Dante’s Figures of Speech [Thos. A. Fitzgerald]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Thos. A. Fitzgerald

Tratto da: Italica. The quarterly bulletin of the American Association of Teachers of Italian (Evanston, Ill.)

Numero: XVIII

Anno: 1941

Pagine: 120-123

An american poet has said that Dante “employs very simple language, and very few metaphors, for allegory and metaphor do not get on well together.”1 On the following page he remarks that “… as the whole poem of Dante is, if you like, one vast metaphor, there is hardly any place for metaphor in the detail of it.” Definitions of metaphor vary somewhat, but Mr. Eliot gives an example from Shakespeare which makes it clear that his idea of metaphor is not too narrow:

... she looks like sleep,
As she would catch another Antony
In her strong toil of grace.
Antony and Cleopatra, V, ii.

If one counts only such metaphors, real and implied, as are no more faded than Shakespeare’s “toil of grace” and adds what are sometimes distinguished as personifications, one finds at least nine or ten in the first canto of the Divine Comedy.2 If this rate were maintained throughout the entire poem, one would find some nine hundred or a thousand such figures—far too many to be called “very few metaphors.” Counts made of a few cantos taken at random show that the first canto probably has an average number of these figures. Purgatorto XXXI has eleven; Paradiso II, fourteen; III and VII, ten each; XII has eight; and XIV, at least five, possibly eight.
In addition to these metaphorical expressions, Dante has also used numerous similes, figures expressing both terms of the comparison instead of leaving one to inference. An Italian scholar has published a study of the true similes, and his list contains over six hundred items.3 The significance of figures of speech that represent definite images is that they give a clue to a writer’s interests and attitudes. A poet may mention a leaning tower without revealing much about himself, but when he goes to the trouble of working it into a simile and considers it as it appears when it stands between him and a moving cloud, he reveals a great deal of himself.
Dante’s similes are sometimes striking, often beautiful, and always full of meaning for the reader who takes the time to study them as they deserve. Mr. Eliot says there is a peculiarity about Dante’s “comparisons which is worth noticing in passing’’ (italics are his);4 that is, their purpose “is solely to make us see more definitely the scene which Dante put before us in the preceding lines.” This statement is as inaccurate as that concerning the number of metaphors in the Divine Comedy. Certainly, one may admit in general that the similes are intended to help the reader see clearly the thing that the poet is trying to present, but that such is their sole purpose can easily be disproved, if not by numbers as in the first case, at least by some consideration of the similes themselves.
Not only does the poet want the reader to visualize as definitely as possible, but as easily as possible. In a very large proportion of the similes, probably one third or one half of them, he does not put the scene in the other world before us until after he gives the earthly resemblance. The famous shipyard simile (Inf. XXI, 7) may serve as an example. The poet does not say he saw a lake of boiling pitch in Hell, allowing the reader to pre-image it before he adds that it was like a pitch vat in a shipyard; he suggests the image first by calling up a scene that must have been familiar to many persons in a country that had so great a length of coastline in comparison with its area.
Likewise he compared Geryon with a boat before he introduced the beaver comparison. Not only that, but the boat picture was presented, in this helpful or guiding sequence, before Geryon was mentioned (Inf. XVII, 19). This figure lacks the spontaneity that many of them have, and obviously the beaver part of it is bookish, yet the poet attains a clarity with the combination that the first picture alone could not give, and the second probably would not. The poet pictures Geryon resting on the rim of a ledge in Hell, as a boat lies beached, part in the water and part on the bank. But, except for the position, Geryon is not like a boat at all; the boat is lifeless and harmless. There was a notion current in Dante’s day that beavers took a similar position at the water’s edge with deadly intent when in search of prey. Evidently the poet feared the notion was not widely enough known to make his meaning entirely clear, and so he sharpened the picture by bringing in the boat, an image that would be unmistakable. That is, the meaningful figure of the beaver had to be prepared for, as a large Diesel engine in a mill must be set in motion by the use of a smaller gasoline engine that is easier to start.
