Tristan Kay. Dante's Lyric Redemption: Eros, Salvation, Vernacular Tradition.
Dante's journey from youthful lyric poet to mature author of the Commedia continues to inspire studies that wrestle with a fundamental tension of the sacro poema: how is it possible for Beatrice, the object of the poet's youthful, erotic desire, to be the guide who leads the Pilgrim through the heavenly spheres until his encounter with Bernard of Clairvaux? How can eros lead to salvation? In Dante's Lyric Redemption: Eros, Salvation and the Vernacular Tradition, Tristan Kay departs from this question in order to map the tensions between spiritual and erotic desire, both within Dante's own works and in relation to his poetic precursors in the lingua d'oc and the lingua del si. The result is an ambitious survey of Dante's treatment of desire throughout his poetic career, executed through three comparative studies, analyzing the poet's engagement with three major figures in medieval European literature: Guittone d'Arezzo, Arnaut Daniel and Folco of Marseilles. Kay situates Dante within a genealogy of poets who critique "a limited courtly ideology" (8), reading Dante's unique synthesis of "eros and spirituality" (13) as a product of the poet's own self-conscious and selective engagement with his lyric predecessors.
The book takes shape across five chapters, the first two of which are dedicated to defining the role of eros within Dante's oeuvre. The book's first chapter, "Love, Authority and Vernacular Poetry," provides an overview of medieval conceptions of desire; for those looking for an introduction into the shared heritage of Italian and Occitan lyric, this opening chapter provides a thorough overview. Building on the work of scholars such as Lombardi and Cestaro, Kay demonstrates the productive plasticity of the medieval vocabulary of desire, tracing not only the cross-pollination of Italian and Occitan lyric, but also the permeability of both sacred and profane conceptions of desire. Ultimately, Kay concludes that vernacular poetry proves the ideal medium for Dante's own attempt to accrue auctoritas, as though love poetry itself is laced with spiritual danger, it is the vernacular rather than Latin that instantiates desire, both divine and otherwise. Having dealt with desire in Dante's early lyric output, chapter two focusses more specifically on the Commedia, the text that successfully unifies erotic and salvific desire in the Pilgrim's love for Beatrice. Here Kay begins to unravel how Dante engages with his poetic predecessors within the Commedia (most notably in Purgatorio XXIV and XXVI), before going on to dedicate the following three chapters to three souls that the Pilgrim encounters successively on his journey through the afterlife: Guittone, Arnaut and Folco.
Kay's third chapter tackles Guittone d'Arezzo's complex relationship to Dante's poetics of desire. For Kay, both Dante and Guittone use "impasse" (116) productively within their work: through his conversion, Guittone actively asserts the existence of a fundamental impasse between rationality, a correctly oriented spiritual desire, and love lyric as it has existed in both Occitan and Italian until that point. Dante's innovation in this tradition, however, will allow him to surpass this impasse in the Vita nova and the Commedia. Kay's identification of strong Guittonian intertexts in Dante's libello invites us to consider the Vita nova as a text that responds not only to conceptions of desire found in the work of Cavalcanti, but in Guittone's too. For Kay, even at this early point in the poet's career, Dante is already negotiating his own position in relation to his poetic predecessors.
Kay then moves onto the next of the trio encountered by the Pilgrim: Arnaut Daniel. For Kay, Arnaut represents the poet in whom Dante finds a model for the marriage of form and content, a proto-type for his own "dolce stil novo" (Purg. XXIV.57). Arnaut is positioned as the "antithesis" of Guittone's poetics, characterized by his emphasis on the poet's ability to "sobramar", to "over-love" (191). Yet, Kay notes that despite the differences in the content of their work, both poets are associated with a certain degree of linguistic impenetrability. Dante appears to have been fundamental in asserting the importance of Arnaut's work within Italy, whilst simultaneously denigrating the reputation of the rather more well-regarded Guittone, from whose legacy he was fighting to free himself. On the other hand, Kay presents Folco of Marseille, the object of the fifth and final chapter, as a precursor to Guittone: a well-regarded poet, whose conversion performs an apparent rupture with the erotic poetry of their youth, giving way to a moral poetry of invective and spiritual conviction. Ultimately, Dante rejects Folco and Guittone, embracing another model of poetic conversion that encompasses erotic desire within the spiritual, a model that not only redeems the Pilgrim-poet but that places a "redemption of eros at the core of his 'sacred poem'" (246).
Kay tackles both the Italian and Occitan texts that appear in this book with diligence, though his argument could be supplemented by more engagement with scholarship that reads the poetry of the troubadours in its manuscript context. For instance, Stephen G. Nichols discusses depictions of poetic conversion in Occitan songbook N (MS Morgan 819), likely made in Padua during the latter half of the thirteenth century. Nichols focuses on the intersection of text and image in representations of Folco of Marseille and Jausbert de Puycibot in ways that might usefully broaden Kay's treatment of desire and conversion within medieval Italy.
Kay's discussion of Guittone, a long under-studied poet, animates the book: his incisive observations of Guittone's intertextual connections with the Occitan tradition and with Dante's own work will prove an invaluable contribution to the slowly growing body of scholarship on this much-maligned lyricist. Whilst this book presents itself as most relevant to Dante scholars, it will prove useful to anyone hoping to better understand the intersections of Occitan and Italian lyric and those who would like to deepen their understanding of lyric production in medieval Italy.
New York University
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|Date:||Dec 22, 2018|
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