Croce Reader of Dante [Massimo Verdicchio]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Massimo Verdicchio

Tratto da: Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society

Numero: 108

Anno: 1990

Pagine: 97-112

Croce’s reading of Dante's Divina Commedia in La Poesia di Dante has received ample treatment on this continent most and foremost by Ernesto G. Caserta. In his account of Croce's essay, Caserta describes the intellectual and aesthetic setting that prepared the ground and was instrumental for Croce's sudden emergence in the field of Dante studies with a work that would earn him the wrath of Dante scholars both then and now. Caserta also emphasizes Croce's "tendenza consapevole alia demistificazione del culto dantesco" (76) which was inevitable, if not necessary, in a philosopher who looked at art and literature through the lens of an aesthetic problematic, and not from a medieval literary and historical perspective which requires that as a medieval poem, the Commedia be read as much as possible according to medieval criteria. This is a crucial distinction, for it represents the way out of the impasse that Croce's essay on Dante created. Croce's reading of the Divina Commedia has to be evaluated within the parameters set by him in the Estetica of 1902 and in terms of the distinction of symbol and allegory which he makes there between the artistic and the non-artistic. This distinction, however, is not unproblematic since the use of this terminology is never quite beyond question. After giving an example of this confusion, Croce comments as follows:

Quale meraviglia se alcuni sostengano poi calorosamente che la vera forma artistica e la simbolica, e che la realistica e antiartistica; e altri che artistica e la realistica, e antiartistica la simbolica? e come non dare ragione e agli uni e agli altri, una volta che ciascuno adopera quelle parole in significati tanto diversi?

The implications of this statement for a reading of Dante's Commedia are far-reaching. First of all, it means that we cannot take at face value what Croce says about the poem's allegory and its relation to the poetic or the artistic. Secondly, Croce's observations on the poetic must be understood within the precise context in which they are made, even when it means contradicting our traditional received ideas about Croce. The result will be not only a better understanding of Croce, the critic of literature, but also of Dante's Commedia, which is the main object of our inquiry. In fact, the aim of this paper is not just to redress a "wrong" reading of Croce but to reassess the substance of a critical reading of Dante, which by being too quickly dismissed has not been allowed to make the important contribution to Dante Studies I believe it makes.
Croce's La Poesia di Dante has been the subject of many studies on both continents. Just in the 1988 issue of Dante Studies, Professor Caserta has updated his earlier sympathetic reading of Croce mentioned above with a brief history of Dante criticism on Croce. I am essentially in agreement with Professor Caserta that "la lettura di Croce segna una svolta decisiva e determinante nella storia della critica dantesca." We differ in how this "svolta" is to be defined. Caserta does not question the opposition poetry-allegory and sees Croce's contribution in the privi- leging of poetry over allegory: "l'accento sulla poesia di Dante anziche sulle allegoric" Although I essentially agree with this statement, I differ in the way it should be understood. In order to explain my position, I would like to turn to a critic who is not sympathetic to Croce's views, Pompeo Giannantonio, and to his recent discussion of Croce's La Poesia di Dante, Giannantonio's essay is not only a good example of the type of criticism moved against Croce but has also the added merit of focussing on the main problem underlying this criticism. In "L'allegoria dantesca e la dottrina crociana," Giannantonio reiter- ates the necessity and absolute importance of reading Dante within his own historical and cultural context:

Una lettura della Commedia va condotta, in accordo con alcune chiare presenze storico-culturali, senza prescindere dalla condizione medievale del suo autore. (320)

