Literary Genealogy, Virile Rhetoric, and John Gower's Confessio Amantis

By Watt, Diane | Philological Quarterly, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview
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Literary Genealogy, Virile Rhetoric, and John Gower's Confessio Amantis

Watt, Diane, Philological Quarterly

In one of the most well-known passages of Inferno, Dante unexpectedly encounters the Florentine magistrate, rhetorician and poet, Brunetto Latini, amongst the sodomites in the innermost ring of the seventh circle of Hell. The poignancy of this episode, in which Dante greets his former teacher, suggests a degree of sympathy with the sinner on the part of the narrator which the modern reader might well not anticipate:

   E io, quando il suo braccio a me distese,
   ficcai gli occhi per lo cotto aspetto
   si, che il viso abbruciato non difese
   la conoscenza sua al mio intelletto;
   e chinando la mia a la sua faccia
   risposi: "Siete voi qui, Ser Brunetto!"

   I, when to me he stretched his arm out, brought
   my gaze to rest so squarely on his baked
   appearance, that his scorched face stayed me not
   from recognizing him with my intellect;
   and "You here, Ser Brunetto!" stooping down
   my face to his, I said: and my heart ached.(1)

In their ensuing conversation, Dante explains to Latini that he is overwhelmed by feelings of gratitude as he remembers "`quando nel mondo, ad ora ad ora, / m'insegnavate come l'uom s'eterna'" (when in the world you taught me early and late / the art by which man grows eternal), in other words, his instruction in the art of poetry.(2)

The intimacy of the exchange between the two men, the absence of censorious condemnation of the sinner on the part of Dante, has led a number of scholars to question the exact nature of Latini's error and to try to exonerate him from the taint of homosexuality.(3) Certainly there is reason to think that Latini's transgression may be more complex than it appears at first. Terms like sodomy and sodomite are notorious for their instability and therefore had the potential to be used in quite unspecific ways in the Middle Ages.(4) Although Dante classifies sodomy as a species of violence against God (placing it alongside blasphemy and usury),(5) it may be no coincidence that Latini's companions in suffering are all notable literati, scholars for whom the love of learning was of paramount importance. A causal connection between vanity and idolatry and both female and male homosexuality was well established in the Middle Ages and can be traced back to the teachings of St. Paul (Romans 1.21-27).(6) It is this context which may help to explain Latini's final prayer, when he entreats Dante to:

   sieti raccomandato il mio Tesoro
   nel qual io vivo ancora; e piu non cheggio.

   take good care of my Treasure, for in that
   I still live, and no more I ask of thee.(7)

Latini's concern for the survival of his book and seeming disregard for the state of his own soul--his lack of penitence--can be seen as evidence of pride and self-adulation. As Eugene Vance explains, "as the willing emblem of the classical rhetoricians, Brunetto is enacting all the vices for which rhetoricians since Plato had been censured--love of appearances, love of money, opportunism, and so on--vices that persist in Brunetto even though he is now suffering for them in hell."(8) Latini's ambition reveals him to be at least equally guilty of narcissistic self-love as he is of "spregiando natura" [scorning Nature].(9) Moreover, Dante represents him as being concerned more with artistic creativity than with procreation, with literary patrilineage rather than human genealogy.(10)

To some extent this canto as a whole can be read as a variation of the "outdoing topos,"(11) or of what Harold Bloom famously termed "the anxiety of influence"(12) or literary competitiveness: Latini predicts the literary success of the man he refers to as his son, "Se tu segui tua stella, / non puoi fallire a glorioso porto" [An thou pursue thy star, / thou canst not fail to reach the glorious port],(13) while Dante ensures that his predecessor--safely trapped in eternal motion in hell--cannot challenge what is now his, Dante's, position of superiority.

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Literary Genealogy, Virile Rhetoric, and John Gower's Confessio Amantis


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