Dante 'Theologus-Poeta' [Robert Hollander]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Robert Hollander

Tratto da: Studies in Dante

Editore: Longo, Ravenna

Anno: 1980

Pagine: 39-89

Today one will not find much worthy criticism of Dante's Commedia that does not accept the central importance of Dante's theology. Unlike Dostoevsky, who offers Marxists, "realists”, "psychologists”, and other adherents of various contem- porary interpretive schools enough else to grasp hold of so that they may avoid the centrality of Christian concerns in the work of that master, Dante has so evidently rooted his poem in the teachings of the Bible and the Church that none can rationally avoid the patent fact that its author intended to create a work which would be nichil nisi Christianum. We may all agree, then, on the fact that Dante's poetry is a Christian poetry. What we have been unable to agree on is the nature of the poetic which produced the Commedia.
A "poetic" is, simply defined, a treatise which is concerned with the rules and principles of poetry. In actual fact, medieval treatises in poetics, often bearing the title De poetria, or something similar, are principally handbooks for the young student of poetry. They are primarily topographical and practical rather than theoretical, and describe the genres, tropes, and other paraphernalia of the writer's conscious art. And few of them notice the fact that writers, whether of prose or of verse, ostensibly have a major decision to make before they begin their work, a decision involving the mode of signifying which they may choose to employ. Perhaps the first published record of the occurrence in Italy of such a deliberate choice is Dante's claim that in his explications of the allegorical sense of the odes of his Convivio he has chosen to follow the practices of the "allegory of the poets" and not those of the "allegory of the theologians" (Convivio II, i). Perhaps even more important than the explicit claim itself is the fact that a working medieval poet-critic could insist that he had it in his power to make such a choice, and even to combine the two modes, as Dante goes on to assert. Since a great number of critics of medieval literature work under the basically correct assumption that medieval writers did not believe that they had any such option, the sheer fact of the announcement of an option is possibly of some importance to our sense of the period, and certainly to our sense of Dante.
Is Dante's claim unique? I would argue that it is, against J. A. Scott's judgment, which is based on several citations drawn from Henri de Lubac, that "we now have examples of other writers who applied the technique of Biblical exegesis to secular works." Such writers may exist, but the examples offered by Scott do not conform to his model. For he cites Arnulf of Orleans and Pierre Bersuire as claiming, respectively, allegorical, moral, and historical or natural, historical, and spiritual senses for the fables of Ovid, without apparently understanding that such senses, if they sound somewhat like the three spiritual senses of biblical exegesis (allegorical, moral, anagogical) or like the historical/literal first sense, are nonetheless quite different from them. Interpreters of secular literature may have on occasion wanted to make the objects of their attention seem similar in importance to Scripture, but they do not cross the boundary which separates these two kinds of writing. As far as I have been able to determine, it was Dante who, in Convivio II, i (he was to be followed by Boccaccio in the Genealogy, I, 3), was the first to make the troublesome claim that biblical exegesis could be used to elucidate the significance of a secular poem, compounding his boldness by giving overt exemplary citations from Scripture- a gesture which I have found in no other source that I have yet seen adduced in this argument.
Scott, however, also asserts that two passages in the Anticlaudianus of Alain de Lille also reveal the adaptation of scriptural allegory to a secular work. The text of the first of these passages occurs in Alain's prose Prologus and runs as follows: "In hoc etenim opere litteralis sensus suauitas puerilem demulcebit auditum, moralis in- structio perf icientem imbuet sensum, acutior allegorie subtilitas proficientem acuet intellectum." Are these senses really "biblical"? My own view is that the passage shows only a marginal and general awareness of biblical exegesis, that the particular exegetical pro- cedure involved, if it does refer to biblical exegesis, has to do only with the sense contained in the literal sense (about which more below), not with a historical sense by any means, and that at any rate Alain (as are others who make similar claims) is a good deal less precise about biblical allegory than even the Dante of the Convivio. Scott's second example is still more troubling, especially since he claims that it "is even more significant." He refers to "Alain's claim (in the Summarium of the Anticlaudianus- Bossuat, p. 201) that his subject is twofold, "una historialis, alia mystica." Had he read either the Summarium, which is a fairly confused piece of argumentation, or Bossuat's Introduction with care, he would likely have acceded to Bossuat's well-argued judgment that the Summarium is the work of a later and lesser hand. In short, it is more than likely that Alain does not claim "historicity" for his work, and that Scott and Lubac are incorrect. In an earlier discussion which is in basic agreement with Scott's position, D. W. Robertson, Jr., is forced to find a model in as distant a figure as Origen in order to make a similar point about Alain's selfexegesis. But the first of Origen's three senses (historical, moral, allegorical) is crucially different from Alain's (literal, moral, allegorical), since there is a large difference, even in as wild an allegorizer as Origen, between biblical allegory founded in rebus historicis and "poet's allegory" founded in a fictitious literal sense. This is not to disagree with Robertson's view that Alain's claim is that "the same kind of spiritual message is implicit in the poem that is implicit in the Scriptures,' but to insist that there is a difference between claims for an exegetical procedure that is similar to biblical exegesis and those of Dante, which specifically conjoin biblical and secular exegetical principles (as in the Convivio) or which insist, even more strikingly, solely on a theological form of allegoresis (as in the Epistle to Cangrande). When Robertson dis- cusses the applicability of theological exegesis to secular literature, he tends to use as his text Hugh of St. Victor's threefold exegetical method as it is advanced in Didascalion III, viii (littera, sensus, sententia). Robertson's procedure is puzzling. The title of Hugh's chapter is "De ordine legendi," and it is clearly addressed to secular writings (e.g., the phrase "secundum personam auctoris"). It is in Didascalion V, ii, "De triplici intelligentia," that Hugh turns to Scriptural allegory, which also has three senses: historia, allegoria, tropologia. These (and they are clearly a different set of three senses from the one he had discussed earlier) are reserved ex- clusively to Scripture. And, at least by implication (Hugh is not explicit; such looseness as we find in him was, according to some scholars, the cause of later attempts, like that of Aquinas, to be a good deal more rigorous and clear about these distinctions, and which resulted, in my view, in Dante's greater clarity on the subject when his statements are compared with such as those by Alain), his schema littera-sensus-sententia may be applied only to a non- historical literal sense, that is, he would not interpret the Exodus in this manner. Indeed, his subsequent discussion (and it is to this one that Robertson should logically have referred) of littera, sensus, and sententia in the Bible (VI, viii-xi) deals only with texts that are such as St. Thomas would later call metaphoric or parabolic, that is, when God spoke not "historically" (even if apparently referring to historical "fact," as in Isaiah 4:1, a text which Hugh analyzes here), but in figures of speech. In short, in practice Hugh's method dis- tinguishes between two kinds of biblical text, and further suggests that a poet's allegory and God's figurative speech may be under- stood in similar ways, while keeping the schema historia-allegoria- tropologia clearly to one side. Thus writers (I except Dante here) who claim or sidle up to such a schema as Hugh's littera-sensus-sententia a are not claiming that their poems are comparable to bib- lical historia, but only to the figures of speech of the Bible. This is an important distinction to be kept in mind when we deal with Dante, and with his supposed similarity to earlier writers who seem to be making the same claim for their works that he will make for his, even if in our. own literary world the current confusion about these two co-existent exegetical systems is so widespread that it is probably irreducible in this generation.
All such claims have one thing in common. Whether they assert that their analyses of secular literature are dependent upon a form of exegesis that is broadly similar to biblical exegesis or upon some version of the sacrosanct spiritual senses, their application of the method is both partial and hesitant. That is, none of these authors claims the entire appositeness of the entire method, which Dante will do in the Epistle to Cangrande. Why not? I believe that there are two main reasons. First, the materials which they address are not consistently or predominantly grounded in the tradition of biblical exegesis; second, the desire to associate the poem with some form of exegesis, whether biblical or literary, is related to a continuing defensive posture on the part of medieval poets and interpreters of poetry which arises from the hostility of Fathers and Doctors of the Church to the approximate quality of the truth (read "lies") of all fiction. Thus it was, from the fourth century onward, that Chris- tian secular writers had to do battle with the shades of St. Augustine and St. Jerome [the Christian "critics") and Juvencus, Sedulius, and Prudentius {the Christian poets), all of whom essentially denied the value of writings based on anything less or other than the truths to be found in the Bible and in the teachings of the Church.
