Lyrical Self-Reflexiveness as Foretaste of Paradise

Lyric transcends the constraints of ordinary and fallen time by creating a time of its own—in effect, by recreating (or repeating) the time of Creation. Dante suggests this even at the very outset of the Commedia, where he aligns the time of his poetic journey with the time “when the divine love first moved those beautiful things” (“quando 1’amor divino / mosse di prima quelle cose belle,” Inferno 1.39-40). Creation is cosmic and poetic at the same time. This conjunction is rendered in miniature also in the lyric image of the mother bird with which Paradiso XXIII begins. She awaits the dawn with ardent affection—in effect, anticipating the origin of time, before (or beyond) all time, by her fixed concentration. She enacts a transcending of time by becoming conscious of time so intensely as to accede to consciousness of that which in a manner precedes time and founds it—namely, eternity. Her projection from desire “prevents,” or etymologically “comes before,” time (“previene il tempo”).


Giorgio Agamben, La chiesa e il regno (Rome: Nottetempo, 2010), trans. Leland de la Durantaye as The Church and the Kingdom (Calcutta: Seagull, 2012), offers a contemporary reflection on these classical Christian motifs, which are expounded by Oscar Cullmann, Christus und die Zeit: Die urchristliche Zeit- und Geschichtsauffassung (Zurich: Evangelischer Verlag, 1946), trans. Floyd V. Filson as Christ and Time: The Primitive Christian Conception of Time and History (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1964). In Part III, we will examine how Agamben grafts this time of eschatological anticipation on to the time of the poem. The mutual implication of theology and secular, self-reflexive thought in orienting us beyond present time to the transcendent is subtly demonstrated by Ingolf U. Dalferth, Transzendenz und säkulare Welt: Lebensorientierung an lezter Gegenwart (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015).

Her silent vigil takes place in and as a disclosure “on the open branch” (“in su 1’aperta frasca”) over against “the night which hides things from us” (“la notte che le cose ci nasconde”). This ontological language of disclosure of things picks up the hint of the skylark simile, where lyric rapture empowers everything “to become what it is.” The potential inherent in such ontological language in Western tradition is brought powerfully to the fore by Heidegger’s exegesis of the Greek sources in which “truth” as disclosure is elucidated by the sense of a-letheia as “coming out of hiding.”[1]

For the poet, this disclosedness in the moment before speech gathers all in the opening of language. This opening is as yet unexpressed, or still unarticulated. Perched at the opening of daybreak and of the disclosure of things in their pristine, paradisiacal truth, the mother bird profiles Dante’s own attitude as a waiting to be fed by the disclosures of Beatrice. This structural homology can be extended one step further to Dante’s function as poet feeding his readers. Language is present here negatively as the moment before speech, or as the moment that prepares for nurturing infants—literally in-fans, those who are as yet “without speech.”

The mother bird’s vigilance is exercised in the interest of being able to feed her nestlings—a feeding which, figuratively, mixes with the making of poetry, as again in the “sweetest and richest” maternal “milk” of the Muses a few lines later (“latte lor dolcissimo piii pingue,” ХХШ.57). Still later in the canto, Dante figures himself as like a baby (“fantolin”) whose “speech” is simply to stretch out its arms toward the mother who feeds it (XXIII.121-23).

Gary Cestaro has demonstrated how the maternal, nurturing breast figures as a fundamental motif in the poem and throughout Dante’s oeuvre as a whole. The maternal breast is an image for the source of love and nourishment, and through the figures of the mother-bird and the songbird this nourishment motif is also connected specifically with the lyric and with self-reflexivity as the generating source or matrix—a kind of mother of all things. Closely connected with the self-reflexivity of song and its creative power to open time and disclose beings in their truth and wholeness is the ability to create substance, a power that belongs to divinity alone. This power, however, can be imitated and repeated at an intellectual level by the human, creative, poetic spirit, and it is imaged in the animal world by mother love.

The suspense of desire in which the mother bird abides is a state of vigilance without anxiousness, a satisfied waiting. The subtext about feeding with poetry, or with lyrical language, is worked into the

vocabulary of the description: “and to find food with which to feed them” (“e per trovar lo cibo onde li pasca”), as already suggested, might evoke the poetry-making or the “trobar” (“to find”) of the Troubadours. The naturally ardent affectivity in the keen vigil of the bird awaiting the sun evokes allegorically the contemplation of God. In a longstanding Platonic tradition—rehearsed in Convivio III.xii.7—the sun represents the supreme principle of the Good and therewith the source of all being.

The image here is of a desire that is satisfied by its own activity of waiting. The bird-like Beatrice, for whose comportment the bird’s attitude is a simile, is delightfully in suspense (“sospesa e vaga”), and so is Dante. As he looks at her, she makes him like one who is filled, even /«/filled, just by the hope of fulfillment, as we can now more deeply appreciate in these previously registered verses:

si che, veggendola io sospesa e vaga, fecimi qual e quei che disiando altro vorria, e sperando s’appaga.

  • (XXIII.12-15)
  • (so that, seeing her suspended and in delight,

I made myself like one who in desiring

longs for more, and in hoping finds fulfillment.)

Through the stretching out in time of the mother bird’s waiting for dawn, Dante describes the synthesis and the “staying” of time, or its contraction, through which it becomes something lasting and therewith a prescient image of eternity. He describes a hungering for something other (“altro vorria”) that is at the same time a being filled by desire itself, just as he, among the delicacies offered him in the heaven (“quelle dape,” 43), actually has the experience of transcending himself—of being larger than he otherwise would be and of exiting from himself:

la mente mia cosi, tra quelle dape

fatta piii grande, di se stessa uscio ....

  • (XXIII.43—44)
  • (my mind thus among those delicacies made larger, exited from itself ... .)

The desire that expresses itself self-reflexively in poetry feeds on itself. Its very waiting becomes its own fulfillment, for, as desiring incarnate in language, it is fulfilled in the very language that expresses this desire. Poetic making has this creative power to project a structure of waiting and desiring that satisfies in and of itself—self-reflexively. This simile

The Mother Bird’s Vigil 77 enacts in miniature what Dante’s whole paradoxical poem of the ineffable is doing on an epic scale.

This mode of generative and self-fulfilling self-reflection began to be highlighted in the Earthly Paradise at the height of the Purgatorio. When Dante looks into Beatrice’s eyes and sees reflected there the gryphon’s (and Christ’s) two natures, this “idolo” satisfies his soul even in making it thirst always for more (“saziando di se, di se asseta,” Purgatorio XXXI. 129). This divine reflection of the human ideal draws the self endlessly beyond itself (as in Gregory of Nyssa’s epektasis), thereby redeeming the idolatry inherent in self-love.

In fact, “desire which anticipates” is a good description of Dante’s Paradiso as a whole in its attempt to give a foretaste of heaven. The traditional threefold division of poetic genres into epic, drama, and lyric mirrors the division of time into the three tenses: past (epic), present (drama), and future (lyric). Although lyric has often been associated with nostalgic, typically melancholic rememoration of the past, Dante teaches us to appreciate lyric equally as future-oriented, as an anticipation of Paradise. Its sense as a genre is captured best as the foretaste of what we desire to enjoy unendingly—beyond our present in the time that consumes us.

  • [1] Martin Heidegger, “On the Essence of Truth” (Vom Wesen der Wahrheit, 1930). See further section 58. 2 Gary P. Cestaro, Dante and the Grammar of the Nursing Body (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003).
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