Dante’s imagery: I – Symbolic [Dorothy L. Sayers]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Dorothy L. Sayers

Tratto da: Introductory papers on Dante. The poet alive in his writings

Editore: Methuen-Harper, London-New York

Anno: 1954

Pagine: 4-7

It is precisely on this difference-on the point at which conscious choice is exercised upon the undifferentiated subliminal urges-that the attention of the mediaeval thinker was riveted. The Divine Comedy is an allegory about that choice. The whole poem is one gigantic composite image in which this drama of the threshold is presented to us by means of a series of word-pictures which, locking together, make up the pattern of the soul's choice.
We will now look for a moment at that word "allegory". Allegory is a literary form which has been out of favour for so long that we have almost forgotten how to write or read it: but in the fourteenth century it was so natural for writers to cast their ideas into this kind of pictorial shape that allegory was the “dominant form”, as the realistic novel was yesterday, or as the romantic drama was in Shakespeare's time. Whether it was a scientific argument, or a philosophical theory, or merely a love-story that the mediaeval writer wanted to write about, the thing always tended to come out as an allegorical poem; and his readers were so well accustomed to this style of writing that they had little difficulty in interpreting it. As the other Lewis-Dr. C. S. Lewis--has pointed out in his excellent book The Allegory of Love, allegory was not, for mediaeval people, a long-winded, indirect way of saying something that might have been more plainly put: it was the quickest, most direct and most vivid way of writing at a time when the technical vocabulary of psychology and of the physical sciences had not yet been perfected and popularised. And one might perhaps claim that it still is.
An allegory is a dramatised metaphor. A metaphor is a compressed simile. A simile is the perception of likeness in unlike things, presented in such a way that the understanding of the one helps to understand the other.
For example: "The leading of a Christian life is sometimes attended with spiritual difficulties inducing sensations of alarm and despondency." That is as dull and abstract a statement as I can manage to produce on this exciting topic. Let us enliven it by a simile: "It is as though a man were fighting against a powerful enemy." Let us now compress the thing into a metaphor: ''The Christian soul is often the arena of a hard battle against alarm and despondency." That is more vivid; "alarm and despondency" have ceased to be abstractions: they are already half-personified, and the "Christian life" is developing a kind of landscape of its ownthere is a territory of undefined extent called "the soul", with a battleground in the middle of it and people fighting there. Now let us take the final step, and fully personify both the Christianity and the enemy: "Then Apollyon straddled quite over the whole breadth of the way, and said, I am void of fear in this matter; prepare thyself to die: for I swear by my infernal den thou shalt go no further: here will I spill thy soul."
That is allegory; and we may perhaps admit that we are more likely to attend to and remember it than the sentence about the "spiritual difficulties". Instead of the plain statement we have here an image: and although we could, if we liked, strip off the veste di figura and reduce the thing once more to abstract terms, we should feel that in doing so we had lost, not merely the dramatic excitement but also some of the depth and scope of the signification. That phrase, "Apollyon straddled quite over the whole breadth of the way'" not only calls up a whole series of associated ideas about the "strait and narrow way", the cammin di nostra vita - it also conveys more powerfully than a hundred arguments the colossal size and strength of the evil will within the soul, and the terrifying sensation of being hopelessly caged and cooped in so that all progress is impossible. The image, that is, is none the less powerful and rich in associative suggestion because it has a definable intellectual content.
The drawback, of course, which everybody has noticed about the allegorical method is that, however we may embellish the story with dramatic and pictorial detail, it is not always easy to feel any close human sympathy with personified abstractions, and that their conversation, if confined strictly to what might reasonably be said by a being whose nature is composed of nothing but Anger, Envy, Chastity, Prudence, or what-not, is apt to be rather limited and repetitive. Great allegorists all have their special methods of getting over this difficulty. Spenser delights us with romantic incident and enchanting description: he does, however, tend at times to ramble and to lose hold of the main thread of the allegory. Bunyan, sticking much closer to his intellectual content, has an extraordinary knack of making theological argument exciting, and is incomparable in giving his abstractions human form and colour. If we carefully analyse the work of these two allegorists, we shall see that there is in both of them a very subtle and ingenious slipping to and fro over the boundaries between allegory and straight narrative; we cannot always be quite sure whether a character is simply an abstraction - a "quality in a substance" as Dante calls it - or another complete human character. Demas, for instance, and Giant Despair are quite certainly abstractions: but Bunyan's Ignorance is a person who crosses the river at the end, like the other pilgrims, and then finds the back door into Hell. Spenser says: "I labour to portrait, in Arthur, before he was king, the image of a brave knight, perfected in the twelve private moral virtues." The heroes of the twelve books, then, with the other characters, are abstractions-qualities in Arthur. But what of the episode in which Arthur himself enters the story to rescue the Red-Cross Knight? How exactly does a man come to the rescue of his own holiness? In cases like this, nobody can say for certain whether the landscape of Te Faerie Queene or of Tke Pilgrim's Progress} is a state within the individual soul or a place in the world of society. The ambiguity does not matter greatly: it has probably never troubled anyone reading and enjoying those books for the first time, or prevented him from getting the meaning out of them.
But Dante's method is different-so different that it has led some people to say that "his method is not wholly allegorical". That is quite wrong. He is as consistently allegorical as Guillaume de Lorris, who wrote the first part of the Roman de la Rose. Where Dante departs from standard allegorical practice is in the kind of characters he uses to people his poem. Guillaume's characters (apart from the figure of the lover himself) are all personified abstractions, qualities in the substance of the lady who is his heroine, and whose mind provides the whole mise-en-scene of the poem, and who never appears in her own person. But, except in a few isolated episodes of a rather special kind, Dante does not use personified abstractions at all: he uses historical personages, who are symbolic images of the qualities they represent. We may see the difference at once ifwe compare Dante with Spenser. In Tke Faerie Queene, we find a personified Chastity called Belphoebe, who allegorically represents (among other things) Queen Elizabeth: if Dante had written the poem, we should have met, wandering about that enchanted woodland, Queen Elizabeth herself, allegorically representing Chastity.
One practical advantage of Dante's method is at once obvious: since the images in the poem are actual human beings, their interests and their conversation need not be, and are not, restricted to the sins or virtues they symbolically represent. Virgil, who in this convenient and elastic scheme represents a good many things, such as Human Wisdom, the Imperial idea, Poetry, and Natural Virtue not illuminated by Christian Grace, may talk not only about philosophy, empire, the Aeneid, and humanist ethics, but also about Mantua. Guido da Montefeltro, besides telling the story of how he fell into the sin of counselling fraud, may express a human and touching interest in the state of Romagna. Count Cacciaguida, in the Heaven of Mars, does not merely typify patriotism and family affection - he can gossip delightfully and at length about the manners and customs of ancient Florence. Francesca da Rimini can wring our hearts as no personification of Lust could ever do. Arnaut Daniel, dropping into his own Provencal on the high, fire-swept, last ledge of Purgatory, touches and amuses us by this double compliment to his native country and to Dante's linguistic accomplishment. It is charming and faintly absurd in its frank humanity nor does it in any way invalidate the imagery by which Arnaut is, to Dante and to us, the eager repentance of a poet-perhaps too of a poetry - which in celebrating the beauty of the flesh has soiled the flesh.

Date: 2021-12-23