Dante's Poetics [Robert Hollander]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Robert Hollander

Tratto da: The Sewanee Review

Numero: 85

Anno: 1977

Pagine: 392-410

What I wish to convey by the phrase Dante's poetics is not what a medieval reader would have understood, for he would have expected a treatise on the technical aspects of poetic composition. Instead I have in mind what Ernst Robert Curtius, in the seventh excursus of his European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, referred to as “the theory of poetry,… the concept of the nature and function ot the poet and of poetry.” Students of the poetry and of the poetic theory of the later Middle Ages and of the renaissance are aware that poets and defenders of poetry during these periods were often at pains to redeem the fictitious nature of the poetic enterprise by asserting that even though poems represented palpable untruth when considered literally, they also contained a further and hidden truth, one which was in no way at variance with true doctrine, and was thus philosophically worthy and, even more important, theologically worthy. It is in this spirit that Albertino Mussato, the great Paduan humanist, initiated the Italian tradition of considering the poet a theologian; his revival of the phrase poeta-theologus, or poet-theologian, first uttered around 1315 in an epistolary debate with a Dominican friar, achieved wide currency in the Italian Trecento.
To say that a poet is a poet-theologian is to borrow a phrase used in the theological debate concerning the merit of secular poetry nine hundred years earlier, in St. Augustine's City of God. Considering the worship of false gods and the concomitant flourishing of pagan mythology in the Mediterranean world during the period embracing the lives of Moses, Joshua, and the judges who ruled Israel, Augustine makes this seminal statement (book 18, chapter 14):

At this time there were poets who were referred to as theologians, since they composed songs about the gods, although concerning such gods as were either great men (but men nonetheless), or elements of this world which were made by the true God, or else ordained as principalities and powers by the will of the Creator and in accord with their own merit. And if among many vain and false things they sang something of the one true God, when they worshipped others, who are not gods, along with Him, and when they vowed their servitude to them which they owed to the one true God alone, they did not serve Him properly; nor were even such as Orpheus, Musaeus, and Linus able to abstain from dishonoring their own gods in their fables.

Augustine's remarks about pagan myth would seem to reflect traditional divisions of mythographic material, in which myths variously tell the exploits of heroes (e.g., Hercules), explain such wonders as the origins of worldly phenomena (e.g., the formation of mountains), or illustrate the origins of celestial bodies (e.g., Castor and Pollux). If Augustine’s mythographic concerns tend to be opaque, his attitude toward the poet-theologian is more evident, if not unequivocating.
The best that he seems able to say about such poets is that they tell at least partial truth about human morality and the laws of nature, with an inkling of the true god sometimes being perceivable in their work. But even the rhetorical structure of the passage serves to remind the reader that, in Augustine’s eyes, what they did not know or understand far outweighs what they did know or understand. For not only did they worship false gods, but they worshipped them badly. The three poets who are named as doing so—Orpheus, Musaeus, and Linus—have an interesting history in medieval debates about poetry, for they are—all of them or some of them, at times in the company of others—invoked by both sides in the dispute, by the defenders and detractors of poetry alike. Yet the context of St. Augustine’s remark is almost entirely negative. In short, for St. Augustine, the poet- theologian of pagan antiquity is not to be more than tolerated, and he is certainly not to be turned to for revelation, nor in- deed for significant truth of any kind. However, perhaps partly as a result of the literary enthusiasms of his youth, Augustine leaves the door ajar. And Orpheus, Musaeus, and Linus, like those Greek poets (it is the only use of the word poet in the New Testament) referred to by St. Paul in his sermon on the Areopagus (Acts 17:28), were later to be seen by the defenders of poetry as possessed of Christian revelation or else of a truth similar in kind to biblical truth.
If Augustine's words denigrate the cognitive potential of poetry, the same is the case with respect to the greatest pagan authority known to the scholars of the Middle Ages—Aristotle. In speaking of the poet-theologian in the Metaphysics, Aristotle refers to “Hesiod and the other theologians”; and his other references to the “theologizîng” of Homer make it plain that he, in the traces of Plato, senses the presence of a chasm between poetry and philosophical truth. His position informs Augustine’s position; and Aquinas in his attacks on poetry is clearly aware of both these antecedents.
Nonetheless a phrase that serves a purpose well is easily torn from context and put to less than accurate use. For the fourteenth-century defenders of poetry in Italy the mere fact that such venerable authorities as Aristotle and Augustine had used words representing poetry and theology in close proximity was enough to encourage such later writers to join them in a positive context. And the primary underlying assertion of such fourteenth-century defenders of poetry as Albertino Mussato, Francesco Petrarca, Giovanni Boccaccio, and Coluccio Salutati might be expressed in this way:

Not only were poets the first theologians (as Aristotle and Augustine proclaim), not only is the divine truth of scripture revealed both in poetry, as in the Psalms, or in figures of speech that are common to the language of the Bible and that of poetic discourse, but we ourselves are joined to these two traditions, and as poets are capable of telling the truth, a truth in no way incompatible with the truth of Aristotelian thought, the teachings of the Bible, the instructions of the fathers, or the precepts of the church.

This position, here sketched in the briefest outline, is familiar to students of the Italian Trecento; and its key phrase, the union of the words poeta and theologus, represents a rallying cry of the friends of poetry against the hostility of the Scholastics. This hostility to fable, especially to the fabulous expressed in the medium of poems, was widespread, if not univocal. In France, for instance, a century or so earlier, one confronts the wide divergence of opinion concerning the value of secular letters among such major figures as the hostile Hugh of St. Victor, the more ambivalent Alain de Lille, and the enthusiastic champion Bernard Silvester. In Italy the official theological position, in this as in so much else, was seen to have been promulgated in the thirteenth century by St. Thomas. His various characterizations of poetry include the following: poetry “contains the slightest amount of truth”; it is seen as deficient “because of its lack of truth”; and it is regarded as “the lowest kind of knowledge.” Furthermore he several times refers to poets as liars. It is probably fair to suggest that an important basis for the anti-clericalism of many late medieval secular writers is often the result less of positive antagonism toward the hypocritical behavior of the fraternal orders than of a defensive posture generated by the fraternal abuses of poetry. Indeed the practice of the literary art was (at least until Petrarch made it glorious and put it, for practical purposes, beyond the reach of ecclesiastical censure on any grounds but heresy) under continual attack from the secular and especially the regular clergy, particularly the Dominican order. The bone of contention between the defenders of literature and its detractors had several knotty protuberances, but one is largest and most troublesome, and is the major cause of the series of defenses of poetry which we find in the Trecento: poets were and are liars. Such a frontal attack was bound to cause resentful response. In such a light we should read the several defenses of poetry that are a prominent feature of our period.
No study of the concept of the poeta-theologus, as it is reborn in Italy in the Epistolae of Albertino Mussato, is as cogently to the point as the twelfth chapter of Curtius's European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, 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. Curtius 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 carried forward in France by such as Bernard Silvester and Alain de Lille); that it is a defensive response and not a profound or intellectually vigorous argument (Aquinas's theory of kImowledge and art is seen as what is new and vigorous); and that it arises precisely as a defense against Dominican thought (although this is not made as a conscious point by Curtius).
The major debates on the subject, which stand at either end of a ninety-year arc of time (1315-1405), occur between defenders of poets as poetae-theologi (Albertino, Coluccio) and their Dominican opponents who deny to poetry a cognitive function (Giovannino and Giovanni). The core of the argument does not vary. The defense argues that poetry, like the Bible, is both poetic and capable of telling truth; the Dominicans believe that poetry is at best marginally true and at worst not at all true, and that it certainly has nothing to do with the knowledge gained through theology. And if little substantively changes in the argument between the time of the Albertina-Giovannino controversy and its later version, which pitted Coluccio against Giovanni, what we find in the defense of Petrarch (notably in the Invective contra medicum and in Familiares 10.4) and of Boccaccio (especially in books 14 and 15 of the Genealogy of the Gods) is not essentially different from the others. And it 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 in any case has rarely been carried on so 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 which side won (the one of which we generally approve), a fact that tends to remove some: of our sense of the precariousness of the arguments that 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-theologians was, however, both clever and attrac- tive. They insisted that their aims were, morally at least, the same as those of the church. And they eventually had to triumph, for they had on their side a powerful audience which liked their product. (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 ex- ample is found throughout Italy in the form of the cinema parrocchiale, so often housed in or alongside Catholic churches today—and I would be loath to omit reference to the Unitarian church in Dallas, Texas, which, on 27 April 1975, featured a striptease as part of its Sunday service.) At the moment in the conflict that is of particular interest to us, it was probably not clear 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 defensive than they are generally taken to be now. Our con- temporary apprehension of the situation is undoubtedly tempered by our tendency to admire poets and to disparage theologians.
This brief description of the dispute between theologians and poets who insisted that they were poet-theologians centers in the debate over the cognitive value of poetry. Here the poets found themselves backed into an uncomfortable corner. For what they all were forced to admit was that if they dealt in fable they dealt with matter that was literally untrue. And this was the case whether they were commentators of Ovid or composers of their own fables. Their response was to appropriate the church's own “beautiful machine”—allegory.

