Autore: Albert Russell Ascoli
Tratto da: Reviewing Dante's theology
Editore: Lang, Oxford - Bern - Berlin
Until the appearance of the invaluable edition by Enzo Cecchini of Magnae Derivationes of Hugutio of Pisa, the early thirteenth-century etymological dictionary to which Dante frequently recurred, was available only in manuscript form and was used by Dante scholars exclusively to clarify the meanings of individual words and concepts where Dante either drew directly on the Derivationes or where that encyclopedic work provided an illuminating analogue. Future studies, it is to be hoped, will concern themselves more generally with the hows and whys of Dante” engagement with this text. For present purposes, however, I would like to recall, yet again, Dante’s best known use of Hugutio, whose importance for his evolving concept of authorship I have treated extensively elsewhere. I speak of a series which begins with his explicit recourse to two of the Pisan' three derivations of auctor/autor in Convivio IV. vi (the philosophical author from ‘autentin, so called because worthy of “faith and obedience”; the poetic author from avieo, who binds together words in verse as the five vowels bind together language) - continues with his return to the poetic ‘avientibus’ in De vulgari eloquentia (II. i. i) — and culminates in his carefully structured passage from Virgil as his poetic and philosophical ‘maestro’ (If, I. 85) [master] and ‘autore’ [author] to God as ‘verace Autore’ (Par, XXVI. 40) [truthful author]. Like his account of allegory in Convivio II i (of which more anon), and in keeping with Hugutio’s etymological entry, the treatment of the ‘autore’ in Convivio IV. vi remains overtly within the parameters of human creativity and knowledge. Unlike Convivio II. i, no mention is made ofatheological alternative doubling and superseding that of the poet whose canzoni bear within themselves allegorically, and even literally, a philosophical content. When the autore returns in the Corzzedia, however, we find a trajectory leading from poetic-rational authorship to the divine Maker, co-author as Dante-poet would have it, of a ‘poema sacro’ (Par., XXV. 1) [holy poem]. And while, as I have claimed, the ‘verace autore’ is identified in Paradiso XXVI. 40 in such a way precisely as to recall Dantes Hugutian ‘vowels of authority” this final allusive evocation of the ‘autore’ from ‘avieo’ has decidedly turned from the Hugutian/’convivial’ poetic maker who unveils rational truth to the ‘theologus-poeta’ who praises the unknowable deity by naming him in multiple languages and according to his infinite attributes. The question is: does Dante’s poem simultaneously turn from an ‘allegory of poets’ to an allegory of theologians, as some have had it?
I will return to the problem of Dante’s ‘theological poetics’ in Paradiso XXV and XXVI at the end of this essay. For the moment, however, I would like to dwell on two features of Hugutio’s text which almost certainly conditioned Dante’s use of this entry, beyond its specific content, and in a fashion that does show the way to its transformation from the beginning of the Commedia to its ending. In the first place, Hugutio’s usual tendency, not always strictly observed, is to follow what would become the modern standard for the ordering ofencyclopedias and dictionaries, namely alphabetization (not simply the division of words by the first letter, but che subdivision according to the alphabetical order of subsequent letters — ‘ab ... followed by ‘ac ...’ and so on). But the first entry of the entire work is an exception, namely the word ‘augere’ from whence auctor, one who augments or increases, and in the first instance ‘imperatores ... ab augendo rem publicam’ [Emperors ... from the augmentation of the public good]. ‘Augere’ is accompanied by two related etymologies, ‘autor’ from ‘autentin) referring to ‘philosophers and the inventors of the arts, and ‘autor’ from ‘avieo, meaning ‘to bind’ and referring to poets who tie together ‘song with feet and meter) These last two being the definitions which Dante offers up as alternatives in Convivio IV. vi, with some interesting twists on the Hugutian original.
Why is this placement important in itself, and why is it relevant to Dante? Because the position of the definition, strengthened by contextual factors to which we will turn shortly, suggests it serves not only a general definitional purpose, but also raises the question of what Hugutio own standing as author of this text might be — the same self-reflexive question, mutatis mutandis, raised indirectly but powerfully by Dante” citation of the entry in Convivio. What, one might then ask, does this have to do with the relationship of poetry and theology? While as just seen Dante certainly turns Hugutio’s definitional exercise in that direction — implicitly in Convivio IV. vi and explicitly in Paradiso XXVI - the entry in the Derivationes makes no reference to the possibility that Auctor isone of the infinite names of God.
This brings us to the second, and heretofore unremarked, feature of the Derivationes which may illuminate Dante’s evolving understanding of authorship. Immediately preceding the entry for auctor, the very first of the Derivationes, as we have just seen, comes the writer’s prologue, describing the nature of the text to come, and identifying its author in the following way:
Si quis querat huius operis quis autor, dicendum est quia Deus; si querat huius operis quis fuerit instrumentum, respondendum est quia patria pisanus, nomine Uguitio quasi eugetio, idest bona terra non tantum presentibus sed etiam futuris, vel Uguitio quasi vegetio, idest virens terra non solum sibi sed etiam aliis. Igitur Sancti Spiritus assistente gratia, ut qui est omnium bonorum distributor nobis verborum copiam auctim suppeditare dignetur, a verbo augmenti nostre assertionis auspicium sortiamur. (Prologus 8-9)
[If one were to ask who is the author  of this work, one would have to say God; if one were to ask who was the instrument in making this work, one would have to answer that it is one whose homeland is Pisa by the name of Hugutio, as it were from ‘eugetio) that is, good earth not only for the present times but also for the future, or Hugutio, as it were, from ‘vegetio; a land green not only for itself but also for others. Therefore with the assisting grace of the Holy Spirit — so that He who is the distributor of all good things may deem it worthy to supply us by augmentation (auctim) with an abundance of words — we shall take the beginning for our treatise (nostre assertionis) from the word ‘augmentum’.]
At least four important considerations arise from a reading of this passage. First, Hugutio displays a genuine concern with identifying himself personally, through his proper name, with the text he has produced, a concern which certainly points in the direction of Dante obsession with the problematic of personalized, individualized, authorship. Second, although the entry for auctor is, as just mentioned, not explicitly concerned with theological authorship, anyone who has read the preface — beginning with Dante himself is bound to consider its significance in that light: the passage begins with the word ‘autor’ in the service of claiming that God, in the person of the Holy Spirit, is the true author of the text (given the spelling [i.e. no ‘c’] this must be the divine version of the author in the second or third sense of the definition that follows). Third, despite the fact that one would be hard pressed to argue that Hugutio is claiming for himself the status of one of the human authors, or scribes, of the Bible, he clearly presents a model of dual authorship, or rather of the divine Author writing through a human instrument, for the text. Finally, Hugutio explicitly connects his decision to begin the Derivationes with the word ‘auctor’ as a tribute to God as ‘augmentator’ (and thence, of course, ‘imperator’ of ‘quella Roma onde Cristo è romano’ (Purg, XXXII. 102) [that Rome of which Christ is a Roman]), twice using of the Deity words (‘auctim’; ‘augmentum’) derived from ‘augere’ ‘Thus in this short passage Hugutio makes God the ultimate model for human ‘auctores’ and ‘autores, covering at least two, and possibly all three, of the forms then treated in the first entry of the text, which he explicitly states is thus positioned as a tribute to the Divine Author.
