Allegory in the Purgatorio [John A. Scott]

Table of contents

Dati bibliografici

Autore: John A. Scott

Tratto da: Italica

Numero: 37

Anno: 1960

Pagine: 167-184

A discussion of allegory, as treated in Charles S. Singleton’s Dante Studies II: Journey to Beatrice, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1958.

Professor Singleton’s first volume of Dante Studies was mainly concerned with clarifying certain basic concepts regarding two elements in the structure of the Divine Comedy: allegory and symbolism. This second volume is permeated by the same faith that inspired its predecessor: that we have been reading Dante’s poem in what amounts to an amputated version, for no commentary has hitherto attempted to give an exhaustive interpretation of that further dimension of the poet’s vision which was dismissed by Croce as ‘allotria’. Professor Singleton therefore tells us: “It is not that the text of the poem, as we have it, suffers from any serious lacunae. We would seem to have the work in its entirety as to text. The lacunae are rather in us, the readers, and reside in that deficient knowledge and lack of awareness which we continue to bring to our reading of the poem.” The chapters of this book are thus concerned with a closer study of the allegory— in particular, with the allegory of the Purgatorio, the “Journey to Beatrice.” Moreover, each page is stamped with the seal of the author’s convietion that “Dante’s allegory is explicit in the theology of his day.” The result is a volume of essays that, if we recall one of Professor Nardi’s best-known works, might well bear the title Dante e la teologia medievale; for the reader of these two hundred and ninety-one pages will come across no less than three bundred and sixty-six quotations from sixty-one works by twentyfour authors, the latter exclusively chosen from the ranks of the Church Fathers and the medieval schoolmen. The author, however, provides his own justification: “What we have to realize here is something which applies generally to Dante’s poem in all respects: the poet did not invent the doctrine. The shape of his poem is determined by the truth which it must bear and disclose in its structure, and that truth is not original with the poet. Dante sees as poet and realizes as poet what is already conceptually elaborated and established in Christian doctrine.” This is, in fact, the same interpretation as that put forward some thirty years ago by Professor Ulrich Leo, although the method and its conclusions are quite different: namely, that Dante “Dichter der mittelalterlichen Form” is the counterpart of the author of the Apocalypse, for “Der Katholizismus, wenn wir ihn richtig aufgefasst haben, konnte sich nur im Diehter vollenden” (Sehen und Wirklichkeit bei Dante, p. 28). How different the present method is can only be revealed by a detailed analysis of its various steps.
The title of Professor Singleton’s volume is also used to describe the first eight essays. The first of these (“The Allegorical Journey”) is a manifesto. The author declares his intention of giving us a more detailed examination of the allegory of Dante’s poem, while limiting the field of research to the Purgatorio. He begins by making a clear distincetion between the literal journey and the allegorical: “Protagonist and place of action could not be more exactly determined in the one, or less so in the other; and as for the time, we shall not think that the literal journey has taken place more than once or perhaps will ever take place again, whereas the itinerarium mentis is an event which repeats itself in the Christian heart as time unfolds, over and over again.” This itinerarium mentis is perhaps best described as “conversio animae de luctu et miseria peccati ad statum gratiae” (Dante, Epistle X). It does of course form the subject of the main allegory of the Comedy; while, in its second stage, it is also that of Professor Singleton’s book. Hence, “the present volume of studies is mainly concerned with that area of the journey which extends to a first goal, at the end of the Purgatorio, a goal which proves to be Beatrice herself. When that point is reached, when Beatrice takes over as guide, only two of the three lights and two of the three conversions in these master patterns have come into play. Yet any attempt to understand this journey up to its first goal in isolation from the entire pattern of three lights and three conversions extending all the way to the end which is God, is doomed to be abortive and fall short of true understanding.” The next two chapters are concerned with illustrating this “entire pattern” of three lights and three conversions.

