Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

For the Record: Rewriting Virgil in the Commedia

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

For the Record: Rewriting Virgil in the Commedia

Article excerpt

There is no more dramatic example of authorial ambivalence than Dante's relationship to Virgil in the Commedia. One the one hand--and from the very opening canto of the Inferno--Virgil is proclaimed to be not only the glory and light of other poets but the pilgrim's personal master and author. It is from his work alone that Dante says he has taken his hello stilo: "tu se' solo colui da cu'io tolsi / lo bello stilo che m'ha fatto onore" (Inferno 1.86-87; "You alone are he from whom I took the fair style that has done me honor"). This singular indebtedness is registered canto after canto, as both pilgrim and poet quite literally follow in Virgil's beloved footsteps. Especially in the Inferno, borrowings from the Aeneid are so abundant that it is impossible to escape the fact that the Commedia is constructed out of its narratives, personae, metaphors, and imperial dream. Dante builds his authority, as well as his authorship, by openly imitating l'altissimo poeta (Inferno 4.80), the loftiest poet of Latinity. (1)

On the other hand, we are increasingly reminded as the poem unfolds that Virgil's power, both as guide and as text, is severely limited. The Aeneid may offer Dante a blueprint for his vernacular poem, but the more one scrutinizes Virgil's influence, the more it is evident that the ancient plan is altered, edited, revised, or refuted outright. Just as Virgilio dolcissimo patre (Purgatorio 30.50; "Virgil sweetest father") is sent back to Limbo upon completing his mission--sent, that is, to the Elysian Fields of Aeneid 6 transformed into the first circle of hell so the textual precursor of the Commedia is likewise dispatched, all but consumed by Dante's strong reading of it.

Harold Bloom's "anxiety of influence" gives us a neo-Freudian mythology for understanding the forces at play here. Dante the vernacular newcomer knows the Aeneid tutta quanta (Inferno 20.114), completely and by heart; yet for all the piety that the ephebe officially shows his maestro, he can strike out on his own only if he overcomes his father's magisterial accomplishment by rewriting it on his own terms. Dante's wholesale "misprision" of the Aeneid, therefore, is precisely the mark of his originality; his assault on the parent text makes his poetry possible. (2)

A more fruitful model for thinking about this relationship, however, may be found in traditional Christian exegesis of the Old Testament, which Bloom speaks of as the most "outrageous" misreading in all of Western civilization. (3) In this light, Virgil's text, like the Hebrew Bible, is a scripture that holds the promise of salvation. But in order for it to function in this way, it must be read (or "misread," in Bloom's sense) according to a particular hermeneutic that is both external and posterior to the text itself--a later as well as a new angle of vision. The locus classicus here is 2 Corinthians 3, where Paul, in contrasting tablets of stone with the fleshly heart, presents himself as one of those who have been made ministers of the latter--that is, of the "new testament" ("nos fecit ministros novi testamenti'; v. 6). Using the example of a veiled Moses descending from Mount Sinai after receiving the Decalogue (Exodus 33.29-35), Paul talks about the need for christological understanding to "open up" the Law and the Prophets to their interior, spiritual meaning. Biblical interpretation is meant to remove the veil that restricts the reader to the literal surface of the text and therefore keeps him or her at a remove from its true meaning. Those who persist in a literal reading of the Old Testament refuse to discard the veil and discover what lies within; they stay with the opaque and obsolete, in effect choosing to be sight impaired. By contrast, those who have "eyes that see" come by the grace of the Holy Spirit to apprehend the ancient text at a depth and toward a purpose that before was unknowable. In this way, the Old Testament for Christian readers is born again, with both text and reader transfigured a claritate in claritatem (v. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.