What is striking, of course, is that the configuration I have just described overlaps to a considerable extent with the scholarly assertion that in the Commedia Dante claims to be a ‘theologus-poeta’ an inspired ‘scriba’ or scribe (cf. Par, X. 27) of the dictation of the ‘verace Autore’ on close, potentially blasphemous, analogy with Biblical authors such as Moses, Isaiah, Daniel, John, Paul, and so on. Were it not for this evident pertinence to a central issue, for many the central issue, of Dante criticism, at least in its anglo-american incarnation, this passage might not seem particularly fraught. Surely it is che case that any medieval Christian intellectual would have understood that, as God's creation, made in His ‘image and likeness, all that he did and made was in the final instance attributable to the ultimate Auctor both of the Bible and of the world itself. Nonetheless, once understood both as a likely influence upon Dante's self-construction as scriba Dei and as possible alternative to the Nardi-Singleton—Hollander interpretation of Dante the theologian, that is, both as writer of words about God and as mediating channel for the Word of God, Hugutio's words assume what can only be described as an ‘over-determined’ importance — at least for the Dante scholar and, perhaps, pending further and wider study, for the late medieval discourse of authorship more generally.
The topic of ‘poetry and theology as it pertains to the works of Dante can be construed in a number of different ways, given, to begin with, the metonymical ambiguity of the word ‘and; as well as for other reasons to which I will return shortly. One way ofinterpreting the phrase is as referring to poetry capacity, or lack thereof, to deliver theological content — and, more specifically, to draw upon, whether simply divulgatively or actively and transformatively, the writings of theologians from the fathers of the Church to the Scholastics of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Since virtually all the essays in this collection can be said to be about ‘poetry and theology in this sense and since, to be perfectly candid, my own credentials as historian of Christian theology are not especially distinguished, certainly not in comparison with other contributors to this book, I will leave this enterprise largely to the side. A second way to understand this topic is as a provocation to the study of the relationship between two modes of discourse: Is poetry opposed to theology? Is poetry a kind of theology? Does theology sometimes work in a way that can be called ‘poetic’?
It is toward this second possibility, notwithstanding the fact that Hugutio’s text is decidedly not ‘poetic’ that my opening sally points us and that, indeed, will guide my reflections in the balance of this essay. That said, it is crucial to note that without one additional distinction I run the risk of perpetuating a fundamental confusion which, on the one hand, has led Dante criticism astray, time and again, and which, on the other, Dante clearly plays upon, knowingly or not, time and again, throughout his works. The problem at hand is the meaning of the word ‘theologus’ or ‘teologo’ in the later Middle Ages and in Dante’s works specifically (especially the Convivio), and consequently what exactly we mean when we talk about Dante ‘and theology? On the one hand, a theologian is someone, say Thomas Aquinas, who practices the discipline of theology, and who writes words concerned with the nature of divinity and of the relation of men to God, and this is the way Dante uses the word in the two places it appears in his oeuvre, and, for that matter, it is the way Hugutio defines the word in the Derivationes. On the other, and this is the way that Dante critics, most ostentatiously Robert Hollander, and, by a via negativa, Teodolinda Barolini, sometimes use the term, in which case a ‘theologian’ is one who pronounces the Word of God, i.e. a human author of Scripture. To put it otherwise, in Dante’s discourse and, even more so, in diseourse about Dante, the word ‘theology' has an ambiguity not unlike that which consistently haunts a modern analogue, namely ‘History’ (which is both a discipline and the object studied and/or constructed by the discourse of that discipline).
It would certainly be convenient if the distinction I just made were one consistently observed by Dante, so that we could simply say that for Dante poetry is ‘theological’ in the sense that it has God as its subject (by which, of course, I actually mean ‘object’ or predicate) rather than in che sense that it is a subjective’ utterance ultimately originating in Deity (by which, of course, I mean that it is a discourse of ‘objective’ truth rather than of fallible human subjectivity). Unfortunately — or rather, fortunately, since without this particular feature there would be considerably less for Dante scholars to talk about — while Dante clearly knows that there is such a distinction, and sometimes makes use of it, at other times he radically confuses the two meanings.
Before moving on to a positive assessment of some of the ways in which Dante discusses and/or dramatizes the relationship berween poetry and theology, let me mention briefly two available accounts — one ofwhich he may or may not have known — the other of which he surely did — which he does not explicitly evoke. The first is the idea, derived by Dante’s contemporary, Albertino Mussato, from Aristotle, that (pagan) poets were the first theologians, in the sense that prior to the elaboration of any rational, philosophical discourse about divinity, and long before the Word itself was made flesh, (pagan) poets used a figurative language of praise to celebrate che ineffable Deity. This model, which avoids any confusion between the figure of the vatic ‘poet-theologian’ and the authors of the Bible, would, as is very well known, be picked up by Petrarch, Boccaccio, and other humanists, as well as by some of Dante’s own later commentators, notably his son Pietro (Hollander 1976: 117 and n.), eager to avoid the possible implication chat the Commedia and its author could be assimilated to the Bible itself and its human writers. At no point does Dante explicitly articulate this argument, much less attribute it to Aristotle — but, as we shall see, Dante’s ‘stilo della loda — the poetry of praise to which he turns in Vita Nova — evolves into something very like the Comedia, when what appears to be a constative language of reference to Deity is sublimated into the performative language of praising-by-naming.
The second account, of course, is Thomas pellucid and oft-cited variant on the acknowledgment of the presence of figure and fiction in the Bible which requires him to distinguish between the Bible’s use of these rhetorical devices and those of the poets, not on the basis of linguistic kind, but rather on that ofends. The ninth article of the first question of the first volume of the Sura Theologiae poses the question ‘utrum sacra Scriptura debeat uti metaphoris vel symbolicis locutionibus’ [should holy teaching [Scriptures; writings] employ metaphorical or symbolic language?] and emunciates the proposition to be refuted as
Videtur sacra Scriptura non debcat uti metaphoris. Illud enim quod est proprium infimae doctrinae non videtur competere huic scientiae, quae inter alias tenet locum supremum ... Procedere autem per similitudines varias et repraesentationes est proprium poéticae, quae est infima inter omnes doctrinas. (184.108.40.206.1)
[It seems that holy teaching [Sacred Scriptures] should not use metaphors. For what is proper to a lowly type of instruction appears ill-suited to this, which ... stands on the summit. Now to carry on with various similitudes and images is proper to poetry, the most modest of all teaching merhods.]
The refutation is as follows:
Sed contra est quod dicitur Osee ‘Ego visionem multiplicavi eis, etin manibus prophetarum assimilatus sum. Tradere autem aliquid sub similitudine est metaphoricum. Ergo ad sacram doctrinam pertinent uti metaphoris.
[On the other hand, it is declared in Hosea, ‘I have multiplied visions and I have used similitudes by the ministry of the prophets? To put something across under imagery is metaphorical usage. Therefore sacred doctrine avails itselfof metaphors.]
This does not mean, however, that ‘sacra doctrina’ or ‘sacra Scriptura' and poetry are interchangeable, since
Poetica utitur metaphoris propter repraesentationem, repraesentatio enim naturaliter homini delectabilis est, Sed sacra doctrina utitur metaphoris propter necessitatem et utilitatem [...].
[Poetry employs metaphors for the sake of representation, in which we are born to take delight. Holy teaching, on the other hand, adopts them for their indispensable usefulness ...]
The closest Dante comes to confronting this argument in an explicit way is in Beatrice’s ‘accommodation’ speech (‘così parlar conviensi al vostro ingegno’ (Par, IV. 40) [to speak thus to your understanding is necessary]), where he specifically attributes to both Scripture and the Church the use of figurative, personifying language to describe the otherwise incomprehensible Deity. The point in question is why Dante experiences the blessed sequentially in rime and space as distributed through the eight heavens when they are all, in fact, simultaneously present in the invisible Heaven of Heavens, the Empyrean. In re-presenting this cosmic representation, it could be argue, Dante’s poem could be said to partake in a fiction — but, of course, that fiction could also be said to be the ‘truth’ of the vision which Dante has been given, and, since the staging of fictional encounters with the various saints (presumably by divine disposition) is analogous, ir this respect (‘così convien ...’) to the Bible itself, we are no closer to deciding whether the figurative language of the Commedia, and its fictional narrative, is identical in ontological status to that of the Bible or just like it in this respect, as even Thomas, as we have just seen, would acknowledge it to be.
In what follows, I will pass in rapid review a number of Dante’s texts which have (for the most part), been central to discussions about the relations between poetry and theology — Convivio II. i; the Epistle to Cangrande, Purgatorio II and XXIV; Paradiso XXV and XXVI — and in each case I will suggest both how Dante indeed foregrounds the status of poetry and the question of its relationship to ‘theology’ in the strong sense, i.e. as Biblical words by and about God, in each case arguing that the innumerable attempts to decide the undecideable (whether Dante, in his heart of heart, truly believed himself to be the prophetic instrument of divine revelations) have more often than not kept us from understanding the rextual dynamics of the passages in question, in themselves and in relation to one another, not to mention their hypothetical relationship to the historical poet Dante, author in proprio or instrument of the Divine Author as may have been. In so doing I will engage minimally with the vast critical literature that has addressed these texts in particular and this issue (or complex of issues) in general. To the extent that I would wish to describe the historical unfolding of the debate in the criticism I have done so elsewhere, and to the extent that rehearsing that description or even adding to it would give my assertions here more authority, and a clearer claim to originality, I simply renounce both authority and originality in the name of a speculative meditation whose veracity (I aver) cannot be either confirmed or denied, and whose usefulness will be determined on a case by case basis by its readers.
We have just seen that a ‘theologian’ can either be a reader, an interpreter, of the doctrine revealed in ‘sacra Scriptura' or a (human) author of scripture — although it would of course also be correct to call a human author of the Bible an ‘interpres’ or intermediary of God's word, and it would also be correct to say that a reader of Scripture becomes a ‘theologian’ when he writes about his reading, as does Aquinas. I stress this point because it is precisely upon the slippery slope between reading and writing that Dante consistently places his most explicit and his most famous meditations on the relationship between poetry and theology.
The first of these, the most explicit, and a, even the, key point of eference for interpretations of the Commedia as being written as if it were to be treated by its readers as a book of Scripture, is of course the first chapter of the second book of Convivio There, in the view of some, Dante makes a distinction between two modes of writing, an ‘allegory of the poets’ and an ‘allegory of the theologians’, in order to specify that the philosophical canzoni glossed in the treatise are to be read as the former in clear opposition to the latter. In this same view, this distinction is then deliberately, palinodically reversed in the Commedia, specifically in the meta-poetic dyad of Purgatorio II and XXIV, a reversal then confirmed in Dante’s explanation of the modus significandi of the Commedia in the Epistle to Cangrande.
The situation, however, is more complicated, as has been repeatedly demonstrated over the last half century. Four questions in particular pertain to the present topic: 1) what is the difference that Dante posits between writing or reading as a theologian and writing or reading as a poet? 2) is Dante speaking about a way of writing or a way of reading? 3) what does it mean that Dante says his ‘sposizione’ of his own canzoni has to account for ‘quattro sensi’; an interpretative model associated with Biblical exegesis rather than with the glossing of poetry? And 4) what do the specific examples he gives illustrating these four senses tell us about his relation to Biblical writing and exegesis?
Let us begin with the part of the Convivio chapter that has attracted the most scholarly concern:
Ma però che più profittabile sia questo mio cibo, prima che ‘e con la prima vivanda voglio mostrare come mangiare si dee. Dico che ... questa sposizione conviene essere litterale e allegorica. E a ciò dare a intendere, si vuol sapere che le scritture si possono intendere e deonsi esponere massimamente per secondi sensi. L'uno si chiama litterale, [e questo è quello che non si stende più oltre che la lettera de le parole fittizie, st come sono le favole de li poeti. L'altro si chiama econd'ic,] e questo è quello che si nasconde sotto ‘l manto di queste favole, ed è una veritade ascosa sotto bella menzogna ... Veramenti li teologi questo senso prendono altrimenti che li poeti; ma però che mia intenzione è qui lo modo de li poeti seguitare, prendo lo senso allegorico secondo che per li poeti è usato. (Conv, II. i. 1-4; emphasis added)
[But so that my food may prove more profitable, I wish to demonstrate (before the first course arrives) how one should eat. I say ... that this exposition ought to be literal and allegorical. And so that this may be understood, it is necessary to know that uwritings may be understood and must be expounded primarily according to four senses. The first is called the literal [and this is that sense which does not go beyond the letter of the fictitious words, as in the fables of the poets. The nextis called allegorical] and this that which is hidden beneath the mantle ofsuch fables and is a truth hidden beneath a beautiful falsebood ... Truly speaking, the theologians take this sense otherwise than the poets, but because it îs my intention here to follow the manner of the poets, I take the allegorical sense in the way that it is used by those poets.]
The first point to establish is that, while the most common references to this passage suggest that it can tell us how Dante’s poetry signifies, or how Dante wishes us to believe his poetry signifies, it is in fact concerned with explaininghow Dante as prose commentator intends to explicate his canzoni: in other words, as I earlier anticipatedì, it begins as a discussion not of ‘allegory’ but of ‘allegoresis’, as evidenced immediately by the metaphor of textual consumption (I want to show how it should be caten, i.e. interpreted), as by che fact that in the second paragraph he twice uses the word ‘intendere’ in he sense of readerly comprehension and twice uses ‘esponere’/’esposizione’ in the sense of interpretive glossing.
It is not, however, simply a matter of insisting that the chapter is concerned with allegorical reading (allegoresis) rather than allegorical writing (allegory). The confusion between allegory and allegoresis is generated by the text itself. As we have seen, when Dante says he does not ‘take’ the allegorical sense(s) as ‘theologians’ do, he is most probably referring to those who study the ‘queen of sciences theology. But when he says he does take that sense as the ‘poets’ do, he is clearly referring to writers of poetry, not to its interpreters. In other words, he presents the distinction between allegory and allegoresis, only to elide it. What allows this? The fact, already put forward, that in Convivio, as against typical medieval examples of allegorical commentary, Dante is both the glosser of poetry and its author. In other words, the ‘confusion’ is underpinned by an (unstated) assumption that in glossing the text Dante is simply making known his own earlier intentions
This ambiguity is then intensified by the complex example which Dante uses to illustrate the relationship between the literal sense and the first of the three allegorical senses, as ‘poets’ as against ‘theologians, would take it.
