The Commedia: Allegory [Thomas Bergin]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Thomas Bergin

Tratto da: An approach to Dante

Editore: The Bodley Head, London

Anno: 1965

Pagine: 250-264

A generation ago it was usually held necessary in discussions of the Commedia to interpolate a word of explanation, if not actual apology, for the embarrassing element of allegory in the work. Grandgent's excellent summary of the allegory of the poem contains, for example, the following faintly defensive sentence: “The habit of allegorical interpretation and composition, the search for hidden meanings in literature and life, and the consequent development of symbolic art, not only in words but in stone as well, lent to the Middle Ages a character quite different from that of the periods which preceded and followed." Fortunatelv for our purposes defense of allegory is no longer required. A generation familiar with Kafka, Faulkner, and Camus, to say nothing of the popular esoteric ambiguities of Graham Greene, needs no such indoctrination. In this area the cultivated taste of our day is probably closer to that of Dante's time than that of any generation since the seventeenth century. There are, of course, differences between the medieval and contemporary treatment and uses of allegory, but one may argue that Dante, taking full advantage of the symbolic devices made familiar to him by his own tradition, also anticipated some of the modern refinements in subtlety and ambiguity.
In fact, instead of thinking simply of the allegory of the Commedia, we must, after the most cursory of glances at the work, conclude that it is a question of various allegories, sometimes sharply different in genesis and purpose, frequently interweaving, and not always easy to distinguish. We shall in this chapter merely allude to the principal members of the vast family of hidden senses; to deal fully with anv one of them would require a book-length study — and some have had shelves of erudition already dedicated to them.
It will be helpful if we begin with some definitions of the commonly used terms. Dorothy Sayers in her Introdwetory Papers on Dante supplies a few useful, crisply phrased definitions: “An allegorv," she writes, "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." To illustrate by example, let us look at Dante's picture of the souls on the bank of Acheron answering Charon's summons in Inferno III, 112-20:

And just as leaves swayed by the autumn winds
Drop from the tree, each falling in its turn
Until the branch is all despoiled and bare,
So here did Adam's evil seed descend,
And one by one they stepped off from the shore,
Like hawk to hunter's call, at Charon's sign.
Thus speed they on their way o'er the dark wave
And scarcely have they left the bank behind
When yet another throng takes up its stand.

We have never seen the souls fall to Charon's command, but we have seen leaves drop from the tree in autumn and we can now visualize the scene — this is the basic simile. If we see in Charon's call an illustration of a doctrinal and moral law by which the sinner is drawn to recognize his guilt and accept his punishment, we have an allegory, composed of the metaphorical elements of sin and conscience.
In a sustained allegorv there is also much svmbolism. This will come out especially in the characters who take part in the play, as it were. In straightforward allegories, the characters tend to be named after qualities; the classical example of this for the Dante student is the Roman de la Rose, in which there are such characters as Jealousy, Danger, Fair Greeting, and the like. Dante sometimes uses this kind of allegory, though only, I would say, incidentally; the richness and originality of his svmbols lies in the fact that he works just the other way around. (It is for this reason that Siro Chimenz strenuouslv denies that the fundamental conception of the Commedia is allegorical. ) To quote Miss Sayers again: “We may see the difference at once if we compare Dante with Spenser. In the 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." Dante's method, as many critics have observed, has the great advantage of richness and multiplicitv of dimensions in the symbol: Virgil does not always have to be Human Reason (to give him the traditional interpretation) or even Classical Learning or Philosophy; he can sometimes be the poet Dante revered or simply the good companion on a long journey. Beatrice does not have to be Revelation whenever she speaks — or whenever Dante thinks of her (for the thought of her is an essential motif of the pilgrimage); she may be too the beloved of his youth or, alas, the offended woman not inclined to forgive his straying. It should be said that from a strictly didactic point of view Dante's method has its dangers: the disciple of the poet, eager for instruction, may be a little uneasy not knowing whether he is listening to Revelation or merely to a character in the narrative. But perhaps this is the place to affirm that Dante, for all his purpose in inculcating doctrine, for all his insistence that the allegory is the “true” meaning, was at least as much concerned with giving his fiction and characters depth and verisimilitude as he was in his pedagogical mission. The existence of the Commedia is in itself evidence enough for that; otherwise the Convivio, perhaps expanded or revised, would have suited his purpose. I do not know, incidentally, whether it has ever been remarked that in the Dantesque canon the Commedia is the only work of creative fiction in the strict sense of the word.
