Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 19 – the dictation of love

Lust: as perennial as love, and just as troublesome for poets, apparently. Image by Soffie Hicks licensed under Creative Commons

Except for the good pagan poets found in limbo, Dante places all the poets in his Comedy among the saved, most of them high on the slopes of purgatory. Poets have a high calling in life and this is reflected in their fate after death.

Dante is keenly aware of the poet’s mission as prophet: that is, as seer of divine reality, as teacher of spiritual truths, as speaker of truth to power. He’s also conscious of the fellowship of poets and philosophers – the way they inhabit each other’s minds and learn from each other, a process that continues down the ages (see Note 9).

 Gluttony, another sin of the flesh. By Breughel from the British Museum via Wikimedia Commons

On the terrace of the gluttonous, Virgil and Dante meet Bonagiunta Orbicciani, who looks at Dante keenly and recognizes him:  

Orbicciani represents the “old style” of poetry characteristic of Tuscany in the generation preceding Dante’s and of Sicily earlier in the 13th century. Prone to artificiality and abstraction, this style, which had its origins in the love-songs of the Provençal troubadours, was rejected by the young poets of Dante’s circle, who went for greater authenticity – verse grounded in real experience, especially experience of love. These were the poets of the dolce stil nuovo, the sweet new style.

Dante’s ode, Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore, written around 1292-94 and published in the Vita Nuova, was widely recognized as an outstanding example of the dolce stil nuovo and had brought the young Florentine poet fame. His reply to Orbicciani tells us how he sees his poetic identity:

In these few words Dante makes a claim that is at once bold and humble.

He is, he says, directly inspired by love, which “breathes within him”. By love we may understand the poet’s love of a beautiful woman, who may appear as a messenger from God, like an angel. Or we may understand God himself, in his manifestation as the eternal feminine. And in both cases we may also understand the answering love of the creature – the human, the poet. In the end, as Beatrice will show him, all love is divine in both its origin and its object.

Dante goes on to say that his role is a passive one, to be a faithful receiver, such that he writes down divine love’s inner dictation accurately. In this he joins other inspired writers in saying, “It’s not me: I’m just the medium, not the creator.”

This state of passive receptivity is born out by what Dante earlier says of the gestation of his Vita Nuova poem: “My tongue spoke as though moved by itself and said: Women who have intelligence of love.” Yet within this state the creative imagination is fully at work. It seems likely that Dante wrote mainly in a trance-like condition, in which periods of intense concentration were interspersed with mystical episodes. In Paradiso 25, Dante says of his Comedy that it is the poema sacro al quale ha posto mano e cielo e terra, “the sacred poem to which both heaven and earth have set their hand.” We come back to the essential nature of the Comedy as a vision, as something simultaneously imagined and revealed.

Orbicciani acknowledges the integrity of Dante’s writing, its close adherence to the dictation of love:

The beauty of Dante’s poetry, in short, lies in its truthfulness. We can see Dante not just as a supremely accomplished versifier but also as a mighty force of truth telling – the force that gave us the Commedia.

Having established the seriousness of his own poetic identity and mission, Dante goes on to pay tribute to his predecessors. On the terrace of the lustful we meet Guido Guinizelli, whom Dante calls

A Tuscan who like Dante wrote in the vernacular, Guinizelli is regarded as the founder of the dolce stil nuovo and directly inspired some of the poems in the Vita Nuova. He died in 1276 in Bologna, about 18 years before Dante penned Donne ch’avete.

The troubadours sang of courtly love – and lust. Arnaut Daniel from the Gallica Digital Library via Wikimedia Commons

The two poets exchange greetings and complements. Then Guinizelli points out someone ahead on the path whom he describes as a miglior fabbro del parlar materno, “a better craftsman of the mother tongue”. It’s Arnaut Daniel, a Provençal troubadour poet who identifies himself in his own language:

Dante was an accomplished linguist, writing in Latin as well as Italian, possibly also in French, and, here, trying himself out in Provençal. In these few lines we hear him delighting in the cadences of the ancient tongue while capturing the romance of the troubadour way of life: you sing as you go – from one place to the next, wherever poetic invention, the finding of “tropes”, is welcomed.

From these romantic beginnings flows the entire poetic tradition of Western Europe. Dante knows his own central place in this, his role as keystone in the arch. And, under the dictation of love, he sets this down, truthfully and beautifully, in the sweet new style that has made him famous.

Genius line:
Ieu sui Arnaut, que plor e vau cantan – in purgatory, Arnaut continues to live the troubadour life! The songs of the troubadours were often about the pains of love, so he weeps for those as well as for the pain of purgation.