Dice Ovidio che Orfeo facea con la cetera mansuete le fiere, e li arbori e le pietre a sé muovere; che vuol dire che lo savio uomo con lo strumento de la sua voce fa[r]ia mansuescere e umiliare li crudeli cuori, e falr]ia muovere a la sua volontade coloro che non hanno vita di scienza e d’arte: e coloro che non hanno vita ragionevole alcuna sono quasi come pietre. (Corv., II i. 3)
[Ovid says that Orpheus tamed che beasts with his lyre and made trees and stones move towards him, which means chat the wise man makes cruel hearts grow tame and humble with the instrument of his voice, and how he makes those that have no life in science or in art move according to his will: and they who have no rational life are little better than stones.]
At first glance, Dante’s example seems to be a perfect illustration of the typical allegorization of poetic texts, which largely confines itself to uncovering a single hidden sense, usually ‘moral’ in its applicability to the behaviour of the reader. But there are two major complications. The first of these has to do with the nature of the example itself. The second concerns the problem of how to understand the relation of these two senses to the other two allegorical senses, given that there relatively little precedent for interpreting poetic texts according to a fourfold, ‘theological’ scheme.
As to the first issue, we should recognize that the tale of Orpheus is not so much an example as a ‘meta-example’ of poetic allegory, a characteristically Dantean ‘allegory of allegory’ in Ron Martinez felicitous phrase: what we are presented with is not a lesson for the reader, but rather an illustration of how the poet-philosopher or poet-theologian goes about instilling such lessons through the power of his language. In other words, Orpheus allegorizes Dante as the poet whose beautiful verses will ‘delight, instruct, and move’ in the Ciceronian formulation (e.g. Brutus xlix. 185). Such an emphasis is in keeping with the argument I have made elsewhere that the supposed pedagogical mission of the treatise, aimed at instructing the relatively unlearned reader, is consistently deflected into an account and/or justification of the author’s claims of authority for himself and his poetry.
Thus, even before we get to the problem of applying the ‘four senses' model of Biblical exegesis to a poetic rext, we find that Dante has already gone well beyond the established parameters of poetic allegorization. Turning now to the larger poetry/theology issue, we can note that the typical poetic allegory could be said to correspond not to the first but to the second of the three allegorical senses posited by Biblical exegesis — the moraltropological (‘quod agas’: what yo, the Christian everyperson, should do) - rather chan the first, whose emphasis is epistemological (‘quod credas’: what you believe to be true, what you know), and whose content usually pertains either to Christ or his Church. And although Dante does not specify how a theologian would interpret the literal sense differently than a poet does— or even attempt to explain why a theologian would be trying to interpret this particular ‘bella menzogna’ at all - one is tempted to infer that the difference ix mode of reading would consist precisely in finding a Christological sense rather than a moral one. But what, then, would the next two allegorical senses be if one is ‘reading like a poet’?
Before we get to that question, however, we need to probe the example of Orpheus a little further. Once we have recognized the departure from a typical ‘allegory of poets, we might also acknowledge an implicit assimilation to the Christological sense of Biblical exegesis, notwithstanding Dante” disclaimer. In fact, as is well known, Orpheus, because of his descent into and return from Hell, was often treated as a figura Christi in medieval allegorizations. In the present context this means that the poet himself, in this case Dante, is the allegorical referent, where in the usual fourfold scheme it would be Christ. This does not mean, of course, that Dante is equating himself with divinity incarnate: it does mean that the separation between ‘allegory of poets’ and ‘allegory of theologians' is breached in the very moment it is supposedly illustrated — and that this happens in the name of justifying Dante's ambitions for himself and his writings.
I have already observed that simply in claiming that the exegesis of his poems should be according to ‘quattro sensi’, Dante has moved into the domain of Biblical interpretation from which this model derives. However, here too Dante muddies the waters considerably. In the typical use of the ‘fourfold’ model, a single Biblical text is given as the letter, and then each of three allegorical senses is derived from the ‘sensus historialis as well as forming alogical sequence among themselves. Thus, the set of beliefs (qu04 credas) expounded in the first sense, ‘allegory’ proper, provides the foundation for the individual behaviour described by the moral or tropological sense (quid agas), which leads to the eschatological results designated by the third or anagogical sense (quo tendas, i.e. where you will end up after death). To put it otherwise, beliefin Christ leads to the imitation of Christ by the individual Christian, leads to the salvation of her or his immortal soul. Dante, however, implies no such sequence — indeed, at the end of the chapter he admits that his expositions will concern almost exclusively the first allegorical sense, touching on the other two ‘incidentally’ (II. i. 15).
Moreover, and against traditional practice, rather than illustrating all three allegorical senses in relation to a single literal text, Dante uses a different letter’ for each: Orpheus, as we have seen for the first; che New Testament episode of the Transfiguration of Christ for the second; and the Psalm ‘In exitu Israel de Aegypto' for the last:
Lo terzo senso si chiama morale, e questo è quello che li lettori deono intentamente andare appostando per le scritture, ad utilitade di loro e di loro discenti: sì come appostare si può ne lo Evangelio, quando Cristo salio lo monte per transfigurarsi, che de li dodici Apostoli menò seco li tre; in che moralmente si può intendere che a le secrete cose noi dovemo avere poca compagnia. Lo quarto senso si chiama anagogico, cioè sovrasenso; e questo è quando spiritualmente si spone una scrittura, la quale ancora [sia vera] eziandio nel senso licterale, per le cose significate significa de le superne cose de l’etternal gloria: sì come vedere si può in quello canto del Protera che dice che, ne l'uscita del popolo d’Israel d'Egitto, Giudea è fatta santa e libera. Che avvegna essere vera secondo la lettera sia manifesto, non meno è vero quello che spiritualmente s'intende, cioè che ne l'uscita de l’anima dal peccato, essa sia fatta santa e libera in sua potestate. (Corn., II i. 5-7)
[The third sense is called moral; and readers must watch out for this most carefully as they go through writings, both for their own benefit and for that of their pupils. So, for example, one may note in the Gospel that when Christ ascended the mountain to transfigure himself he took three of the twelve apostles with him. The moral sense of this is that we should have few companions in our most secret undertakings. The fourth sense is called anagogical, that is, above the senses, and this sense appears when one expounds the spiritual meaning of a text which, even though [it may also be true] in the literal sense, nevertheless points through the things signified to the supernal things of eternal glory. This may be seen in that song of the prophet which says that Judea was made holy and free in the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt (Psalm 113. 1-2). And although it is manifestly clear that this is true according to the letter, that which is understood spiritually is no less true: that the soul in her exodus from sin is made holy and free.]
The first point to make is that while Dante uses a ‘poetic’ text to illustrate the first allegorical sense, the next two senses are illustrated in relation to Biblical texts. In so doing Dante at once implicitly puts ‘poetry’ on the same footing as the Bible, and his exegesis on the same plane as that of the theologians. He clamorously fails, however, to draw any explicit conclusions from this assimilation by juxtaposition. Having blurred the boundaries between the interpretation of poetry and the interpretation of Scriptures by claiming that the former should be carried out according to the canons of the latter, Dante then distinguishes berween how ‘poets’ and ‘theologians’ ‘take’ allegory. Having made that clarifying distinction (though, again, without illustrating how theologians would ‘take’ the story of Orpheus), he then blurs the boundaries further by following his first ‘poetic’ example with two ostensibly ‘theological’ ones.
