by Dante Alighieri
We’re going to go ahead say it outright: Dante is a tad bit arrogant. He has no qualms about proclaiming himself one of the best poets of all time. When discussing Florence, Dante sets himself up as a supreme authority and God help anyone who dares defend the Florentines. His rants get a bit tiresome. And although we get glimpses of Dante’s big ego, we rarely see him sassing off to Virgil as he does in Inferno. We’re not sure why…perhaps Purgatory is simply a nicer, less irritable place than Hell, but Dante seems to be on his best behavior. He may be a little conceited, but at least he owns up to it.
We learn this on the first terrace, where Dante unexpectedly assumes the same stooping position as the Prideful. Of course, he doesn’t do it to humble himself at first. It is simply a convenient posture used to talk to the penitents, since they can’t very well stand up with hundred-pound stone blocks on their backs. However, after talking to two or three repentant Prideful, Dante confesses, their “truthful speech has filled my soul with sound humility, abating my overswollen pride,” and he remains in the bent-over position of the Prideful for the rest of his stay on the first terrace, seemingly to punish himself. Even when Virgil finally orders him to stand up straight, Dante’s “thoughts…[are] still submissive, bent.” Could Dante really be repenting for his pride?
As if to reinforce the message, a telling line shows up several cantos later while Dante is among the Envious; instead of sympathizing with them, Dante says, “I fear much more the punishment below…I feel the heavy weights of the first terrace.” However, there are passages that pop up, especially when Dante is discussing his poetry, in which the narration seems to lean in Dante’s favor too much. These should elicit suspicion, because Dante is the author as well as the protagonist. For example, when Bonagiunta da Lucca essentially lays down, rolls over, and admits, “Dante, you were right all along: your poetry is so much better than mine,” our eyebrows arch a little. We’re pretty sure the real Bonagiunta rolls over in his grave at that comment. Dante is, as you can see, trying to promote his new style of poetry.
However, when he talks to Guinizzelli and Arnaut Daniel, Dante seems genuinely humble, not even bothering to mention his name to his idols. Purgatorio reveals a real tension between Dante the poet and Dante the character. Character-Dante rarely says anything past the first terrace that really counts as boastful. But author-Dante frames Dante’s words so that they can come across as veiled bragging to the reader. So if we’ve got a tiff, it’s with author-Dante. We’ll leave Dante-character alone to continue in his newfound humility.
Dante and His Poetic Genealogy
Since we’re on the topic of poetry, let’s talk about what Dante is trying to do as a poet in Purgatorio. We’ve got two separate poetic traditions being set up by author-Dante. The first is the that of the group we’ve always been with, led by Virgil, writer of the Aeneid and unofficial poet-laureate of Rome. We’ve already established the mutual admiration Dante and Virgil have for each other and have pointed out some of their similarities in the Inferno module. Well, now Statius is thrown into the mix. Although not as well-known a figure as Virgil, Statius is a legitimate and celebrated poet in his own right, having written such epics as the Thebiad and the Achilleid. But the major difference between him and Virgil is Statius’ devout Christianity. Despite all we know of Virgil and his incredible poetic talent, we recognize that simply by virtue of his faith, Statius represents a more appropriate moral mentor for Dante than Virgil does.
What does it mean that we have Virgil, Statius, and Dante all in a group? Three renowned poets together? Author-Dante seems to be setting up a kind of chronological progression. He establishes a poetic history that leads straight to him. First up we’ve got Virgil, epic poet extraordinaire, pagan, the Roman Homer, if you will. Talk about big shoes to fill. Next up in the progression is Statius. Also an epic poet – maybe not extraordinary, but certainly exceptional. Most importantly, he’s Christian. Then Dante: an aspiring epic poet and a Christian. See where we’re going? Dante sees himself as the last and best link in the chain, combining Virgil’s pagan epic with the virtuous Christianity of Statius’ poetry. This would create the Christian epic, which – from Dante’s perspective – represents a truly higher form of poetic expression.
Now, what about all the lyric poets he keeps meeting on the sixth and seventh terraces? We’re talking about Bonagiunta da Lucca, Guido Guinizzelli, and Arnaut Daniel. Consider Dante’s behavior around them. Dante takes a bit of a proud stance with Bonagiunta, graciously accepting his apologies when Bonagiunta humbles himself before Dante and admits Dante’s dolce stil novo style is better than his municipal style, which shuns the Italian vernacular. However, around Guinizzelli and Daniel, Dante is positively passive. He addresses them only to heap praise on them. Dante calls Guinizzelli “the father of me and of the others…who ever used sweet, gracious rhymes of love.” Thus, we see Dante again trying to establish his position vis-à-vis other poets. Here, though, he gives himself high rank in the hierarchy of lyric love poets, trying to claim a place as one of the pioneers of the dolce stil novo style, who has benefited and learned from Guinizzelli’s verse and now looks to improve upon it. What can we do with these differing genealogies? Epic vs. lyric. Liturgical vs. vernacular. Our guess is that Dante wants to take the vernacular language he uses in his lyric love poetry and apply it to epic in the Virgilian tradition. Dante’s epic, though, fits squarely into the Christian tradition.