Chapter II (“The Three Lights”). Both Virgil and Beatrice are frequently referred to as kinds of light, as they guide Dante on his way through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, while the poet repeatedly stresses Virgil’s limitations as a guide to the Truth. It is by the reiterated effect of such pointers that the allegorical pattern of the entire journey is disclosed. The guides are ‘lights’ (Virgil and Beatrice), one of them presides over the area of a third and last light (Bernard), whereas we learn from St. Thomas Aquinas that each of these three lights is natural to some order of existence. The first represents the vision of Truth attainable by the natural light of man’s intellect (philosophical contemplation); the second, the perception given by the light of Faith to the saints in this life; and the third, that contemplation of the glory and essence of God which is only to be enjoyed by the blessed in Heaven. We may add that the transition from the first light to the second (Beatrix lumen gratiae) —the process of trasumanare, as Dante himself calls it—is illustrated by the poet in characteristie fashion: a parallel is taken from pagan antiquity, the myth of Glaucus the fisherman who was transformed into a sea-god (Ovid, Metamorphoses, XIII, 898-968). For this is yet another example of that vast synthesis of human and divine, pagan and Christian, which the poet himself described as “’l poema sacro, Al quale ha posto mano e cielo e terra”: the vindication of the patrimony of ancient literature in terms of human experience which finds its most eloquent expression in the figure of Virgil, and which leads Dante to refer to his Christian God as “sommo Giove” (Purg. VI, 118) and to recall the myth of the Argonauts at the very end of his Christian epic.

Chapter III (“The Three Conversions”). In order to understand this pattern, we must accept the definition of the term ‘conversion’, as used by Aquinas, given by Henri Bouillard in his study, Conversion et grace chez s. Thomas d’Aquin: “Conversion y a un sens plus large où se reconnait encore l’inspiration néoplatonicienne de Saint Augustin: c’est le mouvement par lequel la eréature raisonnable se tourne vers Dieu.” This threefold sequence of movements towards God is seen to present the closest correlation to the scheme of three lights illustrated in the previous chapter. The whole area of Virgil’s guidance in the Comedy is that of praeparatio ad gratiam, a grace whereby man is made pleasing to God (gratia gratum faciens). At the end of the poem we have the third conversion, where the final movement towards God is through perfect love and consummate grace: a perfect coordination of a movement of love with movement of the intellect, while we are reminded that the experience in rapture which may be had while man is still în via can only be of the briefest duration, even as the poem depiets it.

Chapter IV (“Justification”). Professor Singleton glosses St. Thomas’s definition: “justificatio est motus ad justitiam.” Justice is here to be understood as that right order in the soul described by Plato in the Republic. It is the triumph of reason over the sensitive appetite. The movement here is motus ad formam, where, according to the Aristotelian conception of generatio, the ‘form’ is sanetifying grace, which is imposed on the ‘matter’, ie. the human soul. This is in fact the whole purpose of Dante’s journey: to achieve right order in his soul and right order before God. This marks the ‘end’ of his pilgrimage. However, we may also distinguish a goal of justice which comes before that ultimate goal is reached. This lies at the point where the journey leads to Beatrice. and is therefore at the summit of the mountain of Purgatory. It is this first justice that is Professor Singleton’s main concern, together with the whole process whereby that goal is reached.
We therefore come to see the journey to Eden and to Beatrice as a ‘justification’ (justificatio impii), with Virgil’s guidance as praeparatio ad iustitiam. As Dante is led through the various circles of Hell, he comes to understand the true nature of sin and evil; as he is led through the various terraces of Purgatory, the burden of sin is cast aside. Impedimenta to the reception of the form, as St. Thomas would say, are removed. Then, at the summit of the mount ot Purgatory, Virgil turns to the pilgrim and tells him:

“Il temporal foco e l’etterno
veduto hai, figlio; se se’ venuto in parte
dov'io per me più oltre non discerno…
Non aspettar mio dir più né mio cenno:
libero, dritto e sano è tuo arbitrio,
e fallo fora non fare a suo senno:
perch’io te sovra te corono e mitrio.”
(Purg. XXVII, 127-42).

“Libero, dritto e sano è tuo arbitrio”: this is justice metaphorice dicta. Plato’s justice which is right order in the will and, in the Christian scheme, the preparation for grace, “quod virtutem acquisitam causat, et ad infusam disponit.” The rule of reason over the lower parts of the soul is now assured.

