|NUMBER 4||SPRING 1989|
Charles Singleton died exactly three years ago. The process of assessing his work, in order to acknowledge our debt for the intellectual enrichment it brought to us, has just begun: so that even the testimony of a friend who is not a specialist in his field may be justified.1 Like most of my colleagues in Italian, I have taught courses on Dante for many years, and I can speak of Singleton if not as a fellow-producer of Dante scholarship, at least as a consumer of that scholarship, and a witness to the profoundly innovative effect that his writings had in our field.
Charles Singleton started his career as a student of the Italian Renaissance with a remarkable edition of Canti carnascialeschi or «Carnival songs»2 in the late '30s; and to the stay in Florence connected with that enterprise can be traced his extraordinary mastery of Italian, which he spoke so well and elegantly, that the well known formula proposed by Manzoni for standard Italian __ Florentine spoken by cultivated people __ really became clear and acceptable to me for the first time by listening to this son of Oklahoma farmers who spent most of his life in Maryland between the Johns Hopkins University and his country house __ the Farm, as he said __ where he grew vegetables and grapes, producing a wine of which he was (wrongly, I think) prouder than of his books.
To the last years of Singleton's scholarly life belong his studies on the text of Boccaccio's Decameron, which materialized first in the Laterza edition of 1955, and much later, after a codex of the Berlin Library was recognized as Boccaccio's holograph, in the diplomatic edition of that manuscript, in 1974.3
More important are his essays on Dante, that even chronologically occupy a central position in his life __ a position that always seemed very significant to Singleton even for the study of Dante's works: so we have An Essay on the Vita Nuova of 1949 and the two volumes of Dante Studies: Dante's Commedia: Elements of Structure of 1954 and Journey to Beatrice of 1957.4 To these one should add several shorter but equally brilliant and almost as important pieces in the '60s, more or less connected with the celebration of 1965, the seventh centennial of Dante's birth, and finally the annotated translation of the Divine Comedy for the Bollingen Series of Princeton University Press in 1970-75, in six splendid volumes.
Applying to his Dante criticism an approach that he frequently used for his poet, we can start from the end and look back at all the ground covered as from a higher elevation. Such a vantage point may be provided by the lecture The Vistas in Retrospect given in 1965 at the great Florence meeting,5 when Singleton received the golden medal for Dante Studies already awarded to T. S. Eliot and André Pezard, and to no one else since then.
From that speech we can deduce some basic principles characterizing Singleton's critical approach.
1) Dante dramatizes, as it were, but never invents the doctrine. This, the doctrine, is wholly to be found minutely expounded, with minor variants, in the Christian theology elaborated by the Fathers of the Church, such as Albert the Great and the scholastic thinkers like Thomas Aquinas. Nothing new so far, one could remark. But this is just a preliminary point.
2) Today, we have not only forgotten, in a large measure, such a doctrine, but lost the reflex, and the model, that it implied. Renaissance and Enlightenment, with their anthropocentric humanism and science of nature, have so deeply renewed our relationship with reality, that we have forsaken the code or mode d'emploi of medieval literature. Independently of Singleton, C. S. Lewis spoke of a Discarded Image or forgotten model.6 According to the medieval model, or code, things and events of our real world speak; things and events are words in the book of creation. This, as a semiotician avant la lettre, Singleton had already asserted since 1949 in the Essay on the Vita Nuova, noticing that things are always things and signs (pp. 40-41):
It is because things of the real world are themselves signs that they may be seen as so many words; and it is because when taken together they have a syntax and total meaning that they may be said to make up a book.
Thus Creation on the one hand, the Bible on the other, are both God's revelation: two books written for us, which we must read without ever exhausting their meaning __ in order to seize the spiritual senses, or in general the «allegory» of the Holy text, and the symbolic meaning of nature.
But, instead of the cor inquietum, the anxious heart of which saint Augustine speaks, that pushed the medieval Christian to tirelessly decipher those two books, our cor quietum, from the time of Boccaccio on, one could say, has rather fostered a nonchalance du salut, as Pascal attributed to Montaigne.
