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Dante's Poetics of the Sacred Word

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 20, Number 1, April 1996
pp. 154-162 | 10.1353/phl.1996.0005

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Philosophy and Literature 20.1 (1996) 154-162

Proceedings of the ALSC: II. Dante and the Western Canon

I hope to make a case that, until recently, would probably have seemed self-evident, or at least uncontroversial: namely, that a positive valuation of the power of human language to express and to represent informs the textual practice of Dante's Commedia -- or, to put it more bluntly, that Dante believes in words.

The language of poetry was, for Dante, the supremely demanding and supremely rewarding form of human eloquence. This much is made clear in his significantly titled treatise De vulgari eloquentia (On Eloquence in the Vernacular), which, having set out -- and failed -- to identify a truly noble form of the Italian vernacular, takes it as axiomatic that if (or rather when) such a language is brought into being, it will primarily be used by poets in the composition of their poetry. Despite the many subsequent developments in his thought, and despite, above all, the drastic and often underestimated effects of his shift after 1300 from lyric to narrative-dramatic forms and techniques, nothing in Dante's later works gives us any reason to think that he ever modified this view.

Within the narrative of the Commedia, the overriding importance of eloquence is amply demonstrated by the fact that, without it, Dante-character's journey would never have taken place. It is to poetic eloquence that Dante owes both his visionary experience and his eventual salvation. Confirmation of this initially startling proposition occurs in canto II of Inferno, where Virgil describes his commission from Beatrice to come to the aid of her errant admirer, and explains that he is charged to do so through the use of his "parola ornata" ("ornamented word": Inf., II. 67)--not merely a word plucked from the dictionary, however potently charged with salvific meaning, but a word (or, by synecdoche, a language) that is perceptibly embellished with the technical and rhetorical devices recognized by its hearers as constituting eloquence. Virgil, then, is not just to speak the saving word but to pay attention, as both his historical identity and his creator's agenda require, to the aesthetic and intellectual implications of its usage; and the efficacy of his speech is manifestly dependent on the elegance and persuasiveness of its formulation.

Dante-character's initial recognition of his mysterious interlocutor in Inferno I as "quella fonte / che spandi di parlar sì largo fiume" ("that spring / that pours forth so rich a stream of speech": Inf., I. 79-80) is thus retrospectively justified: this is the immediately relevant aspect of Virgil's historical personality, the one that best equips him to become Dante-character's guide and mentor in Hell and (most of) Purgatory. Likewise, it is under the auspices of another renowned possessor of eloquence, Bernard of Clairvaux, that Dante's journey reaches its appointed end. The narrative movement through the Commedia is, among much else, a movement from one "parola ornata" to another, from Virgil's eloquence to Bernard's, from the pagan word that offers worldly renown to the Christian word that both transfigures the believer in this life and promises bliss in the life to come. The former, however, grounds the process that leads to the latter; and at both ends of the journey the functional significance of the word and its usage remains paramount.

We need, however, to be careful at this point, lest we begin too quickly to entertain the notion that the centrality of eloquence in Dante's thought immediately justifies the conclusion that he accepted the intrinsic validity of poetic language, or, more controversial still, its supremacy over other forms of eloquent discourse. Firstly, Virgil's is not the only word in the poem distinguished as "ornata." The epithet recurs in the bolgia of the seducers, as part of the tale of Jason, who "con segni e con parole ornate" ("with signs and with ornamented words": Inf., XVIII. 91) led Hypsipyle astray and earned himself damnation. Clearly, Jason's "parole ornate" are morally quite different from Virgil's: instead of saving they betray, instead of embodying the truth they act as a vehicle of deceit. Their ornamental quality is...


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