Furthermore, his treatment of the ‘sensus moralis' is confusing in itself. The first peculiarity of the example given is that the letter, the Transfiguration, is already Christological, as if it were in some way compensating for the absence of the expected Christological reference in the first allegorical sense. Indeed the scene of Christ unveiling himself as the Messiah in the company of the Old Testament prophets and the three most favoured Apostles — Peter, James and John — can be said to be the event that eliminates the need for the Bible to speak allegorically at all — it is literally the event toward which the Old Testament as a whole points. That is, in the letter it enacts the figural fulfillment of Old Testament events and prophecies.
The second oddity is that the episode of the Transfiguration is made to yield up an allegorical sezerzzia that seems almost Machiavellian, signifying that ‘that we should have few companions in our most secret undertakings’, a meaning which has no obvious spiritual, or even ethical, implications. In other words, despite the use ofa Biblical example, this allegorical sense could be said to be more that of ‘the poets’ than of ‘the theologians. In addition, like that of Orpheus this example could also be read meta-poetically, since its allegorical sententia provides an implicit justification for the obscurity of the poets allegorical discourse (and is in keeping with Dante’s oscillation throughout the Convivio between a desire for the divulgation of knowledge and the need to speak obscurely and to the few, for purposes of affrming his authority).
Only the final, anagogical, example, which moves back from the Gospels to the Psalms (and thence to the Exodus story retold in this particular Psalm) represents an unproblematic reproduction of the Biblical model (or rather, problematic only in its placement within this sequence of examples, and its use to transfer canons of literal exegesis from Biblical commentary to commentary on Dante's canzoni). As we shall see shortly, it is precisely this example which becomes the focal point for claims that the Commedia presents itself as written in the manner of the Bible and that che Epistle to Cangrande reads the ‘poema sacro’ as if were written in that manner.
Having examined each of Dante” illustrations of the three allegorical sensus, it is tempting to posit an ascending ‘typology (in the modern classificatory meaning) of examples: one strictly ‘according to the poets’; one that mingles elements of poetic and Biblical exegesis; and one that keeps strictly to the paradigm of ‘i teologi’ even apparently referring to the signifying structure of an allegoria in factis, which, in the formulations of Augustine, Aquinas, and other theologians, is characteristic of God's writing alone (‘by the [literally] signified things, signifying the supernal things). Even here, however, the ‘allegory of theologians’ is immediately deflected back toward Dante’ own allegory and allegoresis, because it becomes the occasion for the insistence that allegorica interpretation, ofwhatever kind, must begin from the letter, whether that letter is fictive (poetic) or true (Scriptural), a caveat which governs Dante-commentator’s practice in the balance of the unfinished treatise.
For the specific purposes of this essay, three basic points stand out from a reading of Convivio II i. First, Dante’s understanding of poetic allegory and allegoresis is explicitly articulated in relation to Biblical allegory, whatever the differences between the two modes of writing and/or reading; second, the innovative adoption of a quadripartite model of signification for the interpretation of poetry remains formal and procedural - no claims are made either for the historical truth of the literal sense or for the power of poetry to delivery theological content; third, perhaps the single most striking point of resemblance between poetic and theological allegory foregrounded by Dante’ juxtaposition of the two modes is the fundamental role in the letter of the text, whether fictive or historical, in interpreting cither type of writing.
In the strong interpretation of Dante's assumption of the role of ‘theologus-poeta, the one associated most closely with Charles Singleton and Robert Hollander, the ambiguities and uncertainties of Convivio II i find their clarification and resolution in the poetic practice of the Commedia and the interpretive model presented in the Epistle to Can Grande. In both cases the primary marker of development from and supercession of Convivio is the recurrence of the example given in the latter text to illustrate the third or anagogical sense, namely Psalm 113, which begins, ‘In exitu Israel de Aegypto’.
As is very well known, in the ‘accessus’ section of the Epistle to Can Grande, which constitutes a prologue introductory to the Comedia in general and its third canticle, the Paradiso, in particular, an ‘I’ purporting to be ‘Dantes Alagherii florentinus natione non moribus’ [Dante Alighieri, Florentine by birth, not by manners; my translation] prefaces his treatment of six standard accessus topics with the affirmation that the poem ‘non est simplex sensu, ymo dici potest polisemos, hoc est plurium sensuum’ (par. 7) [the meaning of this work is not ofone kind only, rather the work may be described as ‘polysemous’; that is, having several meanings]. He illustrates this point in the following manner:
primus sensus est qui habetur per litteram, alius est qui habetur per significata per litteram. Et primus dicitur litteralis, secundus vero allegoricus, sive moralis, sive anagogicus. Qui modus tractandi, ut melius pateat, potest considerati in hiis versibus: ‘In exitu Israel de Egipto, domus Iacob de populo barbaro, facta est Iudea sanctificatio eius, Israel potestas eius’ (Psalm 113. 1-2). Nam si ad litteram solam inspiciamus, significatur nobis exitus filiorum Israel de Egipto, tempore Moysis; si ad allegoriam, nobis significatur nostra redemptio facta per Christum; si ad moralem sensum, significarur nobis conversio anime de luctu et miseria peccati ad statum gratie; si ad anagogicum, significatur exitus anime sancte ab huius corruptionis servitute ad eterne glorie libertatem. Et quamquam isti sensus mistici variis appellentur nominibus, generaliter omnes dici possunt allegorici, cum sint a litterali sive historiali diversi. Nam allegoria dicitur ab ‘alleon’ grece, quod in latinum dicitur ‘alienum’’ sive ‘diversum’.
[the first meaningis that which is conveyed by the letter, and che next is that which is conveyed by what the letter signifies; the former is called the literal, while the latter is called the allegorical or mystical. And for the better illustration of this method of exposition we may apply it to che 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’ (Psalm 113. 1-2). For if we consider the letter alone, the thing signified to us is che going out of the children of Israel from Egypt in the time of Moses; if che allegory, our redemption through Christ is signified, ifin the moral sense, the conversion of the soul from the sorrow and misery of sin to a state of grace is signified; ifanagogical, the passage of the sanctified soul from the bondage of the corruption of this world is signified. And although these mystical meanings are called by various names, they may one and all in a general sense be termed allegorical, in as much as they are different from the literal or historical; for the word ‘allegory’ is so-called from the Greek alleon, which in Latin is alienum or diversum.]
The return to the exemplification of allegory through the instance of ‘In exitu Israel de Aegypto’ is one of several ways in which the document connects itself to Convivio in particular and to Dante's auto-exegetical and self-critical practice in general, as well, of course, to the crucial citation of the same Psalm in Purgatorio II (to which we will return shortly).
Of course, a great deal has changed since Corvivio. No longer is there any confusion between allegory and allegoresis: the passage speaks directly to the senses intrinsic to the text under consideration. No longer is there any distinction made between a poetic and a theological version of the ‘four senses’ model of signification; rather, the seemingly superfluous final example of Convivio, the only one which conformed strictly to the tradition of Biblical exegesis, and which had no apparent applicability to Dante expository practice, has assumed centre stage by itself. ‘The formulation of the four senses model indeed now follows traditional practice, with a single text read in its literal-historical and three allegorical meanings. If this model is to be applied ‘tale quale’ to the Commedia, then it is hard to resist the Singleton-Hollander assertion that Dante conceives of his poem as ‘theological’ in the strong sense.
But here is the problem: does this model accurately describe the signifying practice of the Commedia; and does the balance of the Epistle to Can Grande, in the rest of the accessus section and in the truncated commentary which follows, apply it to a reading of the ‘sacro poema’? The former point is endlessly arguable — and the difficulty of making a case for it based on the text of the Comzzedia alone is in part proven by the tenacity with which Hollander has insisted upon the authenticity of the Epistle to Can Grande, as if in tacit recognition that his case would be considerably weaker if paragraph 7 did not describe Dante's own account of the matter.
