Dante’s Conception of Poetic Expression [Joseph A. Mazzeo]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Jospeh Antony Mazzeo

Tratto da: Dante: the critical complex (Vol. 4). Dante and theology: the Biblical tradition and Christian allegory

Editore: Routledge, New York-London

Anno: 2203

Pagine: 117-134

Students of Dante interested in his views of poetics expression and structure have naturally focused their attention mainly on what he has to say about allegory. He describes both his major work and several of his canzoni as allegorical in structure and evidently thought of allegorical theories as providing both an essential description of the nature of poetry and a most important instrument for its interpretation.
ante discussed allegory in two palces: first in the Convivio (II, i), before beginning the Comedy, amd much later, while at work on the Paradiso, in the letter to Can Grande della Scala (7 and 8). Dante’s commentators, however, frequently cite or refer to these passages generally, without taking note of the differences between them. Only two attempts, to my knowledge, have been made to explore these differences and arrive at some understanding of their significance: C.S. Singleton’s “Dante’s Allegoery” and Bruno Nardi’s studies in Nel mondo di Dante.
The problem wich arises in confronting these two textes is that, in the Convivio, Dante distinguished allegory as used by poets from allegory as understood by theologians, whereas in the letter to Can Grande he referred exclusively to the allegory of theologians as a key to the interpratation of his great poema claiming, in effect, that it is to be read in the same manner as Scripture. In the light of the generally accepted medieval theories of poetic and theological allegory, the difference between these two passages is of great significance. To claim to use the allegory of theologians is to remove the Divine Comedy from the category of poetry as his contemporaries understood it.
Although their conclusions are very different, both Nardi and Singleton have made valuable contributions to the solution of this problem. Some of the difficulties they raise, however, can best be solved by placing the studi of allegory in the larger context of the problem of metaphor, the genus, of which allegory, definied as an extended metaphor, was but a species. I would like first to consider these crucial texts in the light of both medieval theories of allegory and modern criticism and then go on to a discussion of Dante's conception of metaphor and its possible relation to the works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.
Dante tells us in the Convivio that his poems had been misunderstood because they had been read only on the literal and not on the allegorical level. It was therefore incumbent upon him to explain how his canzoni were properly to be read; it is in this context that he proceeds to discuss allegory:

I say that, as was told in the first chapter, this exposition must be both literal and allegorical; and that this may be understood it should be known that writings may be taken and should be expounded chiefly in four senses. The first is called the literal, and it is the one that extends no further than the letter as it stands; the second is called the allegorical, and is the one that hides itself under the mantle of these tales, and is a truth hidden under beauteous fiction. As when Ovid says that Orpheus with his lyre made wild beasts tame and made trees and rocks approach him; which would say that the wise man with the instrument of his voice makes cruel hearts tender and humble; and moveth to his will such as have [not] the life of science and of art; for they that have not the rational life are as good as stones. And why this way of hiding was devised by the sages will be shown in the last treatise but one. It is true that the theologians take this sense otherwise than the poets do, but since it is my purpose here to follow the method of the poets I shall take the allegorical sense after the use of the poets.
The third sense is called moral, and this is the one that lecturers should go intently noting throughout the scriptures for their own behoof and that of their disciples. Thus we may note in the Gospel, when Christ ascended the mountain for the transfiguration, that of the twelve apostles he took with him but threee; wherein the moral may be understoond that in the most secret things we should have but few companions.
The fourth sense is called the anagogical, that is to say “above the sense”: and this is when a scripture is spiritually expounded which even in the literal sense, by the very things it signifies, signifies again some portion of the supernal thing of eternal glory; as may be seen in that song of the prophet which saith that when the people of Israel came out of Egypt, Jedea was made holy and free. Which although it be menifestly true according to the letter is none the less true in its spiritual intention; to wit, that when the soul goeth forth out of sin, it is made holy and free in its power.

In the first paragraph of this passage Dante tells us that all writings, sacred and profane, can be read in four sense and proceeds to discuss the first two of these senses. The first is the literal sense and is simply the primary meaning of the words of the passage as they stand. The second sense is allegorical and is the truth hidden under the “beauteous fiction” of the words as they stand, the literal meaning. Dante then gives an example from Ovid and adds that theologians take the allegorical sense in a way that is different from the poets. I wish here to stress that it is only of the allegorical sense that Dante distinguisches between the allegory of poets and that of theologians. Are we the to assume that he thought that the literal sense of Ovid and of Holy Scripture had the same sort of status? Of course not. All that Dante means here, although he does not distinguish it for us, is that the literal sense of any text is what that text apparently says, whether it is literally true, in our modern sense of thes term, or figurative.
Part of the difficulty in itnerpreting medieval discussions of allegory derives from our tendency to define litteralis as “literal”, when all it means is the sense of a text as such, whether it be a fiction or a literal truth. Dante is not saying that theologians do not take Scripture to be a “beauteous fiction”, for this would have been in his view too obvious to mention. He is calling our attention, as Busnelli and Vandelli observe, to an important distincion between the allegorical sense of Scripture and the allegorical sense of the poet like Ovid. The primary meaning of Scripture, whether expressed in palin and literal or in metaphorical terms, conveys truths given to the scribe by direct insipration of Holy Spirit. Even when the scribe gives God human attributes, he is not writing allegory but simply using a metaphor to describe a divene attribute. Whatever other sense a passage may have are of secondary intention, superimposed upon the primary meaning whether that primary meaning is a parable, a metaphor, or a historical event.
The poet on the other hand, according to this view, starts with a truth and then proceeds to envelop this truth in a beautifil fiction so that, for him, the allegory is his primary intention, while the literal sense i secondary. The literal sense of Scripture, however, is primary even when the higher senses are “built in”, so to speak, and are fully inteded.
In the second paragraph of this passage he discusses briefly the third sense, the moral meaning, and refers only to a passage from Scripture. There is no talk of poets at all, and the reference to Ovid is not pursued further, for very good reasons as we shall see. The third paragraph takes up the anagogical sense and again the reference is only to Holy Scripture. In accordance with the standard interpretation of this meaning, Dante points out that the things in Scripture which the words signify may in tum signify other, eternal, things. This is so because God has the power of using both words and things to signify what he wishes to make known. Thus the Iiteral meaning of a passage may, by the realities it signifies, refer through those realities to other realities of an eternal order.
As Bruno Nardi pointed out, Dante's analysis Is confused. The medieval grammarians disitinguished only two senses in profane writing, the literal and the allegorical. This was the allegory of poets. The theologians distinguished four senses, and it was only Sacred Scripture that could have four senses. Dante does not pursue the example from Ovid through all four levels because according to the teachings of the authorities no profane writer could have all four levels of meaning. The schools distinguished two kinds of allegory, the kind possibile to human beings alone and the kind possibile to God alone. The former is always made up of words; it is always tried to the sensu litteralis, i.e., it conveys its meanings through words whether the narrative these words constitute is literal, in the modern sense, or figurative. The literal sense may also enclose some hidden meaning and this is the allegorical sense, the teaching beneath the veil.
There is a kind of allegory, however, which only God can make: when things or realittes (res) stand for other things or realities. Any res is a signum because God made things so that they would also be meanings. Thus we can read the book of creatures and of history. The Bible combines both kinds of “discourse.” It, like profane literature, uses words to indicate things, directly or indirectiy, i.e., literally or figuratively. But it also uses realities (res), things and events, to express other realities of the spiritual and moral order. In the order of verbal expression the Bible has both history and parable, the latter not necessarily historically true but morally true, a pedagogic device for teaching the truth. On the level of signification through things, Scripture describes events and individuals which are types or analogies of spintual and moral realities. Their significance is not man-made but is “built into” the realities by their Creator. No human writing could have more than the literal sense, the meaning conveyed through the words, and the allegorical sense, the abstract teaching the narrative might enclose. The mystical or spiritual senses do not, strictly speaking, derive from the words or narrative, the sensus litteralis, but from the fact that the things and events the words describe are themselves ordered to signify truths of faith in the Christian life or salvation in eternity. This is possible only to God, for only he can order historical events so as to vield a meaning or to refer to a timeless and transcendental reality. Only God can make things and events be signs and speak through nature and history.
The allegory of theologians is strictly a method of interpretation of God’s “writing” whereas the allegory of poets is both a method of interpretation and a principle of constriction. Man can write the fourfold allegory of theologians, although man can interpret his “writings” by understanting their principle of construction. In the Convivio Dante undoubtedly confused these two allegories. The ssumption that both kinds had four senses, the failure to follow through the example from Ovid, his lack of awareness of the metaphysical and theological presuppositions of the anagogical sense, and his generally inconsistent treatment of the question indicate that Dante assumed the structural identity of both kinds of allegory.
Yet in his mature statement of the question Dante simplified and clarified the problem, not by distinguishing more clearly between the allegory of poets and theologians but by suppressing all reference to an allegory of poets. This would imply that Dante believed himself able to confer on things and events those meanings which presumably could come only from God. Neither Dante nor any sane contemporary would have mainteined this. On the other hand, it would not be absurd to calim thata a man inspired with the spirit of prophecy and poetry could discover the meaning of things and events, could use and manipulate God’s lanuguage, read God’s books and fuse elements therefrom into a book of his own. I believe that Dante was saying something of this kind in the letter to Can Grande, but before discussing the interpretations of this change in his theory of allegory let us consider the passage itself:

