Study Guide

Paradiso Language and Communication

By Dante Alighieri

Language and Communication

[Justinian]: "Before I grew attentive to this labor,
I held that but one nature – and no more –
was Christ's – and in that faith, I was content;
but then the blessed Agapetus, he
who was chief shepherd, with his words turned me
to that faith which has truth and purity." (Par. VI, 13-19)

Here, Justinian shows the didactic quality of language. The 'true' words of the Christian canon teach its readers to see truth, and thus to convert to the true faith of Christianity.

[St. Thomas]: "From this hillside, where it abates its rise,
a sun was born into the world, much like
this sun when it is climbing from the Ganges.
Therefore let him who names this site not say
Ascesi, which would be to say too little,
but Orient, if he would name it rightly." (Par. XI, 49-54)

Dante puns on the name of St. Francis' birthplace, Assisi. Because Dante's metaphor compares St. Francis to a "sun," he transforms Assisi to Ascesi, which means "I rise" in Italian. But he has so much respect for St. Francis that he says even Ascesi is too humble a name for his birthplace; one "would name it [more] rightly" if he called it "Orient," which means "east." The eastern horizon is, of course, the exact place where one sees the rising sun.

[St. Bonaventure on St. Dominic]: "And that his name might echo what he was,
a spirit moved from here to have him called
by the possessive of the One by whom
he was possessed completely. Dominic
became his name; I speak of him as one
whom Christ chose as the worker in His garden." (Par. XII, 67-72)

Dante spins another pun, this time on St. Dominic's name. He calls "Dominic" the "possessive of the One by whom / he was possessed completely," referring to God, called Dominus in liturgical Latin. Churchgoers would understand "Dominic," then, as "God's [one]".

And here my memory defeats my wit:
Christ's flaming from that cross was such that I
can find no fit similitude for it.
But he who takes his cross and follows Christ
will pardon me again for my omission –
my seeing Christ flash forth undid my force. (Par. XIV, 103-108)

Like all of the souls in Paradiso, Cacciaguida can read Dante's mind. This means that Dante's voicing of his questions is unnecessary. Thus, the telepathy of the blessed renders Dante silent. A minor theme in Paradiso is speaking only at the proper time; this makes silence an appropriate counterpoint to effective speech.

If here below, where sentiment is far
too weak to withstand error, I should see
men glorying in you, nobility
of blood – a meager thing! – I should not wonder,
for even where desire is not awry,
I mean in Heaven, I too felt such pride.
You are indeed a cloak that soon wears out,
so that if, day by day, we add no patch,
then circling time will trim you with its shears.
My speech began again with you, the word
that Rome was the first city to allow,
although her people seldom speak it now;
at this word, Beatrice, somewhat apart,
smiling, seemed like the woman who had coughed –
so goes the tale – at Guinevere's first fault. (Par. XVI, 1-15)

The "you" that Dante makes such a big deal of is the Italian voi, only used to address a social superior, like a noble. The superstition that "Rome was the first city to allow [this word]" points out the city's insufferable pride, in thinking its inhabitants the only ones deserving of such a title. This ties into Dante's perception of the Holy Roman Church (centered at Rome, of course) as hopelessly corrupt. Beatrice's smile, which is compared to "the woman who had coughed … at Guinevere's first fault" is her snide way of pointing out the irony of Dante's situation: even though he looks down on Rome for using voi, he himself has used it when referring proudly to his noble bloodline.

so, with a voice more gentle and more sweet –
not in our modern speech – it [Cacciaguida's light] said to me:
"Down from that day when Ave was pronounced,
until my mother (blessed now), by giving
birth, eased the burden borne in bearing me,
this fire of Mars had come five-hundred-fifty
and thirty more times to its Lion – there
to be rekindled underneath its paw.
My ancestors and I were born just where
the runner in your yearly games first comes
upon the boundary of the final ward.
That is enough concerning my forebears:
what were their names, from where they came – of that,
silence, not speech, is most appropriate." (Par. XVI, 32-45)

Dante makes a few observations on language in this passage. First, Cacciaguida's speech is "more gentle and more sweet [than] our modern speech," suggesting that, in the past, language was better than it is now. Also, notice that Cacciaguida only speaks about his noble ancestors in these few lines, and only at Dante's request. He much prefers, it seems, to not talk about them ("of that, / silence, not speech, is most appropriate") because he does not want to sound too proud.

Not with the maze of words they used to snare
the fools upon this earth before the Lamb
of God who takes away our sins was slain,
but with words plain and unambiguous,
that loving father, hidden, yet revealed
by his own smile, replied: (Par. XVII, 31-36)

In revealing Dante's destiny, Cacciaguida does not cloak it in vague and mysterious metaphors, but speaks plainly, as Christ did. The implication is that language is essentially a good thing, used to convey truth, but that the enemies of God twist it to suit their sinister purposes.

[Cacciaguida to Dante]: …"A conscience that is dark –
either through its or through another's shame –
indeed will find that what you speak is harsh.
Nevertheless, all falsehood set aside,
let all that you have seen be manifest,
and let them scratch wherever it may itch.
For if, at the first taste, your words molest,
they will, when they have been digested, end
as living nourishment. As does the wind,
so shall your outcry do – the wind that sends
its roughest blows against the highest peaks;
that is no little cause for claiming honor." (Par. XVII, 124-135)

Interestingly, language is compared to food. Initially, Dante's words will be a hard pill to swallow and perhaps difficult to his listeners. After giving the words some thought, though, people will realize how true – if harsh – Dante's words are. They will then become "living nourishment." The comparison of words to food suggests that language is as essential to human life as food is.

O godly Pegesea, you who give
to genius glory and long life, as it,
through you, gives these to kingdoms and to cities,
give me your light that I may emphasize
these signs as I inscribed them in my mind: your
power – may it appear in these brief lines!
Those blessed spirits took the shape of five
times seven vowels and consonants, and I
noted the parts as they were spelled for me.
and noun that first appeared in that depiction:
QUI IUDICATIS TERRAM followed after.
Then, having formed the M of the fifth word,
those spirits kept their order; Jupiter's
silver, at that point, seemed embossed with gold. (Par. XVIII, 82-96)

The Latin words that the souls on Jupiter spell out (Diligite iustitiam, qui iudicatis terram) translate as "Love justice, you who judge the earth." This line is a reflection of Jupiter's reputation as a planet. Ancients believed that Jupiter (the Roman version of the Greek god Zeus) was the king of heaven, and thus the distributor of justice. This literal spelling out of justice is a foreshadowing of the souls Dante will meet here, all of whom are kings and rulers renowned for their just reigns. The fact that the spirits actually spell out their belief is a nod to the "letter of the law" – a stance that advocates interpreting the Bible strictly and literally, instead of loosely (which would adhere to the "spirit of the law" stance). Before seeing these letters spelled out, Dante invokes "godly Pegesea" – who are the Muses – to help him try to remember this incredible sight.

And what I now must tell has never been
Reported by a voice, inscribed by ink,
Never conceived by the imagination… (Par. XIX, 7-9)

Like many of the sights he sees in Paradise, what Dante sees here (the Eagle made of souls) is too complex and divine to be "reported by a voice" or "inscribed by ink." In other words, it is beyond the scope of language to describe such a sight. This is because the Eagle is too holy to even be "conceived by the imagination."

If all the tongues that Polyhymnia
together with her sisters made most rich
with sweetest milk, should come now to assist
my singing of the holy smile that lit
the holy face of Beatrice, the truth
would not be reached – not its one-thousandth part.
And thus, in representing Paradise,
the sacred poem has to leap across,
as does a man who finds his path cut off. (Par. XXIII, 55-63)

Dante not only makes the point that the beauty of Beatrice's smile cannot be expressed in human language, but that it cannot be captured by the divine language of the Greek Muses (of whom Polyhymnia is one), either. Here is a subtle jab at the superiority of Christianity over Classicism.

and that flame whirled three times round Beatrice
while singing so divine a song that my
imagination cannot shape it for me.
My pen leaps over it; I do not write:
our fantasy and, all the more so, speech
are far too gross for painting folds so deep. (Par. XXIV, 22-27)

Again, the sights of Paradise (here the dance of spirits around Beatrice) cannot be expressed in language. But, the reference to the shining souls as "folds" to be "painted" suggests that even the vision itself is too complex an experience for mortal eyes.