Chapter V (“Advent of Beatrice”). In the entire scene of Beatrice’s coming and ‘triumph’ at the end of Purgatory, there are certain signs that proclaim her coming to be an Advent, similar to Christ’s. There is in all this, of course, no affirmation that Beatrice represents Christ, even in this figure. That, indeed, is quite excluded by the fact that Christ, in this procession, is represented by the Gryphon. Much less is any sort of equivalence suggested, as if Beatrice might somehow be Christ. Instead, we must realize that we are here confronted by the principle of analogy. Readers of Professor Singleton’s Essay on the Vita Nuova will see that we are on familiar ground.
Dante, then, chooses to represent the coming of his beloved in the figure of a rising sun (a traditional figure for Christ’s advent) and he makes reference to the Last Judgment. So, too, Beatrice comes to stand in judgment on her lover. “As judgment is delivered here, moreover, there is brought to mind by her charges the whole experience of the Vita Nuova: how in that earlier work she had shown, in her role in the poet’s life, a miraculous resemblance to Christ. ...In this way it is apparent that the analogy Beatrice-Christ is being extended out of the Vita Nuova into the last cantos of the Purgatorio. Because of this, Beatrice’s coming here in Purgatory can be revealed as a second coming.” Once more, the author looks for a parallel in the theology of Dante’s times. He finds it most clearly enunciated in the writings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who distinguished three advents of Christ. The first and last are evident to all. But there is also a second advent, which is spiritual and occult: the advent of Sanctifying Grace (gratia gratum faciens) in the soul of the individual Christian. It can also bear another name: Sapientia. The advent of Beatrice at the end of Purgatory therefore shows points of resemblance to all three advents of Christ. Beatrice comes as Christ came; she comes as Christ shall come (in glory, to judge); and she comes as Christ comes in the present, with the names of Wisdom and Grace. Moreover, the figure of the rising sun is perhaps the most revealing image, for it stresses the very basis upon which the analogy Christ-Beatrice rests: the advent of Light.

Chapter VI (“Justification in History”). Christ’s first advent {situated in history) is seen to bear a striking resemblance to his daily advent in the sould to justify the individual. In the latter, there are two essential features: the matter is prepared to receive a form. Virgil’s guidance through the Inferno and Purgatorio is such a preparation. He leads to justice, whereupon the form is given: Beatrice as sanetifying grace.
Likewise, in history, we find a time of preparation preceding the moment of Christ’s first advent. In this historical order, Dante figures mankind, and Beatrice, Christ. It was in fact the Roman people who brought the world to justice, even as Virgil, the poet of Rome, brings Dante to justice. Moreover, this justice to which Rome led proved to be the very preparation for Christ’s coming to all men (Cf. Convivio, IV, 5). This same theme is discussed at length in the first book of the Monarchia, where it is further reinforced with a familiar quotation from Virgil’s fourth eclogue: “iam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna” (Mon., I, xi). Dante then goes on to assert that freedom of the will is an essential condition of true liberty. Freedom in the will of the individual is the equivalent of justice in the state, and we recall that—in the Comedy—Dante, the representative of mankind, comes to enjoy precisely such freedom: “Libero, dritto, e sano è tuo arbitrio” (Purg. XXVII, 140). Moreover, Virgil’s eclogue had foretold the birth of a nova progenies who should perfect the golden age. Hence, for Dante and his contemporaries, the Roman poet had prophesied the coming of Christ to that justice which Rome had established as a preparation for Him. However, Virgil had died in the year 19 B.C. He had not been privileged to see the dawn of the Christian era. So, in the Comedy, when Beatrice appears in the procession at the summit of Purgatory, Virgil does not see her (“ma Virgilio n’avea lasciati scemi di sé…”, Purg. XXX, 49-50).
We may therefore preceive the threefold pattern. In history, the Romans brought the world to justice: Christ came. Throughout Christian history, whenever a soul attains to justice: Christ comes as Sanctifying Grace. In the year 1300 AD. Virgil guides Dante to justice: Beatrice comes.

Chapter VII: (“The Goal at the Summit”). Happiness is the final goal of Dante’s journey, even as it is that which all men desire. In his Convivio (IV, xvii, 8), the poet had quoted Aristotle’s definition of happiness: “Felicitade è operazione secondo virtude in vita perfetta.” It is therefore activity, but specifically an inner activity: agere as distinguished from facere. Happiness is to be sought in the life of the soul, where the virtues reside. Moreover, the third dream that Dante has (Purg. XXVII) is prophetie, for he sees before him the figure of Leah, who characterizes both herself and her sister Rachel. The sisters are, of course, an allegory of the active and the contemplative ways of life. The biblical account tells us that Jacob had first labored for Leah, and then obtained Rachel only after he had got her sister. Thus, the active life comes first and exists for the sake of the contemplative, whereby it is perfected. We must also know that Richard of St. Vietor equated Leah with justice, and Rachel with wisdom. There is, then, a striking agreement to be noted between Aristotle and Christian doctrine as to the life that is proper to man and man’s highest goal in life. That goal is a summit of perfection in both the active and the contemplative orders of life, the contemplative being the higher of the two and the ‘final’ goal. In Christian doctrine there is, of course, an insistence on something that we do not find in Aristotle: the corrupt nature of man inherited from Adam, and the necessity to return, as far as may be possible, to an original state of justice and perfection.

Chapter VIII (“Lady Philosophy or Wisdom”). The key-word trasumanar explains all possible meanings of the transition from Virgil to Beatrice. So it is with Virgil’s justice, which is justice according to Aristotle and Plato; whereas justice with Beatrice is quite beyond their conceptions and is the justice brought by Christ for the redemption of man. So, too with Leah: if she is justice or the “desire for justice,” it is nevertheless only with Beatrice that this justice of the active life is had in its full perfection. The fact that the virtues of the active life are to be found at the left wheel of Beatrice’s chariot is proof of this. Moreover, whereas the four moral virtues had been known to the pagan philosophers, Beatrice's handmaids are deseribed as “in porpora vestite” (Purg. XXIX, 131); that is to say, all four partake of the color of charity, the virtue peculiar to the Christian dispensation. The virtues of the active life therefore come with Beatrice in their Christian perfection: “They are therefore the four infused moral virtues...and are not the acquired virtues which bear these same names with the pagans.” They are seen to lead to the higher three (i.e., the theological virtues), whose colors are also those of Beatrice’s dress and crown. “Surely, in this latter aspect, they are there to declare that the lady so dressed is, above all, Contemplation...” Virgil had, in fact, recognized Beatice as Lady Philosophy or Contemplation in Inferno II, when he had greeted her thus:

“O donna di virtù, sola per cui
l’umana spezie eccede ogni contento
di quel ciel c'ha minor li cerchi sui…”
(vv. 76-8)

And later, we understand the full meaning of this apparent hyperbole (cf., e.g., Sapegno’s commentary). For, even as Dante rises with Beatrice to those spheres which lie above the moon, so, according to Aristotle, contemplation affords man the sole means of rising above the realm of Fortune, which comprises the whole of the sublunar region. Christian Philosophy or Wisdom is, as we have seen, most distinguished by Charity. This, too, is Beatrice’s role: “She descends to that place, she is a light given from beyond the bounds of human nature. She is also a love descending and given from beyond.” By perfeeting Leah and Rachel, Beatrice transcends them both.

1. Part II: Return to Eden

Chapter IX (“A Lament for Eden”). After pointing out the vague location of Eden in the Vulgate, Professor Singleton goes on to discuss the various sites given by theologians. Dante here agrees in a number of respects with Peter Lombard and Albert the Great: especially with regard to its great height and remoteness. He also made use of the description found in the Vetus latina, in which the phrase “Et ejecit Adam, et collocavit eum contra peradisum voluptatis” (italics mine) no doubt suggested Dante’s antipodal situation of his terrestrial paradise. After their expulsion from Eden, Adam and Eve were placed in a region somewhere about Mesopotamia, in a condition of misery. They had lost two precious gifts: the immortality of the body and a perfect inner rectitude of justice.

Chapter X (“River, Nymphs and Stars”). The four stars over Eden, mentioned in Purgatorio I (vv. 23-27) are, allegorically, the four cardinal virtues. This is affirmed by the four maidens who come in Beatrice’s triumphal procession at the top of the mountain. We also note that the four rivers mentioned in Genesis have disappeared from Dante’s terrestrial paradise, while it was a common place in exegetical tradition that these rivers represented the four cardinal viriues—as do Dante’s four stars. The streams have in fact become stars in the poem. Such a metamorphosis helps us towards a clearer understanding of the allegory, and provides a reply to the question: “Why, for instance, should a lament center, as it clearly does, on the loss of four stars of four virtues, and not on the loss of seven stars and all seven of the virtues? Or why not rather on the three theological virtues...?” The answer comes from the model for Dante’s allegory at this point. The rivers of Eden were four, and not seven, in Genesis. They were recognized to be the four cardinal virtues. Hence, while no-one would have denied the complementary presence of the theological virtues, there was traditionally an inevitable emphasis on the fact that the cardinal virtues were specific to Eden and to man’s condition there before sin. Moreover, justice, the harmony of the other virtues, was siginified by the fourth river: we may now be prepared to accept the stars over Eden as the constellation of justice.

Chapter XI (“Virgo or Justice”). A further example of the way in which Dante correlates pagan myths with Christian doetrine is brought out by Matelda’s ‘corollary’ (Purg. XXVIII, 136-144). For she points out a striking correspondenee between the myth of a golden age and the reality which the Christian poet and his pagan guide now behold. As we have already seen from Virgil’s fourth eclogue, a central feature of that golden age was the figure of Virgo or Justice. And, as Dante himself pointed out in Monarchia I, xi, this Virgo was also called “Astraea,” who, as a goddess, had lived among the first men before their corruption. Thus, the myth of Virgo, of Justice that dwelt among men in a first age of innocenee, stood beside the account in Genesis of an original, though briefer, time of innocence before sin, when man lived in the terrestrial paradise that God had fashioned for him. In both accounts, a decline and fall into'corruption and misery had taken place. Genesis, of course, does not place a maiden, ‘Virgo,’ among the first people in the Garden. Nevertheless, we have her equivalent: the fact that Adam and Eve then possessed original justice, which they lost through disobedience. The pagan myth tells us that Astrea fled to the sky, to form there the constellation of Virgo, even as the Christian poet of the Ovide moralisé tells us:

“Justice est morte, ce m’est vis,
Non est, ains est em paradis.”