We may assume that when the poet turned to that approach he was concerned to make it as effective as possible. We have spoken of symbols, but some of our examples might also be classified as images, since the terms are used somewhat loosely by many critics. Father Herbert Musurillo has summed up the differences as well as anyone: symbols, he says, are "objects or events which are considered to have, in addition to their original, objective funetion, another deeper reference or relationship, whercas ‘image’ usually stresses the aspect of sensuous picture… again, symbols tend to be more explicit, whereas imagery may be ‘sunken’ and barely suggested." So we may think of Dante's images as the visual elements of his poem; used traditionally and with intent to communicate they may be symbols as well.
Virgil is (among other things) a symbol of reason; the evidence is not in what he looks like but in what he says. The Mount of Purgatory is an image-symbol of ascent from sin through contrition and penance to absolution, the ice of Cooytus is an image symbolic of the cold heart of treason, and the mystic rose a visual image-symbol of the joys of paradise. Images of the purer sort may be seen in many casual metaphors and in such recurrent elements as the wood or the river. The wood where Dante lost his way in Inferno I reappears in intensified horror in the thicket of the suicides in Inferno XIII, and turns up again with a suggestion of wilful perversion as the giant drags off the harlot into its recesses in Purgatorio XXXII: these are its evil aspects. Clean and sweet-smelling, however, it can afford a proper background for Matilda, and a setting for the earthly paradise itself. Similarly, the dreadful rivers of hell are recalled in Dante's description of the Arno in Purgatorio XIV, counterbalanced by Lethe and Eunoè in the earthly paradise, and canceled forever by the wonderful river of grace from which the poet drinks in the empyrean. Such images are multivalent, and a part of the poet's esthetic rather than strictly didactic equipment.
Remembering that all such categories are, by their very nature, related and often interchamgeable, we mav turn to a consideration of Dante's use of allegory and its affiliates.
We have alluded to the scriptural tradition of the four meanings in our discussion of the Convivio. We must note here that Dante, not dealing with the Bible, cannot undertake to give us consistently four meanings in his “beautiful fiction,” and indeed in his rather indirect way he admits it. In the Convivio he puts the three nonliteral meanings on the same plane, distinguishing between the allegorical, moral, and anagogical. In the letter to Can Grande he uses “allegorical” in a general sense, and makes subcategories of the moral and anagogical. In the Convivio he states frankly that in his odes he will disclose the allegorical meaning in detail but will merely touch on the others. When he defines the subject of his poem in the letter to Can Grande as “man, liable to the reward or punishment of Justice, in accordance with the use he has made of his free will," he gives no moral or anagogical clue, but distinguishes only between the literal and allegorical (a fact which has not stopped critics from supplying the necessary quartets: Charles Williams, for instance, sees Virgil as Virgil, poetry, philosophy, and “the Institution or City" ). He has given us both less and more than seems at first reading to be implied in the four meanings, for if two of them are often missing or undetectable, there are other allegories which the poet silently presses upon us, and still others generously supplied by crities which Dante might or might not accept. The prime allegory, the message that Dante most of all wished to convey through the great metaphor of the world of the dead, the basis for the doctrinal function of his work (which must have been his prime conscious motivation in the writing of the Commedia), is the depiction of the state of the souls in this world, under the aspect of their eligibility for reward or their liability to punishment, as he himself says. In the letter to Can Grande, Dante says that the Paradiso depicts “man according as by his merits he is deserving of reward by justice": good men, but something more than that, since the medieval ethics are rigorous, and to be truly “deserving” has lofty implications; hence, saintly men. The Inferno shows us bad men who are impenitent in their badness, the Purgatorio shows us men who have made the right choice but still have not overcome certain evil tendencies. The Commedia portrays our world with all its morally diversified citizenry. So the "true" meaning is essentially what all great literature — and most inferior literature — is about: the revelation of the human heart, the continuous struggle between good and evil. But Dante's allegorv is more realistic and self-conscious than a detective story, for instance, or the myth of Atreus, and is put to the service of a very elaborate ethical code. It is also very carefully worked out. Sweet, seductive lust, tormented by restless, forever umsatisfied desire, is exemplified by Francesca da Rimini; snake and man blend in the bolgia of the thieves, because there is in the sneak thief, betrayer of our common bond of brotherhood, an element of the serpentine; the heart of the traitor is indeed icy; the face of the hypocrite is gilded without but base metal underneath; and so on. Symbols reinforce the allegory and narrative. The very shapes of the kingdoms are symbols: a funnel-shaped hell with a gravitational pull to the bottom, a terraced mountain, the vast universe of stars. Symbolic figures abound: Minos, the agent of God's justice and our own consciences; the centaurs, half beast, that dominate the violent; the sly, mocking demons that both punish and symbolize the slippery grafter; Cato exemplifying the stern demands of free will; Matilda; and, of course, above all, the figures of Virgil and Beatrice.
The peculiar texture of the poem derives in large part from the fusing of this essentially Dantesque allegory with the story he has to tell. Generally speaking, the two currents do not so much blend as run parallel, occasionally intertwining. The allegory may be understood and accepted while the literal narrative may stand on its own feet for its human values. Brunetto Latini is in the circle of the violent because, in terms of the allegory, he is a type of man, intellectual and honorable, betrayed by his passion, which has led him to violate the laws of mature. But his paternal interest in Dante, his touching and unselfish pride in his pupil, give him his flesh and blood and his humanity. So in the case of Mark the Lombard: in penance for his wrathful excesses he wanders in the dark and sullen cloud of intemperate anger on the third terrace of purgatory; but as we learn this, even from his own lips, our interest focuses rather on his discussion of mankind’s responsibility in its choice of goals and the decadence of the two great guiding powers which should lead the medieval world aright but have failed in their mission. Perhaps the best example of this happy ambivalence is the case of Cacciaguida. So far as concerns man “deserving reward by his actions in this world," Cacciaguida typifies the saintly warrior; we might extend this and call him the man of action whose deeds are in the service of virtue. But the literal here all but submerges the allegory; in simple fact Cacciasuida is a fine old conservative, full of family pride and a vearning for things as they used to be, with all the vigorous virtues and stubborn prejudices that one associates with the type. The great sea of the Commedia carries both meanings effortlessly; and more too, as we shall see.
Once in a while Dante seems to feel the need of establishing a nexus — usually going out of his way to point out the allegory. Virgil reminds Capaneus that not the fiery flakes that scorch his skin but his own stubborn resistance to the Divinity is his true punishment — hardly an appropriate suggestion for the narrative but applicable to the self-willed blasphemer “in this life." So too the poet's first apostrophe to the reader, as Dante and Virgil stand outside the gates of Dis, while the Furies line the walls, seems calculated to remind us that we are reading something more than an adventure story. Perhaps the "truth" is pushed rather too purposefully through the veil when, on the hillside of purgatory, the penitents utter the Lord's Prayer, including “lead us not into temptation.” This is justified on the level of the narrative by the comment that it is said on behalf of the living but it seems clear that we are to be reminded here that these souls are “in truth” still in this life and winning their way to “the reward of their just actions."
Yet such collisions are rare — at least in terms of the truly Dantesque allegory. This portrayal of the world of man through a narrative that is also convincingly realistic and full of its own significance, with all the attendant diversities and fecund ambiguities that we have remarked, is Dante's own and essentially original allegory. He is nevertheless a child of his age, and his poem is studded with the conventional or traditional allegories, made of stock figures and images that would be readily familiar to his contemporaries. With such he avoids the risk of doctrinal ambiguity — though at some cost to the vigor of his "fair fiction." This kind of allegory indeed is meant not so much to assist or embellish the narrative as to aid in the exposition of the doctrine. The Old Man of Crete (Inferno XIV) exemplifies very well what I am saying here. Fashioned of material gathered from the Book of Daniel and Ovid's Metamorphoses, he is brought on stage with the pretext of supplying further information about hell's rivers and their sources, and he serves the purpose well enough and quite poetically. On the allegorical level, the picture of mankind, originally sound, but split and becoming increasingly degenerate with the centuries, stands clearly before us, and the Old Man's clay foot enables Dante to introduce his political belief in the two feet (empire and church) which should support mankind. But it is, for all that, an artificial thing; the Old Man isn't even there, as Minos and the centaurs and Geryon are there, but is merely a subject of Virgil's conversation. The allegory does nothing to advance the tale; indeed it slows it up. I believe, though I am aware opinions sharply differ on this, that the figure of Lucifer is of the same stuff. It is all carefully worked out; the three symbolic heads, the mouths chewing the appropriate traitors (to church and state, of course), the tears of chagrin, the icy blast stirred by the batlike wings, the ugliness. As doctrine who could take exception to it? But it is too formalized to add anything to the conviction of the narrative: the abundant realistic details are, as Natalino Sapegno remarks, more the product of intellect than imagination. In this kind of allegory doctrine comes first; this is in truth a theological devil. Even in terms of Dante's own human allegory something is missing; if we are seeing here the souls in this life as helpless captives of sin, we are certainly not seeing any of the superficial seductiveness that temptation, one would think, must carry somewhere in its arsenal.
Overt doctrinal allegory is much more evident in the Purgatorio than in the other cantiche. Dante’s three dreams are of this nature, though it must be said that the first of them is very successfully used to advance the action. The guardian angels of the terraces too are conventional allegorical figures. And there are two sustained allegories of the truly medieval sort in the entrance to purgatory and the great procession at the top of the mount. In the first, objects become unambiguous symbols: the three steps signifying the three stages of the confessional, the two keys clearly indicating authority and discernment, the grey of the porter's robe symbolizing the humble patience of the confessor. The allegory had more immediate doctrinal point in Dante's time than it would nowadays perhaps, only at the Lateran Council in 1215 was it laid down as an obligation for the good Catholic to confess to a priest.
The symbolic procession in the carthly paradise merits a summary. As Dante follows Matilda up the stream, he is aware first of the forest becoming illuminated; then he catches sight of the seven candelabra (the sevenfold spirit of God) trailing streamers of light behind them (the gifts of the Holy Spirit); under this brightness march twenty-four elders clad in white (the books of the Old Testament). On their heels come four animals (the gospels), all with six many-eved wings. Then comes the great triumphal chariot (the church) drawn by a gryphon (Christ), that is, a creature half golden eagle (indicating the purity of the divine nature), half lion colored white and red like human flesh. Three “nymphs," red, green, and snow-white (the theological virtues), dance on the right of the chariot; on the left wheel four others (the cardinal virtues) likewise dance, all dressed in purple and one of them (prudence) having three eyes. Seven ancients, white-clad and crowned with red roses (the seven books of the New Testament, other than the gospels,) close the procession. Beatrice (revelation), riding on the car, in due course makes her appearance to Dante, at which point the allegory takes on a somewhat different meaning. This medieval artifact has been called a kind of auto sacramental; it may owe something to the Corpus Christi processions which Grandgent reminds us were coming into vogue in the vears of the Commedia. Dante introduces it with a special invocation and surrounds it with much embellishing detail, and doctrinally it is all quite clear (at least until Beatrice comes to merge the personal with the institutional). But this doctrinal clarity is supplied at the expense of the richness of the more truly Dantesque allegorv, and indeed even of the realism normally so characteristie of Dante. Taylor rather harshly characterized the procession as "formal and lifeless," and it is certainlv, in one sense, un-Dantesque. A female who is green all over may be an excellent symbol of hope, but she is hardly attractive to look upon; the three eves of prudence, whatever they may do to intensity her allegorical impact, seem rather an unpleasant abnormality on the purely visual plane; nor is a hybrid beast a very appealing picture of the Savior.
After the Beatrician interlude, conventional allegory takes over again: we see the chariot of the church drawn to the tree of law, shattered and later feathered by the eagle (the persecutions and the Donation of Constantine), raided by a vixen (heresy) which Beatrice chases away, half dismembered bv a dragon (the Great Schism?), covered by lush growth (clerical corruption), and finally serving as a vehicle for a harlot (the Roman Curia) wantoning with a giant (the House of France) who later beats her and drags the chariot off into the forest (the “Babylonian captivitv" of Avignon.) This part of the allegory, more historical than doctrinal, is presented with vivid vigor, but is cut from essentially the same formalized cloth. A vixen as heresy, whose evil deeds and defeat bv true doctrine we witness, is not as moving a picture as that of the heretic Farinata in the Inferno, though no doubt safer doctrinally, for Farinata is more appealing than heresy should be.
