Lyric Language as Spiritual Knowledge in its Sensual Immediacy—Orphic Echoes

Through its transgressiveness, lyric self-sensation and self-auscultation is also the means of connecting us with our most original and salvific sources. Lyric opens and reaches toward a dimension of transcendence by virtue of exceeding all merely human conventions. In premodern ages, poetry as a kind of musica humana aimed to imitate an antecedent musica mundana, or harmony of the universe.1 Crucial is that poetry attain to an actualization of a higher reality. The tradition of poetry as the highest and most original wisdom can be traced back from Romanticism through Italian humanism to classical models and their archaic sources. Boccaccio’s Genealogia deorum gentilium (c. 1360) contains a theological defense of poetry based on its status as delivering sublime spiritual truths clothed in mythical and metaphorical garb (Books XIV-XV). Poetry is all the more useful, on that account, for education of the common people. Poetry thereby emerges as an eminent instrument of self-reflection, one that Boccaccio unveils as enclosing and encoding true philosophy and theology.

The status of poetry as revelation of a higher truth was a topic very broadly and diffusely present in the Middle Ages.[1] Lyric language was conceived of as essentially theological at the traditionally projected “beginning” of poetic creation in Orpheus? Orpheus in ancient and medieval culture represents the ideal of a song that distills the profoundest wisdom into sensual sweetness, rendering the essence of intellectual vision into music. Pico della Mirandola, in his Oratio de hominis dignitate (1486), transmits traditions according to which Pythagoras—and thereby Plato and others in his following—would have derived his philosophy from the

Lyric Language as Spiritual Knowledge 305 songs of Orpheus. Jamblicus (c. 250—c. 330), in his Life of Pythagoras, Chapter XXVIII, 145, relates that Pythagoras based his philosophy on Orphic theology. Song makes everything—objective world and subjective thought and emotion—sensually present and harmonious as one. All are ultimately one in the love that is God. Hence the lyric’s most characteristic experience is sheer ecstasy in time-transcending “pleasure” (“etterno piacere,” Paradiso XX.77). And this plenum, or even infinity, of sensation is at the same time the highest human knowledge—the Orphic wisdom that lies at the origin of philosophy.

Dante’s knowledge in each heaven proves to be limited, and even this knowledge he is unable to express adequately. Only lyric exuberance makes good this lack. The lyric poetics of the Paradiso presuppose that this plenum is supremely pleasurable and that it can be obtained in language that exceeds and implodes semiotic structures in the direction of a non-representational immediacy resembling that of music. In outlining the peculiar status of the Paradiso as sign through and through, as a sign blocking reference to any other reality, John Freccero suggestively presents the poem as “a non-representation that is its own reality.”[2] Music is such a non-representational language, as Theodor Adorno argues in “Fragment über Musik und Sprache.” Similar notes were often struck by medieval theories conjugating music and poetry. Such theories advanced by Raimon Vidal (1196-1252), Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377), Eustache Deschamps (1346-1406), and others, resonate with Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia, given its definition of poetry as a “rhetorical fiction made with music” (“fictio rethorica musicaque poita,” II.iv.2).

Later poetry will sometimes understand itself as a hermeneutic in search of this secret mystery of original poetic rapture. The numerous modern attempts to recover poetry as a higher, natural/supernatural knowledge, notably among English and German Romantics, are “Orphic” in this broad sense. In France, Rimbaud invokes this Orphic source for his own poetic quest by means of a verbal alchemy. And Mallarmé evokes the “Orphic explanation of the Earth” as the “only duty of the poet and the literary game par excellence” (“l’explication orphique de la Terre, qui est le seul devoir du poète et le jeu littéraire par excellence”). Surrealist poetry extends his project, as does much twentieth-century poetry, especially in an occultist vein, for example, by Henri Michaut. Rilke’s

Sonnets to Orpheus introduce an existentialist twist by equating “song” and “being” (“Gesang ist Dasein,” 1.3:1).

Dante’s Paradiso, for all its lyricism, remains throughout a tour de force of doctrines, distinctions, and definitions—that, for example, of the Empyrean, in XXX.39-42. This content is essential to the song into which it is nevertheless distilled and, in the end, dissolved. Knowledge, human and divine—ultimately knowledge of the real as a whole—remains the substance of Dante’s lyric experience. Yet it is all taken up into the sheer ecstasy of song in which any objective knowledge can be contradicted— the way diverging spokes of a wheel fall together and coincide in the hub at its center. Apparently contradictory statements agree in the truth at their center (“nel vero farsi come centro in tondo,” XIII.37-51). The Paradiso revels in contradiction celebrated emblematically in the lyricism of the lark (section 8) that fills in where logic and law concerning the salvation of pagans are suspended. It harmonizes theological opponents such as Aquinas and Siger de Brabant, making them dance in step together.

The official wedding of lyric rapture to wisdom takes place at the climax of Purgatory in the Earthly Paradise. This juncture marks the transition into the new poetic mode that dominates in Paradiso. Dante places traditional erotic motifs in this thematically transitional position by creating Mathelda for the terrestrial paradise at the top of mount Purgatory, but even she subsumes science into an essentially higher form of knowledge. A Scholastic language regarding “corollaries” incongruously flows from this flower maiden’s lips (Purgatorio XXVIII.136). Poetry and science, thenceforth, are made to coalesce in the Paradiso. Dante invokes Apollo, the god of science, and Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, in addition to the muses (1.13-39; II.8). He now requires both peaks of Parnassus— both art and science. Beauty is taken to be but the veil of truth, which satisfies desire for the good and for God. In this marriage of truth and beauty, gnoseological fulfillment is consummated by lyric ecstasy.

  • [1] Spitzer, Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony assembles an immense array of textual testimonies. 2 Current research continues to discover its specific means and ways in a broad range of forays in Literature et revelation au Moyen Âge, II, Ecrire en vers, écrire en prose: Une poétique de la révélation, ed. Catherine Croizy-Naquet, Littérales 41 (2007): 1—336. 3 Gregory Nagy, Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), §5, offers hypotheses concerning the origin of Greek poetry as lyric rather than epic.
  • [2] Freccero, “An Introduction to the Paradiso,” in Dante: The Poetics of Conversion, 214. 2 Original texts, with modern French translations, by all these authors are available in Oc, oïl, si: Les langues de la poésie entre grammaire et musique, ed. Michèle Gaily (Paris: Fayard, 2010). 3 Gwendolyn Bays, The Orphie Vison: Seer Poets from Novalis to Rimbaud (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964). Elizabeth Sewell, The Orphic Voice: Poetry and Natural History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960). 4 Letter to Paul Verlaine, November 16, 1885. 5 Marcel Raymond, De Baudelaire au surréalisme (Paris: José Corti, 1963). 6 Marc Alyn, La nouvelle poésie française (Paris: Morel, 1968), 149-52.
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