17.01.09, Kay, Dante's Lyric Redemption

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Jelena Todorović

The Medieval Review 17.01.09

Kay, Tristan. Dante's Lyric Redemption: Eros, Salvation, Vernacular Tradition. Oxford Modern Languages and Literature Monographs Series. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. pp. 288. ISBN: 978-0-19-875396-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Jelena Todorovic
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Dante's Lyric Redemption: Eros, Salvation, Vernacular Tradition approaches in a new and original way the question of Dante's return to Beatrice in his magnum opus, suggesting that, unlike his predecessors such as Guittone, Arnaut, and Folco, Dante never truly abandons the love lyric of his youth, but rather builds on it, integrates it into his texts, and eventually transforms it into what Kay defines the "lyric redemption" in the Commedia.

Part I, "Dante's Poetics of Integration," consists of two chapters. The first chapter, "Love, Authority, and Vernacular Poetry" examines three tensions present in Dante's minor works: eros and spirituality; authority and subjectivity; and, finally, Latin and vernacular. The chapter opens with a detailed history of the idea of love and desire in the Western tradition, paying particular attention to the meaning of desire in different traditions: from signifying something that is lost permanently in the classical traditions, to something that is temporarily lacking in the Christian world, which can be justified only in the event that its object is divine. Hence, desire related to earthly love, and, with it, secular love lyric that rested upon it, could not be legitimized. This claim provides a backdrop against which Kay then interprets Dante's treatment of desire and earthly love as an alignment of spiritual and earthly elements in the Vita Nova and, in contrast, as a contextualization of eros within the realm of moral rectitude in the Convivio. Furthermore, this chapter deals with the question of compatibility of vernacular lyric and the notion of auctoritas, emphasizing the importance of Vita Nova XXV [16] in Dante's reconciling the ancient with modern literature through the discussion of appropriate subject matter for poetry. Moreover, Kay stresses the importance of the vernacular for Dante's expression of subjectivity: being a "natural" language which is introduced without intermediaries (unlike Latin--grammar learned in school, removed from the immediate context in which one lives), vernacular is the more appropriate means for expressing subjective truths because it ultimately derives from them.

The second chapter, "Dante's Commedia Between Dualism and Integration," arrives at the Commedia's treatment of the same concepts and tensions by paying a special attention to its relationship to the poet's earlier love lyric. In claiming that in the poema sacro Dante does not reject love poetry and, hence, Beatrice--an earthly woman at its center--, this chapter seeks to establish points of contact between and of integration of the concepts of earthly love as it emanates from love lyric on the one hand, and philosophical and theological postulates characteristic of the Commedia on the other. From the divine ordination of Dante's journey in Inferno II, to Francesca's "ambiguous" speech in Inferno V, to the discussion of desire in Purgatorio XVII and XVIII, to the treatment of desire and the warm recollection of the antico amor in Purgatorio XXX, to the ways in which the Paradiso "continually foregrounds Beatrice's humanity and embodied beauty" (80), Kay examines parts of the Commedia which suggest Dante's multifaceted treatment and ultimate reconciliation of theological and secular concepts and contexts. Kay thus argues that Dante never abandons his "erotic commitment" to Beatrice (88), but rather that love for Beatrice as an earthly lady and love for God are uniquely harmonized and aligned within Dante's "poetics of integration" (89).

Part II, "Negotiating Precursors," is divided into three chapters. It draws parallels and defines differences between Dante and three of his literary precursors who, instead of reconciling love poetry with moral imperatives, at certain points in their literary careers renounced their youthful writings and rejected love poetry altogether.

The third chapter, "Guittone d'Arezzo," deals with the Aretine poet and with Dante's relationship with his poetry--from his lyric canzoniere to the moral poems. In examining Guittone's eighty-eight love poems on the one hand and Dante's Vita Nova on the other, in the first section of the chapter Kay focuses on the two poets' resolution of the impasse. In other words, he studies the ways in which Guittone overcomes the fact that he had been enfingitore, and the ways in which Dante surpasses the crisis caused by Beatrice's denial to grace him with her salutation. But while Guittone's solution is a complete change of discourse and redefinition of courtly love as lust, Dante gives new significance to love poetry through the new praise style and, subsequently, he overcomes the seemingly definitive impasse of Beatrice's death by ascribing to her salvific function of what Vittore Branca had dubbed speculum Christi. The second part of this chapter deals with Fra Guittone's poetry which rests on the complete negation of and opposition to love poetry and, on the other hand, shows how in Dante's moral canzoni--especially in Doglia mi reca--the Florentine poet seeks virtue "in order to espouse love" (150).

The fourth chapter, "Arnaut Daniel," unveils Dante's admiration both for Arnaut's formal innovation and for its interconnectedness with the subject matter of erotic experience he treats. Through an analysis of Dante's rime petrose Kay traces Arnaut's influence on the Florentine both in style and content, and, above all, in the relationship between poetry and love. Moreover, Kay shows how in emulating his source on the one hand, Dante constantly innovates and creates new poetics and aesthetics on the other. An important part of this chapter consists in a re-examination of Arnaut's so-called trobar clus, which leads Kay to conclude that such a definition of the troubadour's style is lacking in substance and is not supported by his poetry. The third, and last part of this chapter delves into a close reading of Purgatorio XXVI and into Dante's characterization of Arnaut as miglior fabbro del parlar materno. This definition is due, claims Kay, to Dante's aspiration towards finding an ideal lyric praxis "that fuses language, desire, and selfhood" (204)--praxis that he finds in Arnaut's poetry.

The fifth and the final chapter, "Folco of Marseilles," analyzes the place in Dante's oeuvre occupied by the only vernacular poet encountered in Paradiso. Folco, like Guittone, abandoned love poetry and turned to Christian faith (indeed, he later became a bishop) and moral poetry. Like in the case of Guittone and Arnaut, for Folco love poetry and good morals were incompatible; fol(l)or of the courtly love and valor could not coexist. They were mutually exclusive. For Dante, however, this was not the case: Kay shows how the Florentine implies in Purgatorio XXIV that his inspiration comes from love, which validates his poetry and his authority. The poet integrates love for earthly Beatrice and his Christian values, erotic and spiritual desires, "to become a fully-fledged Christian auctor in whom epic and lyric discourses are harmonized and their latent potential fulfilled" (235).

In sum, Dante's Lyric Redemption poses important questions as it redefines the debate about the relationship between eros and spirituality in Dante's oeuvre, and especially in the Commedia, where the tensions between the two concepts are higher than in any other of his works. Kay does not accept the binary interpretation that draws a rigid line between earthly love (which, of course, is different from lust) and theology--and, hence, between Dante's so-called minor works and the Commedia--, but rather renegotiates them through a careful tracing of the elements in Dante's texts which speak to his indebtedness to his precursors, and which reveal the Florentine's greater independence from them achieved through his establishing himself as a vernacular authority who resolves the old questions in new ways. Dante's Lyric Redemption is a testament to Dante's endless experimentalism through fusion of multiple seemingly mutually exclusive traditions through a careful manipulation of his sources and through novel approaches and re-interpretations of his own early works, now seen in a new key of Christian values. Unlike his forebears, Dante consciously embraces his past works, and builds upon that foundation a magnum opus which seamlessly integrates and reconciles what seemingly could not be integrated and reconciled, and which will remain an unicum in the Italian literary history.

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