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Dante: the Poet


Cesare Foligno


Published for the British Academy

By Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press

Amen Corner, E.C.




Read May 4, 1921

A bt.acks.mith who ventured to recite, not faultlessly, some lines of
Dante within the poet's hearing had his tools scattered about the
smithy bv the resentful poet, who in justification said that he treated
the smith's tools not otherwise than the smith had dealt with his own
verses. The story, if it be true, reads like a practical application of
the law of * contrappasso ' in the realm of the living; but it is also a
warning that none dare disregard who write or speak about Dante.
If the spirit of the quick-tempered Florentine were allowed to hover
on earth, many a scholar's library and desk would show signs of his
visitations. This year more than ever should we refrain from the
fallacies and the pettiness of perfunctory or pedantic criticism ; rather
should we gaze at the austere figure of the great exile with contrition
for our own offences against him, alas so many !

Dante made no secret of his longing for the poet's laurels, and even
though he did not receive them officially, as Mussato was privileged
1o receive them, he was surrounded by fame in his lifetime, and since
death he has enjoyed a renown which, apart from a partial eclipse
during the classical Renaissance, has never been dimmed and lias
spread to all countries and peoples. Wherever civilization i-. the
name of Dante, the poet, is known. It seems fitting that just this
obvious aspect of his personality should be our subject to-day, and
that this assembly, which is wont to listen to learned discourses on
difficult and controversial questions of scholarship, should forgo this
privilege in its desire to do homage to the work of one of the great
masters of poetry. I take it that, had a more ambitious aim been
contemplated, another lecturer than I would have had the honour
of addressing this meeting.

There is another very obvious thing that we dare not forget.

Dante paid his full tax and toll to the prevailing taste of his day.

He endeavoured to construct upon the literal meaning of his fantastic

creations a secondary or more secondary symbolic meaning. He

x D-


took a profound delight in watching the rapid soaring of his intellect
to the understanding of scientific and philosophical problems, and thus
hi-, poems are based upon concepts w Inch he borrowed from philosophy,
theology, and science. Students of Dante have consequently found
ample scope in him for the exercise of their powers of interpretation
in solving tin- allegorical enigmas and in mastering the encyclopaedic
Ion- of the Middle Ages, of which the works of Dante give us a
wonderful conspectus. In this they became so far involved as to
mistake, <>r to cause less experl readers to mistake, what was of
secondary for what is of primary importance in Dante's works — to put
philosophy, theology, science, and history before poetry. They are
well aware all the time that there is scarcely one original philosophical
concept, barely one or two fresh political thoughts, and not a single
scientific novelty in the whole of Dante's works; that we read the
Commedia, the Vita Nuova, and the Convivw or any of them for
their poetical excellence alone ; and that we should otherw ise not read
them at all, just as we refuse to wade through the volumes of some of
Dante's contemporaries unless we are compelled to undertake such a
labour by the necessity of some special study. Dante is for us
primarily, nay rather, solely, a poet ; his theological speculations, his
astronomical errors, his scientific misconceptions, his historical inaccu-
racies, his political theories, matter little to us except in so far as they
help us to gain a clear knowledge of his ideals, right or wrong as they
may he. Dante seems to have taken pleasure in courting immortality
under the most difficult conditions. His love poems he weighed down
by the acceptance of a theory of love, subtle, artificial, and closely
bound up with a body of tenets which are only of his day ; his lyrics,
his prose works, and the Commedia are permeated with philosophical
and scientific thought; he concentrated his attention upon the tran-
sitory political condition of a comparatively small city and the fortunes
of a mediocre emperor, whose history is a pitiful record of well-meaning
incompetence. The theory of love to which he adhered, the philo-
sophical creed and the scientific ideas which he adopted, were soon to
be superseded; and the drama of the Florentine crisis and of the
Italian expedition of Henry VII became but minor incidents in the
complex history of a troubled country; and in spite of it all, his
poetic personality was strong enough to impose upon thousands in the
ages to come the task of unravelling all that was, or was destined soon
to become, obscure in his works. He succeeded in infusing into the
world of his thought so powerful a life as to cause many to mistake
the miraculous creations of a poetic genius for the reality of a living
world. The import of his achievement may lie conveniently measured


by the vastness of Dante literature. Any one with sufficient imagination
to be able to grasp the meaning of bibliographical information will
grant that no more striking testimony of a concrete kind to the p
greatness could be found than the mere size of the hooks which
attempt to enumerate the works that have been written about him.