What can we do, faced by this new cultural situation, but take it into account?
We must simply observe that this has come about: the unquiet heart of the Christian pilgrim has grown quiet, and the very notion of a journey of the mind and heart to God in this life now requires such an effort of the historical imagination as would have been a veritable scandal to the medieval mind.7
In order to understand the meaning of Dante's work, and therefore his poetry, our task will be first of all to rebuild as well as we can the «discarded model», through an exercise, as Singleton writes, of our «historical imagination».
As guides, Singleton chose among others Emile Magne, a French historian of religious architecture, and some experts of medieval philosophy like Etienne Gilson and Bruno Nardi. The building material, or fuel, if you wish __ since we are talking of a journey __ we shall find in the 166 volumes of the Greek Patrology, and especially in the 222 volumes of the Latin Patrology in the great Migne edition, and in Aquinas' Opera omnia.8 One could fear that Dante's text may be literally buried, and disappear under these several hundred pounds of fathers of the Church. But it is not so, because Singleton's major concern is precisely Dante's poetry. Besides, along with the subtle disquisitions of Gregory the Great and St. Anselm, he frequently refers to the magnificent exemplars of Christian hymnography from Salve Regina to the song attributed to St. Bernard, Jesu dulcis memoria, from Venantius Fortunatus' hymn for the Vesper of Holy Saturday, Vexilla regis prodeunt / Fulget crucis mysterium, to the marvelous one attributed to St. Ambrose, Te lucis ant terminum / Rerum creator poscimus: which all together make a kind of great musical accompaniment to Singleton's discourse.
So, the third principle in the method I am trying to outline is:
3) A profound respect for the author's poetic «syntax», the idea of a progressive revelation of meaning through form.
In the same lecture in Florence, Singleton gave a couple of examples of sequences of meanings or «lines of revelation»: for instance, the threefold mention in the Inferno of a «ruina» by means of which the memory of the earthquake accompanying Christ's death on the cross (and hence the opposition between an Absolute Love and the absolutely perverse desires of the damned) becomes progressively more defined. At this point, the critic asks himself (pp. 294-295):
What, I will ask, should those who gloss this poem for us, verse by verse tell us, the reader, when we come to the first ruina in Canto V? [...] Should our chiosatore give us [...] a long gloss to explain all that we are eventually to know about the ruine of Hell, the time of their occurrence and their cause? I can only hope that I am not alone in this learned company of dantisti in feeling that to such a question the answer must be a most emphatic no. Have we no respect for the mystery of a poem? Shall we anticipate a poem's ways of disclosing meaning, when the manner of that disclosure is the very life and essence of the poetry? Is there a surer way to defeat a poem, to keep it from happening as the poet intended it to do, than to barge in thus and tell the reader what he is only to know in the unfolding and is only to understand from the end? Again, if you will bear with me, I find our example of a sentence useful. The ruina in Canto V is the first word of a «sentence» which proves to be made up of three «words» when it completes itself in Canto XXIII. Now to intervene at this the first word with a full gloss of the «sentence» is like hearing the first word of a sentence (out of metaphor) and interrupting, then and there, to explain what that word will mean when the other words that make up the sentence shall have been uttered. And yet our commentaries do this constantly.
Saint Augustine had observed (and the effect he alludes to is of course all the more obvious in Latin) that the meaning of a sentence is fully recognizable only when the sentence is finished, when the mind's eye can turn back retrospectively on the whole: this is also, however, the moment when the first words pronounced have already vanished into the air and into the past, and exist only in the memory of the person who recorded them, preserved «in alveario cordis» __ as Petrarch might have said.
In the same way the full sense of a work, and also therefore of its beginning, can be seized only at the end. This occurs, for example when the number nine, mentioned at the outset of the narrative of the Vita Nuova, is interpreted as a miracle in the course of the narration down to the «mirabile visione» of the final chapter; or when the meaning of the delightful mountain encountered in the prologue of the Inferno is illuminated by the mountain at whose foot we find ourselves at the beginning of Purgatorio __ and so on. Singleton does not recall Proust, but we are entitled to do so, following the lead of another great interpreter of Dante, Gianfranco Contini, and to think of the Recherche in which the opening sentence «Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure» finds its perfect fulfillment, Erfüllung (to adopt the expression used by the third great dantista of our time, Auerbach), in the epiphany of time and the end of the last volume, which closes with the words «dans le Temps».
4) The rediscovery in memory of the full meaning of the text, in light of the proposition that «only in retrospect does a sign prove to have been a sign» (An Essay on the Vita Nuova, p. 6) can therefore be identified as the fourth principle guiding Singleton's approach. A kind of perpetual hysteron-proteron peculiar to poetry, perhaps to all poetry but certainly to the poetry of Dante, and emblematized precisely in a key image taken from the Divine Comedy: «Beatrice was gazing upward, and I on her, and perhaps in that time that a bolt strikes, flies and from the catch is released, I saw myself arrived ...» (Par. II, 22-25, Singleton's translation).
But alongside this semantic diachrony and teleology, so to speak, we find yet another principle dialectically linked with the preceding one:
5) The respect we owe to the law established, this time at the beginning of a work or on the threshold of the text, by certain regulating or modeling images, such as that of the Exodus attempted and failed by the pilgrim Dante in the opening pages of the Inferno, re-attempted, this time successfully, at the start of the second canticle, and celebrated in the hymn «In exitu Israël de Aegypto» sung by the souls arriving on the shores of Purgatory, and therefore themselves protagonists of an Exodus, and so on and so forth. Or again, and at this point I too am returning to the beginning of Singleton's career as a Dante critic, one might recall the «Book of Memory» of the first chapter of the Vita Nuova. It is time in fact to proceed from an empirical reconstruction of the method to the illustration (inevitably no less arbitrary and summary) of some of its results: and we well may take the Vita Nuova as our starting point.
We are invited, as I said, to take the initial image completely at face value and let ourselves be guided by it. In the words of the critic, «that image is as the law of the place into which we have entered. We become its subjects» (An Essay, cit., p. 6). If the author declares himself in practice to be but a scribe «copying» from the book of memory, the expression is not fortuitous. There are in fact several hands and several texts in the book, one of which is Dante's own, that of the author of the poems included in the story. Another text, événémentiel, as it were, deals with the historical circumstances that were the occasions for the poems (the meetings with Beatrice, the wedding party, etc.): a text, then, in which Dante appears as a character rather than as its author, a text which he finds «in the book» and copies «from the book» in order to elucidate the poems. And finally we have a sort of critical apparatus, in which Dante is once more the author, that is, the famous «divisions» of the poems and certain excursus (on the meaning of Beatrice's greeting, «saluto», in chapter XI, on poetry and the rights of vernacular poets in chapter XXV, on the numerological signification of the date of Beatrice's death in chapter XXIX), all of which are, then, glosses upon glosses.
Once more, in 1949, Singleton seems to be a few years ahead of a notion that (thanks to Gianfranco Contini) will become for us a familiar and ever precious criterion, the distinction, that is, between Dante as dramatis persona and Dante as author or poet throughout his entire works: a je (or I) who recounts the adventures that occurred to him in the past; and a younger and more naive moi (or me) who has had to wait until his experience was over in order to begin to write:
The figure of a poet-protagonist [becomes] two persons according to a situation in time: the one being he who, though ignorant of the end, moves always toward the end; and the other he who, knowing the end, is constantly retracing the whole line of events with the new awareness and transcendent understanding which such superior knowledge can give (op. cit., p. 25).
Once again, like Marcel at the end of the long story that he himself will relate in the Recherche du temps perdu.
Among other things, this reading, which we might refer to as the literal reading of the Book of Memory, over the shoulder so to speak of the scribe copying it, allows the critic to distinguish more precisely the three phases of the story __ a first phase in which the happiness of the young lover still depends on a reward (and in this phase the as yet traditional, indeed troubadouric, subject matter is the «state», the psychological and sentimental condition of the poet); followed by a second phase in which the young Dante believes he has already placed his happiness in something that cannot be taken from him __ the «loda» (or praise) of his lady, which forms the second «matera» or subject-matter of the book. But Dante has miscalculated, or, better, he has failed to take into his calculations Beatrice's mortality, or better yet, he has failed to interpret correctly the vision anticipatory of the death of Beatrice which stands out at the center of the Vita Nuova (the canzone Donna pietosa), in which he should have recognized as never before the analogy between Beatrice and Christ. This gradual understanding of the significance of Beatrice's death will be the third «matera» of the book.
To this progress in the subject of love there corresponds a progress in its object, by which the God of Love, who appears personified three times in the first 24 chapters, only to disappear completely thereafter from chapter XXV on, delegates «to Beatrice henceforth all [his] authority» (op. cit., p. 57), so that she is now, literally, Love.
Thus, whereas in the Provençal tradition, and, after Dante, in Petrarch, the reigning paradox is that of a Love without peace which on the one hand aspires to union with a love-object too far above it, and on the other hand, being a human love, does not direct its aim high enough (and being inadequate to elevate the lover toward God, must in the end be repudiated and paid for with bitter penance), Dante on the contrary __ and herein lies the originality of the Vita Nuova __ is able to conceive of a love for a woman which can be maintained all the way along the path that leads to God, «oltre la spera che più larga gira».
If the image of the Book of Memory governs the external form of the Vita Nuova, the Beatrice-Christ analogy is the principle of its inner form and determines a trajectory similar to the three successive stages __ purgative, illuminative, unitive __ of the mystic's ascent, with an outside (the extra nos of Beatrice's greeting bestowed and denied), followed by an inside (the intra nos of the inner satisfaction of Dante's praise of Beatrice); the whole culminating in an above (the super nos of the heaven to which Beatrice points): a first itinerarium mentis ad Deum, then, completed along analogical lines, through a real and private story, not yet along allegorical lines, as Singleton insists, referring to the metapoetic chapter XXV of the Vita Nuova.
The notion of an itinerary or a voyage, along with that of allegory, are of fundamental importance if we are to follow the transition from the Vita Nuova to the Convivio and the Comedy. It is precisely in the Convivio, as is well known, that Dante distinguishes between the allegory of the poets «that which is hidden beneath the veil of these fables» or «a truth hidden beneath a beautiful lie» (the fable or beautiful lie, for instance, of Orpheus, who caused trees to move and tamed wild beasts with his playing, and the truth of the power of wisdom which sways the hardest of hearts), and the allegory of the theologians, in which both the literal and the allegorical senses are true.
In commenting upon his own «canzoni» in the Convivio, Dante obviously follows the criterion of the allegory of the poets: so much so, that even the movingly human «donna gentile» who for a while had consoled Dante toward the end of the Vita Nuova becomes in the Convivio a «beautiful lie» concealing beneath its veil the «truth» of Philosophy. But precisely because the allegory of the poets did not lend itself in the last analysis to Dante's realism and his ambitions as the «poet of rectitude» (as he defines himself in the De vulgari eloquentia), he left the Convivio unfinished after the first four treatises.
The question of the allegory of the theologians will be taken up again in Epistle XIII, in which Dante (for those who, like Singleton and the majority of critics with him, believe in the letter's authenticity) dedicates the Paradiso to Can Grande della Scala The famous example chosen by the poet __ and we all know how pregnant with meaning it is for the conception of his work __ is that of the exodus of the people of Israel, led by Moses out the land of Egypt: an historical event, an event which really happened, true then in the literal sense we can draw from the words (in verbis); but significant also through the event, that is in facto, in three other ways, or on three other spiritual or allegorical levels: the strictly allegorical (the Exodus as the figure of our Redemption brought about by Christ), the moral (the conversion of the soul of every living Christian from the misery of sin to a state of grace), and the anagogical (the release of the soul from this earthly life into the freedom of eternal glory at the moment of death).
