Dante as Dramatist: The Myth of the Earthly Paradise and Tragic Vision in the Divine Comedy

By Franco Masciandaro | Go to book overview

with the vernacular of the muliercule, he is not really describing the predominant style in his poem. For here he at once appropriates and vies with, among others, Ovid and Lucan, and especially Virgil, whose Aeneid, in Inferno XX, 113, Dante calls alta tragedìa (high tragedy). Significantly, it is the bello stilo (the fair style) he learned from Virgil that, at the very beginning of the Comedy, he proclaims as the mark of his past achievements as a young poet, and, more important, as a recognition of the master's authority in the new poem (and the new journey) which is about to begin. We also know that he is not identifying his journey to God with the themes of Terence's comedies, except for the generic "happy ending" formula. As he states in Paradiso (XXV, 1-2), his is a "sacred poem to which heaven and earth have set hand." Nor can we overlook the significance of the scene in the "noble castle" of Limbo, in which the ancient poets -- from Homer to Virgil -- honor Dante, making him "of their company," so that he was "sixth amid such wisdom" (Inf. IV, 100-102).

If Dante's poem eludes the definition of comedy that he himself has fashioned23 and appears instead more deserving of the term tragedy, why then did he name it a comedy? Gianfranco Contini's answer is that in the Commedia Dante's "intellectual stroke of genius has been to define himself from the lowest level, almost as a sign and measure of the highest exploration. . . . To define oneself from the lowest plane is a proclamation of freedom."24 And we may also answer with Erich Auerbach:

The Divine Comedy is the first and in certain respects the only European poem comparable in rank and quality to the sublime poetry of antiquity. Many passages in the work express Dante's awareness of this; but the word "comedy" and Dante's remarks in his letter to Can Grande show that he never freed himself from the purist views on rhetoric which he sets forth in De vulgari eloquentia. There is no point in inquiring here whether it was the vernacular language or the realism of his poem (or its happy ending) that prevented him from assigning it to the highest stylistic class. To me it seems unquestionable that by modern standards he equaled and even surpassed the sublimity of the ancients.25

Other critics like Giorgio Petrocchi26 and Robert Hollander27 -- to mention only a few -- have also recognized that the tragic is the predominant style in the Commedia. Moreover, Dante's unique synthesis of comedy and tragedy further asserts his freedom by pointing beyond itself, affirming the very life of tragic rhythm and tragic vision of which we spoke above. This may be illustrated by the following passage from Paradiso, in which we find Dante struggling with the theme of Beatrice's beauty:

-xix-

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