The reason for this, as Giannantonio states in very clear terms, concerns the nature of allegory: namely, that "l'allegoria non può confinarsi nel surrettizio e nell'impoetico dell'opera dantesca" (320). Giannantonio goes on to say that in the Middle Ages - and in Dante - allegory is not antithetical to poetry, but rather goes hand in hand with it: "L'allegoria, in questa nuova prospettiva, non soffoca e distrugge la poesia, ma fiorisce con essa e non lascia spazio ai meccanismi didascalici o alle sovrastrutture intellettualistiche" (321). Therefore, there can be no question of a lack of unity in Dante's poem. Dante, says Giannantonio, "ha saputo fondere in unita il dualismo di poesia e di allegoria" (328). However, for Giannantonio and other critics, Croce eventually comes around to espouse their same view in some of the later writings where he finally concedes that the structural component of a work can also be at one with poetry: "se il poeta e anche un valente artista," says Croce, "[questi] formano un'unita che e impossibile spezzare."
Giannantonio's reading is paradigmatic of a response that correctly identifies the distance between Croce's aesthetic evaluation and the more accepted historically and culturally driven readings. This distance, however, is confined only to the early Croce of La poesia di Dante since the position of the later Croce is thought to be more amenable and more compatible with Dante scholarship. In this fashion, Croce is both taken to task and rehabilitated in the name of a unity which is not so much the unity of Dante's poem, which is never in question, even in Croce, but mainly and above all in the name of a symbolic conception of art which is common to Dante's poem, medieval culture and, of course, to Dante's commentators.
Although the criticism of Croce's views has had many targets, the bone of contention is not so much his interpretation of the poem whose limitations, as Caserta states very well, "sono quelli stessi un po' comuni ad ogni lettura di poesia" (85), but the status of the poem, or its allegory. All the issues that have occupied Croce's critics, from the difference between structure and poetry to the unity of the poem, are really versions of the same problem: the antithesis between poetry and allegory and the ensuing distinction that aims at valorizing the former over the latter. Giannantonio resolves the problem very well by noting that in medieval times, and in Dante, the allegorical and the poetic are never in conflict but are always thought to be parts of the same whole.
However, while Giannantonio can take shelter in the medieval conception that allegory and poetry are one, Croce, having abolished this time barrier, has to deal with Dante's poem as poetry, and this for Croce entails, after the Estetica of 1902, the distinction of poetry from allegory, or the non-poetic. As so often happens in Croce, whether he is reading a philosopher like Vico or a poet like Dante, the critical analysis does not aim at interpreting the text, at deciphering meaning, but at separatng and dismissing the ambiguities or confusions inherent in it. In reading Vico, for example, Croce is interested in singling out only those ideas of the philosopher that are still relevant to contemporary philosophy, and for Croce this always means his own. "Ciò che è vivo," as he phrases it, has to be severed from "ciò che e morto," which is to be discarded or dismissed as irrelevant. Dante is no exception. In the preface to the first edition of La poesia di Dante, Croce states that the book's aim is to "rimuovere alquanto l'ingombro dell'ordinaria letteratura dantesca e riportare gli sguardi verso cid che e proprio ed essenziale nell'opera di Dante" (VII). But Dante scholars need not worry. Although Croce meant to criticize some commentators of his time for their way of reading the poem, his critical scalpel is not really directed at them. When reading philosophy, Croce attempted to rid it of its primary villain, the contamination by a metaphorical language that has undermined its philosophical validity, thus killing it "dead"; in reading Dante, the villain is allegory, the non-poetic. It is the "ingombro" of allegory that Croce wants to remove in order to restore poetry to its pristine lyricality.
In the introduction to La poesia di Dante, Croce dismisses first of all the numerous and futile attempts of Dantisti to resolve the allegorical enigmas of the poem: "Ma, checche pretendano e vantino gli investigatori e congetturisti delle allegorie dantesche, nella poesia e nella storia della poesia le spiegazioni delle allegorie sono affatto inutili e, in quanto inutili, dannose" (13). Although he grants that in the Middle Ages this type of allegory existed as a form of writing, Croce believes that the resolution of these enigmas, even if we possessed the means to decipher them, would not enhance our reading and appreciation of the poem, "perché, se anche quelle allegorie si potesse, come non si può, sicuramente determinarle… che cos'altro si finirebbe con lo scoprire se non ripetizioni o, se si vuole, piccole varietà di concetti… che già ci sono noti…?" (7)
For Croce there are only two types of allegories: 1) the allegory that is external to poetry and whose meaning is attached ab extra, and 2) the allegory that excludes poetry. All other possible cases can be reduced to these two since, in Croce's view, if allegory can be said to be at one with poetry then it makes no sense to speak of allegory. In this case there can only be poetry. Similarly, if there is only allegory, there cannot be poetry: "se l'allegoria c’è, essa e sempre, per definizione, fuori e contro la poesia, e se invece e dawero dentro la poesia, fusa e identificata con lei, vuol dire che l'allegoria non c’è, ma unicamente immagine poetica, la quale, ben s'intende, non si restringe mai a cosa materiale e finita, ed ha sempre valore spirituale e infinito" (14).
Of these two types, Croce is concerned only with the first since the latter being deprived of poetry has nothing to tell us: "non essendoci poesia, non c'e neppure oggetto alcuno di storia della poesia" (13). In his examination of Dante's poetry, therefore, Croce will try to identify only those cases of the former type of allegory whose meaning is external to poetry, in order to distinguish it, or to sever it from the poetry to which it is joined. The readings of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso all follow this pattern of "getting rid" ("sgomberare") of this type of allegory in the relentless effort to emphasize the poetic and to bring out the poetry.
But Croce's analysis cannot be said to be exhausted entirely by summarizing what is and what is not poetic in Dante's poetry. His apparent fragmentation and dismemberment of Dante's text, however much we may dislike it, is always part of an underlying effort directed toward reconstituting the text after having removed the anomalies that he knows only too well exist. Although it may appear otherwise, Croce's "house cleaning" guarantees the unity of Dante's poetry that to him had seemed precarious and in danger. In this attempt Croce's position is not unlike that of a Dante scholar, such as Giannantonio, even if the means and the ideology are, on the surface, very different. The reason for this lies in the fact that the real issue of Dante's allegory is not resolved at the level of allegory as poetry's ab extra, as Croce's text initially leads us to believe. This distinction turns out to be only a "cosmetic" restructuring that does not affect the issue of Dante's poem except for undermining the allegorical readings that Croce disliked.
The main and only relevant distinction had already taken place long before the announced one between poetry and allegory as its ab extra. I am alluding to the earlier distinction between the two types of allegories that discards one in favour of the other. A close examination of Croce's definition of these two types of allegory discloses that no such distinction is possible since the first type is not an allegory at all but only a way of reading allegorically. Croce describes the first type of allegory as follows:

Esempio del primo caso può essere Beatrice negli ultimi canti del Purgatorio e nel Paradiso, la quale sarà allegoricamente tutto ciò che Dante avrà voluto o gli interpreti avranno fantasticato (la Teologia, la Rivelazione, l’intelligenza attiva e via dicendo), ma, quale che sia in quest'arbitrio d'imposizione di nomi, in poesia e semplicemente una donna, una donna già amata e ora felice e gloriosa e pur benigna e soccorrevole all'antico amatore. (14)

Here, allegory consists of a mode of reading poetry to which poetry is in and of itself indifferent, since it is an arbitrary imposition, ah extra, of a name on an entity that in itself is nameless and meaningless. Beatrice is simply a woman. The meanings of Theology, Revelation and so on, which are attributed to her, are purely arbitrary and external to her essence. This type of allegory, which corresponds to what is ordinarily known as the allegory of theologians, is not an allegory at all but simply a mode of naming, arbitrarily, what is in and of itself only an arbitrary sign.
The other type of allegory, the one which suppresses poetry and which Croce discounts a priori, is the only true allegory since it alone is a mode of writing. This is clear from the examples that Croce provides with some difficulty, since this allegory for him does not even deserve to be in the critical history of poetry. In fact, this allegory, decribed as "frigid and mute" and as a discordant array of signs, marks the very limits and shortcomings of poetry:

L'altro caso e che l’allegoria non lasci sussistere la poesia o non la lasci nascere, e al suo luogo ponga un complesso d'immagini discordanti, poeticamente frigide e mute, e che perciò non sono vere immagini ma semplici segni; e in questo caso, non essendoci poesia, non c’è neppure oggetto alcuno di storia della poesia, ma solo l’avvertenza del limite di questa, del poeticamente fallito e nullo, del brutto. (13)

The examples that Croce provides of this type of allegory are some of the most important passages in the poem, but also the most enigmatic:

Nondimeno, con la sopraddetta riserva, si possono citare il Veltro che non ciberà terra ne peltro, ma sapienza e amore e virtude, e avrà nascita tra feltro e feltro, e la lupa che "molte genti fe' gia viver grame", e il pie fermo che "sempre era il piu' basso, e il "bel fiumicello" che si passa "come terra dura", e simili. (15)

As examples of this type of allegory, Croce lists some of the key passages in the poem that have most challenged and resisted the inter- pretation of critics for centuries. These allegories, unlike the example of Beatrice, can almost be described as unreadable for the way they defy a naming imposed ab extra. That is why this allegory, which corresponds to what is generally known as the allegory of poets, has to be banished from an analysis of the poem. Moreover, this type of allegory, which following Hegel stands for the non-poetic, is dismissed in favor of an idealized symbolic theory of art in Croce's Estetica. In a later essay on the subject, Croce defines this allegory as prosaic precisely because it is a form of writing and a practical act: "un atto pratico, una forma di scrittura (perche la scrittura e cosa pratica), una criptografia, non diversa nell'intrinseco da ogni criptografia, se anche si faccia, invece, che con lettere o con rumori, con immagini parlate o figurate." As a form of writing or cryptography, allegory has to be dismissed so that a symbolic conception of poetry may thrive. We are not dealing, therefore, with two types of allegory, one of which is more acceptable than the other. We do not have this choice, since at the level of poetic representation the only type that concerns the philosopher of aesthetics and the critic of poetry is the second one, which alone is antithetical to a poetry conceived as symbol.
Croce's dismissal of this allegory should not be taken to mean, however, that he has succeeded in erasing it from the text of the Commedia. This is clear from his criticism of the allegory ab extra which aims at returning the poem to the original and literal form it had before any meaning was imposed on it. The example of Beatrice, cited above, as being above all "semplicemente una donna" (14) is a case in point. Croce wants to put aside the various allegorical readings of Beatrice in order to experience this figure as poetry, that is, in all the initial and unadulterated form that it possessed as the expression of Dante's creativity: "una donna gia amata e ora felice e gloriosa e pur benigna e soccorrevole all'antico amatore" (14). This is what Croce calls poetry. Therefore, Croce's reading of the Commedia becomes a search for this poetry which, in his view, is not to be found everywhere in the poem. Rather, he says, it gradually comes into its own, at first almost reluctantly and, then, with greater variety and intensity towards the latter cantos, until its culmination in the ethereal regions of the Paradiso:

La poesia di Dante non prorompe fin da principio e non assurge a un tratto alia sua propria altezza, ma si viene man mano snodando, e si fa più copiosa e varia, più franca d'andamento, con un crescendo che va dai primi canti a quelli del mezzo e della fine dell'Inferno, e ripiglia con più placidi modi nella seconda cantica, e sale, libera e gagliarda, sicura di sé, sfidando ogni rischio, nell'aere sottile del Paradiso. (69)

This procedure comes at first as a surprise since the first two cantiche, which Croce regards as not very poetic are those that the majority of critics believed to be the most poetic. The first cantos of the Inferno are for Croce the "piu gracili" (69) poetically, with the first canto even giving the impression of barely qualifying as poetry- "da qualche impressione di stento" (69). Overall, says Croce, the composition of these first cantos is prosaic: "lo stile stesso, il ritmo, la terzina hanno poca pienezza e tengono sovente del prosaico" (70). Sansone describes this hesitancy on Croce's part to recognize the poetic character of the first two cantiche as "un susseguirsi ed alternarsi di parti strutturali e di parti poetiche." Although Croce recognizes the unmistakable presence of poetry in episodes such as Paolo and Francesca, he observes that in these cantiche the theological rules supreme and that Dante is paying here his debt to theological romance: "L'autore doveva pagare un debito ai lettori del romanzo teologico-etico, e lo paga alia prima occasione, tutto in una volta, per non averci più a pensare" (80). In the first two cantiche, according to Croce, theological and ethical preoccupations get in the way of Dante's poetry and make it difficult for him to express himself freely as a poet: "egli non ha molto da dire o non sa dire ancora liberamente ciò che vorrebbe: la vena scorre ancora pigra o impacciata" (73).
Croce's procedure becomes even more surprising when he analyzes the final, apocalyptic cantos of the Purgatorio and, in particular, the allegorical scenes of the procession (Purgatorio XXIX, XXX, XXXI), the leafless tree and the violent visions that accompany it (Purgatorio XXXII, XXXIII). Even though Croce agrees in part with general opinion that this representation is allegorical ("sta tra l'allegoria impoetica e l'impoetica mascherata," 129), he begs to differ, insisting that what predominates in these last cantos is poetry, since what emerges in these scenes is the poet's feelings: "e, oscuro o no che sia nel suo significato riposto, o in parte oscuro e in parte chiaro, quel che predomina I il sentire del poeta" (130, italics mine). The vision is no longer allegorical, Croce argues, since the entire representation functions as (subject) matter, "e qui abbassato a materia" (130). In this case, allegory possesses neither the frigidity of its cold intellectualizing nor does it suppress the poetic. As "materia," allegory becomes subservient to poetry and becomes the vehicle for the poetic. "Donde la particolare poesia che si sente e si gode in questa parte del poema, la quale si sottrae alia frigidita dell'allegorismo, perche non serve all'allegoria, ma la presuppone e se ne serve" (130). Here Croce seems to be speaking of a third type of allegory, which he had not mentioned earlier in the Introduction, since it is neither ab extra nor does it suppress poetry, rather it makes poetry possible. The poetry of these last cantos not only presupposes this kind of allegory but also makes use of it for its own poetic ends.
This unexpected definition of allegory is duly accompanied by an illustration of what is and what is not allegorical or non-poetic. Croce obviously feels the need to justify, in theory, the far-reaching implications of his statement which goes against not only received opinion but also against his own stated views on allegory. The example Croce gives is the following:

Allegorica e impoetica sarà una pittura che non ha il suo motivo in sé stessa, ma in certi pensieri di cui e segno convenzionalmente fissato; ma non più impoetica, né allegorica, un'altra pittura, che prenda la prima a sua materia e ritragga l’impressione, che essa ha suscitata nell'artista. (130, italics mine)

This definition of the allegorical as a painting which is not self-motivated but determined by meanings that are conventionally fixed does not conform to the definitions given earlier by Croce. The allegorical, in fact, is precisely that representation whose meaning is not conventionally fixed. The examples of allegory, quoted earlier by Croce, are a case in point. The meanings of the Veltro and of other enigmas of the Commedia are obscure precisely because they are not conventionally fixed. These allegories are self-motivated, to use Croce's phrase, and one needs to understand this "self-motivation" in order to determine the meaning that the poet has "arbitrarily" imposed on them. The attempt, instead, to treat them as if they were conventionally fixed - that is, as symbols - has often induced readers to search for their meaning outside the poem, thus contributing to their obscurity.
Similarly, the allegory which is determined by convention is not an allegory proper. Common examples of this type are a blindfolded woman who signifies "Fortune"- because fortune is said to be blind- or the same blindfolded woman with scales who signifies "Justice," because justice is said to be equal for everyone. All these examples of allegory are "recognizable" because they are fixed by convention that has determined their meaning once and for all. However, this type of representation is more commonly known as symbolic. Thus, if we re-read Croce's statement of what is and what is not poetic within the context in which he is saying it, the representation whose sign is conventionally fixed should be more properly called "symbolic," and is the non-poetic, while the representation which is self-referential, or self-motivated, should be called "allegorical" and is the poetic.
The confusion of terms in Croce's definition of the poetic is a consequence, as I indicated earlier, of a theory of aesthetics which following Hegel upholds the symbol as poetic and dismisses allegory as non- poetic. But statements by Croce, like the one above, demonstrate that for him the poetic is to be identified with allegory, even if he cannot call it by its name, and that the symbol is to be rejected as not poetic. Croce's analysis of the last cantos of Purgatorio demonstrates unequivocably this choice.
The type of allegory to which Croce alludes and that did not seem at first to fit the definition given earlier of the two types of allegory, corresponds to allegory as a mode of writing defined by Croce as cryptography and as prosaic. It is as a form of writing, in fact, that Croce accepts this allegory when he states that the allegorical represen- tations of the last cantos of the Purgatorio have been "lowered to subject matter" ("abbassato a materia," 130). It is as "materia" or, as form of writing, that allegory is invoked here when he says that it presupposes poetry and is used by it- "la presuppone e se ne serve" (130).
To better understand the relationship between allegory and this "poetry" (which I place in quotations marks since it no longer denotes a symbolic representation of poetry) we must move to Croce's analysis of the Paradiso where, again, unexpectedly and against general opinion, Croce locates genuine poetry amongst the most didactic and allegorical cantos of the cantica. In the chapter on the Paradiso, Croce asserts that its didactic poetry, voiced differently by Beatrice, Saint Thomas, Solomon and Saint Bernard, although of crucial importance to Dante the philos- opher, theologian and politician, is for him only an excuse to make poetry. Croce compares the relationship between this didactic poetry and "true" poetry to a libretto that Dante has put to music:

la poesia, ora gl'importa, come poeta che egli e, assai piu che la materia, per grandemente che questa gl'importasse, come a filosofo, teologo e politico: anche qui le dottrine sono il libretto, sul quale compone la sua musica. (151)

The "sound of poetry" ("il suono di poesia," 156) that Croce hears in this last cantica is generated by this didactic poetry in much the same way that music arises from a score or, better, from the perfect harmony that exists between the words of a libretto and the musical score. Here allegory, "la materia", differently manifested as philosophy, theology and politics, is important only as vehicle for poetry which it precedes and makes possible. This allegory and "poetry" do not form a unity, as Giannantonio claims was the case in medieval times. There is no ques- tion of unity here, for the poetic is not the symbolic as it is for Giannantonio. The relation between allegory as "materia" and what Croce calls "poetry" is analogous, rather, to the relation between a libretto and its music. Just as music is summoned by the musician out of the notations on a musical score, the sensitive reader perceives the poetry that arises out of the (subject) matter of the poem:

"Ciò ch'io vedeva, mi sembrava un riso Dell’universo, perché mia ebbrezza Entrava per l'udire e per lo viso. O gioia! O ineffabile allegrezza! O vita intera d'amore e di pace! O senza brama sicura ricchezza!" E il tono generale dell'ultima cantica, quello che sorregge e avvolge tutti gli altri. (139)

This is Croce's paraphrase of the poetic intensity that he detects in the last canto of the Paradiso: Dante's ode to joy when confronted by the ineffable beatific vision at the end of the Paradiso. At the same time, it is a statement of Croce's own feelings in reading Dante's sublime poetry. This is what Dante "felt," but also what Croce "felt." In either case all that is left is this feeling. Both the vision and this "poetry" are equally fleeting and evanescent, like music, and become memory the very moment they are evoked. The relation of allegory and "poetry" is predicated on this very tenuous relation which has its fulfillment only in the mode of desire.
A more explicit statement on this relation, which also makes clear its fuller implications for the Commedia as a whole, can be found in a later paper written solely on the last canto of the poem. As so often happens in Croce, these short papers that follow larger studies are written both in answer to criticism received and to elucidate further key points that have not been clearly and sufficiently stated. "L'ultimo canto della Commedia,” is such an instance where Croce re-reads the final canto in order to elaborate more fully his conception of poetry and its relation to the didactic. This time Croce is more specific and singles out an example that in his view best exemplifies the poetic force of Dante's poetry, which he compares to lightning that strikes the intellect - a "fulgore che percuote la mente" (161). The verses to which he alludes, however, are neither didactic nor prosaic, as in previous instances of the poetic, but are a true poetic image, a simile. The verses Croce has in mind are those of Paradiso XXXIII:

Qual’è colui che somniando vede,
che dopo il sogno la passione impressa
rimane, e l'altro alia mente non riede,

Cotal son io, che quasi tutta cessa
mia visione, ed ancor mi distilla
nel core il dolce che nacque da essa.

Così la neve al sol si disigilla;
cosi al vento nelle foglie levi
si perdea la sentenza di Sibilla.

These famous verses allude to the ineffability of Dante's beatific vision that cannot be grasped rationally or be represented. The experience is similar to that of a beautiful dream that leaves no trace in the waking mind except for a lasting feeling of pleasure and well-being. "Si è dissipato," comments Croce, "e pure fu una volta cosa reale e posseduta, simile a quel paradiso perduto che l'uomo porta in fondo al suo cuore, e al quale anela e che non trova e sa di non poter trovare in nessuna parte" (160). But these verses command our attention, as they probably did Croce's, not only because they are especially poetic or more poetic than other verses- which they are not- but because they can also be read as a statement on the status of "poetry" and the precarious relationship it has with the didactic poetry of the Paradiso, and, more generally, with allegory in Dante's poem. A first indication comes from the fact that the "poetic" character of these verses can only be fully appreciated in their commentary, that is, in their prosaic form. It is only through their explanation that one grasps not only what Croce calls the "singolare gioia e volutta" (160) of the vanishing dream but also the lightning effect of poetry. The commentary both evokes the poetic in the mode of the dream and states the impossibility of its permanence.
Like the dream vision whose presence lingers long afterwards but only in one's feelings, so the experience of the poetic lives on only in the feelings of the reader. What is left in either case is the memory and the commentary: the words on the page which are a harsh reminder of the ephemeral presence of the poetic and of the very impossibility to capture and represent it. As the final verses emphasize, all that remains is comparable to the Sibyl's response which is enigmatic and puzzling because it is written on leaves that are scattered to the winds. Similarly, all that is left of "poetry" is the didactic or, to put it in more appropriate terms, a cryptography, a system of signs that are equally ambiguous and enigmatic.
The simile chosen by Croce not only describes the predicament of the rise of "poetry" out of the prosaic but also exemplifies it by stating the impossibility of its manifest presence. In this sense the apparent simile is really an allegory that states the presence of the poetic in the mode of allegory and the precarious relationship between the prosaic, or the didactic, and the poetic. Croce himself, in the same essay, speaks of the allegorization of the simile (he uses the term "prosaic") as a necessary process to explain scientific concepts more clearly:

E soggiungerei, quanto alia comparazione, che la poesia e sempre una comparazione, una similitudine, esprimendo nel sensibile il soprasensibile, nel transeunte l'eterno, nell'individuo l'umanità, e che anzi, appunto per questo, le comparazioni possono essere prosaicizzate e adoperate per paragoni che chiariscono i concetti nelle prose scientifiche. (161, italics mine)

The relation between the didactic, or the prosaic, and "poetry", illustrated by the above verses, appears at first as a relation of subordination where allegory, as the mode of representation that makes it possible, takes second place to a "poetry" that arising out of allegory both overshadows it and takes the credit for being poetic. But its dominance over allegory is precarious for poetry soon shows its evanescent and fleeting nature and reveals the true nature of the poetic in allegory. Or as Croce put it earlier, where there is poetry there cannot be allegory and where there is allegory there cannot be poetry. Croce reminded his critics that poetry cannot be judged by a measuring stick since, like the grace of God, it is something that happens suddenly and to which one must be receptive: "la poesia ch'io sappia non si misura a metri o… con lo "spago"; perche essa, simile alia grazia divina di cui parla Dante, e un fulgore che percuote la mente" (160-161). One should always be prepared, says Croce, especially with a poet like Dante who, "sprizza poesia anche dove meno si aspetterebbe" (162).
Croce's reading of Dante takes us from the initial denial and dismissal of allegory as the non-poetic to an affirmation of the poetic, in the most prosaic and didactic parts of the poem, that is, in allegory. This contra- diction at the heart of Croce's reading of Dante, as I said earlier, has its origin in a theory of aesthetics whose largely Hegelian influence Croce always combated while at the same time trying to remain faithful to its dictates. Croce's lengthy meditation on the nature of the aesthetic which would span the rest of his life enabled him finally to come to terms with this contradiction but never to reconcile it. The conclusion reached by Giannantonio and by other critics that Croce finally sees the error of his ways, is only "apparently" correct since at issue is not the increasing acceptance of the poetic as symbol (which is how Giannantonio understands allegory) rather of the poetic as the prosaic and the didac- tic, or as allegory. In fact, the type of (symbolic) allegory proposed by Giannantonio is precisely what is being shown to be in error since it is none other than the allegory ab-extra that Croce rejects. For this same reason, Croce's contribution to Dante Studies is even more radical than Caserta claims. In fact, Caserta's claim of the privilege of poetry over allegory, to which we alluded at the beginning of the essay, is made on the basis of a notion of allegory ab-extra. Even though, as I indicated, Croce does assert the priority of poetry over this type of allegory, what is at issue is neither this allegory nor this poetry, which Caserta obviously conceives as symbol. The radical "svolta" of Croce's contribution, achieved despite Croce's own aesthetic bias, is to have directed the critics's attention to Dante's poetry in the mode of "allegory."
Croce's La Poesia di Dante is characterized by the same inconsistencies and contradictions that are at the heart of his Estetica of 1902 and for this reason the work has never been fully appreciated for the contribution that it makes to Dante Studies. This contribution, as I have indicated, goes beyond the assertion that the Commedia should be read as poetry and not according to arbitrary historical and cultural factors, that is, according to an allegory of reading that attributes it meanings not its own. Croce's contribution is to have identified the poetry of the Commedia with allegory and to have opened the way for an investigation of its poetic nature in the mode of poetic allegory.

Date: 2021-12-22