For the elucidation, therefore, of what we have to say, it must be understood that the meaning of this work is not of one kind only; rather the work may be described as ‘polysemous’, that is, having several meanings; for the first meaning is that which is conveyed by the letter, and the next is that which is conveyed by what the letter signifies; the former of which is called literal, while the latter is called allegorical, or mystical. And for the better illustration of this method of exposition we may apply it to the following verses: ‘When Israel went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language; Judah was his sanctuary, and Israel his dominion’. For if we consider the letter alone, the thing signified to us is the going out of the children of Israel from Egypt in the time of Moses; if the allegory, our redemption through Christ is signified; if the moral sense, the conversion of the soul from the sorrow and misery of sin to a state of grace is signified; if the anagogical, the passing of the sanctified soul from the bondage of the corruption of this world to the liberty of everlasting glory is signified. And although these mystical meanings are called by various names, they may one and all in a general sense be termed allegorical, inasmuch as they are different (diversi) from the literal or historical; for the word ‘allegory’ is so called from the Greek alleon, which in Latin is alienum (strange) or diversum (different).
This being understood, it is clear that the subject, with regard to which the alternative meanings are brought into play, must be twofold. And therefore the subject of this work must be considered in the first place from the point of view of the literal meaning, and next from that of the allegorical interpretation. The subject, then, of the whole work, taken in the literal sense only, is the state of souls after death, pure and simple. For on and about that the argument of the whole work turns. If, however, the work be regarded from the allegorical point of view, the subject is man according as by his merits or demerits in the exercise of his free will he is deserving of reward or punishment by justice.

For Bruno Nardi, the statement of allegory in the letter to Can Grande della Scala is also confused. Dante still does not, in Nardi’s view, understand the impossibility of any human being’s writing an allegory of theologians, and, far from clarifying the question, he compounds his own confusion by assuming that his poemi s written in such an allegory. Nardi also observes that what Dante defines as the literal meaning, the state of souls after death, is exactly the same as what he defines as the allegorical meaning, man by his merits and demerits through free choice desrving the reward or punischment of divine justice, for this is precisely what constitutes their state. He concludes that we ought to ignore Dante’s claim of using the allegory of theologians.
Nardi, however, does not take account of Dante’s intention in claiming to use the allegory of theologians, whether or not he understood the careful distinctions of the schools. After all, it frequently happens that to express a new idea or make a new claim one must use an old vocabulary or seti it in a n olde framework. The schema of the schools and many of the distincions they made strike us as artificial and arbitrary. Modern philosophers of language would not make such a sharp distinction betweent the plain and the figurative, the literal and the metaphorical, and some of them have defined everyday literal language as noting but the depository of dead metaphor.
Dante’s intention in “misapplying” or “confusin” the linguistic theories of the schools is to call attention to the truth of his poem, to remove it from the category of fiction as the grammarians understood that term. If we consider the Divine Comedy and the Vita nuova as forms of spiritual autobiography, we can understand one possible way in which Dante can claim to use the higher senses which only God can give to men and events. God’s providence governed the events of his life as he governed the events of both sacred and secular history. This is true not only for Dante but gor everyman. A man looking back over his past may discover that some of them – perhaps trivial or unintelligible when they occurred – will form a meaningful pattern and, taken together, reveal the particular and individual way that universal Wisdom proceeded in its government of the world.
But spiritual autobiography must be distinguished from autobiography in the traditional sense, for it is made up of those events and those alone in which a man can discover the divine intention and meaning. Dante himself tells us that it is improper for a man to speak of himself merely for the sake of doing just that and nothing more. If everything that is and happens has a meaning, it is not for man to know it. Only those events in which there is, and in which he can discern, a higher meaning are fit for disclosure. These are the events which Dante abstracted from the flow of merely empirical autobiography and reset in the framework of a fiction. If, as Nardi holds, Dante confused the two theories of allegory, he did so because neither explained the true status of his poem. It is on the one hand fiction because the journey never happened; it is on the other hand truth because the elements of the poem, cosmological, ethical, and personal, are true. One of Dante’s intentions, in discussing allegory, is not so much to advance a theory of explication as to describe a theory of the selection and ordering of significant experience. It is thus that the meaningful intellectual and personal experience of a lifetime is compressed into the “time” of one week. What is truly fiction in the poem is what is necessary to connect significant events and ideas after they have been abstracted from the flow of empirical reality, from the flow of events through time and space.
Charles S. Singleton, in his article on Dante's allegory and in his studies on the underlying structural principles of both the Vita nuova and the Comedy, has taken seriously Dante's claim of using the allegory of theologians. He maintains that the Divine Comedy is written in the allegory of theologians and that, accordingly, it is an allegory of “this and that” not of “this for that." Thus Virgil, a historical figure, has full- blooded existence in the poem; his actions are not fictions designed to convey hidden meanings, but have the status of events. This, therefore, is an allegory of theologians because the literal level is not a fiction in the same way as the story of Orpheus.
Although Dante intended his poem to have, as Mr. Singleton says, “a first meaning which is in verbis and another meaning which is in facto,” this does not quite rell what Dante meant in in applying the allegory of theologians to his poem. Let us recall again the sharp distinction between profane or poetic allegory, human discourse in words enclosing an abstract meaning. In the narrative they form, and sacred allegory, the spiritual sense of things and events in Scripture as well as the spintual sense of the discourse of Scripture whether historical or parabolic. These spiritual senses are always of divine origin. In the distinction between the allegory of poets and that of theologians it was not primarily a question of the status of the sensus litreralis, of what might be signified in verbis. In either allegory this might be figurative and would be subject to the conventional forms of logical and rhetorical analysis. Parts of Scripture such as parables and the Canticles were always interpreted as figurative expressions of religious and moral truths. The real difference hinged on those higher senses in which the realities referred to by the words referred in turn to higher spiritual truths. These higher meanings, the panings in facto, according to the theologians, are precisely what no human being could create. Yet Dante accepted as a principle of construction what could only be a principle of interpretation.
Dante does not claim to create reality; he is saying rather thar he can see reality, at least in part, as God sees it. The poet inspired by the Holy Spinit, the Spirit of Love and Truth, receives through the imagination truths which cannot be otherwise known or stated. Of course Dante cannot claim to see all things or to confer on anything or res the status of a signum. He can legitimately claim, however, that, by divine inspiration, he has been able to see the God-given transcendental meanings of many of the events of his life and time. If Dante erred in claiming to use the allegory of theologians— and by all the weight of authority he did err—we are a little closer to understanding the nature of his error and why he fell into it. He erred in assuming that the allegory of theologians as understood by the doctors of the Church was a principle of construction like the allegory of poets. He did not realize that the allegory of theologians was, in the view of the interpreters of Sacred Scripture, a principle of construction only for God, not man. On the other hand, he sensed in his own vision of things a penetration, the gift of divine inspiration, which permitted him to see things and events, as God intended them to be seen, with their eternal reference and meaning. Thus, with truth of this order in his poem, it could be read only in some mode analogous to Scriprure. Dante may not have understood the allegory of theologians as they wanted it understood, but he saw instinetively that it was thus kind of allegory which best described the source and quality of his poem.
Mr. Singleton formulates the underlying presuppositions of Dante's structural imagination when he maintains that the Divine Comedy's structure “imitates” that of reality as the great thinkers of the Middle Ages conceived it. As the universe may be considered the poem of God, so the poem is a kind of microcosm reflecting in its parts the nature of its model:

Allegory and symbolism are both given to this poet, as modes, out of the model which he had ever before him. They are, first of all... God's ways of writing. And analogy, in turn, is the comprehensive canon of art by which a medieval Christian poet could do his work as the realist he was.

