silent" at this point in the Divine Comedy underscores the condition of the inhabitants of Hell: instead of reflecting the radiance of God as do the souls of the blessed, there is no interaction between them and Divinity – they are immersed in total moral and spiritual darkness.

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  • “blinded mind, that cannot see... that the sum" - is "sum" a typo for "sun" here, or ... not?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Aug 23, 2022 at 15:17
  • No, it's not a typo: is the translation of Italian "numero". The meaning is that this "blinded mind" is only able to see material things.
    – Charo
    Aug 23, 2022 at 15:19
  • By the way, @Randal'Thor, the article you linked seems quite interesting: I will try to have a look and add something of it to this answer.
    – Charo
    Aug 23, 2022 at 15:21
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The metaphor of silence for the absence of light recurs in Canto V:

Io venni in loco d’ogni luce muto

I came to a place mute of all light

Dante (c. 1310). Inferno V.28.

Several commentators on Inferno I.60 have noted that similar metaphors were employed by writers in antiquity with whom Dante was certainly familiar. Bernardino Daniello wrote:

simil traslatione usa spesso Plinio, che volendo insegnarci alcuna cosa non esser da fare non lucendo la Luna, dice, Silente Luna: & Virgil. nel secondo libro dell'Eneid.

A similar metaphor is often used by Pliny, who when he wants to tell us that something is not done when the Moon is not shining, says, Silente Luna; and Virgil in the second book of the Aeneid.

Bernardino Daniello (1568). Dante con l'espositione di M. Bernardo Daniello da Lucca sopra la sua Comedia dell’Inferno, del Purgatorio, & del Paradiso. Venetia: Pietro da Fino.

This is the passage from Pliny:

inter omnes vero convenit utilissime in coitu eius sterni, quem diem alii interlunii, alii silentis lunae appellant.

It is generally agreed, however, by all, that it is the very best time for felling timber, when the moon is in conjunction with the sun, a day which is called by some persons the interlunium, and by others the moon’s silence.

Pliny (c. 79). Natural History 16.74. Translated by John Bostock & H. T. Riley (1855). The Natural History of Pliny, volume III. London: Henry G. Bohn.

Two heavenly bodies are “in conjunction” when they are at their closest approach in the sky, so that by “the moon’s silence” it is clear that Pliny means the “dark of the moon”, the time just before the new moon when there is no moonlight.

This is the passage from Virgil:

Et iam Argiva phalanx instructis navibus ibat
A Tenedo tacitae per amica silentia Lunae

And now the Argive formation of ships sailed in order
Quietly from Tenedos by the friendly silence of the moon

Virgil. Aeneid 2.254–256.

The “Argives” (the Greeks) had pretended to give up hope of winning the Trojan War, and had sailed away, leaving the Trojan Horse behind, but secretly rendezvoused at the island of Tenedos, ready to sail back. So a plausible way to interpret this passage is that the Argive ships were able to slip away from Tenedos unseen by the Trojans because there was no moonlight.

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The music of the spheres was still a going belief in Dante's era. The moving planets, including the Sun, produced a harmony past human belief, which might be audible but might be spiritual. Different writers had different opinions on it.

The music could not be heard on Earth either because of its lowliness and flaws, or because of the flawed souls on the Earth. As Shakespeare put it

Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

Normally of course this would be something that we are unaware of, but as Dante is beginning a journey to purify his soul, he is clearly and keenly aware of his inability to perceive it — possibly as he recounts the tale retrospectively, remembering his subsequent journey among the planets and in particular the Sun, which is the one visible when this begins.

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  • In Vedic mythology, the Sun is said to have been recovered from the caves of darkness by the seven ancient sages - the Angirases - who did so through the power of their hymns or Mantras. The Sun is a symbol of Truth but it becomes manifest only upon evoking it by hymning the Truth. See here for example: incarnateword.in/cwsa/15/the-lost-sun-and-the-lost-cows Dec 28, 2022 at 19:42

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