03.12.18, Robey, Sound and Structure in the Divine Comedy

Main Article Content

Dr Catherine Keen

The Medieval Review baj9928.0312.018


Robey, David. Sound and Structure in the Divine Comedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Pp. i, 204. ISBN: 0-198-18498-0.

Reviewed by:
Dr Catherine Keen
University of Leeds

In this book, David Robey sets out to construct a systematic description and analysis of the sounds of Dante's Commedia, investigating their overall distribution within the text. Robey has long been involved with the development of electronic resources for textual analysis, and this study exploits electronic tools to pursue its analysis of metrical and phonological aspects of the poem. The computer-based methodology permits examination of numerous large sections of text in detail, allowing Robey to extend his investigation over a wide range of passages from Dante, and to make comparative analysis not only between the Commedia's three cantiche, but also between the Commediaand Dante's lyric verse (and even prose), and between the Commediaand later Medieval and Renaissance lyric and narrative verse by Petrarch, Boccaccio, Tasso, Ariosto, and others. Chapters four and five further include consideration of the Fiore, casting interesting light onto the sound features of a text whose attribution to Dante remains a subject of critical debate, whilst remaining chary of any suggestion that computer analysis may be able to resolve the question of authorship.

The thrust of Robey's comparative, computer-based analysis is to try to identify how-- or indeed, whether-- sound features in Dante's great poem achieve particular functions or effects. Such questions have long been debated by interpreters of Dante: as Robey reminds us, even the earliest commentators showed interest in sound features of the Commedia; and during the twentieth century, structuralist critics in particular returned to the issue with some vigour. The opening chapter provides a succinct yet nuanced survey of the past century's attempts to deal with issues of sound and its structural function in Dante. Robey highlights the complexity of the issues covered, and warns with engaging modesty that it is frequently difficult to press the results of a computer analysis to a definitive conclusion. With generosity of spirit, the author looks forward to "future interpretations by others" (14) of aspects of the data he has amassed, presenting his book in an almost conversational mould as part of an ever-widening area of study.

In any such extension of discussion, this book is bound to remain a cornerstone of scholarship, not least thanks to its comprehensive presentation of the data accumulated through electronic analysis of the Commedia. Initially, indeed, the volume's sheer profusion of statistical material may appear daunting. The book is provided with 54 tables, some of considerable complexity and extending over several pages. The accompanying explanations, however, clearly demonstrate the function of each data-set, and allow the reader to follow step-by-step the progress of Robey's analysis. Ample sets of illustrative examples show how the individual stages of analysis apply to single lines or terzine from the Commedia, so keeping the significance of the overall objective-- the analysis of effects of sound within the poem-- firmly in sight. The reader may, however, lament the absence of indices from the volume: while the level of detail achieved in Robey's analyses might defeat the most patient of compilers, an index of proper names, at least, would enhance access to material relating to specific critical debates; while an index of key Dantean loci would allow cross-reference between the separate analyses of such sound-rich lines as Inferno V. 142 ("e caddi come corpo morto cade"), and help track discussions of overall trends.

Robey's main analytical chapters, chapters two to five, present a series of interlinked investigations that forbear from over-prescriptive conclusions, but which considerably enhance our understanding of the sound features of Dante's Commedia. These four chapters function as two sets of paired investigations, presenting conclusions resulting from two different phases of analysis: one based on an almost purely automatic phonological transcription of the text(s) by electronic means; the second working from a text where manual intervention-- and hence, necessarily, critical interpretation-- has distinguished accented and unaccented syllables.

Chapter two deals with alliteration and assonance, making extensive reference to twentieth-century debates that have questioned whether these achieve an expressive effect, or have a more purely autonomous, rhythmical function. Whilst noting the limitations of machine-based numerical analysis of the text, Robey is nonetheless able to generate quantitative evidence that to some extent favours the latter position. At the same time, his careful comparative analyses provide a salutary reminder of the limits of any conclusions based on numerical data alone. A series of comparisons examine alliteration both in the Commedia and in other narrative verse (Boccaccio, Ariosto, Tasso, and others), in lyric verse (Dante and Petrarch), and even in prose. It is prose that produces the highest numerical incidence of alliteration, and this not only in Dante's own Convivio and its close contemporary, Boccaccio's Decameron, but also in twentieth-century examples, Pirandello's Il fu Mattia Pascal and even the 1947 Costituzione della Repubblica Italiana. Robey is thus able to provide sound statistical support for the intuition that "it is complexity and not quantity that counts in the distinction between prose and poetry" (56)-- a conclusion that the remaining chapters do much to enhance. The discussion of rhyme in the relatively short but stimulating third chapter similarly brings greater numerical certainty to conclusions that have been indicated, to some extent, by previous non-electronic analyses of rhyme in the Commedia. Robey's research serves to highlight "the remarkable lexical prominence of the words in rhyming position" (64). Valuable insight into Dante's practice is obtained by the comparative analysis of rhyme in the Commedia with that of Dante's lyric verse, and by the inclusion of reflections on the poet's own discussion of rhyme, and of the qualities of suavitas versus asperitas, in the De vulgari eloquentia. In the Commedia itself, slight but significant variations in phonic features of rhyme between the cantiche are identified, which accord well, for instance, with Dante's own association of rime aspre with hell in Inferno XXXII. 1. The comparisons with other authors, moreover, confirm the exceptional variety of Dante's rhymes, stressing the compatibility of his theoretical interest in this aspect of verse with his inventiveness in practice, and stressing that rhyme is a particularly distinctive feature of the poet's style.

Chapters four and five move on to syllable and accent, using more interventionist means of analysis on the computer; Robey provides clear and convincing descriptions of his methodological choices at the start of each of these chapters. Chapter four includes extensive discussion of dialefe and sinalefe, dieresi and sinaresi, with some stimulating reflections on Giorgio Petrocchi's editorial decisions in his critical edition of the Commedia (Dante Alighieri, La Commedia secondo l'antica vulgata, Milan, Mondadori, 1966-67), with some suggested emendations. Despite occasional divergences from Petrocchi, Robey honours the primacy this edition has long held; he also provides some interesting comparative reflections on the respective merits of Petrocchi's edition and Antonio Lanza's recent, strongly Florentine edition (Dante Alighieri, La Commedia: nuovo testo critico secondo i piu antichi manoscritti fiorentini, ed. A. Lanza, Anzio: de Rubeis, 1995; pp. 115-117). It is to be hoped, a propos, that Robey will provide us, in future, with some reactions to the metrical and phonological aspects of Federico Sanguineti's much- awaited new critical edition, published since the appearance of this study (Dantis Alagherii Comedia, ed. F. Sanguineti, Florence: Galluzzo, 2001). As with his conclusions regarding alliteration, Robey's analysis of dialefe and sinalefe shows little evidence of their employment for expressive or representational effect, but accords them a "predominantly foregrounding or underscoring function" (123), possibly for aesthetic motives. Diaeresis too, while showing some slightly more marked expressive effects, works most strongly "as part of a system" (126), that is, alongside other emphatic stylistic features. An interesting pragmatic conclusion of the analysis is that dialefe and sinalefe, while measurable on the page, tend not to influence oral pronunciation: "it depends on the extent to which one allows metrical expectations to govern one's reading;" Robey concludes, "one can do so, but one doesn't have to" (121). Related to these last-mentioned considerations is the subject matter of the last analytical section of the book, chapter 5. In tackling the questions of accent, Robey acknowledges the problematic interplay of performance- related questions with more purely stylistic ones, the subjective oral element providing a challenge to electronic means of analysis. The chapter adds nuance to the earlier considerations of alliteration and assonance in chapter 2, by marking variety within this phonological feature; but broadly, even the refined analysis of this later section tends towards similar conclusions. Even taking accent into account, vowel sounds in themselves appear to carry little expressive function; but, once again, they prove to carry a far stronger impact in combination with other stylistic features. Dante's verse effects are achieved by complex means, Robey concludes: sound patterns alone are not always a distinctive feature, but "on occasion they can be major constituents of poetic effect" (164).

The book's final chapter moves away somewhat from the closely detailed analyses of the preceding four. There is a logical link with the opening chapter's contextual survey in its reflective, broad-ranging survey of Italian twentieth- century critical reception of and reactions to structuralist theory. The theoretical discussions outlined here provide an important context for the analytical chapters; the shift, however, from immersion in the fascinating minutiae of textual detail into the more general critical concerns of this final chapter, is perhaps a shade abrupt, and a more extended summation of the arguments of chapters two to five would have been useful. Quibbles aside, this concluding discussion of "Formalism, Structuralism and Semiotics in the Criticism of the Comedy" (pp. 166-96) is by no means the least valuable section of Robey's book. It provides an admirably lucid survey of the reception of, reactions to and development of these theories within the Italian academy in general, as well as within the more specific field of Dante studies. Robey offers some stimulating comparisons between the attitude to these and other theories in Italy, and in other parts of Europe and in North America, highlighting the mediated Italian reception of structuralism and semiotics in relation to other local traditions of criticism. He shows the experience to have displayed both strengths-- "comprehensiveness, balance, flexibility, and practical common sense" (185)-- and weaknesses: a loss, Robey argues of the "exciting and subversive aspects" (185) of these theories. The final pages, dedicated to a consideration of theoretical developments in current Dante criticism, provide a fascinating and timely snapshot of some important trends and debates at the turn of the millennium. Here perhaps we can detect another aspect of the engagingly generous and collaborative outlook of this fine monograph: in his account of scholarly trends, as in his presentation of numerical data, Robey provides an invaluable resource to future scholars, who will surely find the book sound and stimulating in both data and arguments. It would be no back- handed compliment to cast Robey as Virgil, shedding a light that "fa le persone dotte" onto the resonant but often- elusive subject of sound in the Commedia-- but no-one who turns to this lucidly-argued volume would dare suggest that its author himself "non giova" of a full, and generously-shared, understanding of his subject matter.

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Author Biography

Dr Catherine Keen

University of Leeds