However, even assuming that the Epistle to Can Grande is Dante” (and, as noted above, I believe that the strongest reasons favour the hypothesis of authenticity; see again n. 20 above), there are serious difficulties with the claim that paragraph 7 is intended to describe the Commedia’ modus significandi. I have discussed these in detail elsewhere, and will rehearse them summarily here. The first is that while the formulation of the fourfold model is standard, its inclusion in the accessus genre is not, a fact put in relief in the previous paragraph which lists the six standard topics to be treated and ostentatiously does not include the contents of paragraph 7 among them. The second is that paragraph 7 does not actually present itself as a description of the Commedia per se, but rather offers the example of ‘In exitu Israel’ as an illustration of what is meant by ‘polysemy’. The third is that while che example stresses the derivation of the allegorical senses from the letter, it formulates the matter in such a way as to avoid the recessity of the letter’s truth: when he says ‘alius est qui habetur per significata per litteram’ [another meaning which is conveyed by what the letter signifies] he is not necessarily describing an ‘allegoria in factis, but could simply be claiming, as he does in Corvivio, that whatever the status of the letter, the allegorical sense(s) cannot be understood without it. The fourth, is that paragraph 8, which does specifically treat the ‘subject’ of the Commedia, does not employ the fourfold model, but rather gives two senses — the literal (‘status animarum post-mortem’ [the state of the souls after death]) and the allegorical (‘subiectum est homo prout merendo et demerendo per arbitrii libertatem iustitie premiandi et puniendi obnoxius est’ [the subject isman according as by his merits and demerits in the exercise of his free will he is deserving of reward or punishment by justice]). Fifth: not only does this paragraph not apply the fourfold model to the Commedia, it (and che related paragraph 15) imply that the letter of the text is anagogical — while its single allegorical meaning is equivalent to the moral-tropological sense of paragraph 7. Finally, when the Epistle to Can Grande finally turns from accessus to commentary in paragraph 17, it states as clearly as possible that it will only describe the letter of the Paradiso (and then, indeed, only the first few lines of the first canto).
None of this is to deny that paragraph 7 of the Epistle to Can Grande implies the possibility of adopting the categories of Biblical signification and theological exegesis to the Commedia, an implication that is even stronger if one compares this passage to the corresponding segment of Convivio II i. What it does suggest, however, is that even at this late point Dante stops just short of openly equating his poetic enterprise with the writing of the Bible. No doubt that the content of the Commedia is ‘theological’ — we hardly need paragraph 7 to tell us that — but in this it differs little from any number of writings by poets, philosophers, and theologians throughout the Middle Ages.
With that, it is time to turn at last to the Commedia itself. And let me begin with the canto that has been, arguably, the most central to North American Dante criticism’s obsessive attempts to define the ratio between theology and poetry over the half century and more: Purgazorio II. Very near its outset, Dante-personaggio watches from the shores of Mount Purgatory as a rapidly moving white glow gradually becomes distinguishable asa boat guided by an angelic pilot or ‘galeotto, which then is revealed to contain some hundred dead souls freshly transported from the land of the living. As they arrive Dante hears them singing:
‘In exitu Israel de Aegypto’
cantavan tutti insieme ad una voce
con quanto di quel salmo è poscia scripto.
[‘In exitu Israel de Aegypto'; they were singing all together with one voice, with as much of that psalm as is written thereafter.]
The singing of a psalm is very much in keeping with the prayerful, livurgical character of the second realm, which is redolent with citations, paraphrases, translations and dramatizations of Scripture. It focuses the consistent imagery of risky sea-voyage (Inf., I and XXVI) as metaphor of spiritual error and deliverance; constitutes a narrative alternative in bono to Charon's (and Phylegias's) transportation of the damned; and provides a key focal point for the poem-long thematics of exile. But what concerns us here, of course, is that from the point of view of the poetry-theology question under review, this episode has been seen, as it were, to stand at the midpoint between the anomalous illustration of anagogy in Convivio II i and the apparently straightforward application of the four senses model to the Commedia in the Epistle to Can Grande. In other words, despite certain obstacles we will return to, the passage has been read asa figure for Dantean figuralism, a gloss, as it were, on the revivification of ‘la morta poesf’ at the very beginning of the canticle (Purg, I. 7). And, more precisely, one might argue that in singing che song the souls reveal, now literalized, the polysemous allegorical significance of the Exodus of the Jews — a conversion from sin to grace made possible by Christ sacrifice, resultingin the ‘exitus anime sancte ab huius corruptionis servitute ad eterne glorie libertatem, precisely that freedom which is identified as the fundamental motive of Dante journey, as it had been of Cato ‘selfsacrifice’ (Purg, I 71-72).
Such an interpretation is favoured by the fact that che Biblical text is a song composed by the Bible's most poetic human author, David - and perhaps also by the fact that it is performed under the auspices of a heavenly ‘galeotto) with evident recall of the damnable ‘galeotto’ — both book and author — that Francesca blames for her lamentable fate and that of Paolo. Even more to the point, as innumerable critics have remarked over the years, is the fact that the canto concludes with the performance of another song, this one Dante own cazzoze, glossed in the third book of the Convivio as a hymn to Dante's love of wisdom (Filosofia): ‘Amor che nella mente mi ragiona’. The song is sung, at Dante’ own request, by his old friend Casella — and with its sweetness absorbs the attention not only of Dante and Virgil, but that of all the newly arrived souls as well, much to the displeasure of Cato, who chastises their ‘negligenza’ in attending to the purgatorial process which awaits them:
E io: ‘Se nuova legge non ti toglie
memoria o uso a l’amoroso canto
che mi solea quetar tutte mie doglie,
di ciò ti piaccia consolare alquanto
l'anima mia, che, con la sua persona
venendo qui, è affannata tanto!’
‘Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona’
cominciò elli allor sì dolcemente,
che la dolcezza ancor dentro mi suona.
Lo mio maestro e io e quella gente
ch'eran con lui parevan sì contenti,
come a nessun toccasse altro la mente.
Noi eravam tutti fissi e attenti
a le sue note; ed ecco il veglio onesto
gridando: ‘Che è ciò, spiriti lenti?
qual negligenza, quale stare è questo?
Correte al monte a spogliarvi lo scoglio
ch'esser non lascia a voi Dio manifesto?
(Purg., II. 106-23)
[And I: ‘If a new law has not taken from you the memory or habit of the amorous singing that used to quiet all my desires, let it please you to console my soul a little in that way, for, cominghere with its body, it is so wearied!’ ‘Love that discourses with me in my mind, he began then, so sweetly that the sweetness still sounds within me. My master and I and those poeple that were with him seemed as contented as if nothing else touched anyone's mind. We were all fixed and attentive to his notes; and here was the venerable old man, crying ‘What is this, laggard spirits? What negligence, what standing still is this? Run to the mountain to shed the slough that keeps God from being manifest to you’]
The opposition between ‘In exitu’ and ‘Amore che nella mente’ — or perhaps I should say between the performances of the two songs — is radical. One is Scripture — theological writing — written by God through his human amanuensis; one is a purely human poetic composition (though, by itsown account, the fruit of an inner dialogue between its author and ‘Amore’). One marks a journey, a quest; the other seemingly leads to spiritual stasis. One celebrates God's justice and grace; the other either human eros (if taken at che letter) or human reason (ifunderstood in the light of Dante” allegorization in Convivio III). In short, Dante earlier poetry, and his authorship of it, are sharply contrasted with Biblical verse and its divine author, in a way that, at least in conjunction with the strong interpretation of paragraph 7 of the Epistle to Can Grande, seems to identify Dante’s writing in the Commedia with the former rather than the latter modality.