Among all theoretical distinctions between that mode of allegory which was used exclusively to interpret scripture and the mode which was to be used in understanding secular literature, none are as simple, direct, and useful as those that are offered us by Dante himself. In Convivio 2.1 he calls the one the allegory of the theologians and the other the allegory of the poets. While Dante’s claims for his blending of the two allegories in his own odes in the Convivio may seem forced, illogical, and “improper,” it is the making of the distinction itself which is of extraordinary significance. No other medieval secular writer ever made the claim that such a choice was open to him. There were, as was universally acknowledged, two kinds of allegory. And precise distinctions about them were culturally available in a way that they no longer are.
Let us consider the distinctions made by Hugh of St. Victor in his Didascalion. In book 3 Hugh advances three senses which are to be found in secular writing: littera (the letters which constitute words), sensus (the literal meaning of these words), and sententia (the deeper construction or further meaning of the words). Though Hugh is not so explicit as St. Thomas will later be, it is clear that when he turns to scriptural allegory, in book 5 of the Didascalion, the three senses which he finds in the Bible are of a different nature. They are historia (biblical events which have actually occurred), allegoria (the later biblical events which fulfill those historical events—including those recorded or pointed to in the Apocalypse, and thus including what is usually put forward as a fourth, or anagogical, sense), and tropologia (the moral sense, the reflection of the first two senses in our lives now). The exegesis of a secular work accordingly involves a technique much different from that employed for the exegesis of a sacred one. And the main, indeed the central, distinction involves the ahistorical nature of secular fiction as opposed to the historical nature of much that is found in scripture.
Here I must add a parenthetical explanation. For Hugh also shows the relevance of his first set of interpretive coordinates to the Bible as well - but the texts which he analyzes according to their littera-sensus-sententia are precisely texts which do not contain a historical sense but which are what such as St. Thomas (and even a secular commentator like Pietro di Dante) will refer to as having a parabolic sense, thus remaining beyond the reach (or, more properly, to the side) of an exegetical principle based in historical event. In short, for Hugh and for many another exegete, Dante's distinction would have been totally comprehensible as well as correct, but with the further proviso that certain texts of scripture may be understood through the same process that must be applied to secular fiction. In a shorthand that will be familiar to readers of Augustine 's De Trinitate, we have to deal with the difference between allegoria in facto, an allegory based in historical fact, and allegoria in verbis, one based in words alone. Scripture contains both kinds of allegory; secular fiction, only the latter. (I should add that this is precisely the position taken by St. Thomas, both in the Summa and in the Quaestiones Quodlibetales.)
However, if Hugh—or any other theologian—would have agreed with Dante's essential distinction, he would have been shocked, and even perhaps enraged, to find Dante claiming that the allegory of the theologians could have any use whatsoever in analyzing the significance of his own secular and clearly fictional Convivial odes.
What is most surprising and impressive is Dante's claim that what he calls the allegory of the theologians might have anything to do with secular poetry. The impulse to make such a claim reveals a writer who is deeply concerned about his own poetics. Nonetheless, in accord with the main burden of his claims, Dante’s exegetical procedures in the Convivio are essentially those of the allegory of the poets. What of the Commedia?
It does seem almost beyond doubt, despite Boccaccio's argument for an early beginning of the Inferno, that Dante began writing the Commedia only after having abandoned the Convivio. Many Dante scholars, following Erich Auerbach and Charles Singleton, have come to regard the Commedia as having been written in the mode of the allegory of the theologians. If this is the case, we are faced with a series of implications that have a great deal to do with the way in which we must read the poem. Since many of these have been widely discussed, I shall not turn to them now. But let us remind ourselves of the differences between the two kinds of allegory as they may be found in Dante’s own work.
His discussion of Marcia and Cato in Convivio 4.28 inheres in the mode of the allegory of the poets, and it comes hard upon his similarly written allegorical exposition of the Aeneid. There, 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, he sets the stage for a similar disquisition on Marcia:

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.

The allegory of the poets, with its familiar choplogic and its 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 worthy 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. Whatever Dante’s regard for him, Cato is linguistically a mere appurtenance in defending an allegorical method. It pleases me to imagine that this particularly 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 the first canti of Purgatory, 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 (Purgatory 1.88—we have already seen her there in Inferno 4). Marcia is there 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. 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 critics 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; in any case one can say that expositions in the mode of 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. Nor do I believe that it is an accident that Cato's two canti find at their center the song of the Exodus, Psalm 113, that Dante uses as his focusing example in the epistle to Can Grande, when he told us, after the fact, how his poem signifies.
If we may assume for the moment that the Commedia is indeed written in the mode of the allegory of the theologians, whether or not Dante wrote the letter to Can Grande—which explicitly states that the work is of this nature—we should certainly be concerned about what we have granted. If the poem has the four biblical senses, some troubling implications accompany them, not the least of which is that the Divine Comedy is to be treated as though it were the word of God.
Since a great deal has been written on this point, I avoid dis- cussion of it by asking that we may all concede for purposes of argument that this is precisely the claim made by the poem itself. And it that is Dante's claim, the most interesting question which arises is a natural and bewildered inquiry: Why would a poet want to make such a dangerous and contro- versial assertion about his own work? In the hope of generating further speculation on this point I have outlined the debate about the cognitive capacity of poetry in the Trecento.