[Adam]: "The tongue I spoke was all extinct before
the men of Nimrod set their minds upon
the unaccomplishable task; for never
has any thing produced by human reason
been everlasting – following the heavens,
men seek the new, they shift their predilections.
That man should speak at all is nature's act,
but how you speak – in this tongue or in that –
she leaves to you and to your preference." (Par. XXVI, 124-132)

Adam's bitter rant against language targets language's diversity, which he sees as inconstancy. The only "good" language, in his mind, is "the tongue I spoke…before the men of Nimrod" in the Bible. Adam's language is the only language spoken by all men on earth. It is universal. After Nimrod's tower of Babel, God punishes man by confusing his language so that people can no longer understand each other (by making different languages). This is why Adam sees "any thing produced by human reason" as never "everlasting." This quietly points at the style of Dante's poetry, constantly punning and playing with meaning in similes and metaphors so that the meaning of his words are never stable. This, of course, brings up the question of whether poetry is a divinely sanctioned art.

[St. Peter to Dante]: "and you my son, who through your mortal weight
will yet return below, speak plainly there,
and do not hide that which I do not hide." (Par. XXVII, 64-66)

St. Peter reminds Dante of the poetic mission that Beatrice gave him in Purgatorio – to return to earth and tell the truth. Here, Dante seems to prefer true and simple language over fancy or metaphorical language.

[Beatrice]: "Christ did not say to his first company:
'Go, and preach idle stories to the world';
but he gave them the teaching that is truth,
and truth alone was sounded when they spoke;
and thus, to battle to enkindle faith,
the Gospels served them as both shield and lance.
But now men go to preach with jests and jeers,
and just as long as they can raise a laugh,
the cowl puffs up, and nothing more is asked." (Par. XXIX, 109-117)

Truth in words, wielded here by Christ's followers, acts as weapons, "shield and lance" both to give Christians the firepower to convert others to the true faith ("enkindle faith") and to defend themselves against those who would defame their religion by speaking falsely about it. Those who speak falsely, in contrast, "puff up" only their "cowl" (or cloaks) which offers flimsy defense when compared to the Christians' "shield."

If that which has been said of her so far
were all contained within a single praise,
it would be much too scant to serve me now.
The loveliness I saw surpassed not only
our human measure – and I think that, surely,
only its Maker can enjoy it fully.
I yield: I am defeated at this passage
more than a comic or a tragic poet
has ever been by a barrier in his theme;
for like the sun that strikes the frailest eyes,
so does the memory of her sweet smile
deprive me of the use of my own mind.
From that first day when, in this life, I saw
her face, until I had vision
no thing ever cut the sequence of my song,
but now I must desist from this pursuit,
in verses, of her loveliness, just as
each artist who has reached his limit must. (Par. XXX, 16-33)

Beatrice's beauty is so great here that Dante surrenders completely and admits that he cannot hope to express it linguistically. This passage is remarkable for the totality of Dante's defeat; he has conceded before, but never so totally and at such length. It also suggests that when something is beyond Dante's ability to describe in words, silence is the most appropriate response. It is somewhat degrading to dumb down something which is beyond human conception just to put it in one's own words.

because my sight, becoming pure, was able
to penetrate the ray of Light more deeply –
that Light, sublime, which in Itself is true.
From that point on, what I could see was greater
than speech can show: at such a sight, it fails –
and memory fails when faced with such excess. (Par. XXXIII, 52-58)

Interestingly, here Dante's vision has become so perfected that he can see all the divinity of Paradise in its true beauty, but cannot commit it to memory. This lack of memory, not an imperfect vision, results in his inability to describe in his poetry what he has witnessed.

O Highest Light, You, raised so far above
the minds of mortals, to my memory
give back something of Your epiphany,
and make my tongue so powerful that I
may leave to people of the future one
gleam of the glory that is Yours, for by
returning somewhat to my memory
and echoing awhile within these lines,
Your victory will be more understood. (Par. XXXIII, 67-75)

Instead of invoking the Classical Muses, Dante ends his poem with an invocation to the Christian God. Because Dante understands the link between language and memory, he asks God for "one gleam of [His] glory…to my memory," so that he can better fulfill his poetic mission when back on Earth. Of course, under normal circumstances, mortals could not possibly remember the face of God, but Dante hopes that God will make an exception in his case because his goal is well-intentioned. Since Dante describes to us his vision of the Holy Trinity (the three circles) in his last canto, we are to understand that God does indeed allow him to remember.