To Dante, the poet, homage of admiration has been paid in all
ages. Every reader, in varying degree and from a different standpoint,
has recognized the excellence of Dante's art ; this attitude is so general
that it has found but scant and vaguely worded expression. Scarcely
any attempt has been made until recently t<> define tin's art and to
define its peculiarities. 1 It has been taken for granted, felt obscu
and remained unexplained. No doubt so long a- the circumstaiM •
Dante's life were but superficially known and accurate information
was lacking about the political, social, and intellectual conditions of
his days, any attempt at a critical appreciation must have been fruit-
less. It was thus inevitable that most scholars, following the !>ent of
critical studies in their several generations, should in preference direct
their efforts to the solution of the secondary problems of interpreta-
tion which baffled the readers, even though not all of them can have
been aware that the importance of their researches was relative to a
more constructive work which had to be undertaken later.

It is easy now to realize how much is useless of what has been
written about Dante, and how much was misdirected or prejudiced .
yet to all thdse scholars we owe a debt, because the cumulative result
of their labours has enabled us in more recent days to face the critical
problem. From the fourteenth century onward men have shi
their standpoint in studying Dante in accordance with the passing
fashions of culture and taste. Attention has been centred in turn on
everv aspect of Dante's personality. He has been considered as a
theologian, a Ghibelline, a plebeian poet unworthy of scholarly Btudy,
later, as a prophet of the ' risorgimento \ or a pre-Raphaelite, and
finally in our own days, he has been represented as a pedant endowed
with a divine genius or as a plagiarist of Arab visionaries. 1 What
matter? At all times he has been studied, and an implicit appr.
tion of his art underlies all appreciations however inadequate or
faulty. So that each individual and each generation have understood

1 Benedetto Croce, /." poesia di Dante, IJ.iri , Later/a, 1921, pp. 173 805
' The former misconceptions are so well known that no exemplification i-
necessary; the last-named view is propounded by Don Miguel Asin Palacioa iu
his essay l.n Etcatologia mtuulmana en in ' I'iiinn Gommedia', Real
Espanola; Madrid, Maeatre, 1919; on which should l»' read E. <■• Pare
review in ' Bullettino della Societa dantesca Italians ', N. s . txri, fasc I, 1919,
pp. 1G3-181.


Dante in a different way and admired different aspects or sections of
his work. To take an example, it has been recently stated that a
portion of Dante's work has no real artistic value and that only those
parts have a permanent value which can Ik- classed as ' lyrical'. 1

This conclusion, the result of a purely aesthetic criticism, may not
give ns complete satisfaction ; some among as will feel loth to throw
overboard that which they had Learnl to admire- the tension and the
tremor of the Yitd Nuova, the poet's strong political and part v feel-
ing, his moral seriousness, the conviction that he is called to deliver
a divine message, the iron-girt construction of his geometrically
balanced edifice. Hut whether this criticism is the last and definitive
word -on the subject, or merely a stepping stone to further strictures,
a link with later developments, or a transient pronouncement which
will he countered in the future, it supplies a real need.

The leading exponenl oi aesthetic criticism has set down his views
upon the merits of Dante's poetry; we are told that the whole output
of Dante's earlier years should he regarded as a preparation for the
Commedia ; that in the Commedia itself there is a doctrinal frame-
work — a ' theological novel'' — which is as a whole unpoetical apart
from its details, that Dante is occasionally blinded by factious feeling,
and hursts into rhetorical denunciation of his enemies, and that the
< ssence of Dante's art, as of all great poets, is ' lyrical '.'- Those who
should happen to dissent from any of these conclusions may turn for
guidance to the earlier critical appreciations — from Foscolo's to
Cai'duci i's. from that of De Sanctis to that of Vossler ; and, after all,
each individual reader can only grasp and admire that which he is able
to express to himself. We, at any rate, may he permitted to refrain
from treading upon ground that has been covered already; nevertheless,
it may prove of some interest to recall certain aspects of Dante's poetical
personality which seem to have a further hearing upon the evaluation
of his work and his art. It would be fruitless to study Dante's works
from the standpoint of the author instead of starting from the im-
pression that a modern reader receives from them ; hut it is, on the
other hand, helpful to remind ourselves what function was assigned by
Dante to poets and poetry in theory and in practice. All men agree,
we would say, that Dante was fust and foremost a poet, and that he
reckoned himself a poet from his early vouth to the last days of his
life; and we mav find, in the course of a rapid inquiry into Dante's
attitude towards the art of poetry, that his poetical activity cannot be
fully appreciated nor his art impartially valued apart from the results
that such an inquiry mav afford.

