On Dante’s letter to Cangrande della Scala


Dante’s letter to Cangrande della Scala serves as a preface / introduction to his Paradiso volume of the Divine Comedy. You can read an English translation here: (http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/jod/cangrande.english.html)

He sent this letter to his friend and host in order to explain how to read his Paradiso. The core of the letter explains that his work (and any work of literature in reality) can be read through four lenses:

Literal – “This is that sense which does not go beyond the strict limits of the letter” (What it is)

Allegorical – “This is disguised under the cloak of such stories, and is truth hidden under a beautiful fiction.” (What the text means, cultural context)

Moral – “This sense is that for which teachers ought as they go through writings intently to watch for their own profit and that of their hearers.” (What we can get out of it)

Anagogical – “This occurs when a writing is spiritually expounded which even in the literal sense by the things signified likewise gives intimation of higher matters belonging to the eternal glory.” (What we can get in a spiritual sense)

In the text, Dante begins by stating that his host is magnificent, awesome, and great. He then follows up by calling him “his friend”, and by justifying this label. Dante justifies the friendship between him and the cardinal by saying that superior and inferiors can be friends, the cardinal is awesome and Dante less so, and the example is God and men, and kings and honest men of lesser station. Dante says that the friendship is awesome and would like to praise della Scala by giving him a copy of Paradiso.

He then proceeds to talk about his work. Below some of the more interesting excerpts:

Dante states that “the truth about a thing, which consists in truth as in the subject, is the perfect image of the thing as it is. Of those things which are, there are some which are absolute within themselves; there are some which are dependent on something else through some relationship”

He then says about relationships that “if the concept of half is not known, never will double be known, and the same with the others.” However, this may also be applied to other things.

Dante explains that “there are six things to be looked at at the beginning of any doctrinal work, viz. subject, actor, form, purpose, title, and the type of philosophy. Of these there are three in which this part, which I meant to dedicate to you, is different from the whole, that is, the subject, the form, and the title; in the others it does not differ, as is obvious to anyone who looks; and therefore, in the consideration of the whole, these three ought to be looked at separately: this having been accomplished, the way will be open for the introduction of the part.”

Dante says his work is “polysemantic, that is, of many senses; the first sense is that which comes from the letter, the second is that of that which is signified by the letter. And the first is called the literal, the second allegorical or moral or anagogical.”

He follows up by stating that “and therefore it is to be determined about the subject of this work when it is taken literally, then about the subject when it is understood allegorically. The subject of the whole work, taken only from a literal standpoint, is simply the status of the soul after death, taken simply. The movement of the whole work turns from it and around it. If the work is taken allegorically, however, the subject is man, either gaining or losing merit through his freedom of will, subject to the justice of being rewarded or punished.”

He says that “the purpose of the whole as well as the part is to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and to lead them to the state of bliss.”

He talks about form, saying that “the exposition of the letter is nothing but the revelation of the form of the work.”

The last interesting thing he says is that “rhetors often tell ahead of time what they are going to say, so that they may make the mind of the listener receptive. But poets not only do this, but also make some kind of invocation after this.”

I should note that these quotes are not meant to “mean” anything, nor do I intend to analyze them in any context. They are simply the snippets of the text which I think hold the core ideas of his piece.

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About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on November 6, 2012, in Literature Commentary and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. “On Dantes letter to Cangrande della Scala Quijano:
    On Stuff” was indeed really entertaining and insightful!
    Within todays world honestly, that is tricky to do. Thanks, Katherina

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