This interpretation, the Singleton-Hollander interpretation, let us call it, and in fact most interpretations with which I am familiar, are concerned with the authorship of the two songs and their content — divine vs. human, theological vs. philosophical (or erotic). But in the context of the canto, this is not what is foregrounded. Rather, in both cases the stress falls on the performance of the song, and on its reception by an audience, and in particular by Dante-personaggio. In the first case the song is performed chorally in its entirety (‘tutti insieme ad una voce / con quanto di quel canto è poscia scripto’) by the souls whose presumed audience, since Dante’ presence is entirely unanticipated, is themselves, God's minister, and God. And as they perform the song, the souls also perform the meaning of the song in its tropological and anagogical meanings: they sing of exodus out of spiritual captivity to the liberation of a promised land, even as they travel to that promised land. In the second the song is performed by a single individual at the request of another, and rather than experience the song as a whole and its content, all of the hearers become rapt in a ‘sweetness’ that removes thought of anything else, above all the fact that their journey to promised land is not yet complete.
What is most peculiar about the performance of ‘Amor che nella mente’ of course, is that Dante becomes the passive audience of a song he himself wrote although, oddly, this is usually referred to Dante's past as author and subject of love rather than to his role as reader/audience (even though, as stressed above, Convivio is the rext ofan author become his own interpreter). To the extent that Dante is cast as interpreter in this episode, it is as the active, critical, palinodic reader of his past as poet, now superseded by his turn to faith and the role of theologus-poeta.
To understand better what is at stake here, we need to make a detour through another ‘pre-text’ of Purgatorio II, one which has been consistently overlooked as critics focus on the association between ‘Amor che nella mente’ and the project of Convivio. That pre-text is book two of De vulgari eloquentia and, more specifically, that part of it where Dante sets out to define the poetic form which alone is worthy of the noblest, ‘illustrious’ vernacular, the cantio, which we usually translate as carzozze, but could as easily be rendered as canto, or song. As I have shown elsewhere, this is also the point where the author of the treatise explicitly identifies himself as the examplar of the poet who writes such poems. Here is the crucial passage:
Est enim cantio, secundum verum nominis significatum, ipse canendi actus vel passio, sicut lectio passio vel actus legendi. [... C]antio dupliciter accipi potest: uno modo secundum quod fabricatur ab autore suo, et sic est actio — et secundum istum modum Virgilius primo Eneidorum dicit Arma virumque cano —; alio modo secundum quod fabricata profertur vel ab autore vel ab alio quicunque sit, sive cum soni modulatione proferatur, sive non: et sic est passio. Nam tunc agitur; modo vero agere videtur in alium, et sic rune alicuius actio, modo quoque passio alicuius videtur. Et quia prius agitur ipsa quam agat, magis, immo prorsus denominari videtur ab eo quod agitur, et est actio alicuius, quam ab co quod agit in alios. Signum autem huius est quod nunquam dicimus "Hec est cantio Petri” co quod ipsam proferat, sed eo quod fabricaverit illam. (DVE, II. viii. 3-4)
[A cantio, according to the true meaning of the word, is an act of singing, in an active or a passive sense, just as lectio means an act of reading, in an active or a passive sense ... [C]anzio has a double meaning: one usage refers to something created by [its] author [and in this sense it is an action] — and this is the sense in which Virgil uses the word in the first book of the Aezzeid, when he writes ‘arma virumque cano’; the other refers to the occasion on which this creation is performed, either by the author or by someone else, whoever it may be, with or without a musical accompaniment — and in this sense it is passive. For on such occasions the canzio itself acts upon someone or something, whereas in the former case it is acted upon; and so in one case it appears as an action carried out by someone, in the other as an action perceived by someone. And because it is acted upon before it acts in its turn, the argument seems plausible, indeed convincing, that it takes its name from the fact that it is acted upon, and is somebody’s action, rather from the fact that it acts upon others. The proof of this is the fact that we never say ‘that's Peter’s song’ when referring to something Peter has performed, but only to something he has written.]
The relevance of this passage to the present context should be clear, and only becomes clearer if we note that the last canzone cited before this passage, and in an exceptionally emphatic position, is precisely ‘Amor che nella mente’. Where in De vulgari eloquentia Dante is establishing himselfas the ‘active’ maker of the carzzio par excellence, here he has focused instead on the ‘passive’ authorship of Casella, and has cast himselfin the role of the /ector, alluded to in passing in the cited excerpt, and indeed as a passive reader, acted upon, rather than as an active one, interacting with what he hears.
The focus of the episode then is not, or at least not only, on what the author of ‘Amor che nella mente’ intended to say, on what he spends fifteen chapters of Convivio saying he meant to say, but rather on what happens when that poem is read or heard in the wrongway: that is, as a passive experience of surpassing sweetness which cancels all other thought, all other activity. At the same time, in casting himself as a passive reader of his own poem, in effect, and paradoxically, he parodies his own strenuous efforts in Vita Nova, Convivio, and De vulgari eloquentia to portray himself as an author-maker in full control of his own meanings. From this perspective, the alternative to the experience of Casella’s performance is not a return to active authorship (and the active readership of self-commentary through which the figure of the active author is constructed), but rather the collective performance of ‘In exitu Israel de Aegypto’ in which, as I have already suggested, what Dante called ‘passive authors’ in De vulgari eloquentia become ‘active readers’, to the extent that they not only interpret but in fact instantiate, fulfill, rhe divinely inspired text they recite. In other words, they are the meaning of what they sing, actively, allegorically interpreted.
To understand fully the implications of this episode for Dante’s negotiation, as author, of the relationship between poetry and theology, we need to turn to two later episodes — one in which he re-describes the process by which he produces poetry — one in which he places himselfin the company of the human authors of the Bible, and measures both himself and them against God, the Author of all authors. As to the former, it is well known that ‘Amor che nella mente’ is poised within the economy of Purgatorio, not only against the performance of ‘In exit, but also, though at a considerable distance, against Dante’ second major auto-citation, this one in canto XXIV:
‘Ma dì s'i’ veggio qui colui che fore
trasse le nove rime, cominciando
“Donne chiavete intelletto damore”’.
E io a lui: ‘l’ mi son un che, quando
Amor mi spira, noto, e a quel modo
ch’e’ ditta dentro vo significando?
‘O frate, issa vegg’ io’, diss’ elli, ‘il nodo
che ‘l Notaro e Guittone e me ritenne
di qua dal dolce stil novo ch'i’ odo!
Io veggio ben come le vostre penne
di retro al dittator sen vanno strette,
che de le nostre certo non avvenne;
e qual più a gradire oltre si mette,
non vede più da l'uno a l'altro stilo’.