Another meaning that the poem intentionally bears, although Dante does not mention it in his letter to Can Grande, is what one might call the personal allegory. While Dante is the privileged witness and faithful reporter of the events of the Commedia, he is also the central figure of the drama. In a sense, he is the drama. The Commedia is a very subiective poem, a confession and an autobiography, perhaps the first true autobiography of the middle ages, even though it is, in Curtius’ term, “stytized." A good deal of what Dante says about himself is straight forward: he tells of his exile, his friends, his masters, and his literary models from Virgil to Arnaut Daniel; but much is offered as allegory, usually but not always transparent.
The first canto of the poem is a good example. No sinners or penitents have appeared, so what goes on in the dark wood can have no bearing on “rewards or punishments" in this life. It is Dante's story; he tells us that at the age of thirty-five (“nel mezzo del cammin”) he had strayed from virtue, was confused in mind and soul, knew where to look for succor but could not find the way by himself. The high hill represents the difficult path of reform, and the beasts he encounters symbolize his own evil impulses (the conventional interpretation identifies the beautiful leopard with lust, the lion with pride, and the wolf with avarice, but the exact identification does not matter greatly) that stand in the way of his salvation. Neither reason nor philosophy nor classical learning (for Virgil represents all three indifferently) is enough to save him, though they do slow his downward fight. Only Christianity, represented by Beatrice, who also specifically represents revelation and theology, can do it, and before he can be saved, someone (here the Virgin Mary) must spontaneously confer the needed grace. And here the allegory merges into the theological. There are other flashes of personal allegory in the Inferno: Dante's sympathy with Francesca; his terror before the walls of Dis when the Furies stand before him and only Virgil's warning saves him from being turned to stone by Medusa; his self-caution as he prepares to study the false counselors, who have a mental keenness that he knows is his birthright too; his vulnerability to Virgil's rebuke as he seems to take too much pleasure in the exchange of abuse between Sinon and Adam of Brescia.
But the personal allegory, like the other kinds of allegory, is most evident in the Purgatorio. Dante's reactions to the sins he encounters in the terraces of purgatory amount to a catalogue of his own sinful propensities and an examination of his own conscience. The only sin that frightens him significantly is lust, and he can be brought through its fires only by an appeal to Beatrice, the pure, unsensual love of his youth. As for the rest, he bows with the proud, makes the point that he does not expect to spend much time among the envious (in whose terrace he is the only one who can see), and is not really concerned with the avaricious and the gluttonous. He does, however, suffer the obscurity of the wrathful. There are subtler evidences of the personal allegory also. Casella's singing Dante's song and so bringing on the reproach of Cato for postponing the beginning of his penance is an allegory of general and “moral” nature but it contains something of the personal. The three steps of the gate mentioned above may be seen as having a personal, as well as a general, point of reference, and the great purgatorial procession is of the same mixed nature until the dialogue with Beatrice begins, at which point it becomes purely (or at least primarily) personal. It becomes cryptic as well, since we do not know whether the “pargoletta” (the error or straying for which Dante is so mcr chided here) is a real “other woman," or sensual attraction, or merely a philosophical-spiritual deviation. Probably it is one and all. Charles Williams remarks: “The guilt which every lover must sooner or later feel towards the vision…. may here be named according as every lover must in his own case name it, which is an excellent statement of the human allegory.
The purely personal allegory is not much in evidence in the Paradiso. Dante tells us more about himself in this cantica than he does in either of the others, but mainly in open, “unveiled" language, although the outburst on the joys of contemplation in canto XI is an outstanding exception. This is a symbolic expression of a kind of Augustinian rapture, couched in easily translated narrative terms. Magnificent similes are found in the attempt to describe the ultimate vision in the last canto, but from Dante's point of view there is nothing allegorical about his state; he is simply groping for ways to describe a mystic vision.
The personal allegory can also be extended to include the rest of mankind. In the first terzina of the Commedia, Dante has lost his way in “the middle of our life's journey," so that we are involved in his sinfulness, and Dante is a kind of Everyman. Thus the subject includes the second person as well as the first; we may think of the “souls in this world properly rewarded or punished" as the third person. Even as Dante is a spectator of his own openly advertised allegory, but also a participant, the subject, indeed, of the more intimate one, so too is the reader. His hell-probings, his glance into the potential horrors of his own soul, his eagerness to strive once the freedom of choice is made clear to him — these are the reader's also. And so too may be the ecstasy of the vision, after due instruction amd preparation, provided he has caten of the bread of the angels and is not attempting to follow the mighty ship in too small a bark. Certain aspects of the “moral allegory" come into play here: turning left in hell and right in purgatory, the arduous path up from the center of evil to the stars of a hopetul dawn, the dark, uncertain change of direction in the last canto of the Inferno (in which reason and the dead weight of sin have their part), the triumphant winning of spiritual innocence and serene self-assurance, are ours as much as Dante's.
