The mind really can shape new worlds
In Canto XIX of Purgatory expressed the choice between the open-ended quest and the foreclosure of the siren.
The siren reduced men to the Socratic consciousness of bronze and slavery to sense perception. John Dunn on song. To hear her song was to abandon the power of the mind and the imagination and enter a living death.
Dante explained further by presenting poetic composition as an allegory for life. Once more, the choice of foreclosure or quest was offered. A poet who rejected the siren choice in favour of moving forward was Statius.
He was a disciple of Virgil, but influenced in ways that the author of the Aeneid could never know.
‘You first sent me towards Parnassus, to drink in its caverns, and then lit me on towards God. You did what he does who travels by night, and carries a lamp behind him, that does not help him, but makes those who follow him, wise’
Though Virgil was a pagan, the light of his words led Statius to a new poetry, a response that was not merely imitative.
‘I was a poet, through you, a Christian, through you’ said Statius.
When Statius first appeared in Canto XXI he said: ‘The sparks that warmed me, from the divine flame, which has kindled more than a thousand fires, were the seeds of my poetic ardour.’
Something more than the merely external stimulus of sense perception made the work of Statius theologically superior to Virgil’s. He was moved to a higher order of poetry, beyond the work of his literary hero, by the sparks of the divine. Something more than imitative verse emerged because of the inherent power of mind, the power of the imagination.
To have merely imitated Virgil would have been tantamount to embracing the siren’s song. Free from the solicitations of the outside world, the power of mind moved Statius to a new intellectual plane, beyond a consciousness of bronze, to silver and gold. Statius served his purgatorial term and entered paradise. Virgil remained where he was.
Derived from Virgil, but not bound by the limitations of Virgil. Derived from the world, but not bound by the limitations of the world. Symbolically, the stage was set
for Dante’s own poetic progenitors.
Bonagiunta Orbicciani in Canto XXIV, a composer of courtly love poetry, was one such encounter. Love too inspired Dante, but he distinguished himself from Bonagiunta by writing ‘in the way he dictates within.‘ In the Monarchia, Dante had described God as the only dictator. He connected internal inspiration with the divine.
With the perspective gained in Purgatory, Bonagiunta could see that he and other poets (he names Jacopo d Lentino and Fra Guittone) were stuck fast in courtly convention. Their work was wholly derivative. ‘ I see, now, the knot that held us back’ he said.
The poetry that Bonagiunta represented was one concentrated on worldly beauties and qualities. After all, Dante had included this episode in a Canto on gluttony and excess.
The ‘knot’ which bound Bonagiunta and the rest was a result of the siren call to foreclosure. Their poetry failed to move onward or upward. Dante left them behind, detaching himself from their lack of moral purpose.
Canto XV is a connecting canto in which Dante drew parallels between divine inspiration, poetic creation and the creation of the soul.
Dante chose Statius, a symbol of one who broke free from past influences, to give voice to his own thoughts. Statius describes the development of the human body from the moment of conception, which has many similarities with the development of plants and other animals. What makes man special, each soul different, is that as soon as the brain is formed the First Mover turns to it and breathes a new spirit into it. Man is thus more than the mingled blood that has made him; something new is created. Statius explains that it is ‘just like the heat of the sun, which becomes wine when joined to the juice of the grape’.
From the emergence of something new out of conception, Dante turned in Canto XVI to his own poetic ‘forebears’. ‘I heard my father, and the father of others who are my betters, name himself, he, who always made use of the sweet and graceful rhymes of love.’ He meets Guido Guinicelli, like Bonagiunta, a poet of the courtly love tradition. Whilst Dante recognises his debt to a ‘father’, Guido addresses him as ‘brother’, in recognition of his individuality and originality. The paternal becomes a fraternal relationship. Dante is at once derivative and different.
Guido acknowledges another poetic forebear of Dante’s, Arnaut Daniel, as the ‘better craftsman’ of exquisitely crafted love poetry.
The exchange reinforces the kind of genealogy that Dante wanted to create for himself. Poetically, he was a child of these forebears, but with a new spirit he created something new. He broke free from the courtly conventions with poetry of a higher purpose, theologically, philosophically and politically; yet with an echo of the convention in his love for Beatrice.
This coming into his own is symbolised by the rereat of Guido and Arnaut into the fires of purgatory.
‘Then, perhaps in order to give way, to another following closely, Guido vanished through the fire, like a fish diving, through water, to the depths.’
Arnaut too ‘hid himself in the refining fire’.
Guido and Arnaut give way, allowing Dante to progress.
Thus Canto XVI is explained by the theme of the preceeding Canto, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Dante’s individuality grows out of stylistic artifice to form a new kind of poetic voice that’s imbibed with the divine and guided with levels of meaning beyond those of courtly love.
Dante’s love led him elsewhere. Love poetry took on a new meaning. Guido and Arnaut understand this difference with the perspective that purgatory has given them. Theirs is a purgation of the worldliness of love poetry, whereas Dante’s poetry, whilst derived from the world, was never bound by the limitations of the world.
But these Cantos were not about poetry alone, which was but a symbol for the power of mind. If Dante’s poetry was not imitative, then neither must the imagination be limited to the regurgitation of the sensory images it receives.
Dante’s bold statement against the Aristotelian order was that imagination is not bound by the limitations of the world any more than poetry. The mind really can shape new worlds.
© John Dunn.