Did Dante believe that he could actually have explained his poems in the Convivio according to the allegory of the theologians in some consistent fashion? It is difficult to say. If the answer to that question is to be given in the affirmative, we would be forced to acknowledge that Dante would then have involved himself in a logically catastrophic argument. For if the underlying literal sense of the Convivio odes is to be taken according to the allegory of the poets, it is not logically acceptable, with respect to the rules of fourfold exegesis, for Dante or anyone else to claim a typological further sense (not to mention the two higher senses which he also asserts to be present). For the truth or meaning of the fictitious literal sense is contained entirely in the letter, in the words themselves, as is the case in biblical parable. Take away a historical/literal sense and its possibly conjoined allegorical spiritual sense (i.e., its typological significance), and one is left with mere philology, albeit with words that have a different kind of further signif- icance, as is the case in biblical parable. And I think it is with an awareness of this counter-position that Dante insists- without, or even against, logic- that his poems, and his accompanying commentaries, have a higher degree of truthfulness than is normally reserved to fictions. The allegory of Convivio n, i, as I have argued earlier, is a hybrid, an attempt to combine what should not be combined, at least according to the Fathers and Doctors: what God had put asunder, let no man join together. It is the sin of the poet, in Augustinian/Aquinian eyes, to claim for secular literature a license for a higher form of truth-telling that is explicitly reserved to the Bible and to the writings of its annointed interpreters.
Early Christian poets- and here one may think of the most read and discussed of them in our day, Prudentius - were thoroughly aware of the injunction. The only acceptable function of a poem was to serve as ancilla theologiae: the poet may tell explicitly Christian tales, assuming the garb of the preacher. What he should not do is write secular tales of his own devising or re-elaborate those devised by pagans. While very few medieval secular writers kept the letter of this law, we should not forget that it existed. Still, our attention is directed to those who did in fact do what the Fathers and Doctors upbraided poetry for doing. Writer after writer (once the vernacular entered the field there was a huge increase in the number of those who did so) took it upon himself to make up or re-use pagan fables which are purported to have a Christian sententia. It is not only those who compose fabliaux, drinking songs, tributes to wenching, etc., who are at odds with Church doctrine, but also the vast middle range of secular writers (even clerics like Alain de Lille), precisely those who claim, with what- ever degree of conviction or sincerity, a Christian purpose in their secular works. In the wide-ranging studies of D. W. Robertson, Jr., and of his students, this fact has too often gone either unnoticed or untreated. For what developed, beginning ca. 1350 in Italy, as the dominant literary culture of an epoch (which we like to call the Renaissance) had begun in the twelfth century as a "counter-culture," a group of trained minds without benefit of benefice who made the word "clerk" synonymous with "writer." Their sanction was found among themselves and in their courtly audiences. To be sure, Augustine, Jerome (especially Jerome), Isidore, and others had left the literary door ajar- "Egyptian gold" and la belle captive were expropriatable and marriageable, respectively, in the name of Chris- tian purpose, especially a Christian oratory. But the "official" position, however much it was honored more in the breach, was, throughout the nearly nine centuries that separate Augustine and Aquinas, that secular literary activity was at the very best both suspect and limited in its possibilities. Whatever gold one might sift ex stereo Vergilii, excrement was still excrement. The legion of vernacular-writing clerks that Charlemagne had loosed upon the cultural institutions of Western Europe made the necessary efforts to redeem their literary purposes, hedged in on the "left" by "Goliards" of uncertain morals and on the "right" by a Church whose stated position was frequently that secular literature was both unclean and of little or no epistemological value.
It is probably not without cause that we have such difficulty in fathoming the Christian intention of writers like Chretien de Troyes, Juan Ruiz, Giovanni Boccaccio, or Geoffrey Chaucer. Their audi- ences, like themselves, lived at the margins of "official" Christianity, and their purposes and interests seem so totally secular that we tend to brush aside their own protestations of Christian meanings in their works. (We also tend to see their attacks on hypocritical priests and monks as part of their "naturalist" bias or as the result of their pious disgust with the corruptions of the clergy- the second formulation is clearly preferable to the first- without understanding that they represent mordant counter-attacks on their own detractors. ) For the practice of the literary art was, at least until Petrarch made it overwhelmingly glorious and, if not above, for pratical purposes beyond ecclesiastical censure on any grounds but heresy, under continual attack from the secular and (especially) the regular clergy, and, among the last, especially from the Dominican Order. The bone of contention between the defenders of literature and its detractors had several knotty protuberances, but one is larger and more troublesome, and is the major cause of the series of defenses of poetry which we find in the Trecento: poets were and are liars. An attack so frontal was bound to cause resentful response. It is in such a light that we should read the several defenses of poetry that are so prominent a feature of our period.
No study of the concept of the poeta-theologus, as it is born in Italy in the Epistolae of Albertino Mussato, is as cogently to the point as the twelfth chapter of Ernst Robert Curtius's European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages ("Poetry and Theology," pp. 214-227), which offers a concise delineation of the phenomena of the Scholastic attack upon poetry as devoid of cognitive value and of the response of such defenders of poetry as Mussato, Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Salutati. Some of the great virtues of his position are that he recognizes that the defense of poetry in the Italian Trecento is not original, even if its practitioners behave as though it were (it had been already "done" in France by such as Bernardus Silvestris and Alain de Lille), that it is a defensive response and not a profound or intellectually vigorous argument (Aquinas's theory of knowledge and art is seen as what is new and vigorous), and that it arises precisely as a defense against Domin- ican thought (although this is not made as a conscious point, the only detractors whom Curtius in fact mentions, Thomas, Fra Giovannino da Mantova, Guido Vernani- he mysteriously fails to mention Giovanni Dominici in his brief discussion of Salutati- were all Dominicans). This last configuration is perhaps of greater impor- tance than has heretofore been appreciated. The major debates on the subject which stand at either end of a ninety-year arc of time (1315-1405) are precisely between defenders of poets as poetae- theologi (Albertino, Coluccio) and their Dominican opponents who deny poetry a cognitive function (Giovannino and Giovanni). The core of the argument does not vary. For the defense, poetry is, like the Bible, both poetic and true; for the Dominicans poetry is at best marginally and at worst not at all true, and certainly has nothing to do with the knowledge that is gained through theology. And if little changes in the substance of the argument between the time of the Albertino-Giovannino controversy and its later version, which pitted Coluccio against Giovanni, what we find in the defenses of Petrarch (notably in the Invective contra medicum and Familiares X, iv) and of Boccaccio (especially in the fourteenth and fifteenth books of the Genealogy) is not in essential ways different from the others, and seems to have been motivated by the same causes, even if the religious order we find involved in aspects of the controversy is, in at least two instances, that of the Carthusians (in the persons of Petrarch's brother Gherardo and the Blessed Pietro Petroni). The defense of poetry, at any rate, has rarely been carried on as assiduously or by such great figures as it was during this ninety-year period.
What glimmers out at us from this quarrel is a dispute over authority, each side claiming its own anointment. We should remember, when we attempt to consider the nature of the controversy, which side won (the one of which we approve), a fact that tends to remove some of our sense of the precariousness of the arguments it advanced. For in the Trecento the Church, and especially the Dominican Order, was not an adversary to be taken lightly. The position of the poet-theologues was, however, both clever and attractive. They insisted that their aims were, morally at least, the same as those of the Church. And they had eventually to triumph, for what they had on their side was a powerful audience which liked their product. (It is interesting that in the second half of the current century various cults have themselves, as though to forestall another such defeat at the hands of the "entertainment industry," gone into the entertainment business; a single example is found throughout Italy in the form of the cinema parrocchiale, so often housed in or alongside Catholic churches today - and I would be loathe to omit reference to the Unitarian church in Dallas, Texas, which, on 27 April 1975, featured a striptease by one Diana King as part of its Sunday service. ) But at the moment in the conflict that is of particular interest to us, it was probably less clear than it now seems it might have been that the theologians would lose to the poets. And one should probably see that the defenses of poetry of such as Salutati are a good deal more tentative and preciely defensive than they are generally taken to be. Our contemporary apprehension of the situation is undoubtedly tempered by our tendency to admire poets and to disparage theologians.
It is with this battle between poets and theologians in mind that we should approach Dante, for the context of this dispute is probably the one which shaped his own formulations- especially in such self-exegetical texts as Convivio II, i, and the Epistle to Cangrande. And we may now return to Dante's announcement of his choice of allegorical modes in the first of these documents. Did he believe that he actually could have claimed more than he in fact did, that on occasion he would treat a passage in the mode of the two last senses - tropological and anagogical - of the allegory of the theologians, that the allegorical sense of the odes of the Convivio could have been expounded in the mode of the allegory of the theologians? We cannot be certain here, but it would seem most unlikely that Dante believed that this option were open to him. As I have sug- gested above, even as much as he does claim involves him in a logical contradiction, since if he admits that the literal sense of the odes is fictitious, he either was or should have been aware that no such claim was logically admissible. However, as I have also suggested, Dante wants to make it seem that the option was open to him, not because it was so, but in order to buttress his claim for the truthfulness of the odes and of the commentary which he has built upon them. The fact that he withdraws the greater part of the claim as quickly as he makes it is of some significance, but it is also important that he assumes the power to make such a choice. For it is a choice which is explicitly denied a mere human agent by no less an authority than St. Thomas. Dante was surely aware of the absolute proscription of the very possibility which he raises. Then why does he raise it? I think there are two interesting possibilities here, neither of which, to my knowledge, has been previously advanced.
The Vita Nuova, the Convivio, and the Commedia, Dante's three works in "fiction," all have auto-exegetical components. However, it is only in Convivio II, i, and in the seventh and eighth paragraphs of the Epistle that he adverts to his allegorical intentions. The Vita Nuova, though Dante does not say so explicitly, and though even so "theologically" minded a critic as Charles Singleton does not believe that such is the case, should most likely be considered as signifying in the mode of the allegory of the theologians. The prose of the Vita Nuova, as I have tried to demonstrate in a recent article in the pages of this journal, makes the same sort of distinctions about appearance and vision that we will later find in the Commedia. Further, the treatment of Beatrice which we find there makes her as "figurally" relevant to Jesus Christ as she will later be in the Commedia. Indeed, the "action" of the Vita Nuova, the response of a living soul in this life to the miraculous life and death of Beatrice, with all the Franciscan climate of her Christian identity and Dante's cultish veneration, seems difficult to understand without a typological frame of reference. I do not wish to pursue this argument more than suggestively, but am willing to offer the following hypothesis. Had Dante assigned a designation to the mode of signifying of the Vita Nuova, using the same two possibilities he set before us in the Convivio, he would not have hestitated to have told us that the Vita Nuova was written in the mode of the allegory of the theologians. If that is true, then why did Dante not say as much? My own view is that he did in every way but overtly. His opening insistence on the historicity of the events narrated, the nature of those events as they relate to other events in the Old and New Testaments, the concluding vision of Beatrice among the blessed, for which Dante is clearly if tacitly made to function as a new Paul in Johannine clothing, all these (and many other) details point to his governing awareness of the Bible and of biblical exegesis as the central source of the significative pattern of the work. Why, then, did not Dante say explicitly (as he would later do both in the Convivio and in the Epistle) what kind of allegory he was employing? He did not do so (I am aware that my answer is not calculated to convince a skeptic) because he presents the Vita Nuova, from the first enigmatic sonnet to the final unreported vision, as an enigma for his readers to unravel. They did not do so, as he himself tells us (at least with respect to that first sonnet, nor, we may surmise, with respect to the work as a whole). The "key" to that riddle is the Christological nature of Beatrice, a special creature, unlike all others, made so by God Himself. As a poetic object her reality is guaranteed by God Himself, not by her poet, who is mere witness to her miraculous nature. And in this sense the Vita Nuova, like the Commedia, should be seen as leaving behind the convention of the allegory of the poets and having entered the domain of an exegetical principle reserved for the Bible. And so, in terms of our argument here, what I suggest is that Dante thought of his choice of allegories in the Convivio as being essentially the obverse of a choice he had already made in the Vita Nuova, which had in fact been written in the mode of the allegory of the theologians, or at least in a mode which approximates that mode.
The prime topographical difference between the two kinds of allegory, as Dante knew far better than most of us, lies in the historicity or fictiveness of their literal senses. The Vita Nuova is to be taken as historia, the first two odes of the Convivio as fabulae. Their allegorical modes should be understood as being various. Dante's first donna, Beatrice, gains her true significance only as we see her "typological" relationship to Jesus Christ; the second donna, only as we understand her as being a poet's allegory of philosophy. No matter what one's perceptions of the similarities that exist between the Vita Nuova and the Convivio, that crucial difference between the ladies whom they glorify is inescapable. And such a difference leads nearly certainly to the conclusion here advanced. For if Dante tells us that in the explication of the Convivio he follows the allegory of the poets in order to elucidate his own allegorical sense, which flows from a literally untrue prior sense, and if the only other choice which he offers is the allegory of the theologians, then, if the Vita Nuova is both allegorical and different from the Convivio, we are rather forced to explain why it is not to be perceived through the lens of the allegory of the theologians than to assume that it should be perceived in some other way. That at least seems logical, and I am personally convinced that the position is correct, though it is perhaps not likely to find easy acceptance.
So much for one possible reason for Dante's having insisted that he had a choice of allegories available to him in the Convivio, that is, he had already made such a choice in the Vita Nuova. Another resides in his negative view of St. Thomas's strictures against poetry, which not only specifically deny that a mere human could write a work that could incorporate such matter as would require even occasional elements of fourfold exegesis in order to understand it, but generally condemns poetry as being, at best, a minimally cognitive form of intellection. The thing that is most striking about Dante's declaration of his method in the Convivio is not that he claims that he follows the allegory of the poets in his central procedures of interpretation, but that he asserts that to employ the allegory of the theologians was even a possibility. It seems to be that this nearly supernumerary claim has only two major justifications for having been made. The first is to allow Dante to include a few instances of "theological" allegorizing in his analysis of his odes, thus making them seem more worthy, more (and better) inspired. However, since his actual employment of this mode is severely limited, the larger impulse would seem to have been the sheer desire to insist that such an option were open to a poet-critic. In our own day the passage has been of primary interest to those who wish to show, against the "fourfolders," that Dante did not use theological allegory in the Convivio, and therefore not in the Commedia either, whatever is said in the Epistle to Cangrande (and whoever wrote it). Without pausing over the logical failure in such arguments, I wish rather to point out that they pay no attention to the daring of Dante in having even raised the possibility of the use of the allegory of the theologians in the Convivio in the first place, and in having claimed that it was in fact occasionally appropriate in the explication of the odes.
Either of these two hypotheses, which are not necessarily related, may help to explain the reasons for Dante's claim. Having noticed the importance of the claim, we must also acknowledge that the allegory of the theologians is of the slightest relevance to the Convivio. It is the Commedia that, since the publication of Auerbach's essay "Figura" in 1938, has been the center of the argument concerning Dante's adaptation of the techniques of fourfold exegesis- what he himself calls the "allegory of the theologians." There seems little point in recapitulating here either the general theory or the details of the argument which surrounds what can fairly be considered the central problem in the interpretation of the Commedia. I would rather try to summarize my own position as briefly as I am able.
The precepts put forth in the seventh and eighth paragraphs of the Epistle to Cangrande, whether it is genuine or not, accord in essential ways with the poetic practice found in the Commedia. This proposition implies at least the following corollaries. 1) More important than the implied claim that some of the particular "historical" beings and actions encountered in the poem have the four biblical senses is the concomitant necessity (on Dante's part and on our own) of treating what is described as actual in the poem as in fact being so. In short, the text of the poem is susceptible to the same treatment and distinctions as had been reserved exclusively for Scripture. 2) Characters and events in the poem are further to be perceived as frequently deriving their status as significant poetic objects from their "figural" relationship to previous characters and events, whether these be actually historical or found in pagan literature, whether Dante conceived the works which they derive from to be historical (e.g., Lucan), quasi-historical (e.g., Virgil), or fictional (e.g., Ovid). While the first of these "corollaries" has been widely discussed, the second might detain us for a moment, for it seems to involve a contradiction. What I wish to argue is that the contradiction is Dante's, not my own, and that it was, within the logical framework which underlies the Commedia, a necessary one. And let me approach the problem by another avenue. Perhaps no single sentence of critical prose written in the past twenty years has better focused the debate about the literalness of Dante's poem than Charles Singleton's "the fiction of the Divine Comedy is that it is not fiction." That single sentence is, in my opinion, worth a very great deal. An agnostic would have little difficulty in perceiving the same thing of the Bible- that is, that the text invites its reader to take its narrative portions (not its figures of speech, preachments, etc.) as describing events which literally happened. Now, without entering into a discussion of whether or not Dante actually visited the afterworld (which few will maintain) or in the Commedia sets down on paper a vision which he had in a momentary flash, we can, I think, almost all agree that Dante's poem is a fictio. But whereas some, coming to this affirmation, see it as a means of undermining the Singletonian position, it is an affirmation which Singleton (or Hollander, for that matter) not only accedes to but insists on. Robertson's early attack on Singleton's position ("It seems obvious, moreover, that the Divine Comedy is a poem, not a history, and certainly not a new chapter in Scripture") is precisely to the point and exactly wrong-headed, for it fails to pay attention to the central assertion of this position, which is that Dante feigns that his fiction is literally true. Now a number of dantisti have no difficulty in understanding that Dante claims literal truth for his poem, but then go on to make this Dante a "prophet," thus avoiding, as did Bruno Nardi, the way in which the poem is rooted in fourfold exegesis in the name of a single aspect of the biblical possibilities. Or, even further afield, writers like Charles Williams make Dante a "mystic" - and once again bypass the allegorical problem. But the Epistle to Cangrande states explicitly that the poem is to be understood by means of the allegory of the theologians, and uses as the model for the proper critical procedures the 113th Psalm (Ps. 114-115 in the modern Bible). It seems futile to object, as several have done, that Dante does not seem to understand Scriptural allegory very well or that, in choosing examples from Scripture rather than from the text of the poem itself, Dante does not really make the claim for the Commedia. Such arguments either bypass the clear evidence that Dante understood the method at least as well as does a contemporary professor of literature or fail to comprehend a fairly straight- forward analogy. In Dante's example a historical event is seen to have four senses. (As Gian Roberto Sarolli has led us to see, it is important that instead of the Exodus itself Dante gives us a poetic recapitulation of the Exodus as the model for his poem- it is a fact, I believe, that is profoundly suggestive of the way in which he may have thought of his own poem as being like one of David's, a poem that reflects historical event and which at least claims to be similarly inspired.) The clear implication - and it is unmistakably clear - is that at least some of the characters and events which we encounter in the poem are to be read in a similar way. In saying that his allegorical sense will reveal that the free will of each personage in the Commedia resulted in his reward or punishment in the afterworld he has tried to establish, as Auerbach realized, the figural nature of his allegorical sense (a life then in the world "prefigures" the life after that in the afterworld). This is not the allegory of the poets, but of the theologians- at least in Dante's perhaps strained literary adaptation of that kind of allegory. Furthermore, if the second sense, the allegorical, is of such a nature, the two other senses inevitably follow. The context of the previous paragraph of the Epistle and the tradition of fourfold exegesis make that apparent. It is as though he had mentioned only the allegorical sense of the word Jerusalem, or of the Exodus ("our redemption wrought by Christ"). In neither case would one be right to assume that the next two spiritual senses are not meant to follow- the faithful soul or our conversion for the two respective tropological senses, the Church Triumphant and the liberty of eternal glory for the anagoge. If Dante refers specifically only to the allegorical sense - the fulfillment in the afterworld of the lives which his personages chose on earth - in the eighth paragraph, whether or not he wanted us to understand a further tropological significance (perhaps indicating the effect of what he reports of the conditions of the dead souls on our free will) and the anagoge as well (their, and possibly our own, condition in Eternity), his doing so in no way sanctions the desires of those who wish to take the poem as signifying in the mode of the allegory of the poets. And if we put the four senses, as Dante interprets their application to the Psalm, against the text of Puratorio II, as Singleton has in part done, we can see how profoundly the allegory of the theologians shapes the action of that canto. And if the method works that well once, our alternatives are to say that it is only present on this sole occasion or that it is more generally applicable. (It is useful to remember that it is almost totally certain that Dante wrote Purgatorio II before he wrote the Epistle, a fact which suggests that the method had been decided on long before it was confirmed.) In light of the evidence of the poem itself, nothing less than the second alternative would seem to make very much sense. For from the first lines of the Inferno to the end of the poem, with its Paradisal vision, the matter is continually interactive with such objects as reflect the events of biblical history, from the selva that reflects the Fall in Eden (as I, following Filippo Villani, have previously argued ) to the vision of God's ultimate kingdom that is obviously meant to correspond meaningfully to John's Revelation. And objects of such a nature tend to attach to themselves the context of the allegory of the theologians, whether or not they are meant to be glossed explicitly for each of the three spiritual senses. The same may be said of the Bible, which medieval exegetes were highly selective in sifting through for objects susceptible to explicit fourfold glosses. For instance, the city "Jerusalem" was a great favorite; but what of such major events as Abraham's intended sacrifice of Isaac? It is primarily dealt with as a type of the "sacrifice" of Jesus- that is the mysterium that the text of Genesis conceals. Are the other two senses intended to be understood or not? It would be pleasant to have a computer program run on the Patrologia. My guess is that it would confirm the view that most exegetes who at one time or another insist on the fourfold method spend most of their actual critical energy discovering or repeating typological correspondences. Yet no one suggests that such exegetes thought that the Bible had only two senses. Similarly, in the Commedia what is most interestingly perceived, within the convention of fourfold exegesis, is the typological correspondences. Dante might well have insisted that his selva in Inferno I is not only typologically related to the Fall, but also tropologically significant to the sin in his own heart and anagogically significative of eternal damnation. Yet I would argue that the most we should be willing to say is that such further meanings are tacit- as is generally the case in the exegeses of types in the Bible.
One thing which makes Dante's arrangement "work" is its temporal order, which, although it comes to us in a revised, or unusual, order, coordinates the same time-segments of human history as does the Bible: the past, a later past, the present, and the future. The Epistle to Cangrande, describing the four senses as they apply to the 113th Psalm, makes their temporal relationship clear enough: the historical Exodus, Christ's later redemption of mankind at the center of all history, our conversion now, our future glory. Insofar as the Commedia is Dante's autobiography it is in this manner that his actions and experiences are related to universal history and to the biblical four senses. But Dante's method is unusual in that we must move from his condition now to the previous type of that condition, thus reversing the usual biblical procedure, which moves from then to now. Such is also the case when we consider the subject of the Commedia as it is announced in the Epistle: "the state of the souls after death." Auerbach's seminal study, "Figura," is limited, it seems to me, because it only considers this subject. But it is correct in its sense that when we see with the "pilgrim," as he too observes the state of the souls after death, what we see first is the "fulfillment," and only then the "figure." We should remember that the pretext of the poem is that, from our own point of view and in terms of ordinary human consciousness, we have entered the "future," the world of the dead, and are thus "reading backwards." There is a further future - Judgment Day - awaiting the dead in the poem, however, as Farinata makes utterly clear in Inferno X, and Dante himself will "see the anagoge" in that he is allowed to see the souls of the blessed in the celestial rose as though they were already in their restored flesh (Paradiso XXXI). This "second future" is not unattended to in the economy of the work. Still, as I have pre- viously argued, this way of seeing the Commedia, while of generic importance, is not terribly interesting to a critic of poetry because it always yields the same result; it is true for all "subjects" of the poem in exactly the same way. What then might be of greater interest to such a critic in Dante's adaptation of fourfold allegory? It is my position that the "figural" connectives between persons and events in the poem with those upon which they depend afford an insight into Dante's more interesting use of the "figural" technique. And it is here, I think, that the argument is most open to question, on the grounds that what certain critics may choose to call "figural" relationships are merely conventional forms of literary reference, in which a later writer makes use of material in an earlier author as a model for his mimesis. My response is that one might say the same thing about the Bible, for instance, that Jesus is recorded as riding into Jerusalem on an ass in order to make use of the existing model of some lines in Zechariah (9:9). However, whether we like the idea or not, it seems apparent that Christ must here (and elsewhere) be understood as having fulfilled a prophecy. Do elements in Dante's poem behave the same way? My answer is that Dante wanted them to be perceived as doing so. One of his sources for his description of true Paradise (Paradiso XXX-XXXI) is Virgil's descrip- tion of the Elysian Fields (Aeneid VI, 707). I have chosen this example because it seems so clearly counter to my purpose. How can a literary description of a pagan "heaven," one written by a poet who is contained in Limbo precisely for his lack of faith in Christ, have anything to do with Christian exegetical "promise" and "fulfillment"? And here my argument has two parts, one general, the other specific to Dante's sense of Virgil. First, Dante's sense of the "figural" nature of his entire enterprise in the Commedia draws to itself things which in another writer would be only "literary models," "quotations," "imitations," etc. But is this not also true of the Bible? In the case of Scripture; criticism learned a long time ago to say not "this passage is modelled on Zechariah 9:9" but "this passage shows the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9 fulfilled." In short, the literary phenomena are not in themselves much different, but the critical atmospheres in which they should be perceived to signify are very different. I would remind the reader that it is the "atmosphere" of the allegory of the theologians that the Epistle to Cangrande explicitly attaches to the poem - a fact which helps to explain the motivations of so many earlier critics who have resisted the notion that Dante could have written it. And so, on that score, I think it is fair to suggest that what is a "literary model" in other works often is charged with figural connotations in Dante. I admit that this is not an argument which is self-evident, or even susceptible of proof, but experimental, one that may only be judged by the results it produces.
The second argument concerns the way in which Dante read Virgil. And here I repeat some of my earlier findings, if in the briefest of recapitulations. For Dante, Virgil was the pagan precursor of the Commedia. His view of Virgil, as Giorgio Padoan has often suggested, is perhaps the most important question still confronting exegetes of the Commedia. And perhaps the most impor- tant thing, for his own poetic development, which Dante learned from the Aeneid was, in my judgment, not how to write an "epic," or a journey to the realm of the. dead, or a celebration of Romanitas (all of which elements of Dante's response to the Aeneid are decidedly important and much noticed), but how to compose a narrative poem which describes actions as though they were historical, to compose a fiction that is intended to be taken as historically true. If this is a useful or correct interpretation (it is one which leads away from Padoan's former desire to find the Dante of the Commedia involved in the moral allegorizations of the Aeneid of Fulgentius and, especially, of Bernardus Silvestris, a view of the matter with which I strongly disagree ), the Virgil of the Aeneid seemed to Dante a poet remarkably useful to his own purpose in this major respect: for his major work Virgil chose to employ not fabula, but historia (or, perhaps, argumentum). And if that is true, then the persons and events of Virgil's poem were likely to become, in Dante's mind, the precursors- the figurae if you will- of persons and events in his own poem. And if the poet himself, as protagonist of his own poem, is the new Aeneas (as he intrinsically is in Inferno II, 32, although the "pilgrim" denies, in his pusillanimity, the Tightness of the comparison), if the Commedia is the new Aeneid, then I am not surprised that Paradiso is the new Elysium. And so I am willing, am even compelled, to argue for a "figuralized" Virgil in Dante's treatment, one different from all other medieval treatments of Virgil. I am not arguing that Dante believed that Virgil's poem had four senses (even if Servius did say it was "polysemous," a word Dante will use to describe his own poem in the Epistle), but that he did take its literal sense as historical, or realized, as Singleton would later realize of the Commedia, that the fictional pretext of the Aeneid is that the work is not fiction, but history.
If the Aeneid, because of its at least "semi-historical" character, may then serve Dante as a source of "figural" constructions, what of the frankly fictional Ovid? No one in his right mind would want to claim that Dante thought of the events of the Metamorphoses as being "historical." I would like to be as clear as possible on this point: I do not think so for a moment. Even his treatment of Virgil shows, as has frequently been noted, a sense of the fictionalness of the Aeneid. Yet Dante treats the Aeneid as though it had a historical/literal sense, as though it too could claim the status of scriptura paganorum (Epistle, 22) with the work of Lucan- whom he, following a long critical tradition, considered to have written historia in the Pharsalia. And if he treats the Aeneid, which is at least approximately "historical," in this manner, what is he compelled to do with Ovid? He must work within the same convention or simply not refer to his work; otherwise he is forced to violate his own poetic principles. The phenomenon should not be altogether surprising. Let me approach the problem from another point of view. While medieval opinions of Ovid varied widely, one tradition makes him a pagan inspired by explicitly Christian truth, or at least a pagan from whose writings a specifically Christian truth may be drawn (Pierre Bersuire is the best known proponent of this position). We swallow that camel without difficulty, because we have been trained to do so, but Dante's gnat will leave many a reader choking. We can further understand Dante's practice, however, simply by asking ourselves some basic questions. If Dante has decided to create a poem whose first sense will be the historical/ literal sense of Scripture, he cannot treat one set of its characters and events (those drawn from Scripture and from Virgil) as his- torical, another (those drawn from Ovid or another source of pagan myth), as fictional. If he records only what he has seen - and that is the pretext of his poem - then if he is to see Ovidian or other mythological characters, they too must be treated as historical. His choice was to banish all "non-historical" characters from his poem or to treat some "non-historical" characters as historical. I think it is worth the time to observe Dante's response to this problem in his very text:

Sempre a quel ver c'ha f accia di menzogna
de' l'uom chiuder le labbra fin ch'el puote,
però che sanza colpa fa vergogna;

ma qui tacer nol posso; e per le note
di questa comedìa, lettor, ti giuro,
s'elle non sien di lunga grazia vòte,

ch'i vidi per quell' aere grosso e scuro
venir notando una figura in suso,
maravigliosa ad ogne cor sicuro…
(Inf. XVI, 124-132)

The lines describe the arrival of the mythological Geryon - as fictional, as fabulous a creature as one might wish to imagine. But their thrust is not, as Franco Ferrucci has argued, to show that Dante does not treat his fiction as fact, but the very opposite. The self- consciousness of the passage is underlined by its opening reversal: Geryon, as a "character" in the poem, has a "faccia d'uom giusto" (Inf. XVII, 10), that is, he is a menzogna that has faccia di ver. But in Dante's description of Geryon the poetic object the terms are transposed - he is a poetic object that has every appearance of being a lie, a poet's fiction, but Dante will claim for him a literal verity, will indeed put his entire Comedy behind the claim that he actually saw this actual Geryon. It is a claim that is not without its risks, as Boccaccio's comment on verse 126 makes plain - "in quanto color che l'odono si fanno beffe di lui e dicono lui essere grandissimo bugiardo." One senses behind Dante's passage an authorial wink, lest we take it for a nod: "I know you won't believe this (why should you? - I don't either), but the convention of my poem compels me to claim historicity even for such as Geryon." If Geryon is a bella menzogna in reality, Dante's treatment of him in his poem shows how intent he was in the poem (and not merely in the Epistle) to establish a convention of literal truth for even such as he. If he is a poetic menzogna, in Dante's treatment he becomes a menzogna vera.
Let me attempt to buttress my point with one of my favorite examples of Dante's self-conscious insistence that he saw everything that is recorded in the Commedia. The scene is an unlikely one in which to make such a claim. Watching God's "dumbshow," the allegorical procession in the Earthly Paradise, Dante sees the griffin. Referring to the number of its wings, which are variously described by Ezekiel (who has four) and John (who gives six), the poet claims: "Giovanni e meco e da lui si diparte" (Purg. XXIX, 105). Where does authority lie here? In the primacy of the author's vision. A writer willing to accept a fictional pretext for his work would never have written so prideful a statement, would have been content with the more "honest" and humble "And here I follow John." These two details reinforce one point, that "the fiction of the Divine Comedy is that it is not fiction," while helping us to see that Dante was not without a sense of humor. At the risk of offending the more solemn of those among the "right wing" of dantisti, I should like to assert that for all his evident and Christian seriousness, Dante was not always solemn. (His possibly apocryphal delight in being perceived as one whose countenance still bore the singeings of Hell by that woman in a Veronese street is entirely in character.) That he could rear up this splendid edifice upon the brilliant and fictitious construction of a "vision," and then play with his own construction, is still another sign of his utter superiority as a maker of literature. He is, in every sense of the word, extraordinary.
If we can agree that Dante intends in his poem what he would later say he did in the Epistle to Cangrande, if we can agree that in the Commedia we are asked to experience the presentation of a perceived actuality (and not a literary dream ), a major part of my argument has been successful. Lately, another tactic in the counter- attack upon Singleton's position is to claim that if we grant the historical/literal nature of the first sense of the Commedia, it is not required that we grant any more than the usual allegorical proce- dures to the poem's further significance. Let us say that we agree that Virgilio is the shade of the historical Virgilio, that Beatrice is the same, that Francesca is clearly herself and is a historical personage, even that Ulisse is to be conceived of as "historical," what they mean (as apart from their poetic reality) is to be discovered through conventional modes of signification, or, more precisely, by means of the allegory of the poets. Virgilio is, or represents, human reason; Beatrice, revelation; Francesca, lust; Ulisse, vana curiositas. The point here is that while not all fictional characters are to be conceived of as historical, historical characters (in a fiction or out of one, I might add) may be understood, with respect to their "significance," through entirely ordinary allegorical procedures- and here I refer to the allegory of the poets. One does not, the argument continues, require any such method as that outlined in the Epistle to Cangrande to understand them; it in fact has little to do with the way in which we understand them. How may this objection be answered? First, I must accede to it in part, as I have already done in Allegory in Dante's Commedia (pp. 233-265). It would have been unlikely or even impossible that in the Commedia Dante could have entirely deracinated his own inheritance of the allegory of the poets and its concomitant practices. A concurrent phenomenon is to be seen in his use of exemplary figures, e.g., Semiramis in Inferno v (to name one of the hundreds of exempla that dot the pages of the poem), which shows his adherence to a technique of signifying that is common to almost all medieval fiction, and which is certainly found in conjunction with the allegory of the poets. This mode, which "squeezes" a single essential moral quality out of a probably more complex human entity, is one sign that not all of the Commedia is "figural," but that parts of it continue to signify in the traditional poetic mode. (There is a counter-argument here, which I leave to one side, and which would observe that Dante's exemplary figures also function as part of the historical dimension of his poem; although it is an argument with which I agree, I am willing, for the sake of argument, to grant that exemplary figures are basically related to such a mode as the allegory of the poets.) The Convivio itself offers ample testimony to Dante's skill in the technique of the allegory of the poets, and no one should suggest that he could have torn away all vestiges of his earlier garment when he wrote the Commedia. Still, and as I have previously argued, Virgilio is not Reason, if he is particularly associated with the use of the rational faculty (if only once specifically so - Purgatorio XVIII, 46-48, verses which also associate Beatrice with faith). He is first and foremost the historical Virgilio, most importantly the author of the Aeneid, which is what Dante knows best about him, and "signifies," as does many a personage in the Commedia, along "figural" principles. That is an assertion which I shall try to document with an example in a moment. Before I do so, let me refer momentarily to Scott's point of view. Does it really matter whether we perceive the poem to have been written in the mode of the allegory of the poets or of the allegory of the theologians? I still believe that it does, while admit- ting that it matters more in some particulars than it does in others. Let us examine one particular, one which happens to lead back to our concern with Dante's reading of Virgil.
Dante's discussion of Marcia and Cato in Convivio IV, xxviii, is clearly in the mode of the allegory of the poets, and comes hard upon his similarly structured allegorical exposition of the Aeneid a few paragraphs earlier, which, by seeing the Aeneid in the tradition of Fulgentius, Bernardus Silvestris, and John of Salisbury as the representation of the moral and intellectual growth of the human soul, sets the stage for a similar disquisition on Marcia, from which I excerpt the following:

...for by Marcia is understood the noble soul. And we may comprehend this figure of speech in the following way: Marcia was a virgin, and in this state adolescence is signified; then she married Cato, and in this state youth is signified; then she had children, by which are signified the virtues which are discussed above as being fitting to youth; and then she left Cato and married Hortensius, by which is signified that youth departs in favor of old age; she had children by Hortensius as well, by which are signified the virtues which are discussed above as being fitting to old age. Hortensius died, by which is signified the end of old age; and having become a widow - by which widowhood is signified advanced age [lo senio] - Marcia returned at the beginning of her widowhood to Cato, by which is signified that the noble soul at the onset of advanced age returns to God. And what earthly man was more worthy of signifying God than Cato? Surely none.

There is no doubt which of Dante's two allegories we encounter here. The allegory of the poets, with its familiar chop logic and disregard for the historical significance of events, confronts us in full regalia. Cato, Dante's great classical hero in the field of action, who will balance Virgil, his classical contemplative hero, each of them occupying the first canti of the first two cantiche of the Commedia, is here philologically ancillary to Marcia. "And what earthly man was more worthly of signifying God than Cato?" Dante's question is raised to defend the allegorical equivalence which he has made between Marcia and the noble soul. Linguistically, Cato is a mere appurtenance, whatever Dante's regard for him, in the defense of an allegorical method. And I am pleased to imagine that this particu- larly pedantic bit of business galled Dante himself. It was only a matter of a few more pages before he would abandon the Convivio forever, perhaps upon the very day he wrote these lines, or at any rate soon thereafter. And when we turn to Purgatorio II, where is "the noble soul"? If that is what Marcia represents, why is she not, if not in Paradise, at least in Purgatory? What, in fact, is a lady who represents the noble soul doing in Hell? For, as the text explicitly informs us, Marcia is in Limbo (Purg. I, 88), where we have already seen her (Inf. IV, 128). The answer seems to me clear. Marcia is where she is because Dante has abandoned the allegory of the poets, which took her to heaven, for the allegory of the theologians, with its insistence on the priority of history over philology. And now it is Cato who is treated as important, a Cato who, more than most of Dante's personages, has troubled the commentators, and who has only in the past few years begun to be understood along some of the "figural" lines which created him. This is not the place to rehearse the new arguments, but I do wish to point out that they have all been advanced by those who do think that the allegory of the theologians is the dominant significative mode of the Commedia, and it is at least likely that the method should receive some credit for whatever is valuable in their perceptions; at any rate one can say that the allegory of the poets had a miserable record as far as understanding Cato is concerned. And perhaps few moments in Dante's oeuvre offer us so clear a contrast between the two modes of allegory. I do not believe that even the most convinced critic of the opposing persuasion can have any real doubt about the issue which we face here. Nor do I believe that it is an accident that Cato's two canti find at their center the song of the Exodus, the 113th Psalm that Dante uses as his focusing example in the Epistle, when he told us, after the fact, how his poem signifies.
That last word, the verb "to signify," so often before us in the passage from the Convivio which we have examined, does not reappear in Dante's work until it does so in his own words to Bonagiunta da Lucca, to whom Dante delivers his own ars poetica concerning his mode of signifying in the Vita Nuova and the Commedia:

…"I' mi son un che, quando
Amor mi spira, noto, e a quel modo
ch'e' ditta dentro vo significando."
(Purg. XXIV, 52-54)