(Purg., XXIV. 49-62)
[‘But tell me if I see here the one who drew forth the new rhymes, beginning Ladies who have intellect of love? AndI to him: ‘Tin myselfam one who, when Love breathes within me, take note, and to that measure which he dictates within, I go signifying: ‘O my brother, now I see’ said he, ‘the knot that held the Notary and Guittone and me back on this side of the sweet new style I hear. I see well how your pens follow close behind him who dictates, which with ours certainly did not happen; and whoever sets himself to looking further will not see any other difference between on style and the other']
I will not revisit the vast literature that surrounds these lines, but simply claim the following: that Dante clearly casts himself, qua poet, as a scribe or notary who copies out words dictated to him by Love; that Love in this case is clearly assimilated to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and that this process is said to be the same one which produced ‘Donne ch'avete’ and which is still operatingin the present of the poem’ narrative (i.e. might be said to describe the process that this same ‘Dante personaggio’ will shortly undertake in writing the Comedia). Finally, I recall that che cited canzone, in the context of the Vita Nova, represents the turn to a new mode of writing, the ‘stilo de la loda) that is, praise of the beloved object as against description of the poet-lover's experience of the vicissitudes of desire.
Assuming, as most critics do, that the meaning of this positive selfcitation is at least in part determined by its juxtaposition with the negative version in Purgatorio II, one can make some additional observations. The most obvious of these is that where in that episode the performance of a poem of Dante’s is juxtaposed, to its disadvantage, with the performance of a Biblical text, here another poem of Dante is described positively, in a way that many of taken to constitute an assimilation to the double authorship of the Bible, with Dante playing the role of scriba Dei. In this scenario, the opposition of poetry and theology in Purgatorio II is resolved into a poetry which speaks the Word of God (although the poem in question, it must be remembered praises Beatrice, not God, albeit in her capacity as emanation of divine goodness and beauty). But it is here that our opening gloss on Hugutio’s preface seems apt: one can be inspired to write by Grace without claiming parity with che authors of the Bible.
If we read the passage in the light of the problem of performance and jts relation to the question of authorship and readership brought out in Purgatorio II, there is still more to be said. In the terms of De vulgari eloquentia then transformatively dramatized in the Casella episode, Dante’s response to Bonagiunta casts him as a ‘passive author’ in bono, reciting the words of another, but also and again as active reader, able to interpret his role reflectively. Moreover, if we consider the phrase ‘quel che e’ ditta dentro vo significando’ carefully, it might be taken to suggest not only that Dante signifies by writing what Love dictates, but that he, in fact, is himselfa signifier of love, in the same way that the souls singing ‘In exitu' also enact and fulfill the meaning of the psalm.
From this perspective, rather than as author ofa new book of the Bible, Dante depicts himselfas a signifier in God's other book, the poem ofcreation itself i.e. he is an ‘allegoria in factis whether or not he is writing one.
Let us now turn to a final example of Dante’s negotiation of poetry and theology in the Commedia. The ‘poema sacro’, it must be said, provides one climax after another in the process of defining Dante-personaggio’s evolution into Dante-poeta, and thus to claim that Paradiso XXV-XXVI (and the sojourn in Dante's natal constellation in the Heaven of the Fixed Stars, of which they are a part) constitute the defining moment in that itinerary is a priori unpersuasive. It does, of course, have the advantage of coming both affer, in the temporality of reading, and above, in what is obviously a graded hierarchy of spiritual experience and understanding, the majority of its competitors, only two of which we have sampled in this essay. It has the further advantage of being the locus of the redefinition of authority alluded to at the beginning of this essay, and of being the place where Dante for the first and only time claims for himself the title of ‘poeta. It is also the moment when he apparently changes the title of the work from Commedia to ‘sacro poema, and may even assimilate it to the ‘teodia’ (‘godsong’ — words in praise of God; Par., XXV. 73) the name he assigns to David’s Psalms, and himself to the ‘sommo cantor del sommo duce’ (72). It is the locale, finally, where he affirms that this ‘poema sacro’ is dually authored by ‘heaven and earth’ (1-2) and places himself conspicuously in the company of human authors of the New Testament, after which he receives the last and most explicit of the prophetic commissions to deliver upon his return to the world of the living (Par, XXVII. 19-66, 121-48).
Let me begin with the question of possible assimilation into the ranks of the human authors of the Bible, since on this point, most obviously, hangs che question of Dante” claim to theological authorship in the strongest sense. As is well known, and as I have discussed in detail elsewhere (Ascoli, Dante and the Making: ch. 7, sect. v-vi), in Paradiso XXIV-XXVI, Dante undergoes an examination of the three theological virtues — faith, hope, charity — at the hands, respectively — of St Peter, St James and St John — the three favoured apostles of Christ, who, most significantly, were those who alone shared the revelatory experience of the Transfiguration. The examination process places Dante, quite deliberately, on a boundary line between ‘theologian’ as academic student of theological doctrine and ‘theologian’ as Biblical author (although, as throughout the Commedia, the words ‘theologian’ or ‘theology’ are not used, even if, as noted above, the hapax, ‘teodia’ is). On the one hand, the examination is staged precisely in the manner of a quaestio addressed by a ‘baccialier’ or ‘discente’ at the behest of his teacher, like chose through which aspiring academic theologians were trained at the University of Paris, and the questions addressed are at the heart of theological doctrine. On the other, the ‘maestri’ in question are among the human authors of the New Testament, so that, on analogy with the transformation of ‘bacialier’ into ‘magister’ in his own right, one might argue that Dante successful conclusion of the examination elevates him to the status of those who have just tested him. And from yet another point of view still it is clear that Dante stresses there is only one ‘verace Autore) author of all things, that no human being indeed has claim to that title, and that human language, whether biblical or ‘poetic’ can never tell ‘the truth’ about Him, since there is no proper name or names, no adjectival superlative or superlatives, that can encompass him.
It is for this reason that poetry comes to the fore once again at this crucial moment, and in particular the poetry of praise, ‘lo stilo della loda” alla divina, which iterates the approximate, metaphoric designations of its ineffable object — a move entirely compatible with Aquinas' justification of the necessity for theologians and Biblical scribes to use metaphorical language, like that of the poets. It is for this reason that the names of God are iterated throughout the episode and in canto XXVI particularly. It is for this reason that Dante alludes to the apparently restrictive erymology of the author from ‘avieo’ by naming God as ‘autore’ but also through four ‘vocalic’ designations (‘Alpha’ ‘O ‘T and ‘El’). is for this reason that the canto culminates with Dante's encounter with Adam, and with the latter's discourse on the ephemerality of all human language whose origins, here, as in the De vulgari eloquentia before, are identified precisely with che principal name assigned to God.
In Convivio the analogy between the poetic binding of words ‘with rhythm and rhyme’ and the binding together of language by the five vowels, betrays the more fundamental fact — previewed in Book I- that in writing vernacular poetry Dante aspires precisely to make permanent his natal language. The same assimilation of poetry to language itself pervades De vulgari eloquentia as well. In both, one might argue, Dantes affinities with Hugutio, whose task it is precisely to offer a comprehensive account of the origins, history, and significance of the Latin language, are noteworthy indeed. But, of course, even as the canto emphasizes that human beings make the language(s) that they use, it also has Adam himself insist upon the absolute contingency and ephemerality of all human utterances, while making plain the consequent, inevitable metaphoricity of the theologian's attempes to name that which can never properly be named. In Paradiso XXVI, and in many ways throughout the Commedia as a whole, rather than claiming that poetry, at least this poem, is theology, in whichever sense one might take that word, Dante repeatedly affirms that theology is, finally, necessarily, poetic.