These are the four senses of the Holy Scripture, work of God, and Singleton maintains that Dante wrote the Comedy according to this allegory, the allegory of theologians, or, to be more exact, imitating the polysemic system of the Bible: so that we, in order to read the poem with the reactions he had the right to expect from his first readers, must decide «to believe» in the truth of his trip: «The fiction of the Comedy is that it is not fiction», Singleton wrote in a provocative article of 1957, «The Irreducible Dove».9
Thus, like the creatures of the created world and like the words of the Bible, things seen by Dante during his travel are things and signs at the same time. But the pious reader of the Bible was aware from the outset of the polysemic nature of his text (historical truth plus spiritual meanings), because there the author, directly or indirectly, was God. Dante, on the contrary, had to overcome in front of his readers the initial disadvantage of not being God. (We may remark by the way that including in his approach the problem of Dante's readership, Singleton was anticipating the seminal considerations by Jauss on the Erwartungshorizont, horizon of expectation and reception.)
In order to inform the reader that he is imitating the allegory of theologians, Dante from the very beginning multiplies his itineraries, so to speak. There is, obviously, the travel undertaken by the pilgrim in the other world. But the prologue of the poem which concerns all of us viatores («Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita ...»), speaks of a forest which is nowhere to be found, of a river that does not flow into any ocean («ove il mar non ha vanto ...»). So, textually speaking, a real trip, taken just once, in the Easter week of the year 1300, by a man of 35, begins in a space that is not a physical place, in a time which belongs to all and no one in particular. The reader knows, or should know, from the start that within the allegory of the poets there is the allegory of theologians, and that, conversely (borrowing Singleton's own words):
in this poem the embodied, the real and literal, the irreducible journey, 'his' journey beyond will time and again recall that other journey where the prologue scene placed us, our journey here. And will do this, not by inviting us to «undo» the journey there, not by permitting us to see through the event there as if it were not there, not by washing out the literal; but by a kind of recall more common in musical structure by which a theme, known in a prelude, but then left behind, emerges within another theme in its progressing development. There is no literary allegory to compare with this (Dante Studies 1, p. 13).
And outside of allegory we, as Singleton's readers, are again reminded of Proust, of the «petite phrase» of Vinteuil that runs from one end to the other of the Recherche du temps perdu.
Perhaps nowhere else in the Comedy is the polysemic richness of the text more evident than in the last cantos of the Purgatorio. To a minute analysis of these is devoted a large section of the second volume of Dante Studies: Journey to Beatrice.
In Dante's Earthly Paradise the vertical motion of all creatures towards God is, as it were, intersected horizontally by the great procession symbolizing the Holy Scripture and history of mankind: at the center of which stands the Griffin, that is Christ. And there, alongside a carriage pulled by the Griffin, the Church's now empty carriage, Beatrice will appear, by an analogical second advent that fulfills the promise made at the end of the Vita Nuova. Here the great Jewish, Greco-Latin and Christian traditions meet and merge together. All details correspond to each other, on all levels of meaning: the vision seen in a dream by the pilgrims the night before, Leah or active life, desiderium justitiae, as a preparation for Rachel or contemplative life, studium sapientiae, points to the meeting with Matelda as a preparation to the meeting with Beatrice; the allegory of the eagle and the carriage, Roman justice as an ecumenic preparation for Christian revelation; and finally Beatrice replacing Virgil, to the various spiritual senses of conversion (and we must remember that the historical Virgil had died not long before Christ's birth, as here Virgil disappears before Beatrice's epiphany). This is also the central point of the journey, where Dante recovers the Eden Adam has lost but natural justice or innocentia originalis of which theologians speak, which Adam had received as a divine gift transmissible so to speak automatically to the species, as a prerogative of human nature (and therefore naturalis), is no longer retrievable after the Fall. The prelapsarian condition in Eden lost forever is the same dreamed of by classical poets through the myth of the Golden Age, and embodied in the poem by the radiant and inaccessible Matelda. Christ's sacrifice has reopened Paradise for us, but through a new and different gift, that of personal justification, a grace granted to each of us when we deserve it, and no longer, as before, to mankind as a whole. This is why, here for the first time, we hear Dante called by his own name «che di necessità qui si registra».