Many of the similes contain certain extra details that add nothing to the clearness of the image. Such details can not, therefore, be intended solely to sharpen the outline of the picture. A study of these figures leads to the thought that Dante was not one of those who feared to look closely at the trees lest he lose sight of the forest. With the artist’s instinct, he elaborated on many of his figures without being afraid that they would detract attention from the poem as a whole. Moreover, he seems to have taken a very real pleasure in recalling and describing images his mind had experienced. It is the satisfaction of a desire for this sort of pleasure that leads him at times to put apparently useless details into his figures.
The simile about fireflies (inf. XXVI, 25) is a case in point. The poet standing on a ledge of the eighth circle of Hell looks down into the eighth bolgia and sees it gleaming with flames that stand out in the darkness like fireflies in a valley. That simple comparison is enough to give the reader the picture desired. Details as to the time of day, and the time of the year, add nothing to the clarity of the image. Also there are further details in this simile that are irrelevant to the picture, viewed from a purely practical point of view. As the flames in Hell are represented by fireflies, so Dante on the ledge is represented by a peasant resting on a hill, looking down into the valley where perchance he cultivates the soil and gathers grapes.
Not only do these details add nothing to the picture of fireflies, but rather they may be actually misleading, for Dante is by no means in repose as is the peasant looking down into the valley after sunset when it has become too dusk to see to prune grapevines or to hoe the soil. Dante is excited over those flames, and his position is so insecure that he all but falls off the ledge, saving himself only by catching hold of a jutting rock.
The reader’s pleasure is increased by the poet’s manner of expressing these details, such as the time of day (“when the fly gives way to the gnat”) and possibly the season (‘when he who lights the world hides his face from us the least’’), but it makes no difference to the image whether the valley is one where the peasant works, or a strange one he happens to see on a pilgrimage. On the other hand, the affection, or at least the intimate interest, that a peasant might have for the scene keeps him from being an entirely suitable fourth term in the proportion the poet has set up, for Dante has no such attitude toward the scene he beholds in Hell. These details were put in by the poet, then, to satisfy his artist’s desire to elaborate his background, and at the same time to give him the pleasure of dwelling upon a pleasant scene he had no doubt often viewed in the early summer along the banks of the Arno.
Details beyond the necessity of the occasion are to be found in numerous figures, such as that about the frogs floating with their muzzles out of water to croak (Inf. XXXII, 31), or that of the goats ruminating under the watchful eyes of their herders in the heat of the day (Purg. XX VII, 76), or that of the winning gambler leaving the scene of his success (where the loser is introduced without any counterpart in the scene, Purg. VI, 1), or that of the mother bird waiting for the dawn to see and feed her brood (Parad. XXIII, 1). In each case the picture becomes more interesting and more enjoyable for the reader because of the added detail, but they give evidence that Dante was at least as interested in the form of his similes as in their function.

Thos. A. Fitzgerald

University of South Carolina

Eliot, T. S., ‘‘Dante,”’ in Selected Essays, New York, 1932, pp. 205-06.
Line 1, cammin di nostra vita (road of our life); line 11, pieno di sonno (full of sleep); line 16, le sue spalle (its shoulders—the hill’s); line 17, vestite de’ raggi del pianeta (dressed in the rays of the planet); line 20, nel lago del cor (in the lake of the heart); line 25, V’animo mio, ch’ ancor fuggiva / si volse a retro a rimtrar (my mind, which continued to flee, turned back to look again); line 60, 2a dove ’l sol tace (there where the sun is silent); line 79, Se’ tu quel Virgilio e quella fonte che spandi di parlar si largo fiume? (Are you that Virgil and that fountain that pours out so generous a stream of speech?); line 80, (perhaps one might count fonte and fiume in separate figures); line 100, molte son lt animali a cui s’ammoglia (many are the animals it weds—the wolf).
Venturi, Luigi, Le stmilitudint dantesche, Firenze, 3rd. ed., 1911.
Op. cit., p. 205.
Date: 2023-01-19