Self-Reflexion and Lyricism in the Paradiso

The fundamental logical structure pervading Dante’s poem, and indeed structuring poetry as such, is self-reflection. Its epitome is lyrical language. The language of lyric actualizes itself as a movement of reflection that entails repetition or return to the self and the same at the levels of sound and formal structure, as well as of meaning or symbolic content. From the most basic constitution of its prosody, including its rhymes and rhythms, poetry consists in enactments of self-reflection. The same verbal elements—phonic, graphic, syntactic, grammatical, and rhetorical— repeat themselves. A self-reflexive logic and dynamic govern the composition of the verse, as well as the patterns of the imagery, the models of narration, and the thematic motives and topoi, whether theological, political, or personal. This concentrated self-reflectiveness is characteristic of lyrical poetry in general, but it is especially characteristic of the poetry of the Paradiso, where such reflexivity becomes superlatively intense and revealing. The Paradiso's saturation with effects of self-reflexion makes it only the more manifestly a quintessence of lyric. Dante’s poem of Paradise incarnates the self-reflexivity of language in the formal features and sensuous body of song. What is more, these characteristics take on peculiar, even absolute, metaphysical significance in the theological light shed by the Paradiso.

The theological arguments and narrative scenarios of the poem turn on figures of self-reflection that transparently reflect the repetitive structures of its lyrical language. The self-reflexive being or “glory” of the Trinitarian divinity of Christianity is thematized in the metaphysical argument of the Paradiso from its very first tercet and, in some sense, at least formally, in every rhyming tercet thereafter. God’s oneness is prismatically refracted throughout the diverse multiplicity of the universe (“in una parte più e meno altrove,” 1.3), and this outward-directed emanating into Creation as its reflection only repeats the Godhead’s own internally self-reflective nature. This same reflexive structure is drammatically projected on an epic scale in the narrative trajectory of return that brings the pilgrim back home to his origin in God and thereby restores his true, original image of himself in the ultimately imageless divine nature.

Most movingly of all, the poetic logic of self-reflection is consummated in a theological apotheosis of lyrical language in the poetry of the Paradiso. Theological meaning and poetic form coalesce in the structures of self-reflexivity that will be highlighted throughout the following philosophical-critical reflections. The two—theological meaning and poetic form—show up as intertwined aspects of language stripped to its lyrical essence. The self-reflective linguistic structures themselves reflect features of reality as illuminated in its deepest sources by poetic thinking and (negative-) theological reflection.

Of course, lyric as a mode can occur in any genre of literature. Certainly, in narrative poems and even in the prose of novels and essays, as well as in the elevated speech of oratory, there are often passages that are eminently “lyrical.” These passages are consistently found where certain types of repetition in language occur in greatest concentration. Alliteration, assonance, and anaphora, as well as characteristic traits of poetry such as rhythm and rhyme, lend language its lyricism. Such symmetries and self-reflective mirrorings of sound create a kind of formal music. The etymological sense of the term “lyrical”—as enshrined in the image of the lyre, lyricus in Latin, from XvpiKoc; in Greek—is rooted in music. In common usage, accordingly, the term “lyrical” refers especially to musicality that is immediately expressive or reflective of heightened emotion—and perhaps also of sharpened perception and inwardly deepened or enhanced cognition of the real.

Not only is this lyrical quality of language not limited to any specific literary genre: Dante’s poem, as signaled by its own self-designation as “comedia” (Inferno XVI.128; XXI.2), is itself already a mixture of genres, as explained in the Letter to Can Grande (Epistolae XIII.x.28-32). The poem is lyrical or singing from its very first verses in terza rima and all throughout. In the Paradiso, the lyricism of Dante’s epic and prophetic poem, the Commedia, intensifies, just as its narrative and dramatic features, in certain respects, attenuate. Arguably, these latter, more discursive genres of poetry tend to be subsumed under the lyrical mode in Dante’s culminating realization of the richest and purest strains—or, at any rate, the highest flight—of his poetic creativity in the Paradiso. Admittedly, the lyricism is thoroughly mingled with didactic discourse in versified prose. This adulteration of the lyrical becomes obtrusive early on with Beatrice’s formidable disquisition on moon spots in the second canto. However, a major ambition of the poem is to unveil the intrinsic beauty of truth and, conversely, disclose truth as the soul of beauty. Nothing is more deliciously lyrical than truth such as Dante tastes and savors it in Paradise.

Dante harps insistently on the complete coalescence of beauty and truth from the outset of the canticle. He invokes Apollo as his muse and declares his need for both peaks of Parnassus (1.13-36) because paradisiacal poetry trades no longer just in beautiful myths and images but is now explicitly a poetry of doctrinal truth and science. Even the dry,

Self-Reflexion, Lyricism in Paradiso 5 scientific discourse on moon spots in Canto II discloses “beautiful truth” (“la bella verita”) to Dante and is delivered by a Beatrice figured as “that sun that first warmed my breast to love” (“Quel sol che pria d’amor mi scaldó ’1 petto,” III. 1-2). In Paradise, these ostensibly disparate registers of beauty and truth acquire their full resonance and radiance in and through one another. Assisted by this argumentative, discursive foil, Dante’s most concentratedly lyrical and self-reflexive language presses up against the limit of sense-making, as language voids or at least brackets its normal informational content in becoming pure music. Linguistic sense and science are distilled and sublated into lyrical rapture. Music, in turn, considered as absolute, borders on silence in evoking the ineffable. Lyric consumes itself finally in an experience of becoming one with the divine that transumes and surpasses all human forms of articulation and expression.

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