Lyric Language: mockery and new material in Vita nova XIII-XVIII

University of  Oxford, 2 February 2018

The roving Vita nova readings came to the Taylor Institution Library in Oxford in February, where Professor Elena Lombardi welcomed participants from all of the Universities involved in the project and interested members of the public.

Rebecca Bowen, (a DPhil student at Oxford), reports:

Focusing on Chapter XIII, Professor Elena Lombardi questioned whether the etymology proposed in that chapter through the biblical quotation ‘nomina sunt consequentia rerum’ can be seen to express a wider strain of ‘linguistic thought’ in the Vita Nova. Moving from Dante’s statement that ‘li nomi seguitino le nominate cose’, Lombardi showed that Dante actually employs a kind of ‘reverse’ etymology in Chapter XIII, focusing on vox rather than verbum (‘lo nome d’Amore è sì dolce a udire’) and so providing a definition that moves from orality to ontology, not the other way around. This has repercussions on other instances of naming, particularly that of Beatrice in chapter II, whose nome contains and ordains the role she will play. However, Beatrice’s is also an open name, as it becomes exchanged with Amore himself in Chapter XXIV, further questioning the hierarchy of Dante’s nomina-res etymology. Although a clear rechristening, Lombardi wondered whether the Beatrice/Amore name-swap can be read as more than a consequence of the religious and christological build-up of the preceding chapters, whether it could even present a new, lyrical chapter in which sound, sign, and thing collide in the sonic dolcezza of poetic experience, a reflection of the lyrical nature of the text itself, perhaps?

Professor Francesca Southerden deepened our focus on Chapter XIII, unfolding the metaphor of wandering contained in Dante’s description of his conflicting, amorous thoughts. With a similar focus on language and love, Southerden exposed the spatial metaphor in Chapter XIII as an image of the undecidability of desire, tying Dante’s ‘amorosa erranza’ back to the images of wandering described in the prose passage. The lyric excess suggested in the title of sonnet, ‘Tutti li miei penser parlan d’Amore’, and the repetition and prolongation of Dante’s pain in Chapters XIV and XV can then be read as linguistic and poetic enactments of a repetitive, masochistic circle as the poet wanders in (and wonders at) his desire.

Professor Manuele Gragnolati (now at the Sorbonne) expanded the focus from the microcosm of language to the macrocosm of composition, using his talk to highlight the place of the Vita Nova in a wider literary context. After reminding us of the double temporality of the lyric poems in the Vita Nova (written and circulated before being re-collected in this prosimentrum piece) Gragnolati encouraged us to read the lyrics as sites of performance, each one acting as a mise en scène of Dante’s poetic development, creating and justifying the trajectory of improvement constructed in the framing narrative and thereby constitutive of a ‘modern’ authorial approach. This self-defined, perceptible modern author can also be understood in contrast to the often imperceptible ‘io’ of pre-modern lyric poetry, as poets had almost no authorial control over the anonymous, circulating collections of verse which abounded in the Middle Ages.

With a truly comparative analysis Gragnolati then revealed a similarity between these authorial modes and the differing theories of desire in the Vita Nova and in Guido Cavalcanti’s poetry. If with the Vita Nova Dante aims to ‘master love’ (and love poetry) with the ‘fedele consiglio de la ragione’, stopping desire through authorial control, this is the opposite to the notions of passivity, reciprocity, and abstraction implied in Cavalcanti’s (radical Aristotelean) theory of desire. If the Vita Nova creates a modern author, Gragnolati suggested, it is through the performance and control of the poet’s textual identity, via a text that also performs and controls the poet’s desire, setting the love-lyric at the heart of literary advancement in more ways than one.

Dr. David Bowe closed the presentations with a discussion on the unity of chapters XVII and XVIII. Reading them as a key pivot in the text, Bowe argued against Barbi’s chapter divisions, suggesting that these two chapters mirror and repair the emotional rupture caused by the ‘gabbo’ episode in chapter XIV and together pave the way for the stylistic shift to the ‘stile della loda’. As Bowe pointed out, chapter XVIII can be seen as a response to, and perhaps a repairing of, the humiliation of the ‘gabbo’ as the poet is finally able to move on from the destructive polyphony of his own thoughts and towards a more positive dialogue with the group of women to whom he speaks. As the active voice in this transition, the speaking woman is also presented as a knowledgeable reader of the lyric tradition; as Bowe pointed out, the final word she says is loaded lyric term (‘intendimento’) commonly used by the lady to the poet-lover. The linguistic shift to ‘intelletto’ with which Dante praises the donne in the next chapter further highlights the shift from the sad mode of his equivocal ‘amorosa erranza’ towards the more dialogic mode of the ‘stile della loda’.

The presentations were followed by a lively discussion, a report on which can be found here.

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