This aspect of Dante's allegorical variety has come in for much study in recent vears, and under the aspect of the fourth level of meaning, or supersense, has been given a mystical interpietation by many contemporary scholars. Charles Singleton's Journey to Beatrice is a subtle and eloquent study of the “prodigious apocalyptic epiphany” (as Northrop Frye calls it ) of the meeting on the mount. He develops in great detail the anagogical meaning of the soul's return to God. A necessary part of this kind of exploration is the medieval “fisural” allegory. As in the traditional scriptural exegesis, for example, Joshua, historically true himself, prefigures Jesus, so Beatrice, while remaining the Florentine girl and not necessarily surrendering her role as revelation, is a figure of Christ. The richness of the figural method in the Commedia has been stressed by Auerbach, who sees in it Dante's main allegorical strategy and ultimately, if paradoxically, the source of his realism. Critics such as Singleton and Charles Williams would make Dante a true mystic. For the latter, Dante is a mystic of a verv special kind, a follower of the Way of Affirmation. Even if it does not make mystics of us all, even if we have some doubts about Dante's own mysticism, yet the personal allegory, closely woven into the fragment of the narrative, gives the poem its dynamism. It involves the reader in the pilgrim's journey, and in the poet's epic. By the time we have reached paradise the poet is our intimate, sharing with us his hopes and his difficulties when he says in canto XXIII:

Wherefore in symbolizing paradise,
The sacred poem, as it were, must leap
As one who finds obstruction in his path.
Yet one considering the weighty theme,
And the mortal shoulders that are charged therewith,
Will blame them not if under it they quake.
It is no voyage for a little bark,
The course my daring prow cuts through the waves,
Nor for a helmsman sparing of himsell.

Subtle-minded exegetes have found other hidden meanings in the Commedia, including various political and quasi-political interpretations. Gabriele Rossetti in the early nineteenth century propounded the theory that the work was a vast anti-papal Ghibelline tract, an anticipatory gospel of the Reformation, couched in cryptic language because of the author's fear of persecution. For Rossetti the narrative was a mere shallow pretext, and he elicited political meanings even from the embellishing metaphors. Such a theory was perhaps a natural product of the Risorgimento, eager to find in its somewhat romantic concept of the middle ages support for its own contingent anti-clericalism. After all, could not the savior Veltro (greyhound) be read as an anagram of Lutero (Luther)? And many an ardent Fascist of recent memory saw in the Dux of Purgatorio XXXII a prophecy of his own Duce. Another reading of the poem sees it as a defense of the Templars, which would explain Dante's hostility to Philip the Fair though almost none of the rest of his political opinions. This theory has considerable vitality and was revived not long ago bv R.L. John.
Other esoterie interpretations, stressing less the political than the cultural, may be mentioned. The exposition of the poem by the poet Giovanni Pascoli is based on a mixture of Virgilian and Augustinian associations. It is often fanciful and inconsistent, but rich in fruitful observations which have found their way into manv editions of the Commedia. Valli’s studies, which owe much to Pascoli, find in Dante and his fellow poets a secret beauty cult, a sort of unorthodox Platonism. It must be said that if some of these readings of hidden meanings seem rather farfetched, Dante is not entirely free from blame. His numerology, his apocalyptic monsters, and his occasional sybilline pronouncements have encouraged the cabalistic-minded. A poet who would find a secure niche in heaven for Joachim da Fiore reveals a certain respect for mystification and may be expected to indulge in it himself when the humor takes him.