1 ( roce, "/». rit., pp. 18 49. ; [bid., pp. 1C1-169.


Genius is generally said to be in advance of tin- age Poets are
often not only in advance of their age, hut also in ad vane- of the
theories they espouse. They dare in the practice of their art to do
that which they would not consider theoretically legitimate. Dante
himself, who would seem to have directed hi. own literary activity
with an iron hand, exceeded in actual fact the limits which, in tin
he was prepared to lay down. An apt illustration can 1m- seen in his
attitude towards the vernacular. lie wrote the Vita Nuava iii Italian,
and he considered the choice of the vernacular justified, because the
poems were love poems and the prose was merely a commentary upon

those poems of love. Later he went farther and argued that the

vernacular was an adequate medium for the expression of his views on
moral matters in the 'canzoni 1 of the ConviviOi because the meaning

was veiled in an allegorical fiction, and the prose commentary hail
to be written in the same idiom as the poems. He took a step
farther in the l)c Vulgari Elogueniia^ but even so to expound and
discuss in the vernacular such subjects as are touched upon in the
Paradiso was scarcely to be defended on the theoretical grounds
which he had put forward. No loftier subjects could be imagined
than those with which he dealt in the'alta tmgedia"; so much so
that, while up to the end of Purgatorio he had only needed the help
of the Muses inhabiting one of the summits of Parnassus, at the
inception of the Paradiso he appealed to Apollo, the dweller on the
second summit of the mountain; and later on he .stated: 'both
heaven and earth have set hand to the sacred poem'. 9

Again, Dante would probably not have ventured in a theoretical
discussion to claim for the poets the privileges and the position
which are the logical premisses of some parts of his works a- also
of certain situations which are to be found in them. During the
Middle Ages, when Aristotle's Poetics was virtually unknown, stu-
dents of aesthetic problems were thrown back on the theories which
derived from Plato's philosophy of art or that of PlotinUS ait. and

therefore poetry, having been shown by Plato to be indirect repre-
sentations of truth, were considered indefensible on philosophical
grounds and were justified only as pleasant means to a useful end.
On the other hand, the Christian followers of Plotinu . St 1 uicis

and Bonaventura, were led to a mystic form of [ntellectualism.* The

1 Vita Nuova, § xxxi ; Convivio, i. v \iii; I h Vulgari Eloquentia, u. I

5 Puradito, i. 13 36; \m. l •-'.

s See Karl Vossler, Die gottliche Komodie, Band l, Teil 1, Heidelberg, Winter,
1907, i<i>. lit- 201 ; Hubert Jauitechek, /'"■ KunntUhrt Damtet un4 Oiettm KvitW,
A utrittovorlesung, Leipzig, Brockliaus, 1892, pp. l 17. Benedetto! r... ,
come acienza del? esprtssiom e linguittica generate, itfa ed., Hun, 1012, pp. -


rationalists held all artistic works to be secondary manifestations of
truth, or allegories ; the mystics, on the other hand, held that divinity
manifested itself necessarily by means of revelations, and so gave us
visions as a counterpart of allegories. Aquinas in so far as he was
a rationalist ascribed allegorical meaning to artistic creations, and in
so far as he saw in the sacred books and in the visions of saints an
immediate manifestation of the divine, he admitted visionary poetry*
A poet could therefore, according to Aquinas, either declare truth
through allegory, or reveal it by visions, according to his individual
predisposition ; he could be an allegorist if he was the servant of
wisdom, a visionary if the servant of revelation. Dante partook of
both tendencies, and he supplemented the doctrine of Aquinas on
works of art in a passage of the l)c Monarch™ and in one of the
Inferno. 1 Art, he says, derives from God through Nature; and we
may assume that the artist can therefore draw inspiration from natural
and from supernatural sources —natural sources such as are symbolized
by the Muses, supernatural sources, such as Apollo typifies, capable of
producing a vision. The ' poeta philosophus ', inspired by natural
sources, exemplified by Virgil, the 'poeta theologus ', drawing inspira-
tion from above, may be accepted as being typified by the Prophets.
In which class would he have included the writer of the Com/media ?