We may therefore see the full force of Dante’s parallel between mythology and the Book of Genesis: for Matelda herself must now appear to us as the Virgo or representative of Original Justice in the terrestrial paradise where man once lived his Golden Age.

Chapter XII (“Matelda”). Matelda therefore figures man's first condition before sin, while he dwelt—as she still does—in the terrestrial paradise, for we have seen that this maiden represents Justice. A quotation from St. Thomas (p. 219, n. 6) helps to shed further light on this point: “Ex hoc vero quod voluntas homini erat Deo subiecta, homo referebat omnia in Deum sieut in ultimum finem, in quo eius iustitia et innocentia consistebat… Hic autem hominis tam ordinatus status, originalis iustitia nominatur.” The omnia are reflected in the fact that Matelda, while realizing the way of life and happiness of the ‘first people’ in Paradise, exemplifies both the active and the contemplative life. Moreover, Matelda is in love—with the Creator. Not only this, but the sight of her inspires love in the man who gazes at her from across the water. In fact, we come to realize that the whole encounter with Matelda “falls exactly into the traditional pattern” of the pastorella genre. Dante desires this maiden, whom he encounters in “la divina foresta spessa e viva” (according to the tradition of the pastorella), but he cannot possess her. She remains, in Shelley’s words, “The devotion to something afar From the sphere of our sorrow.” Or, as Professor Singleton speeifies, “All of which seems to be saying clearly enough that Dante, on beholding the condition of original justice, desires to have it; but, for all his desire, he would seem never to come into possession of that justice.” For Matelda figures a perfection of nature not to be enjoyed again by any living man—even as four stars shining in the southern sky remain hidden from the sight of the living.

Chapter XIII (“Natural Justice”). It is possible for man to attain to a form of justice in this life. But justice so regained is always individual, personal justice, and can never be its counterpart that was given to human nature in Adam. The latter had involved a threefold subijeetion: that of man's intellective soul to God; that of his sensitive nature to his reason; and, finally, man’s body was perfectly subjected to the soul and obedient to it. We find that the Fall made such a scheme impossible. Man’s personal justice, with its infused cardinal virtues, does not recreate that same order at the second level which had prevailed in original justice. The four maidens at the left wheel of Beatrice’s chariot declare (Purg. XXXI, 106-8):

“Noi siam qui ninfe e nel ciel siamo stelle:
pria che Beatrice discendesse al mondo,
fummo ordinate a lei per sue ancelle.”

Coming as the handmaids of Beatrice, they come as the infused cardinal virtues given in personal justice through Christ; whereas their existence as stars over Eden, unseen by man in life and misery, should remind us of that natural justice which was forever lost, the disappearance of perfect order in man’s lower powers. The third level of obedience had conferred the gift of immortality upon man. Here, the loss is total, and there is no symbol to represent this third subjection.

Chapter XIV (“Crossing over into Eden”). As we have seen, to attain to justice with Virgil must mean to reach a goal that is discernible by the natural light of reason: “Virgil’s justice is justice according to the philosophers, justice as Plato and Aristotle had conceived it…” When Dante can cross the stream of Lethe, he leaves Virgil behind and arrives at that highest subjection of personal justice given through Christ’s grace and through charity alone. This transition would seem to reflect the two possible stages in Adam’s formation: his creation outside the Garden of Eden, according to many theologians, and his subsequent establishment within. Indeed, Dante had already referred to such a distinetion in De Vulgari Eloquentia, I, v. In the Comedy, Lethe is seen as a boundary between an outer terrestrial paradise and an inner Eden. The poet has in fact depicted the re-formation of man as a return to Eden which enacts once again the two moments of his original formation. The first moment is that secundum naturam: the moment when Virgil declares that the pilgrim is now reformed in a justice discernible by the natural light of reason. The second is secundum gratiam, and is reached when Dante is finally reunited with Beatrice. It marks the end of Journey to Beatrice.