Another kind of allegory, related to the personal, is what we might call the literary. There are many passages in the poem clearly intended to tell us something about Dante the artist. When he makes himself sixth of the group of poets in Inferno IV, he is deliberately putting himself on a level with them — at least in aspiration. If we find him presumptuous; we may excuse him by seeing in his statement a kind of professional assertion. He is a spokesman for the new vernacular poetry and is simply affirming the dignity of that poetry. Stambler, commenting on Purgatorio XXIV, says: “When Forese, his youthful companion in one kind of poetry, strides off on the path he must take, Dante follows — or by this time, walks beside — the two marshals of another concept of poetry.” Louis Rossi, in an interesting unpublished dissertation, recalls that one of the earlier commentators, Benvenuto da Imola, pressed this kind of interpretation very far, making Dante's composition of his book all but synonymous with his mission. According to Benvenuto, Dante's hesitation in fallowing Virgil in Inferno II is not that of a pilgrim frightened by the journey but that of a poet alarmed at the task he has set himself. The heavenly messenger who comes to his aid outside the walls of Dis is a personified eloquence, sent to enable him to deal with the difficult task of describing the lower hell. Rossi, who has collected and summarized a mumber of such interpretations, calls them examples of “a professional and technical allegory.” In our time, Gertrude Leigh finds that the souls in limbo allude to Dante's early childhood readings in the classics. Recently the French critic André Pézard has suggested that Brunetto Latini is in hell not for sodomy but for the “sin” of writing his great work in French rather than in his native Tuscan. The interpretation is worked out through a theological approach, but in its conclusions it is an example of “literary” allegory.
The character-symbols of the poem are rich in provocative possibilities of interpretation. On the central trio of Virgil, Beatrice, and Dante the pilgrim much has been written. We have noted Charles Williams' four meanings of Virgil; Beatrice too is susceptible of multiple interpretations, ranging from the traditional theology or revelation to the analogue of Christ in her appearance to Dante at the summit of the Mount of Purgatory. Dante himself is a character-symbol of many facets: he is Everyman, he is the Christian on the way of redemption. Helen Flanders Dunbar calls him a “type of Christ… in his destined and foretold sufferings and in the fruits of his victory… his mission undertaken at last in knowledge and love."
Deeper than these rather specialized interpretations lie the hidden meanings of image, symbol, and suggestion which, if less easily definable, are even more fundamental in giving the Commedia its enduring strength and appeal. The poem contains many elements which have their origins in prehistory and their correspondences in folklore and which appeal to us, whether or not we stop to analyze their nature, on a subconscious, almost instinctive, level. August Ruegg relates the journey to the world of the dead not only to Virgil and through him to Homer, but to roots lying far below these obvious literary sources. He stresses the aspect of solemn obligation in this ritualistic exploration: “Necessity, not sport, leads him on," says Virgil of his pupil in Inferno XII, even as Odysseus, obeying an ancient law, was compelled to carry out the inexorable commands of Circe. We have already mentioned the affinity of the narrative scheme to the age-old quest motif. At the beginning and the end of the Paradiso Dante refers to Jason's voyage, and his vision is his own golden fleece. Northrop Frye says: “Of all fictions, the marvellous journey is the one formula that is never exhausted, and it is this fiction that is employed as a parable in the definitive encyclopedic poem of the mode, Dante's Commedia.” He elsewhere remarks on certain archetypal figures which make their appearance as Dantesque symbol-images: “the prison or dungeon… like the city of Dis" (hell itself is in fact “the cave"); the “labyrinth or maze, the image of lost direction," which “can also be a sinister forest"; “the refining fire"; and the like. The “light metaphysics" too, particularly evident in the Paradiso, may have its immediate intellectual origins in Neoplatonism but surely is rooted in the sunworship of our forgotten ancestors. The recurrent ritual of immersion or token immersion of the protagonist at significant moments in his pilgrimage — in Acheron, on the shores of purgatory, in the rivers of the earthly paradise, and in the lucent stream of grace — suggests not only Christian baptism but ancient rituals of lustration, practised before Jordan was named. Although I am not acquainted with any thorough Freudian exegesis, it would not be hard to see Freudian symbols in many of the monsters, and indeed the forms of the three realms are very suggestive. For Gertrude Leigh the vestibule of the indifferent is a figure of the stillborn; the crossing of the Acheron, the process of birth; and Dante's fainting, a clear allusion to the birth shock. Father Musurillo sees the descent to hell as “a return to the womb of humanity"; several contemporary critics have seen the mother and father images patently set forth in Virgil and Beatrice.
How much of the compelling imagery of the Commedia is self-consciously doctrinal and how much has its roots in the barbarous sublimity so much admired by Vico would be hard to say. It seems likely that at least most of it was Christian and didactic, but the sophisticated allegories are built on ancient and firm foundations of which the architect must have been instinctively aware. The four — or more — meanings intellectualize and channel but never dissipate the intuitional vitality of the poem.

Date: 2021-12-25