In this debate the central figure was St. Thomas. His attacks on poetry as defective in truth supplied Dominican detractors ot poetry with something that approached a party line, and one is forced to read the major texts that defend poetry (such as Boccaccio's Genealogy) with an awareness of the author's delight in twisting Thomas's arguments so as to enrage these opponents. For fourteenth-century defenses of poetry are precisely that: defenses. And when we remember that one of the primary grounds for assault was nearly unanswerable, we may begin to sense the likely discomfort of the defenders. None of them could answer the charge that fictions, unlike the historical texts of the Bible, were characterized by their literal untruth. My own view is that the four fourteenth- century works which many modern readers would agree are clearly the masterworks of the period-the Commedia, the Decameron, the Libro de buen amor, and the Canterbury Tales - are so well loved by these readers because in some way their authors chose to answer this attack upon fiction by first agreeing with its primary charge—that fables tell literal untruth. What we today call the “realism” of Dante, Boccaccio, Juan Ruiz, and Chaucer—three of whom also wrote works in the tradition of the allegorical fable—was probably to some degree the result of an attempt to respond to Thomas' strictures. (The unhappy part of our enthusiasm is that we tend to pay insufficient heed to the supposedly “minor” works of these masters.) With regard to Dante what I wish to argue is that the Commedia should be seen, following a first attempt in this direction in the Vita Nuova, as a brilliant and perceptive answer to the frontal attack of the Dominicans, for its données are, or should be, conceived as a rebuff to both sides in the argument. When the friars attacked poets as liars, the poets, gathered behind the banner of the poeta-theologus, answered by agreeing that their poems were literally untrue but that they could eventually be seen to contain allegorical truth. Dante’s splendid and singular response was that his poem was literally true. And if that is the working assumption of the poem (Charles Singleton's incisive phrase comes to mind: “The fiction of the Divine Comedy is that it is not fiction”), one can readily grasp the corollary—that this poem, unlike all others, is inspired by God. There is a second corollary—therefore it is to be read as the Bible is read.
It is in such a frame of reference that we may try to comprehend the otherwise totally bewildering claims made in the Epistle to Can Grande. We may argue back down our corollaries to our initial axiom: (1) The poem has the four biblical senses. Objection: Only the Bible, God's book, has these four senses. (2) The poem has a similar inspirational source. Objection: God's inspiration of the writers of the Bible is guaranteed by the unique historicity of the events recorded therein; human fictions are not historical in this sense. (3) This poem is historical in nature. Objection: I do not believe this to be the case. And it is in such mutual trespass of belief and disbelief that we, as readers of the Commedia, oscillate. Our agnosticism, or even vociferous antagonism, finds many instances that cause disbelief. Yet our aesthetic experience of what Dante causes us to see keeps nudg- ing us back to belief. What medieval fiction do we possess— even some of the brilliantly worldly tales of the Decameron— that has convinced as many readers of its aesthetic and “realistic” integrity?
We are right to feel uncomfortable. Did all this actually happen? Farinata may live in our consciousness as actually as Boccaccio's Cisti the baker or as our next-door neighbor, but that fact of consciousness does not require us to accept as true Dante's assertion that he saw Farinata in Hell. Franco Ferrucci has recently argued that Dante forces us to acknowledge that his poem is not literally true. A passage which Ferrucci uses pointedly describes the appearance of the great beast of fraud, Geryon, in Inferno 16:

To that truth which has the face of a lie a man should always close his lips so far as he can, for through no fault of his it brings reproach; but here I cannot be silent; and, reader, I swear to you by the notes of this Comedy—so may they not fail of lasting fervor—that I saw, through that thick and murky air, come swimming upwards a figure amazing to every steadfast heart. (trans. C. S. Singleton)

The oath is probably the most forceful one sworn to us, Dante's readers, in the entire poem. Indeed Dante puts the merit and fame of the entire work behind his claim here to be telling us a literal truth. There is probably no critic, living or dead, who has ever suggested that Dante was not a daring poet. Here his daring seems almost reckless. Not a soul among us believes in the literal truth of these lines. One may think of a parallel in Rabelais's conclusion of his prologue to his own second book, where he offers himself, body and soul, tripe and bowels, to one hundred thousand fiends if he lie in even a single word of this his “History.” Yet I do not agree with Mr. Ferrucci, as much as I admire his study, that from this passage we should conclude that the Commedia should be read as a metaphor rather than as a literal experience. That is, while I have not the slightest doubt that the Comedy is a fiction, I also claim that it is a fiction which demands to be treated as literal truth. I offer a perhaps blasphemous parallel. Let us assume that the Bible was not dictated by the Holy Spirit, that it was “made up” by a series of human writers. We would all probably agree, however, that the Bible asks to be taken as literal truth, whether it is the word of God or a human fiction. One might make the same claim about the novels of Zola and Balzac, which also ask to be taken as literally true. But they were written when “realistic” fiction enjoyed a convention of acceptance that was not available in similar ways to Dante. Still one must admit that Ferrucciss unhappiness has long been widely shared. Five pages before his commentary to the Inferno came to its mortal conclusion, Giovanni Boccaccio was worried by this passage. He explains the line “però che sanza colpa fa vergogna” (“for through no fault of his it brings reproach”): “Insofar as those who hear it [the ‘truth which has the face of a lie] make mock of him and say that he is a colossal liar.”
Clearly Dante has gone out of his way to summon up, along with Geryon, his reader's incredulity. Then, at precisely the moment at which we are likely to feel the greatest discomfort, he makes the claim that forces us to accept the veracity of Geryon or reject the veracity of the entire work. It isa wink—as profound an authorial wink as one is likely to glimpse—that makes Rabelais's wink seem schoolboy humor in comparison. The utter seriousness of Dante”s context, that of a visionary Christian poem, reveals the high stakes at which Dante is willing to play for our allegiance. I do not think we are merely intended to reassure ourselves that Dante knows perfectly well that he has invented his Comedy; we are to wonder about the reasons for his further invention —that he (and we) must make believe that he has not invented it.
I buttress the 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. Reterring to the number of its wings, which are variously described by Ezekiel (who says four) and John (who gives six), the poet claims: “John is with me and differs with [Ezekiel]”" (Purgatory 29.105). Where does authority lie here? In the primacy of the authors vision. A writer willing to accept a fictional pretext for his work would never have written so prideful a statement; he would have been content with the more “honest” and humble “And here I follow John.” These two details reinforce the 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 dantisti, I 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 and precisely to my point.) That he could rear up this splendid edifice upon the brilliant and fictitious construction ot 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.
Maria Simonelli has rightly pointed out that the passages in the Commedia which continue to vex our understanding do not really depend upon Dante’s choice of allegorical method but are part of the trope aenigma, those puzzling and teasing riddles that poets have always employed. And given our difficulty, to which any translator of Dante will quickly attest, in understanding the literal sense of many passages, it is clear that the continuing cooperation of the “new philology” called for by Michele Barbi and of the contributions of the literary historian remains the most promising source for the better understanding of the poem. Nonetheless the poetics of the Commedia are of central importance if we wish to fathom the intellectual climate in which the poem was written, for it is in the nature of Dante's poetics that we are most likely to gain some sense of his purpose and of his uniqueness.
Dante was, we will probably acknowledge, not only better than his contemporaries (not to mention his predecessors or his followers), but different from them, so much so that they had a most difficult time understanding the force of his poetic strategies. Giorgio Padoan 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 jittery reader that his father did not really think he had been in the Empyrean (nor the rest of the atterworld, by implication), but only feigns to have been there. Indeed, with the partial exception of Filippo Villani, none of Dante's fourteenth-century commentators takes his claim seriously, and they treat Dante as a poeta-theologus rather than the theologuspoeta 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 Salutati, claim a high calling but not the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit for their own literary productions, which they treat—tunlike Dante—as being literally untrue, though they simultaneously assert their allegorical truth. The arguments which they offer in defense of poetry move back into a tradition that began with Aristotle and was kept alive by Augustine; and they have in the fourteenth century (and later) a common element: 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 and that, as is the case in scripture, what is recorded in the Commedia as history is to be treated as history. The willfulness of such claims has been disturbing. One remembers Pietro's deep discomfort, which finds many a modern counterpart - I think of a contemporary dantista whose cry recaptures that discomfort: “Who but a madman could claim such things?” If we conclude that Dante chose the allegory of the theologians as the significative mode of his poem and also conclude that he treats the subjects of his vision as historia rather than as fabula, we are forced to consider that his poetics, particularly his theory of signification and his theory of representation, issues from the same place. That locus is the Bible, as it was read and interpreted for one thousand years. In my own view it was Virgils Aeneid which brought Dante to find his eventual poetic model in the Bible, but I only state that complex argument. Those of us who have argued for the applicability of the allegory of the theologians to Dante's poem have not, I believe, been alert to an imposing question: Why did Dante make 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 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 such writers as 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’ 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, the poetry of which he himself refers to as bella menzogna, a beautiful lie, is pointedly an abandoned major work.) His response to the Dominican challenge was to take it to heart and then to 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 am suggesting is that Dante is not a poeta-theologus but a theologus-poeta; and I further argue that while the poet-theologian 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.
I conclude with what could stand as an epigraph, a phrase uttered by the poet's own son and commentator, Pietro di Dante, who, if he was deeply troubled by the nature of his father's poetics, offers a brief etymological analysis of his father's name that is, when taken slightly out of context, entirely to my purpose: “Dante, that is, he used to give, or gave himself, to diverse activities; namely, first to theology, second to things poetic.” (“Dantes, ita dabat, sive dedit se ad diversa; scilicet primo ad theologiam, secundo ad poetica.”)

Date: 2021-12-23