In my view the kind of signification to which Dante refers is "theological" in nature, since I read both the words Amove and spira as iconographically related to the Holy Spirit. And if Dante is claiming, as Gian Roberto Sarolli believes, that his poem is divinely inspired, he has met- in his own mind, at least- one of St. Thomas's primary objections to poetry, that it is man-made, and therefore severely limited. The claim is veiled enough for centuries of readers to have believed that Dante spoke of carnal love (in whatever permutation), but it surely speaks of a higher form of inspiration. Dante, through the Commedia, wants to be taken as Sarolli takes him, as scriba Dei. And if that is so, an essential guarantor of his poem's truthfulness is its adaptation of the mode of signifying that is explicitly disallowed the poet- the allegory of the theologians. Giorgio Padoan, in one of the most helpful pages of Dante criticism written in the past decade, has pointed out that even Pietro di Dante, the poet's son, failed to consent to the basic claim of the poem. Pietro nervously attempts to reassure the littery reader that his father did not really think he had been in the Empyrean (nor the rest of the afterworld, by implication), but only feigns to have been there, while in my view Dante is feigning that he is not feigning. Indeed, with the partial exception of Filippo Villani, none of Dante's fourteenth-century commentators takes his claim seriously, and they rather treat Dante as a poeta-theologus than the theologus- poeta he in fact was, or at any rate insisted on being considered. The distinction, which may seem minimal, is crucial. For the champions of the poeta-theologus, who begin in Italy with Mussato and make their way in the Trecento through Petrarch and Boccaccio to Sal- utati, claim a high calling but not the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit for their own literary productions, which they treat- unlike Dante- as being literally untrue, if they simultaneously assert their allegorical truth. The arguments which they offer in defense of poetry move back into a tradition that begins with Aristotle, was kept alive by Augustine (De civitate Dei XVIII, xiv), and have in the fourteenth century (and later) a common element: they all willingly agree that, at the first remove, the poet is a liar. Dante, on the other hand, no matter how veiled the claim, clearly asserts that his poem is divinely inspired and theologically true. Questions of taste and blasphemy prevent him from telling us in so many words what his poetic pose nevertheless requires us to see. He is a theologus-poeta, an inspired poet who begins with the truth of what he tells.
Attacking Padoan's view that the Commedia is literally a poema sacro, Scott adduces the opinions of three distinguished theologians, Etienne Gilson, Henri de Lubac, and G. G. Meersseman, in support of his contention that the poem is a fiction, one which functions in the usual medieval way, and not as a "divinely inspired appendix to the Bible" (p. 582). My own position, I should point out again, has never been that the poem is literally true, but that it asks to be taken (with or without the claims made on its behalf in the Epistle) as being literally true. And thus my own position falls between that of Scott and that of Padoan, if it is closer to Padoan's. But if the poem is not literally true, why should we have spent and continue to spend so much time with Dante's claims for its relation to Scripture? The far better way to ask this question is to wonder why Dante so often asserted, from one end of the Commedia to the other (Inf. II, 8: "o mente che scrivesti cio chi'io vidi"; Par. XXXIII, 121-123: "Oh quanto e corto il dire e come fioco / al mio concetto! e questo [il dire], a quel ch'i' vidi, / e tanto, che non basta a dire 'poco' "- italics added), that he actually saw the scenes recorded in the Commedia. This is one very long step beyond the point reached by the poeta- theologus. In whatever permutation, he will agree that only the Bible or history is capable of telling literal truth, and he in fact (especially if his name is Francesco Petrarca) glories in the fabulous nature of poetry.
Let us confront the major question which these thoughts urge upon us. If we can conclude that Dante chose the allegory of the theologians for the significative mode of his poem, why would he have made such a radical and controversial choice? The answers that have been offered (to make his poem "more true," to be in closer accord with the theology it professes), while being basically acceptable, have missed, I believe, the central point. Dante's choice reflects his own engagement in the battle against poetry which is closely identified with St. Thomas and the Dominican Order. The soft answer- which admits the poet's literal lie- offered by Mussato did not turn away wrath, nor would it have convinced Dante. To him the Dominican position was particularly challenging on one point. If one agreed that the poet was literally a liar, why should anyone honor the poet's claims for the eventual truth of his poem? To Dante's temperament, with his vast respect for the truths of things as well as for the truth of ideas, such an answer would have seemed an evasion and a failure. (His one experiment with such a tactic, the Convivio, is pointedly an abandoned major work.) His response to the Dominican challenge was to take it to heart and then answer it on its own terms. The result was that the Commedia (not to mention the Vita Nuova) had to be conceived as being literally true. Thus, what I have suggested is that Dante is not a poeta- theologus but a theologus-poeta, and I further argue that while the former freely admits that his fictions are fictions, Dante creates a fiction which he pretends to consider not to be literally fictitious, while at the same time contriving to share the knowledge with us that it is precisely fictional. That would be a fair recapitulation of the major points of my argument.
What is perhaps of greatest eventual interest to the entire discussion is the role of Virgil in Dante's choice of poetic in the Cornmedia. In my own view (and it is one that in this particular coincides with that of Giorgio Padoan), the next major step forward in such studies is likely to come from a better appreciation of Virgil's extraodinary significance to the making of the Commedia, even with respect to Dante's choice of a poetic. It seems more than likely, especially in light of Ulrich Leo's investigations, that Dante reread the Aeneid while he was writing the fourth tractate of the Convivio. The Virgil he read then, first in an allegorical-philosophical light, must have seemed to him gradually and increasingly a different kind of poet, a poet who reached out of Limbo into a Christian dispensation to help create the Commedia and who, the text would clearly seem to imply, was a "John the Baptist" to Beatrice's "Christ," and who led Dante, a "Hebrew in the wilderness," back to Beatrice. This Virgil is not the "philosophical" poet of Fulgentius and Ber- nardus, who served well enough for some pages of the Convivio, but the inspired pagan who almost told the whole truth, not only theological (in the Fourth Eclogue) but, eyen more importantly, political (in the Aeneid), and who is condemned to Limbo only for his deficiencies in the first category. Still, he is greatly honored, certainly more so than Orpheus, who receives only a word of notice in Limbo (Inf. iv, 140), and who happens to be, along with Linus and Musaeus, a usual exemplum of the poeta-theologus. The choice of Virgil over Orpheus as guide and model in the Commedia is one of the more suggestive details which we may consider in attempting to come to grips with the poetic strategies of the Commedia. We last saw Orpheus referred to in Dante's definition of the allegory of the poets in Convivio II, i. We see him now in Limbo (Inf. IV, 140), where one of his companions is Marcia (Inf. IV, 128).
These two virtuous pagans who have served, in the Convivio, to present the theory and pratice of the allegory of the poets, are here granted a single word of notice in the form of their very names. And these serve now to identify their historical roles- Orpheus the poet- theologian, Marcia the wife of Cato - and not their previously construed meanings in the Convivio, where the allegory of the poets equated them with wisdom and nobility of soul. While Virgil dwells in Limbo with them, it is with unending wonder and delight that we contemplate his function in the first sixty-two canti of the Commedia. They are constrained; he, if not eventually free, is freer than they, a better Orpheus who serves as Dante's model and guide. It is my conviction that it is in Dante's rereading of the Aeneid that we may one day come to discover the main source, or fons ("Or se' tu quel Virgilio e quella fonte / che spandi di parlar si largo fiume?" as Dante has it in Inf. I, 79-80) not only of so much of the poetic energy of the Commedia, but also of his brilliant solution of the problem posed for a Christian poetic by St. Thomas's attack upon poetry. In such a view it was the Aeneid which served as Dante's poetic "Jordan," a river of speech from which, in the most profound of paradoxes, Dante drew the inspiration for his assumption of the role of theologus-poeta, the only role that may begin to account for the essential significative processes of the great poem.

(Rome 24 June 1975)

Date: 2021-12-22