It is in this sense that the poet may imitate God's ways of writing even though he is, of course, unable to confer on actual things and events any transcendental meanings, i.e., make signa out of res. Rather, he discovers in things and events the meanings which their Creator gave them. Simply to have imitated God's allegory in any extrinsie way, however, would not have made Dante's allegory anything more than an allegory of poets. What Dante claims is prophetic inspiration and depth of vision, the power to read God's writing in his own experience and to fuse its elements into a coherent whole. His allegory is, in a sense, more than so constructed as to be the image of God's allegory in his book of scriprure, where events themselves are seen to point beyond to other events”; it is more than an image because the elements of the poem, cosmological, historical, personal, have those transcendent meanings which God gave and which Dante was able to discover. It is, however, an image in that these elements are set in the matrix of a fiction.
Dante's conception of allegory, however, remains ambiguous. Nardi is undoubtedly right in maintaining that Dante did not understand the allegory of theologians. It is true, at least, that he did not understand it as theologians wanted it understood. It is also true that he uses it to assert the importance of poetry and important conceptions about the nature of poetry and poetic expression. This will emerge more clearly from a consideration of his views on metaphor.
It is in terms of a theory of metaphor, which included allegory, that Dante stated most clearly his views on poetic truth and on the poets rivalry with rhe theologian and philosopher in his claim to knowledge of ultimate reality. The most important reference to metaphor in Dante's works is in the letter to Can Grande. This letter, obviously an introduction to the Paradiso with general remarks on the nature of the poem and poetry, contains a discussion of the opening lines of the third part. This discussion makes the letter a treatise on light metaphysics as well as a treatise on poetics. The fusion of poetics and light metaphysics is necessary not simply because of the imagery and conceptions in the lines on which Dante comments; it is necessary also because Dante treats metaphor in terms of light metaphysics.
Light metaphysics reduced all substantialitr—God, souls, angels, things, the human intellect— to forms of light, uncreated and created, material and spiritual, sensible and intellectual. It reduced the hierarchies of being, truth, beauty, perfection—indeed of all “value”—to a hierarchy of light ascending to the very Primal Light itself, spiritual, uncreated, divine, the vision of which is the vision of all. This vision, even though Dante was not Aeneas or Paul, was yet given to him; but he cannot express it in its fullness, both because it is above the power of language to express and because he cannot recall all of it. Citing the authority of St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Bernard, and Richard of St, Victor in his claim to direct vision of the highest reality, he goes on to explain why language is inadeguate for rendering the vision in its fullness:

He saw, then, as he says, certain things “which he who returns has neither knowledge nor power to relate.” Now it must be carefully noted that he says “has neither knowledge nor power" —knowledge he has not, because he has forgotten; power he has not, because even if he remembers, and retains it thereafter, nevertheless speech fails him. For we perceive many things by the intellect for which language has no terms—a fact which Plato indicates plainly enough in his books by his employment of metaphors; for he perceived many things by the light of the intellect which his everyday language was inadequate to express.

In this passage poetic theory and light metaphysics are linked and metaphor is revaluated. In the doctrine of the schools poetic metaphor merely adorned and even obscured the truth, while theological metaphor, as found in Scripture, was the only way of expressing truths beyond human comprehension. In citing the use of metaphor by Plato, a philosopher, Dante emphasizes that to express the ultimate reality, in itself inexpressible, even the thinker must resort to techniques which prevailing doctrine considered chiefly the property of poets. The poet-seer who journeys along the ladder of light ro the Primal Light arrives at truths which only metaphor and allegory—the latter simply an extended metaphor— can express. In this way the poet is the rival and peer of the thinker. The Holy Spirit, in dictating Scripture to its divinely inspired scribes, had, so to speak, used metaphors to accommodate supraterrestrial truths to terrestrial intellects. So, too, the poet and thinker both may reach a realm of vision or thought, the content of which, when they “return,” can be conveyed only symbolically. The implication is clear that there may be a plurality of symbolic and metaphorical expressions of those ineffable things which can be seen by the light of the intellect. Plato, after all, was no Christian, and what he saw by the light of the intellect was not enough to keep him out of Limbo. But even certain truths of the natural or philosophical order are not to be stated literally.
The allusion to Plato is even more striking when compared to what St. Thomas has to say about him and his use of metaphor. In the commentary on the De anima of Aristotle, St. Thomas takes up the question of Aristotle’s refutation of Plato, trying to extenuate Aristotle for criticizing Plato and, at the same time, justifying the former's crinicism. He points out that, often, Aristotle criticizes not what Plato actually meant but the apparent meaning of his words. Aristotle had to do this because Plato's method of teaching was defective; for he constantly used symbols and figures of speech, as when he called the soul a circle, thereby obscuring by a figurative meaning his actual literal meaning. St. Thomas adds that when Plato called the soul a circle, he was speaking only metaphorically and did not mean that the soul was anything quantitative or circular, but—as St, Thomas repeats—lest there be any error Aristorle argues against the literal interpretation of the words. Contrary to the view in the letter ro Can Grande, Plato uses metaphor as a pedagogical device—and a bad one it is for St. Thomas—not, as Dante infers, because what he has to say cannot be said in any other way.
St. Thomas also comments on Orpheus’ erroneous opinion about the soul. He is coupled with Musaeus and Linus as a primitive poet-theologian who wrote in verse about philosophy and God. He was in error, immersed in the fictions of the imagination, but his eloquence helped civilize wild and bestial folk. St. Thomas would thus say thar eloquence— metaphor, image, simile—may have a civilizing function, but he obviously agrees with Aristotle on the inadequacy of the poet-theologian.
For Dante, however, poetry like philosophy gives truth. The poetry of a Christian who writes what Love or the Holy Spirit dictates gives Christian truth. A man, in a moment of mystic rapture, may have an inexpressible vision for which he must find some adequate expression. The Christian poet imitates the prophet inspired by God in accommodating a vision of saving truth to his readers “to remove those living in this life from a state of misery, and ro bring them to a state of happiness." Thus, the branch of philosophy to which the Comedy is subject, “in the whole as in part, is that of morals or ethics; inasmuch as the whole as well as che part was concelved, not for speculation, but with a practical objeck.”
The metaphors of the Holy Spirit are those which God chose to express his truth, accommodating himself to a human comprehension in order to lead it to the pure truth. The seer and philosopher, granted a vision of the truth, must do like-wise. Evidently, theological metaphor does not exhaust the meanings of the divine light that men can ascertain. Dante claims a personal revelarion that is intensely individual and, at the same time, universal, for it is dictated by Love or the Holy Spirit itself. The expression of this vision is a poem whose purpose, like that of Scripture, is to lead men to salvation. The poet is thus a prophet, expressing what he receives by divine inspiration. A true poem is nothing less than a supplement to Scripture.
Theology, the light of revelation, must use metaphor to express that light; poetry and philosophy, expressions of the light of the intellect, also must use metaphor to express their light. All modes of discourse, in their various ways, constitute converging paths to the Primal Light itself. Poet, philosopher, theologian, prophet, and true lover meet on the road to the Absolute.
Thus both poetry and philosophy use metaphor ro express truths which would be otherwise inexpressible. There is a considerable difference between this view and the conception in the Convivio of poetic metaphor as a beautiful lie embellishing a truth, sweetening some abstract moral idea. Between the Convivio and the letter to Can Grande, Dante had come to see that the fables of poets, their imaginative narratives, could have more than one kind of relationship to truth. The fiction of the supernatural journey in the Comedy is not a fiction in the same sense as the fictions abour Orpheus, for example, in pagan poetry. It is rather what we would call a platonie myth, a rendering in terms of time and space of the intuition of eternity. Time, as Plato said, is the moving image of eternity, but because it is a moving image, it is to some extent fictitious. Yet it is an image, a representation of an otherwise inexpressible reality. The visions which enter rhe imagination directly, without the medium of the senses, may have behind them the authority that lies behind the visions of Holy Writ. Love dictates them as it dictated to the prophets of old, and the poet must render what the intellectual or divine light, formed in heaven, “either of itself or by a will which directs it downwards," gives it. The Paradiso and indeed the whole of the Divine Comedy is a translation into terms of sensible light of a timeless vision of a spiritual or intellectual light; an adaptation for physical eyes of what was seen by the eyes of the soul.