The four stars that the pilgrim has noticed shining near the southern pole in the first canto of Purgatorio were connected with the happy condition of Man before the Fall, when natural justice, among other things, sheltered him from mortality. The four nymphs that Dante sees dancing on the left side of Beatrice's carriage in Canto XXXI represent the same four virtues («Here we are nymphs» __ they sing __ «and in Heaven we are stars»), but connected now with personal justification, in a world subject to passions and death.
A lament for the loss of Eden and the loss of justice cannot fail to include the melancholy thought that in the natural justice which the «first people» had, and then lost, death was not part of our lot (Dante Studies 2, p. 248).
Thus, what is celebrated in these cantos is the drama of original justice lost and personal justification regained. When the symbolic procession on the opposite side of the river of Lethe stops, time also stops, and, as in the Apocalypse, judgment is imminent. We are expecting Beatrice but everything seems to invoke Christ. And in fact, just as Beatrice's death in the vision at the center of the Vita Nuova had been analogous to Christ's, so now Beatrice will come, like Christ at his second and last coming, to judge and justify.
It should be clear by now that the strength of this critical approach lies in its being guided by a few profound convictions, which are always present and underlie the entire discourse, determining at every moment a coherent «focusing» of the text. One of these convictions, which Singleton shared with the New Critics, is the usefulness of Biblical exegesis as a model of reading that adheres to all possible aspects of a text. For the reasons we have already seen, Dante lends himself especially well to such a reading, and Singleton applies it to him in an especially creative way. He is prepared to imagine, for example, at a certain point, a Divine Comedy with Adam and not Dante as its protagonist, as in Milton's Paradise Lost, and Singleton points out that Adam too, plucked by the poet out of Limbo, would have had to pass again through the Earthly Paradise. In such an instance, Dante
must still have shown us Adam meeting with Matelda here in Eden (where he had left her __ and coming upon her no doubt with a quite special sense of recognition!). Adam, like Dante, would have desired to possess Matelda, to repossess her __ but in vain (ibid., p. 234).
This, it may be observed, is criticism in the conditional mode, and the distance between a reader such as Singleton and all Italian followers of Benedetto Croce can certainly be measured in passages like this. But the emotion attributed to Adam in his hypothetical meeting with Matelda is the very emotion felt by the critic as his own journey through the text unfolds. Still on the subject of Dante in Eden after Virgil has left him, Singleton observes: «to see and feel him do this [moving forward] for the first time without a guide and on his own, is in itself a new experience for the reader» (ibid., p. 211).
In other words, one constant of Singleton's reading and of his writing is the selfsame requirement that another student of Dante, greatly admired by Singleton, Leo Spitzer, called the critic's sympathy for his author. Already in the 1949 Essay on the Vita Nuova, à propos of the elimination of the personified God of Love in the course of the story (this also obvious through a backward glance only), Singleton observed: «In this there is a strategy quite subtle and delightful to discover». We must bear in mind this expression «delightful to discover», as we read the following passage from the Florence lecture of 1965:
this journey can be ours as an open possibility (in allegory) only if the beginning of it is not too precisely disclosed at the beginning, but only later, and then as framed in and through the «mystery» that we have followed out, a mystery that involves us all (op. cit., p. 297).
Why do I propose to link mentally the «delight of discovering» and the «mystery» in these two quotations? Because I think that for Singleton «mystery» conveyed the same fascination it has in the expression «mystery story». And it is a fact that in reading (I was about to say listening to) Singleton, one sometimes has the sense that one is listening to a detective. In making this comparison, nothing could be further from my mind than any intention of irreverence. On the contrary, I have in mind the noble tradition of the mystery story in the Anglo-Saxon world, beginning with a text of one of your most illustrious alumni,10 Edgar Allan Poe, The Purloined Letter, as well as the fact that a distinguished English Dante scholar, Dorothy L. Sayers, the instigator and original translator of the Penguin Book version of the Divine Comedy, was also a very competent author of detective stories.
