Academic journal article Italica

Verbum Valet Plurimum: Tracing a Fragment of Dante's Poetics

Academic journal article Italica

Verbum Valet Plurimum: Tracing a Fragment of Dante's Poetics

Article excerpt

This article is a rereading of chapters 24 and 25 of Dante's Vita nuova. It explores Dante's construction of a fragment of his poetics, using Augustine's theory of language and linking this theory to rhetorical theories of poetics (Poetriae) circulating in the 13th century. I will begin by introducing one of Augustine's Sermons (n. 288) and by reading chapter 24 of the Vita Nuova in the light of that Sermon, which I consider to be fundamental for understanding that chapter of Dante's first book. The link between chapter 24 and chapter 25 of the Vita nuova, in terms of the role played by tropes and figures of speech, is part of the argument of this paper. I start by recalling St. John's Gospel, a key text for an understanding of some sections of Dante's Vita nuova.

In the territory that extends beyond the Jordan, where the Baptist preached, announcing the Christ that John's Gospel called the Logos, with and in God from the beginning, with and by whom all things were made, in that stony terrain an event took place, to which, about four centuries later, between 390 and 420, Augustine dedicated a comment in one of his sermons (Sermo 288), on the feast day of John the Baptist. (1) Here I wish to recall, not so much the two characters involved in the event, or their encounter on rocky and windy ground (called Bhetania in John's text), but rather the new content that a third character, the reader from Hippo, brings to the episode, with his knowledge of the Greek and Latin patrimony underlying the Gospel text. John and Christ are identified in the locutio, in the Greek text, as phond and logos respectively. In the Latin text that Augustine reads and comments upon, the two words are translated as vox and verbum. A knowledge of stoic thought, which has its own history in Judeo-Christian culture, seeps into Augustine's writing of Sermo 288 and leads to him assign to John the word that is shouted, vox, while to Christ he assigns verbum, the interior word. The opening of this text seems to echo the stoic distinction between verbum prophorikos (prolatum) and verbum endiathetos (interior) (Pohlenz vol. 1, 61; Beierwaltes 194), a distinction we find upon rereading one of the most interesting passages of the Vita nuova (chapter 24). There, in a subtle play of cross-references and transpositions, we read that Guido Cavalcanti, Dante's first friend, is identified with John, the "vox clamantis" in the desert, heralding, according to the fourth Gospel, the advent of Christ: the verbum (word). The relationship between chapter 24 of the Vita Nuova and John's Gospel is well known, but this paper suggests a new reading of the chapter, focusing on the Augustinian subtext, which offers a more complex and important meaning.

We begin with this chapter of the Vita Nuova in order to establish, not only the distinction that Dante seeks to make between his work and Cavalcanti's at the very debut of his career, but also to appreciate the method he adopts to manifest a new understanding of the use of language, in which not only the meaning of writing is reformulated, but also the disciplines to whose pronouncement it is lent, and even the idea of humanity itself.

The original stoic distinction between phone (voice) and logos as a semantic phone (Pohlenz vol. 2, 373) seems to have come into Augustine's consciousness in this Sermon, but it echoes a passage in the De trinitate XV, 17-19, where we read that it is the mental verbum (verb) that lives in us and distinguishes itself from the external word. (2) The theory of a resemblance to the divine inscribed in the human soul, which is one of the nerve centers of Augustine's thought, seems also to be a point of meditation for Dante, found in this passage of the Vita nova and here aimed at redefining the distance between himself and Cavalcanti. This distance can be perceived not only in the light of Augustine's commentary on the 4th gospel, but also in the light of ideas that come to the fore in another text, the Sermon listed as n. …

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