Originally Dante belonged to an Italian literary movement that he called the dolce stil nuovo. It was a movement that, with a swiftness of growth unparalleled in literary history, conjured perfection out of a void. The flowering of medieval verse during the first quarter of the second millennium in France, Germany, and Spain had passed Italy by. Apart from several belated and insignificant imitative texts, there was neither an Italian national epic nor a courtly novel nor a love-poem tradition. It was not until the thirteenth century that the unique form of vernacular religious poetry known as laudes emerged in central Italy in connection with the Franciscans. The aristocratic love poetry of the stil nuovo emerged only in the second half of the thirteenth century as well. As a young man, Dante composed verse that belonged to this school, and it was also in this context that he undertook the Divine Comedy. The stil nuovo, which is a version of Minnesang, had its origins in Provençal lyric and especially in the work of its late practitioners. Unlike their predecessors, whose verse was relatively naïve and characterized by a refreshing modesty, these Italian poets preferred the complexity of conflicting emotions and a language heavy with images both esoteric and obscure. The poetry of the Italian stil nuovo is also obscure, but less capricious; its systematic tendencies place it in closer proximity to the contemporary philosophy of Scholasticism. Nevertheless, most of its poems, and especially those that seem the most beautiful, are so difficult to understand that some scholars have resorted to the idea that they must represent some kind of secret code that, while ultimately decipherable, made it possible to keep dangerous ideas hidden from the ecclesiastical and political authorities.
Dante’s early poetry is equally difficult to understand. Even the handful of the most famous poems that almost everyone knows and that can be understood purely intuitively are less easy to interpret when compared with others that appear to express something quite similar, but in a highly idiosyncratic fashion. From the very beginning, Dante nevertheless differentiated himself fairly strongly from his companions. Like them, he may well have intended for his poems to have an allegorical meaning, or even several kinds of allegorical meaning in addition to their literal one. But in his case, the literal meaning or idea is not neglected in as absurd a way as it is by his peers. Rather, in almost every case the literal meaning yields a poetic idea; whatever lies concealed in the literal is less hidden there on some rational basis than it is entirely immanent in it. As a result, once we have understood the literal sense, we have understood its meaning too. Indeed, as soon as one reads, one understands, before—and even in the absence of—any detailed interpretation.
Herein lies the poetic power of Dante’s genius. For I do not want to be misunderstood as suggesting that we have Vergil’s influence rather than Dante’s inborn gift to thank for it. His astonishing natural talent, far superior to anything possessed by any of his contemporaries, is visible in Dante’s ability to absorb all the intellectual goods from the past that are at his disposal and to deploy them where he needs them. Antiquity meant nothing either to the other poets of the “sweet style” or to the scholars of the period, for whom the ancients were little more than bookish resources to which clear access was in any case blocked by faulty textual transmission. This was initially also the case for Dante; he was determined to become a scholar and pursued this goal with much more distinction and more systematically than his contemporaries. His erudition in fact displays all the distinguishing marks of the educational system of his time: the reception of tradition in whatever obscure and haphazard forms it was available and with no attempt to verify its authenticity or merit; an inability to understand either the beliefs of the ancients or their historical context; and the medieval allegorical method, applied to each and every text. Yet, the ancients—and especially Vergil—were also something else, something more, for Dante, something that resembled a theory of art. Of all his contemporaries, he alone regarded the ancients in this way. His relentless reading and rereading of Vergil led to a true reawakening of the Roman poet’s voice in Dante’s soul—a soul unique in its sensitivity to language and to verse—for the first time in ages, to the point that it became impossible for Dante to write poetry without hearing this voice.
Vergil’s voice gave Dante something that the dolce stil nuovo lacked but that he greatly needed: simplicity…
(translated by Jane O. Newman)
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Generations of students of literature have been turning to Erich Auerbach’s landmark book, Mimesis, for an immersion in what is now somewhat wistfully remembered humanist criticism. Recently, for the first time, Princeton University Press has assembled and translated into English a number of Auerbach’s essays, spanning his early career in the German university system, his flight from the Nazis to Istanbul, and his subsequent academic career in the US. They include this one, “Vergil and Dante,” from 1931. To read them is to discover afresh his capacious mind and to remember the impulse, so palpable in his work, to harness scholarship to the plumbing of human experience.
Erich Auerbach (1892–1957) was a philologist and literary critic. After arriving in the United States in 1947 he spent most of his career at Yale. He is the author of Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, Dante: Poet of the Secular World, and Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.
Excerpted from Time, History, and Literature: Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach, edited and with an introduction by James I. Porter and translated by Jane O. Newman. Copyright © 2014 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission