Dante’s Dead Poet Society
Author and Character in Conversation with Their Heritage
This essay treats the relationship between Dante Alighieri and the tradition of medieval Italian poetry he inherits, as expressed within The Divine Comedy. Though Dante’s interactions with the epic poets rightly receive a lot of attention, these poets of the Italian troubadour tradition also are vital to understanding Dante’s poetic context. I argue that Dante’s literary heritage not only shapes him as an author, but that his developing relationship to that heritage forms a significant arc through Dante’s journey as character through the afterlife.
The essay begins by introducing some of the major poetic figures in the Italian troubadour tradition, including Guido Guinizzelli and Guido Cavalcanti. I summarize how their poetic approach compares to Dante’s, particularly with regards to the theme of love, a theme that is not just literary but also deeply theological. I then transition into considerations within the poem itself, working through each of the appearances of lyric poets in Dante’s journey through the afterlife, in each of its three stages. The poets placed along this path offer exemplars both of poetic vice, such as the bitter tenzone exchanges in Inferno, and of poetic virtue, particularly in the case of Folco di Marsiglia. These poets, whether representing themselves or functioning as allegories for broader poetic categories, are all met by Dante as he journeys to perfect his will and his intellect. Along the way, he overcomes the dangers of pride and resentment that lurk within his verse and his soul. Ultimately, Dante embraces the skills developed by the troubadour traditions, but simultaneously turns them toward a higher purpose.
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