Readers of Professor Singleton’s volume will be struck by two conspicuous factors: the cogency and depth of his interpretation of Dante’s poem, on the one hand; on the other, the total lack of any reference to the work of other Dante crities, except for pejorative mention of Benedetto Croce on the very first page. This latter characteristic is all the more emphasized by the abundance of quotations from theological sources.
This situation is, of course, due to the author’s convietion that the theology of Dante’s day had already set up the various milestones for such a journey as he describes in the Comedy, and that the story of the poem is adapted to the allegory—and not the other way round, as is often stated. This view is most clearly expressed on p. 7 of the Studies, where we are told: “For all its undetermined character in these respects, however, the conversion of the soul from sin to grace was not, in Dante’s time, without a precise doctrinal determination regarding its manner or shape as event. Whenever conversion took place, it would normally follow a recognizable pattern, through steps and stages to its completion. It becomes the purpose of the following chapters to retrace that pattern as established in the theology of Dante’s day. What we have to realize here is something which applies generally to Dante’s poem in all respects: fhe poet did not invent the doctrine. The shape of his poem is determined by the truth which it must bear and disclose in its structure, and that truth is not original with the poet. Dante sees as poet and realizes as poet what is already conceptually elaborated and established in Christian docetrine.”
Such a method has many undeniable advantages, which it is hoped, will already be apparent from the preceding summary of the arguments. Yet it will not be accepted by all without reserve, for it is not without pitfalls. As always, the positive element is accompanied by a negative counterpart, which may only be eliminated by placing both in a broader context: that context is Dante’s poem, existing as poetry in its own right and which must be understood and enjoyed as such: extra poesin nulla salus. Excursions into allied territory are certainly necessary, but the danger is a strong one that the critic will remain there: “quivi s’inganna, e dietro ad esso corre, / se guida o fren non torce suo amore.”
An example of this danger is the tendency to carry an argument to its logical extreme and beyond. In Chapter III, after the diseussion of Virgil’s guidance in the Comedy, which is shaped by the Aristotelian notion of generatio, we have the following statement made by the author: “We may remark in passing that, in the matter of shape which Dante’s Comedy was to take, it was indeed of some account ‘whether anyone arrive at perfect preparation instantaneously, or step by step.’ Take away the preparation whieh is step by step, and all of Inferno and almost all of Purgatorio, in so far as they are conceived as a journey, must vanish. And Virgil would have no funetion whatsoever in the poem”—a remark that is surely gratuitous and has little to do with a process that was essentially one of artistie creation. Without providing further justification for Virgil’s presence in the poem than that apparently diserned by our critic, we would merely point out that Professor Singleton does a disservice to his cause by pushing his argument thus far.
At other times, the slightest detail must be fitted into its allegorical niche. So, in discussing the scene in Purgatorio XXX when Beatrice addresses Dante by name, the critie tells us: “Nor is it merely aceidental or arbitrary that Dante, the wayfarer who stands in judgment before Beatrice, should finally be known at that point only in the poem, by his personal name.” (p. 234). Since Beatrice represents the advent of grace through Christ, this detail must be intended by the poet to signify the fact that the only justice to which the Christian pilgrim can attain is personal justice, and not its original countervari. It may be so. But surely the necessità to which the poet refers in v. 63 of the same canto may be more naturally taken to mean—quite simply—that Dante here has to report a conversation. A conversation, moreover, with a woman that he had loved as a creature on earth—a woman who could hardly be expected to address him in paraphrase, as do the other characters in the poem (cf., e.g., Inferno X, vv. 22-23). It is rather an exquisite detail in what remained essentially a relationship ad personam. Again, on p. 263, we read: “But we note what Thomas says here of the aequired virtues. These are ordered to the natural light of reason, whereupon we think inevitably of Virgil in the poem… Why, then, are we not shown a Virgil attended by the virtues which are ordered to such a light as he thus represented? Would not this be appropriate? Virgil’s escort would thus be those aequired virtues, the four cardinal virtues to which Plato had given a name, virtues consituting a kind of justice which ancient wisdom had conceived as prevalling whenever reason establishes its rule over the lower powers of the soul.” The answer no doubt lies in the fact that Virgil in Dante’s poem is very much more than the mere representative of the light of reason, whereas, attended by such an ‘escort,’ he would be reduced to puppet-status and his rich, affectionate relationship with Dante would be unthinkable. Professor Singleton does in fact, admit as much on the following page: “Of course, no reader will wish that the poet had actually staged Virgil attended by four maidens representing the acquired virtues. We prefer the poem as we have it. Indeed such a cortège for Virgil is unthinkable.” Horribile visu! Nevertheless, the critie’s fancy is caught by the idea, the ‘velen dell’argomento’ lingers on, as he proceeds: “And yet we are obliged to realize, nonetheless, that the cardinal virtues must be coneeived as present with Virgil and as an essential part of the goal to which he leads, even as the infused virtues are an indispensable part of that higher justice which is given when Beatrice comes.” Surely, the whole question of such a ‘cortège,’ as the word itself suggests, is somewhat otiose.
The whole of the final chapter (“Crossing over into Eden”) is perhaps less convincing than the others. It will be recalled that the crossing of the river Lethe, apart from signifying the process of trasumanare, also reflects the two stages in Adam’s formation distinguished by many theologians. Once again, this is possible. Yet none of Professor Singleton’s arguments can remove the doubt in the reviewer’s mind that such a parallel between a detail of Dante’s poem and a debated point of medieval theology may not rather be attributed to coincidence. Might not an equally convincing case be made for an association with the Christian tradition of baptism, with the waters of the River Jordan metamorphosed into the waters of Lethe? Surely, in such cases, the bewildered reader, echoing Virgil’s words, may justifiably tell his ‘guides,’ “State contenti, umana gente, al quia.” Such parallels are not always as conelusive—or as illuminating—as they should be to justify their existence among the host of interpretations of every episode in Dante’s poem.
Moreover, the blind eye that is turned towards Professor Singleton’s colleagues, his ignoring every other interpreter of the Comedy since Benvenuto da Imola, cannot always be justified by the novelty of his subject-matter. For instance, it comes as a surprise to read on p. 26 that Beatrice’s answer to Dante, in Purgatorio XXXIII, vv. 85-89:

“Perché conoschi” disse “quella scola
c’hai seguitata, e veggi sua dottrina
come può seguitar la mia parola;

e veggi vostra via dalla divina
distar cotanto…”

must be taken to refer to Virgil’s ‘school’ or teaching. Once again, this is possible. Yet a summary reference to Virgil’s own description of his guidance and knowledge as ‘scola’ (Purg. XXI, 33) is not perhaps sufficient to clinch the point, when this interpretation is contrary to the established one. Here at least Professor Singleton might have been well advised to acknowledge the existence of his kin. The latter’s most authoritative representative, Michele Barbi, may be chosen as spokesman (cf. Problemi, I, p. 138). He tells us: “La colpa di Dante è ... di aver amato più i beni mondani che Dio, e la scuola che ha seguitato è la povera sapienza del mondo, i ‘difettivi sIllogismi che fanno battere in basso le ali’; invece di levarsi dietro a Beatrice a conoscere ed amar ‘lo bene di là dal qual non è a che s’aspiri’... È quella... che sant’ Agostino (De Trinitate, XII, xiii, 25) chiama la scienza rispetto alla sapienza, e fu causa nel poeta, se non di vera e propria aversio a Deo, certo di conversio ad temporalia” To ignore the opposition may not be the most effective method of silenceing it, or of convincing the public. Yet Professor Singleton leads the unsuspecting reader to believe, not only that his is the only true interpretation of the verses quoted, but, by his silence, to assume that it is also the commonly accepted one. And so the episode comes to be offered as a further example of frasumanar, i.e. the transition and consequent metamorphosis that oceurs at the end of Purgatory, when Beatrice takes over from Virgil as Dante’s guide: “While he was still guide, Virgil himself spoke of his ‘school!’ (cf. Purg. XXI, 33) and of its limits, more apparent now that Beatrice is guide; and the very fact that Virgil guided to a given point and no further, because he could ‘discern no further,’ stressed even more the fact of those limits.”
The general disregard for the work of other crities is due to Professor Singleton’s reaction against the traditional interpretation of Dante: “There has been method in the madness of such a view, the signal instance in our own day being Benedetto Croce’s reading of Dante. Yet no one seems to have noted that Croce’s rejection of the allegory and the ‘allotria’, as he called it, is but a late example of what is clearly a very old trend —as old as the Renaissance, in fact, which means about as old as may be in this case, since that age followed so closely upon Dante.” (pp. v-vi) — which means, of course, that most of the corpus of Dante scholarship is, at best, irrelevant, at worst, misleading. Further on in the work (in Chapter VI, which is in fact one of the most stimulating and perceptive of the whole book), we find a long digression aimed at the ‘modern’ reader, who “is essentially a child of the Renaissance” (p. 95). This digression is, at least for our present purpose, valuable and illuminating. The author tells us: “Dante’s poem means to be an imitation of reality, mirroring the true nature of the real world wherein there are actual relationships between orders of existence. Man does not put those relationships there, projeeting them into reality out oî his own mind. They are there, and man perceives them. But there came a time when the reality of such relations, as existing in any truly objective sense, was doubted… Men come who aspire to clear the physical order, and others come who wish to separate the historical order from the moral. Things (through our deliberately thinkemg them so) are to be reduced to the status of things merely, they must not be more than themselves and point beyond their own orders of existence... Symbolism must go and allegory must go, which are but two different ways of seeing how things are more than just things and how one event can mirror another. And analogy must go—analogy which is a way of knowing how orders of existence on different stages and in different times are alike.” The reader may find the mixture of supposedly objective and obviously subjective elements somewhat confusing. He should certainly object to the essentially anti-historical attitude that makes possible such a pronouneement. The post-Renaissance world has not been inhabited merely by men “who aspire to clear the physical order of all its affirmed conneetions with the spiritual order” and others “who wish to separate the historical order from the moral,” while these descriptions are false when applied to Galileo and Machiavelli, as Professor Singleton invites the reader to do in his notes to the passage (see p. 100). Apart from the fertile inspiration of symbolism throughout modern European literature, we need only think of the currents of Platonie thought present at the time of the Renaissance, to question the assertion: “…Dante’s poem is closer to Plato and more in touch with Plato’s way of thinking than is the Renaissance, or than are we, its children, whenever we fall into Renaissance perspectives of thought—which is most of the time.” Whereas this is but another example of an unjustified assumption that the Renaissance must always form a perfect antithesis to the Middle Ages, we may more legitimately assume that the ‘modern’ interpretation of Dante began with Vico and the new aesthetic approach adumbrated in the 18th century.
We now come to another characteristie that will be obvious even to the most superficial reader: the abundance of quotations— quotations which are, by definition, from the works of theologians. Professor Singleton is admittedly aware of the temptation, for on the second page of the Preface he declares: “…we find ourselves confronted with an embarrassment of riches. Instead of one good text to cite in evidence of a given point or pattern, there are at least twenty. And indeed perhaps all twenty texts should be published rather than the one we must choose with such difficulty from among them...” The difficulty becomes inereasingly obvious, for, as the author continues to produce a formidable mass of theological evidence in support of his theories, he would appear to become ‘trigger-happy.’ On p. 168, for example, the reader is told that the four rivers of Eden “in an exegetical tradition as old as Philo of Alexandria... did in fact represent the four cardinal virtues, even as do Dante’s four stars.” The author’s intention in providing quotations is obviously to prove that this was a commonplace in Christian tradition. Yet, surely a more rigorous selection might profitably have been made — with an equally rigorous banishment to footnotes. Nevertheless, we find that the next eight pages of text are taken up with commentary and extensive quotations—in order to prove a point that the reader is surely willing to concede before he is dazed by such a display of erudition. Admittedly, we do not have the twenty texts mentioned in the Preface. However, we do find a bid to rival this number, by the addition of such an observation (which would surely be more appropriate in a footnote) as: “Bede notes this meaning with no departures whatever from the established view; and the Glossa Ordinaria quotes the very passage in Gregory which we have just read.” (see p. 176.) Another example is to be found on pp. 272-74, where, after telling us that, ‘‘The question whether Adam was created secundum naturam in a first moment, and then elevated to a condition of grace above nature in a second moment, was a familiar one to the thirteenth century and was, by Dante’s time, one long debated.” Professor Singleton goes on to tell us that Peter Lombard had given a ruling in the affirmative regarding this problem, that he had claimed to have Saint Augustine’s support, and that he was followed by Alexander of Hales, Albertus Magnus, Bonaventura, et alii. The reader at this point might reasonably expect most of the proof to be relegated to footnotes. He would be quickly disillusioned, however, for the next two pages are dedicated to this funetion with extensive quotations from each of the authors mentioned. The same tendeney—to belabor a point —is evident in the diseursive treatment of a number of themes, e.g. in the fascinating, though at times prolix, chapter “Rivers, Nymphs, and Stars.”
The above considerations should not blind us to the great merits of Professor Singleton’s book. In its useful reaction against the extreme views of Croce’s school, in its focusing of the reader’s attention on the neglected meaning of the Comedy, it is a masterly contribution to Dante scholarship. No reader will leave it without a deepened understanding—and, we hope, appreciation—of the Purgatorio, with its master plan laid out clearly before him: the ‘journey to Beatrice’ seen in the context of three lights and three conversions, and the advent of Beatrice regarded as a parallel to the threefold advent of Christ.

Date: 2022-02-02