Others before Dante had observed that Plato used metaphor and allegory to talk about philosophy, among them St. Thomas, who felt that such a figurative use of language was bad pedagogy. We find a more typical reaction to philosophic metaphor, however, in Abelard's Introduction to Theology where he says that Plato used figurative terms such as anima mundi and zoon in the Timaeus to hide philosophie truth from the vulgar. Yet this too is a negative, nonfunctional conception of metaphor.
The conception of metaphor and allegory in Dante’s later works bears closest resemblance to some of the ideas of Pseudo-Dionysius, who had a profound effect on Dante and who may be a source in this matter. Dionysius distinguished two methods, equally allegorical, philosophical and theological, for coming to some knowledge of an ultimate reality which is beyond all predication. These two methods actually constitute two theologies. One seeks to achieve clarity; its proper domain is the visible, and it proceeds by demonstra tion. The other presupposes an initiation. It proceeds by symbols, and its proper domain is the unutterable. Symbolism is a result of the necessary diffraction of the invisible spiritual light through an imperfectly transparent medium. Thus philosophical and scriptural modes of symbolism are closely related. One and the other use words to designate one single reality, in itself inexpressible and including in itself, at the same time, both affirmation and negation. For Dionysius only paradoxical terms can be used to describe the luminous and the more than luminous darkness, which terms both hide and reveal the divine mysteries.
The Light which diffracts itself through an imperfect medium and creates symbols of itself is also Beauty and Good, while Love is the stimulus which drives every being through images toward perfect Beauty. In God, this love is the source of an infinite outpouring which leads him to create the symbolic universe. Love also leads to ecstasies because it takes lovers out of themselves and transports them to higher realms. It makes superiors in the celestial and ecclesiastical hierarchies guide inferiors, it unites equals and makes inferiors scrive to unite themselves with those orders above them which share more in the divine love.
It is clear how, with some modification, reading “poet and philosopher" for philosopher and “poet-lover” for lover, we find here much of Dante's conception of the lover-poet and the value of poetry. All he had to do was affirm that all forms of discourse, poetic and philosophical, are equally metaphorical when it comes to the expression of eternity. The distinetion berwceen what the words convey and the allegorical meanings of the things they designate is, of course, still valid within chis larger context. But what the words convey is in either case figurative and metaphorical because they refer to a timeless reality which cannor be apprehended directly or “literally.”
In a striking passage of Epistle IX, Dionysius points out that those who have perceived theological doctrine clearly, without a veil, make for themselves some figure which aids them to understand what they have perceived. The Comedy is offered to us, I believe, as just such a “figure,” the result of vision in search of understanding.
A figure is of course a sensible image, and Dionysius persistently maintains that figures not only help us understand what we have grasped of spiritual reality directly, but lead us to that reality . The light which the sacred hierarchy imparts to the initiated and which leads them to immortality also diffracts into an imperfectly transparent medium creating symbols and figures of itself. These symbols either help us to understand what we have already seen or lead us to an understanding of what we have never seen before and to a luminous, painless immortality.
This view of allegory is very different from that of the schools of Dante's time, where literal and figurative expression, philosophical and theological allegory, were sharply distinguished and truth was considered the exclusive prerogative of literal statement. Dionysius studies allegory as part of the problem of metaphor and symbolism. As in the letter to Can Grande, all these questions of expression are answered ultimately in terms of light metaphysics. We know that, between the writing of the Convivio and the letter to Can Grande, Dante had studied Dionysius. Since the particular blending of light metaphysics, poetic theory, and theology in the letter is paralleled only by Dionysius, it would seem that his conceptions of linguistic expression as rendering a luminous, imageless reality helped Dante solve the problem of the nature of poctic expression.
Thus Dante puts poetic discourse or allegory, as given to a prophetically inspired Christian poet, on a par with the allegory of theologians, for they have the same source. Poetic allegory is on a par with all other forms of human discourse and is equal to the highest, because in relation to what the Truth is in itself, no discourse is fully adequate. What love dictates to the poet and prophet, what the illuminated intellect of a philosopher or theologian can see, is more than language can express without recourse to metaphor and indirection.
In proclaiming his allegory equal to that of the theologians, Dante did not use the careful and precise analyses of the schools; he reformulated the question, after Dionysius, as the problem of metaphor and indirection in human expression of ultimate truth.
If Dante used things and events to signify spiritual and moral realities, it is because God gave them their significance. He merely discovered—through study and through dictation by the Holy Spirit—the God-created meaning of Beatrice, of the events of his life. He learned the meanings that God gave to natural objects like the sun when he created them. All that he learned about the significance of things he worked into his poem. The journey is a “literal’ one—litteralis in the strictly medieval sense because the words describe a journey. It is, on the other hand, metaphorical in that the figurative journey renders an otherwise inexpressible vision. Dante, the poet, rivals the theologian because he has been able to discover God's meaning in things and events. He was able to do this by study and by the grace of Love. He rivals the philosopher because he had a vision of the truth by che light of the intellect which he, like che philosopher, could express only through metaphor. He rivals the prophet because the Holy Spirit, the flame of love, inspired him and dictated to him its truth.
Dante's mature thought on the question of metaphorical expression, eo nomine, besides the important references in the letter to Can Grande, is found in the well-known passage in Paradiso in which he discusses the theory of accommodative metaphor to explain how the elect appear in the spheres whule they “really” are in the empyrean:

These have shown themselves here, not that this sphere is allotted to them, but in sign of the heavenly rank that is least exalted. It is necessary to speak thus to your faculty, since only from sense perception does it grasp that which it then makes fit for the intellect. For this reason Scripture condescends to your capacity and attributes hands and feet ro God, having another meaning, and Holy Church represents to you with human aspect Gabriel and Michael and the other who made Tobit whole again. What Timaeus argues about the souls is not like that which we see here; for what he says he seems to hold for truth. He says that the soul returns to its own star, from which he believes it to have been separated when nature gave it for a form; but perhaps his view is other than his words express and may have a meaning not to be despised. If he means the return to these wheels of the honour and the blame of their influence, his bow perhaps strikes on a certain truth. This principle, ill-understood, once misled almost the whole world, so that it went astray, naming them Jupiter and Mercury and Mars.

Referring to the theory of accommodation in biblical metaphor and in Plato's Timaeus, Dante here explains how and why the blessed simply appear or manifest themselves in che planetary spheres; but he tells us at the same time that this is what he is doing in his poem. Dante, the character in the poem, is told that, although they are really elsewhere, the blessed appear to him in this way because he must have sensuous images to discern truth. The wayfarer has not yet acquired the new faculty which will permit the dircet intuition of reality. At the same time Dante, the poet writing the poem, is telling how to understand the nature of his metaphor and refers—this is most important and daring—to metaphor in Scripture and in Plato. As in the letter to Can Grande, he affirms that he has seen things by the light of the intellect which can only be described to us, if at all—for Dante the poet is writing as one of us, a man once more in a natural condition—through metaphor, indirection, and myth. The “vostro ingegno" of line 40 is a plural and refers to us all. We must recall, however, that Dante finally does see ultimate realities without anthropomorphic traits and that he sees the angels both in human shape and as luminous forms. In the theory of accommodative metaphor as applied to Scripture, representarions of divine things were deliberately crude so that they might reach even the simplest of men. It was the duty of the more intelligent ro refine these images to find the truth they contained. Not all images of divinity, however, could be so conceptualized, for some truths were too high for the human intellect to render abstractly.
Thus, in this passage, Dante is at a lower level of consciousness, a level ar which he is capable of penetrating the philosophical use of metaphor in the Times, but not yet, as pilgrim, capable of seeing the blessed as they are. He finally sees them not only as they are but as they will be after the resurrection, in the possession of their glorified bodies. The images of the realities of the Comedy gradually correct themselves. The souls of the blessed beginning with the sphere of Mercury after it increases in light are hidden in their own light and are finally seen in an eternal present in which they are as they will be.
The angels in Infermo and Purgatorio appear in human form; later, however, others appear as circles of light revolving around God seen as a point of infinite intensity and minuteness. But the divine mind—the point of lights — is also the “place” of the primum mobile and “encloses” in its “immensity” the whole of the corporeal universe. The angels, the movers of the spheres, are also seen in two orders ot arrangement. As circles of light, the highest rank of angels is manifested as the innermost one, the nearest to the central point of light which is God. As movers of the spheres, they are described so that the highest mover is the outermost from the center which is the earth. “Thus, by symbol, it is finally suggested that immaterial essence is beyond distinction of the great and small in magnitude; but even at the end the symbolism has not disappeared.”
There is another, more rapid and varied sequence of images which Dante experiences upon his acquisition of a new sense of sight. In Paradiso XXX the first image is of a river of light, then the souls appear as beauniful flowers on the banks of the river with angels as sparks flitting about like bees. The river next becomes a sea of light and banks or tiers rise up around it—the elect as they will appear in their glorified bodies—and we sce the rose whose “yellow” is the floor of the “arena,” the sea of light, while the rose itself is white (Par. XXXI, 1).
The rose in turn undergoes transformations. It becomes successively a garden, a kingdom, an empire. As a flower it has two roots; but ir also has a stairway and keys. This whole sequence of imagery is a series of accommodations to a reality which the individual images both hide and disclose. So as Dante penetrates more and more deeply into the “lofty light which in itself is true" (Par. XXIII, 54: “dell'alta luce che da sé è vera"), it is only the appearance of the immutable and simple Light that changes as Dante's vision gains in power:

Now my speech will come more short even of what I remember than an infant's who yet bathes his tongue at the breast. Not that che living light at which I gazed had more than a single aspect—for it is ever the same as it was before—but by my sight guning strength as I looked, the one sole appearance, I myself changing, was, for me, transformed.

Thus Dante assimilates objects of thought to objeets of sense, the sequence of symbolic representation of a particular reality bringing us closer and closer to what that reality is in itself. The progression of images is not only linear and sequential, each successive one a closer approximation of reality, but in portraying those immaterial realities which are the essence of paradise, one can go only so far when he finds his path cut off: “And so, picturing Paradise, the sacred poem must make a leap like one that finds his path cut off.”
A leap to what? To another set of images, to another part of the landscape which he is trying to describe, to another aspect of that level of reality where the poet finds himself which is capable of being imaged.

Date: 2021-12-28