Calling to mind what Singleton says about the created world as a text bristling with signs, that is to say, with clues, and about Dante's poetry as the progressive revelation of an incarnate vision, a sequence of images and signs which will be understood only at the end in the light of their full significance, we can see the need for a detective in the Dante scholar, indeed in any student of medieval literature. It could in fact be maintained that one of the reasons for the success of Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose lies precisely in his having seized upon and «realized» so brilliantly the analogies between the structures of the medieval mind and the structures of the detective story, in which all the facts, even the most minute and trivial facts, have a meaning of their own, at first mysterious, and then becoming clear. But if we wish the operation to be successful, it isn't enough to be Sherlock Holmes; we must be Holmes and Dr. Watson at the same time, or, if we prefer to remain in the context of Umberto Eco's Middle Ages, William of Baskerville and the young adept Adso. And the former must continue to be pestered with the latter's questions: what did Adam possess in the Garden of Eden? What did he lose? And of what he lost, what can we regain? And why does Dante say that Matelda is in love? And so on and so forth.
This is why the 400 pages of Singleton's Dante Studies, full of theological quotations, read like a novel. But for this to happen in the dialogue between the critic and the reader, as in that between William and Adso, diegesis must go hand in hand with exegesis, the analysis must become a «story», the term modestly but strategically chosen over «history» by Gombrich for his Story of Art.
In the essay quoted earlier, «The Irreducible Vision», Singleton allows himself to imagine the first reaction of Lucano Spinola, the dedicatee of Guido da Pisa's commentary on Dante, when he first received his copy of the annotated Inferno. First, he must have looked for his name in the text of the commentary (as professors still do today), then he must have admired the quality of the parchment and the miniatures, «the fine penmanship, and the way in which those paintings 'smiled' in their delicate shading». Then, perhaps, he would have begun to read, or to have read, the poem's incipit:
And so Lucano on that first day may well have read or heard, per diletto, at least the first cantos of the poem, and on other days he read or heard more, until he came finally to «own» the poem in a way quite different from that in which he first came into possession of the book as object, and as art object __ as we may say, mindful of the illuminations that adorn its pages __ for words are indeed not colors, and eyes are not ears. Lucano would have entertained no such thoughts, of course, nor would he have speculated about how we come to possess a poem, [...] but it may be that he did finally enjoy the poem as poem, when, from time to time, he would find a quiet hour in his busy life.11
If here the critic's imagination takes up an openly narrative slant (but we should remember what Ricoeur says about the epistemic power of narrative), in other instances we should rather speak, according to a formula I have already used, of historical imagination.
I shall clarify this point with a last example particularly dear to me, because I heard it from Singleton himself. In 1965 he made one of his discoveries about the text of the Comedy, and he reported it with enthusiasm to a group of friends during a short visit to California where I was then teaching. He told us that he had asked the secretary of his Department at Johns Hopkins University to prepare a table of the length of all cantos of the Divine Comedy, and when he had it under his eyes he felt very happy because what he saw confirmed something that he had always suspected, and that only arithmetical laziness had prevented him from verifying until then, that is, the existence of a sign or marker, a kind of numerological decoration or frieze at the very center of the poem.