He made no attempt to place poetry on a higher level than his
contemporaries did when he defined poetry in the De Yulgari
Kloquentia as ' nothing else but a rhetorical fiction harmoniously
composed'' ('nihil aliud quam fictio rhetorica in musica composita'), 9
or, as he says in the Convivio, a ' beauteous fiction 1 under which truth
is hidden (' ed e una verita ascosa sotto bella menzogna') 3 ; and it is
only in verse, namely in the envoy of the first canzone of the Convivio,
that he ventures to claim for poetry some recognition apart from its
content of truth allegorically expressed.

'Ode ! I believe that they shall be but rare who shall rightly under-
stand thy meaning,/so intricate and knotty is thy utterance of it ; /
Wherefore if perchance it came about/that thou take thy way into the
presence of folk/who seem not rightly to perceive it ; - Then. I pray
thee to take heart again, and say to them, my beloved last ling :/
Give heiil at least how beautiful I am.'/ *

Even those among his readers who would be unable to understand his

1 / e Monorchia, rr. ii. 10 .",7 ; Inferno, xi. 'J7-105.
: li Vu'gari Kloquentia, ri. iv. 1!) Jn. ' Ibid. i. 24.

4 The Convivio, translated by Philip II. Wickstecd, Loudon, G. M. Dent,
1903, p. 62.


meaning could not fail to be impressed by the excellence of his
beauty has an existence apart from the truth allegorically cxpiesscd .

The poet Dante overleaps all the bounds with which Dante the
theorist hems in the art of poetry. Here we have beauty ai self-sub-
sisting, elsewhere in the l)c Vulgari Elaquentiaf be compares '
qui vulgariter versificantur 1 with the great or regular poeta — (the

ancients) — and concludes with a sentence that, though I I or

ignored by them, was carried out to its ultimate possibilities by the
j)oets of the Renaissance: 'The closer we imitate the regular |
the better we shall write poetry ' (' Idcirco accidii ut quantum illos
proximius imitemur, tantum rectius poetemur'). The comparison
points to a new conception of art, an innovation more daring than
was to be expected from a logical rationalist who is a close follower of
authority." Hut the contradiction between t h«- depreciating medial \al
definition of poetry and the importance Dante implicitly or explicitly
gave it in his works need scarcely be emphasized. It poetry was. but

a 'beauteous fiction 1 why should a man who was able, and had shown

himself to be able, to pursue the quesl of unadorned truth, write
sonnets and ballads, ' Van/on: ', and the Commedia instead of treat
.Merely because of the utilitarian principle of'miscere utile du!<
And again if poetry was what it had been defined by Dante and
Aquinas how could Dante think so highly of himself and the other

poets who had lived before him ?

In order to' avoid contentious matters I shall refrain from attempt-
ing to solve the problem of the real character of the Commedia;
though if the sacred pot m were considered something more than the
merely didactic-allegorical epic which Dante himself suggested it to
be in the epistle to Can Grande, the pot t would have transgressed his
theoretical limitations in the very greatest of his works. 4 It could 1*'
argued that obviously a poei cannot but think high!) of his own art.
The objection is true in the general but False in Dante's particular
case, because we know that he was endowed, if ever a man was, with
the strong courage of facing the moral problems by which he was
confronted. A lengthy analysis of all thai Dante has written would
be required in order to bring into full relief the importance that be
really assigned to poetry. For our immediate purpose, however, s few
remarks will sutlice.

1 De Vulgari Eioquentia, ir. iv. '_'l 26.

' Karl Vossler, FoetUche Theorien in ier italienu Berlin,

Felber, 1900, pp. 22-23.

8 Horace, Epist. "'/ Rtamtt, 1. 343.

4 Ep. x, v; la (Dantit Alagherii Epittolae, emended text by 1' }<cr

Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1021, p 178).


l\n ts -m 1 1 as Virgil, Ovid, Juvenal, and Statius are quoted in the
Conxrivio, a philosophical treatise, alongside of Cicero, Boethius, Aris-
totle, and religious writers, and their evidence is given a practically
equal authority. Dai Bimilar in other works ; where-

ever the opportunity tor a refi n nee to a poetical text is afforded to
him be avails himself of it ; hut much more may be elicited from t Ik-
< tmfdia.

