Dante’s “allegory of poets” and the medieval theory of poetic fiction [Richard Hamilton Green]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Richard Hamilton Green

Tratto da: Comparative Literature

Numero: 9

Anno: 1957

Pagine: 118-128

In recent years, Dante scholars and critics have shown fruitful interest in Dante's conception of the art of poetry. They have found in his theory and in his own practice a mode of figurative expression which demands and rewards interpretation based on the conventions and traditions of the poet's own period. What may once have seemed a limiting approach to this mediaeval poetry is now seen to be an indispensable one, if the reader wishes to possess as much as he can of what Dante, in the full and conscious control of his learning and art, intended to give. Because Dante is a mediaeval poet, and writes about poetry in the vocabulary of his age, the terms allegoria and allegorica interpretatio must be accepted, however complex their history in the Middle Ages and however confused and disparaging the term "allegory" has become in modern criticism. It is precisely because the mediaeval idea of allegorical interpretation has such a complex history, and was extended to such varied aspects of human experience, that its application now to works of mediaeval art and poetry involves the constant risk of over-simplification and confusion. Some of the best recent criticism of Dante's poetry raises questions about his allegorical method, and about figural representation in mediaeval poetry generally, which call for further study. I hope that one who is not a Dante scholar, but a student of the Latin Middle Ages and its theory of poetry, may without presump- tion speak usefully of Dante's terms as they apply to his and other poetry of that period. In a well known passage in the Convivio, Dante distinguishes between the allegory of poets and the allegory of theologians. This discussion of allegory, and the more elaborate treatment of it in his letter to Can Grande, have led to the opinion that, although in the Convivio Dante describes and uses the allegory of poets, in the Divine Comedy he changes to the allegory of theologians and demands for that work the kind of interpretation appropriate to the Sacred Scriptures. In my opinion, such a conclusion - or, rather, the use of these terms in this way - is not justified by Dante's own statements or by the mediaeval conception of the subtle analogies between various modes of revel both human and divine, and their appropriate interpretations. Moreover, the impulse to praise Dante's great work as Scriptural rather than poetic allegory not only does violence to the mediaeval theory of poetic fiction, but explicitly and by implication underrates the intent and the achievement of much other mediaeval poetry. Those who hold that the Divine Comedy ought to be regarded as the allegory of theologians say that its first, or literal, sense is to be taken not as a fiction but as true, and historically true, as the first sense of Scripture was understood to be true or, more cautiously, that Dante models his allegory on the allegory of Scripture, that the persons and events of his journey are given in an historical sense as the persons and events are given in Scripture. The problem here centers on the term "fiction"; it is avoided or questioned because it seems not to convey the reality and truth which inform the exemplary figures of the Comedy. Or, if the literal sense is acknowledged to be a fiction, it is described as an embodied fiction whose figures are associated with the figurative mode of Scripture because so many of them are given as real, concrete, historical. It is true that for many modern readers the term "poetic fiction" does not bear the weight it did in the Middle Ages; the discov- ery of truth in a sacramental world, in a divinely inspired book, and in their fictional recreation is not easily shared in our time. And clearly there is much to be gained from calling attention to the Biblical quality of Dante's purpose and method. But our concern is with Dante's understanding of the art of poetry and his expectations for his own work; and these prerequisites to criticism are accessible in his terms taken as they work in his own poetic tradition. The vitality of the views outlined above, and the importance to Dante criticism of the studies which propose them, are, I hope, apparent even in this simplified resume. But troublesome questions are involved; I shall attempt to answer some of them, partly to clarify and complement these studies, and partly to save other mediaeval poetry from the cheapening to which it is subjected by these scholars' view of the "allegory of poets." In what way did Dante mean his journey to be taken as real and historical, and not as fictive? Did the "beautiful lie" of the poet exclude truth, or diminish it; or did it at the same time conceal and reveal it? What did he and his contemporaries mean by poetica fizione, or, as Dante puts it in De vulgari eloquentia, by "fictio rhetorica in musica posita"? And however true and useful it is to say that Dante's allegory in the Comedy is modeled on Scriptural allegory, should we therefore say that the Comedy is written according to the "allegory of theologians" as opposed to the "allegory of poets" as the distinction is made in the Convivio? The importance of these questions is increased when we find that acceptance of the Divine Comedy as Scriptural allegory leads to the disparagement of the poetic allegory found in the odes of the Convivio and in much other mediaeval poetry where the persons of the narrative achieve poetic life of a more obviously typical kind. Allegory of poets is reduced to a "disembodied fiction." The implication is plain that such poetry is unpoetically rational - even that it is some - how unchristian-and that Dante abandoned the Convivio and its alle- gory because such poetry was improper for a poet of rectitude. The Divine Comedy is unquestionably greater poetry, and much more to our taste, than the odes of the Convivio, than the philosophical dream visions of Dante's earlier mediaeval models. But this does not mean that its mode of figurative representation was regarded as essentially different from-or truer, or more real, or more virtuous than a more conventionally rhetorical kind of poetry. The Convivio, we should renmember, was given by Dante as a banquet of Wisdom. The difference, I suggest, is a qualitative one within the wide limits of poetic fiction and its variety of figural possibilities all devoted to veiling and revealing truth.
In order to find what Dante meant by allegory as poets use it, let us look briefly at the texts from which our discussion arises. Dante writes in the Convivio:

I say that, as I put it in the first chapter, this exposition [of my poetry] should be both literal and allegorical. And to understand this it should be known that writ- ings may be taken and should be explained chiefly in four senses. The first is called the literal, and is the one which goes no further than the text of the fictional story, such as we find in the fables of the poets. The second is called the allegorical, and it is the sense which is hidden under the veil of the fable it is truth hidden beneath a beautiful lie [sotto bella menzogna]; as when Ovid says that Orpheus tamed wild beasts with his lyre and made the trees and rocks come to him, he means to say that the wise man makes cruel hearts tender and humble with the instrument of his voice... It is true that the theologians take this sense otherwise than do the poets; but, since my intention is to follow the method of the poets, I take the allegorical sense according to the use of poets [Conv., II, i]

Dante then goes on to discuss the third and fourth senses, the moral and anagogical, in which the fictions of the Convivio may be interpreted. The allegory of theologians is mentioned only in passing, as representative of a relation between literal and figurative meanings which differs from the relation between poetic fiction and truth. Dante is simply remarking on the ways of understanding a piece of writing; and, since the use and interpretation of poetic allegory is analogous to, and derives its terminology from, the allegory of Scripture, he calls attention to the most obvious difference. Poets deal with truth hidden beneath and revealed through a veil of fiction; theologians, however, take this allegorical sense in a different way. That is all he says. James E. Shaw has reasonably suggested that Dante makes the distinction here because he was aware of St. Thomas' effort to restrict the term allegoria to the mode of Sacred Scripture, and to exclude it from application to other writing. We may also recall those theologians of Dante's own time against whom Boccaccio and his friends defended the rights of poetry. In any case, there is no disagreement that Dante here means by "allegory of theologians" the traditional, formal method of interpreting the Sacred Scriptures. The force of the distinction, then, is to affirm that in the Convivio Dante is using the terms allegoria and alle- gorica interpretatio in the older and wider sense in which they were applied to poetry as well as Scripture. We should note, moreover, that, in Dante's explanation of the moral and anagogical senses which may sometimes be found in the allegory of poets, he uses examples from Scripture. Indeed, his illustration of anagogy in the Convivio, where he is admittedly describing the allegory of poets, is the same (the reference to Exodus in Psalm 113) as his illustration of the four senses in the letter to Can Grande where he describes the allegory of the Comedy. This fact would seem to rule out the notion that the Scriptural example in the letter indicates that Dante is there describing the "allegory of theologians" and excluding the "allegory of poets." It is my opinion that in both cases Dante is illustrating the discovery of figurative meanings in poetry in a way which would be easily understood by contemporaries aware of the subtle analogies and radical differences between poetic fiction and divine revelation. But the letter to Can Grande, which does not mention a distinction between poetic and Biblical allegory, provides its own evidence that Dante is there demanding for the Comedy interpretation proper to the allegory of poets. He describes the form, or method, by which he treats his twofold subject in the poem, and his description belongs to the rhetorical tradition of the conventional accessus ad auctores, rather than to the tradition of Scriptural exegesis. "The form or manner of treat- ment," he writes, "is poetic, fictive, descriptive, digressive, and figurative; and at the same time it consists