In the Comedy, the length of cantos varies from 115 lines in the shortest, to 160 in the longest one. Canto XVII of Purgatorio, at the center of the second canticle and therefore of the whole Comedy, has 139 lines (and there is no need to stress the theological meaning of these three figures, 1, 3, 9). The two preceding cantos, XV and XVI, and the two following ones, XVIII and XIX, have 145 lines, and the sum of the three figures 1, 4, 5 gives ten, another all important quantity in Christian numerology. While the two immediately preceding and following, XIV and XX, have 151 lines, the sum of the three figures 1, 5, 1 being seven, a number also highly significant, and again seven are in total the cantos marked or singled out in this way at the center of the Comedy, in a symmetric sequence which is not to be found anywhere else in the poem. In an essay he published the following year, «The Poet's Number at the Center», Singleton drew interesting considerations from this typical merging or coincidence of a numerological structure and an existential/ideological structure in the exact middle of the work: let's remember that the central cantos of Purgatorio, and therefore of the poem, expound the fundamental theory of love. I remember most vividly the author's voice, telling us of his discovery and of the temptation he had felt to immediately jot down an article calling it «Dante's Seven-Up». Later, he went on, he realized that, if undeniably the symmetric pattern was there, and could not be accidental, the problem was also there, of why Dante had taken the trouble of building a numerological scheme so little evident that for several centuries no one had noticed it. And here I shall go on and conclude with his own words from the essay I have just mentioned:
Did Dante expect his reader to see it within the whole? Which can only mean, did he expect him to draw up such a table as we have been examining, for only so can the number pattern at the center become visible? One may perhaps suggest the answer to such a question by turning it another way, by directing it, say, to Chartres Cathedral, to some sculptured and finely finished detail in the stone work on the roof of that great edifice, a detail as carefully wrought as any on the façade itself, but which, being where it is, might never be seen again by human eye, once the roof was finished and the workmen had withdrawn __ unless someone should climb up to repair that roof and happen to take notice of it. But may we think that any such consideration even occurred to the master who designed that detail or to the stonemason who fashioned it with loving care? We may not, for we know that such an edifice was not addressed to human sight alone, indeed not primarily to human sight at all. He who sees all things and so marvelously created the world in number, weight, and measure, would see that design, no matter where its place in the structure; and would surely see it as a sign that the human architect had indeed imitated that created Universe which the Divine architect had wrought for His own contemplation first of all, and for that of angels and of men.12
Words that, written by a man who was not even a believer, seem to me a shining example of historical imagination.
1 A shorter version of this paper was presented in Italian at the University of Bologna in 1987. In 1986 a special issue of Italica was dedicated to Singleton's memory, with a prefatory note by Anthony L. Cassell: «In Memoriam: Charles S. Singleton (1909-1985)». On September 10, 1988 a «Giornata Internazionale di Studi in onore di Charles S. Singleton» was held at the Biblioteca Classense in Ravenna, under the auspices of the Opera di Dante and organized by Anthony Oldcorn, with the participation of Dante Della Terza, Giovanna Ioli, Anthony Cassell, Ronald Martinez, Giuseppe Mazzotta, John Ahern, Victoria Kirkham, and Ezio Raimondi. The proceedings will be published in the forthcoming volume of Letture classensi. __ For an exhaustive bibliography of Singleton's writings on Dante, see Dante Della Terza, s.v. «Singleton», in Enciclopedia dantesca (Roma, 1976), vol. V.
2 Canti carnascialeschi del Rinascimento (Bari: Laterza, 1936); also Nuovi canti carnascialeschi (Modena: Istituto di Filologia Romanza dell'Università di Roma, 1940).
3 Il Decameron (Bari: Laterza, 1955); Decameron. Edizione diplomatico-interpretativa dell'autografo Hamilton 90 (Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974).
4 All Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press. __ Singleton's An Essay on the Vita Nuova is quoted here in the Baltimore, Johns Hopkins UP, 1977, edition.
5 In Atti del Congresso Internazionale di Studi Danteschi (20-27 aprile 1965) (Firenze: Sansoni, 1965), I, pp. 279-304.
6 The Discarded Image (London: Cambridge University Press, 1964).
7 Dante Studies 2: Journey to Beatrice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967), p. 8.
8 See the Reference List of Theological Writings in Dante Studies 2, pp. 289-291.
9 Comparative Literature, 9 (1957), pp. 124-135 (vide p. 129).
10 As noted, the lecture was given at the University of Virginia, alma mater of Poe.
11 In Illuminated Manuscripts of the Divine Comedy, by Peter Brieger, Millard Meiss, and Charles S. Singleton (Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press), I, 1-29 (vide p. 4).
12 MLN, 80 (1965), pp. 1-10 (vide p. 10).