In the Commedia two poets, Virgil and Statius, are chosen as
guides, and Dante, amid the crowds of spirits he meets or mentions,
is at pains not to forge! any of the poets lie considered excellent. In
Limbus l among the countless innocent heathens is singled out a small
group of five poets, who admit Dante as a sixth member, and together
they enter into a castle in which the aristocracy of Limbus dwell:
killers and their Ladies, heroes, philosophers, and scientists alone are
mentioned (Orpheus and Linus are with them)— and the group of
five poets clearly belongs to the Bame set of famous spirits. Apart
from Virgil, who was in a special position, one would almost expect
Dante, as a Christian, to keep aloof from the company of heathens,
even though he was then in a stale of sin, had he not wished to ^i\t-
a special prominence to the followers of the Muses, and to Bymbolize
the connexion between ancient and modern poetry, a connexion which
he may have thought to be strengthened by the link of his own
poetical activity. At the beginning of the Purgatorio the meeting
with a famous musician. Casella, is made the occasion lor a quota-
tion from one of Dante's k canzoni '. Brunetto Latini, who had taught
Dante ' how man makes himself eternal ' just as Virgil had taught him
the 'good style*, Say8 that his fellow-sinners are all 'clerks and great

scholars, and of great renown* 2 ; and throughout the circles of lull
and tin- terraces of the mountain of Purgatorio no other poets are
met by Dante until he encounters Bonagiunta Orbicciani among
the gluttonous, and Guinizelli together with Arnaut Daniel among
the lascivious. 3 Dante seems to have considered that the poets
who embellish their teaching with pleasing adornments are liable to
sin only through an excessive inclination to pleasure. Statius himself
v. as on the filth 1 I i race of the mountain, and Dant e. consent « d to show
Virgil less well informed and to seem himself less intelligent than
either was, in order to have an opportunity of expressing his surprise
at finding a poet among the spirits w ho had been tainted « ith avarice,
a sin unbecoming to a man of Statins" wisdom. 4 From an ethical

1 fnfn-no. iv. 25 151. : Ibid. x'.. I'":. 108.

1 Purgtii mo, sxiv. 37-63 ; xv\i B2 1 IB.
* II. hi. xxii 10


standpoint avarice and prodigality .-in- equally culpable, yd 1>
makes a subtle distinction, almost an itinction

them ; Statius Bmilea before explaining that the fault i i
for on the fifth terrace was less diicordanl than a
poetic character than Dante had surmised hi had bi
not a miser.

Whether Statin, be a symbol of human reason illumined l>\
or whether, as would Beem more probable, he is n* rel) ■ Latin i
whom Dante cherished as a Fellow admirer of \ irgil's art, is immati
to our present purpose. The fact is that Dante, wishing to show the
process by which a spirit who has fully atoned for hii
from purgatory to heaven, chose Statius; Statius a poet as Virgil
Dante are, and a poet who has repeatedly claimed to owe I
style 1 to Virgil's example. Dante in the last cantos of thi
before the waters of Lethe wash away bis remembrance of all human
infirmities and weak] mpletely under the spell of

poetry, which requires from its followers a gi ntle and gl I irt. 1

Poets, according to Dante's conception, are hound to other by

the Btrong links of a perfect fellowship, and neither in thedarkm
hell nor in the clear atmosphere of the Purgatorio can th< the

pleasures afforded by the Muses. They can neither them nor

shake themselves entirety free from their allurement. They I
passed through the life of the world like other men, hut the
of life have never taken complete hold of them; their imagination
has fiver provided them with a means ot i »m reality. The

works of their forerunners have enabled them to live in intellectual
communion with kindred spirits, men like themselves, but nun who
have the gift of soaring to a higher level than can b 1 by the

other inhabitants of the earth. And each poet is, in a ' » the

creator of a new world the world of his faucv. The i

draws are his friends and his children ; amid such a poetical family

the poet finds refuge from and compensation for the crude busim
life. In the after-world poets can look upon this life with eyes un-
dimmed by emotion, hut they still take pride in their creations, in
their poetical children. That is uhv Brunetto Latini commends his
Trisor to Dante ; whj Virgil, so perfect and ni ; indifferent

to the eulogies of Statius and Dante, and win D
in his pilgrimage to listen to Casella's song and to Bonagiunt


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