in definition, division, proof, refutation, and the use of examples." The forma tractandi is thus both poetic and philosophical; its purpose is to please and instruct. The key word, I think, is "fictive" - and this is precisely the quality which distinguishes poetic revelation from divine. Dante's early commentators, in their own accessus to the Divine Comedy, show clearly that they take it to be, among many things and as a necessary starting point, a poetic fiction to be understood as the allegories of poets are understood. Benvenuto da Imola declares that, in his commentary on the Cornmedia, he will "unravel the web of its fictions, elucidate the mysteries veiled by its various figures, find out the meanings hidden in its multiple senses." The very words figmenta, integumenta figmentorum, belong to the tradition of poetic allegory and not to that of Scriptural commentary. When Dante, in Canto VIII of the Purgatorio, addresses his reader, "Sharpen your eyes to the truth here, Reader, for the veil is now indeed so thin that you may easily pass within it," Benvenuto comments that here the poet is about to construct a noble fiction, and turns first to his reader to make him attentive to the truth beneath the literal sense, to the sententia hidden beneath the integument of the fiction. And in Canto IX, when Dante again calls the reader's attention to his art, Benvenuto remarks: "Be- cause the poet has already made beautiful and artful fictions, and is about to make new fictiones magis artificiosae et sententiosae, he demands the reader's attention." But it should be noted that, if Benvenuto takes Dante as a poet, and the Conmmedia as the allegory of a poet, he also makes the point that Dante is poeta Christianissimtus who proposes to return poetry to theology and found common bonds between the two. To insist that the literal sense of the Divine Comedy is a poet's fiction and that its mode of allegorical representation is that of the poeta Christianus is not to deny that the unique excellence of the poem is to be found - as Auerbach, Singleton, Fergusson, and others have shown - in the similarity of its figurative method to the allegory of Scripture. Dante's alta fantasia-the journey there, the description of souls in their life after death - are wonderfully real and immediate; and the truth of that vision is rooted in the truth of theology, its figures are fraught with the truths of divine revelation. The pilgrim's journey to Hell achieves some of its poetic ends because Aeneas had made the journey earlier, and the mediaeval reader knew that such fictive journeys represented the descensus ad inferos moralis et virtuosus which every man should make in order to assess the values of this world and the next; but that journey gained other ends because Dante made it begin on Good Friday, and because Christ too had descended into Hell. Yet, for all its Biblical evocation and its Christian doctrine, the work remains an act of the poetic imagination, and its vwodus tractandi is the allegory of poets, though not, it is true, in precisely the same way that the mode of the Convivio is the allegory of poets. The uniqueness of Dante's achievement in the Divine Comedy is beyond question; but it is the achievement which is unique, not the method as Dante and other mediaeval writers speak of allegorical method. There is in mediaeval poetic theory a larger view of the allegory of poets which includes the modes of expression of the Convivio and the Commedia, the visions of Boethius, Bernard Silvestris, and Alanus, the Old English Dream of the Rood, the fourteenth-century English Pearl and Piers Plowman, the extraordinary vision poems of Chaucer. These poems differ widely in time, language, rhetoric, and literary tradition; some are more obviously Scriptural than others in the immediate reference of their main figures, some appeal more to the twentieth-century reader than others. But all, I suggest, are the conscious fictions of poets who would recognize in each other's work the same essential mode of allegorical representation, the same basic integrity and orthodoxy of moral purpose, along with an astonishing variety of technique and attitude and emphasis. Francis Fergusson calls our attention to a distinction which must be borne in mind, not only by readers of the Comedy, but by readers of other mediaeval poetry. "He writes in the first person; and yet the distinction between Dante speaking as the author, and Dante the pilgrim, is fundamental to the whole structure. The author when he reminds us of his existence, is outside the fictive world of the poem; the Pilgrim is the protagonist of the drama, the center of each scene. The author knows the whole story in advance, the Pilgrim meets everything freshly for the first time." The convention by which the mediaeval poet makes of himself the dreamer and narrator of a fictional vision, and the variety and subtlety of poetic effects which this practice made possible, need more study than they have so far received. A comparative study of this common practice would reveal, among other things, that Dante's fictional method, his serious moral purpose, his graceful exploitation of Scriptural and classical traditions, are not unusual as allegorical method, however unusual the quality of his performance is found to be. The problem of the relations between poetry and Sacred Scripture in their authority and efficacy, in their subject matter, and in their modes of expression, has a long history in the Middle Ages. I propose now to review some of this history and to examine the most important similarities and differences between these two kinds of figurative revelation. We should note at the outset that, when the mediaeval critic and commentator speaks of poetry, he usually means the classical poetry of the ancient auctores, though he sometimes speaks of the Christian poetry of mediaeval poets, and sometimes – as in the case of Dante – of his own work. There are important similarities between these kinds of poetry, but there are also radical differences. And both were distin- guished from the Sacred Scriptures. Poetry, whether pagan or Christian, reveals truth beneath the veil of fiction; Scripture reveals truth beneath the veil of truth, though the writers of Scripture sometimes used the locutions of poetry in the literal level of their inspired historical discourse. But Christian poetry shares the truth of Scripture, though it employs the fictions of pagan poetry. Our inquiry into the analogies and distinctions between the allegory of poets, both Christian and pagan, and the allegory of Scripture must take into account these important distinctions. The allegory of Sacred Scripture, the "allegory of theologians" as Dante puts it, is defined by the nature and purpose of the revelation which it embodies. Hugh of St. Victor observed that divine truth was revealed to men twice: first in the works of creation, which manifested their maker by various kinds of similitude; and second, when the minds of men were darkened, in the works of redemption, in the person of the incarnate Word of God and His sacraments. The Sacred Scriptures contained both the prefiguration of this revelation and its fulfillment. The text of Scripture was therefore regarded as literally and historically true, since it was the record of man's redemption, and as spiritually true, because the persons, things, and events recorded there were themselves figures of the divine truth which the book revealed. God Himself was the author, to be sought and found in His work, just as He was said to be the author of the universe, to be found in the true reading of that cosmic book. The sacred quality of Scriptural allegory and the divinity of its author must be stressed, because assent to these premises inevitably controlled the way a mediaeval writer could speak of other books and their makers, other figurative manifestations of what was finally the same truth but revealed within the limits of human creativity.

For the mediaeval reader, classical poetry had this in common with Sacred Scripture: it too sought to reveal its maker's vision of truth. But the maker of this poetry was not divine, and his vision of the invisibilica Dei was limited to the mirror of created things. The ancient poet had to clothe them in the visible fictions of his imagination since he could not, as the divine author of the world of nature and the book of Scripture had done, clothe them in the visible things of nature itself and its history. Nevertheless, the subject of serious classical poetry is truth, however limited the poet's grasp of truth may have been, and truth is one. Therefore, as Dante's contemporaries who wrote on the subject remark, pagan poetry is a kind of theology and the poets may be called theologian.

This view of the office of the poet had, of course, very early origins. The pagan commentator Macrobius, writing in the fourth century, as- serted that the wise man and lover of truth used fables as the appropriate representation of doctrine rooted in truth: "haec ipsa veritas per quaedam composita et ficta profertur." This passage in his commentary on Cicero's Dream of Scipio provided the authority and vocabulary for nearly all later mediaeval discussions of poetry. In it, Macrobius describes the fictions of the poets as representations of truth "sub figmentorum velamine," beneath the veil of imagined things. He attributed to Virgil "the twofold gift of poetic imagination and philosophical truth," and spoke of Homer as "the fount and origin of all divine invention" who taught truth to the wise beneath the "cover of fiction" and through "fabulous images." We find these ideas and terms echoed throughout the Middle Ages: in Bernardus Silvestris, Alan of Lille, John of Salisbury in the twelfth century; in Dante, Boccaccio, Mussato, Petrarch, Coluccio Salutati in the age and place with which our present inquiry is mainly concerned. Christian poetry, as the mediaeval poets and writers on the art and history of poetry conceived it, belonged to the classical tradition inas- much as it was a human art, but to religion since it expressed the truth of Sacred Scripture. Its allegory was poetic because its literal presentation was a fiction of the poet's imagination. But beneath the veil of its fiction was revealed the truth which had been revealed in Scripture and allegorically received by the poet. The capital difference between the allegory of the Christian poet and the allegory of Scripture was not, then, in the truth expressed, nor in the fact of figural expression; the difference lay in the mode of allegory. Characteristically, the mediaeval poet revealed his vision of truth in a fiction, and for this he claimed not only the auctores of his art - as Dante claimed Virgil as master and author - but the precedent of Scripture itself which sometimes in its literal expression employed the locutions proper to poetry. Boccaccio, in his defense of poetry against its literal-minded detractors, cites St. Jerome's opinion that some of the writers of Scripture, guided by the Holy Ghost, used poetic style. And he reinforces his argument in a passage which shows plainly the relations between ancient and mediaeval poetry:

There have been, and still are, many of our own Christian poets, who, beneath the covering of their fictions [sub tegminibus fictionum suarum], have set forth the sacred truths of the Christian religion. And, to choose one example among many, our Dante, in the book which he calls the Comedy, written in his mother-tongue but most artfully, admirably set forth the triple state of the dead according to the doctrine of Sacred Theology.

And in a later chapter of the Genealogia Deorum Boccaccio returns to the example of Dante as a Christian poet using poetic allegory to express the truths of Scripture: "In his Comedy, written with admirable art, Dante shows himself to be, not a maker of myths, but rather a Catholic and divine theologian” . Boccaccio's praise here might seem to suggest that Dante's great fiction was indeed understood to be an "allegory of theologians," and in a profound and important sense this is surely true. But not in the sense of Dante's distinction in the Convivio. For, in the sense that Dante is a "divine theologian," the odes of the Convivio are also the allegories of a theologian, since they too are the fictional representation of truth rooted in the truth of religion. Boccaccio makes it clear that Dante is only one among many mediaeval poets who use poetic allegory to represent the truth of Sacred Scripture. The other mantions in this passage show clearly the allegorical tradition in which he places the Divine Comedy: Petrarch, who in his bucolics reveals the attitude of the true God toward men beneath the veil of pastoral conventions; Prudentius, whose allegory modern critics find so uncongenial, and Sedulius, Arator, and j uvencus. These are Christian poets, theologians because they are poets, sacred theologians because their fictions reveal sacred truth. In the sense that Dante employs allegory in the Comedy as a theologian, so do they in their poetry, and so does he in that other poetry which he wrote in the conventions they established. But this is not the "allegory of theologians" which Dante mentions in the Convivio. It is the "allegory of Christian poets," making fictions which veil the truth according to the ancient art of poets whom they loved and admired, but revealing in their poetry an aspect of the truth in which they believed. We recognize in the figurative quality of the Divine Comedy a technique which makes Dante's vision of the journey seem more real, more immediate and demanding than the vision of the "donna gentile" of the Convivio. This technique uses apparent facts, the fact that Dante makes the journey as a figure moving in the poem, that he meets and talks to persons he knew in life. But this illusion of historical reality is his fiction-and his fiction bears its weight of truth that is not illusory precisely because, in this special way, it seems to be true.

Date: 2021-12-23