Academic journal article Italica

The Poet's Inner Child: Early Childhood and Spiritual Growth in Dante's Commedia

Academic journal article Italica

The Poet's Inner Child: Early Childhood and Spiritual Growth in Dante's Commedia

Article excerpt

Abstract: At its core the Commedia is a poem written for and about adults, but children (and references to children) appear throughout. In this essay, I argue that the juvenilization of the main character relates directly to the poet's ages of man, namely the contrasting nature between adolescenza and gioventute, an intertextual connection between the Convivio and the Commedia that has never been previously explored. Dante thus allegorizes his afterlife journey within the context of life's ages of man relating the pilgrim to a figurative state of adolescenza, essentially condemning the protagonist to a developmental fall from the author's more advanced age with the poet/narrator emerging in his actual state of gioventute (i.e., maturity) recaptured through the completion of his afterlife experience. Although Dante inherently recognizes children's deficiencies, the poet will take advantage of them to foreground growth and maturation, especially in his portrayal of the protagonist's spiritual development.

Keywords: Dante, Commedia, Convivio, early childhood, children, spiritual growth, parent, aetates spirituals, puerizia, adolescenza, gioventute, life's ages.'

Adhuc enim non pueritia seel, quod est gravius, puerilitas remanet.

Seneca, Epistle IV

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In the last 50 years, the field of medieval childhood studies has thrived, often fueled by Philippe Aries's controversial conclusion that childhood and adolescence as distinct stages in life did not exist during the Middle Ages (Aries 128). (1) Historians have subsequently shown that, from the twelfth century on, the late Middle Ages experienced favorable changes in how children and childhood were perceived. (2) These sociocultural transformations certainly influenced Dante who, as we will see, viewed children and childhood positively. Consequently, scholars have noted the poet's genuine fondness for children, yet a comprehensive study of his approach has never been conducted.

At its core the Commedia is a poem written for and about adults, but children (and references to children) appear throughout. In fact, Dante's general strategy, centering on the parent-offspring relationship, utilizes children and notions of childhood for rhetorical effect. For instance, in Inferno 33 we witness the heart-wrenching story of suffering told by Count Ugolino who was imprisoned in a tower with two of his children and two of his grandchildren. Many scholars have observed that Dante depicted the children much younger than their actual ages in order to increase the pathos of their predicament, but here the poet utilizes the children's simplicity and immaturity for rhetorical effect clearly expressed within the parent-offspring relationship. In Purgatorio 16, Dante continues this parent-child imagery with Marco Lombardo who describes the creation of the human soul portrayed as a child emerging from the hand of God (Purg. 16: 85-90):

   Esce di mano a lui che la vagheggia
   prima che sia, a guisa di fanciulla
   che piangendo e ridendo pargoleggia,
   l'anima semplicetta che sa nulla,
   salvo che, mossa da lieto fattore,
   volontier torna a cio che la trastulla.

The poet characterizes the newborn soul as a young girl ("a guisa di fanciulla") who willingly moves toward its Maker as He plays with her in a tender scene between God and his creation that recalls the love and admiration a father displays before his reciprocating infant child. The scene also shows how Dante considered the eternal soul through time-bound notions of growth and maturity with a developmental approach that figuratively recognizes spiritual ages alongside the bodily ages of man. (3) Lastly, at the end of the Paradiso, where St. Bernard encourages Dante to explore the Empyrean and specifically Mary in her glory, more than a thousand joyful angels ("piU di mille angeli festanti", Par. 31: 131) surround her while playing and singing (Par. 31: 133-34). …

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