Robert Hollander
(Princeton University, Emeritus)
30 November 2005

The "miglior voci" of Paradiso 1.35

Aware of the probable difficulty of convincing the reader, I would like to propose a solution to a problem that is generally not recognized as being problematic[1]. For many years I have read (and taught) the passage under examination here with an understanding that I assumed was common to all its readers. The verses in question, in my understanding, represent the sole locus in which Dante tells us, straight out, his ostensible purpose in writing the Commedia. I have at least twice publicly referred to this interpretation without any sense that there were those who might even begin to disagree with me[2]. Indeed, it was only when I began writing the notes for my wife's and my translation of Paradiso[3] that I discovered, to my surprise, not only that my reading was unusual, but that it appeared possibly to be unique. Until now, at any rate, I have not found other readers who share my view. Let us turn to the text ( Par. 1.34-36):

Poca favilla gran fiamma seconda:
forse di retro a me con miglior voci
si pregherà perché Cirra risponda.

[Great fire follows from the smallest spark.
Perhaps, in my wake, prayer will be shaped
with better words, that Cyrrha may respond.]

This is the fiftieth appearance (of a total of eighty) of the noun voce in the poem. The voci in Paradiso 1.35 are predominantly understood to refer to the "voices" or "words" of later and better poets, those who will be inspired by reading this poem. Even the generally skeptical Scartazzini (comm. to Par. 1.35 [4]) falls victim to a probably unwise spirit of unanimity, although he is plainly uncomfortable with the portrait of the poet that results from this interpretation: "Troppa umiltà" is his muttered (and probably correct) response. Indeed, the very notion that Dante might envision the possibility that a single other poet (much less an entire swarm of them) might outdo him in poetic accomplishment in any way seems (I hope those who hold to this interpretation will forgive me for saying so) preposterous. And so verse 34 would make an unlikely prelude to that hope, for it envisions a multitude of poets responding to Dante's stimulus.

Since the middle of the last century, several readers have tried another solution, one first reflected in the commentary tradition by Daniele Mattalia (1960), who cites Giuseppe Toffanin's remarks[5], although he does not agree with them, that attempt to make a case for the saints in Heaven, including Beatrice, as being those whose prayers for the completion of Dante's poetic mission will be heard by God. This also seems a strained interpretation, since the saints are not depicted by Dante as praying for those on earth (it is we who pray to them, as indicated by Par. XV.7-9), if we do hear prayers being offered for this temporary visitor's successful vision of God, e.g., by Bernard and Beatrice (at Par. 33.31-39). Nonetheless, this solution impressed Rocco Montano[6] enough to make its way to print yet again and, through him, in 1968, to the commentator Giuseppe Giacalone. This minority position, however, does not hold up very well to scrutiny either, particularly when one considers that such prayer would necessarily be immediate, while the text offers a sense of more distant eventuality.

There is, fortunately, una terza via . Literally, the verses might express the hope that the Comedy will help those who read it to pray more effectively and thus put others and themselves in the way of salvation. If this interpretation should find favor, it would not be surprising that for centuries most of Dante's readers avoided recognition of the barely hidden daring in such a seemingly egotistical claim as this. Nonetheless, it seems the simplest explanation of these verses, one that is in harmony with the avowed aim of this poet, which is to move those living in the bondage of the sins of this life toward the liberty of eternal glory (see the Epistle to Cangrande, 21).

Perhaps examination of the similar dispute that troubles a similar passage, Paradiso 30.34-35: "io la lascio a maggior bando / che quel de la mia tuba," will be helpful. Albert Rossi points out that the word bando here looks back at Purgatorio 30.13 in such a way as to make its meaning clear[7]. All the early commentators who make an effort to identify the source of that trumpeting say that it will be a later poet (Benvenuto specifies "a poet-theologian," in which judgment he is followed by John of Serravalle); some, their discomfort more or less apparent, go along, perhaps because they do not understand to what else the sonorous reference might pertain. That was the muddled condition of appreciation of this verse until Scartazzini cut through centuries of weak responses and magisterially solved the riddle (he explains the reference to the trumpet blast of Judgment Day that announces the resurrection of Beatrice and the other saints), even if his reward for doing so was to be ridiculed by Poletto and ignored by even those relative few who agreed with him. (One wonders whether, had these two similar passages occurred in the poem in reverse order, Scartazzini might not have developed his insight into this passage in a better understanding of Paradiso 1.34-36.) Mestica, without reference to Scartazzini (we hear the strains of a familiar tune, apparently deliberate inattention to Scartazzini's work, an unfortunate weakness common among twentieth-century dantisti ), also settles on this daring but sensible explanation, as does the similarly Scartazzini-silent Del Lungo. Still more blameworthy, Vandelli, revising the master's work, simply substitutes his own version of the ancient view for Scartazzini's (in what is supposed to be the Scartazzini/Vandelli commentary), attributing the trumpet blast to a "voce poetica più possente della mia." In more recent times, Scartazzini's breakthrough has found occasional support, e.g., in Rossi[8] ; Hollander[9]; Chiavacci Leonardi[10]; and Giuseppe Ledda[11]. Thus at least a few readers have gotten beyond the bland, yet nonetheless astounding, notion that Dante is rehearsing his own eclipse in the shadow of future poetic luminaries. Had he known what would happen to his reputation in the Petrarchan Era he might have been furious; it seems unlikely that he would have imagined the greatest vernacular poet of all time (Boccaccio's opinion and he was not alone in it, Dante himself having preceded him) being bettered by any other poet in any respect.

Let us get back to our muttons. My wife and I have translated verse 35 in a way that is not usual, sharing the understanding of such as Isidoro Del Lungo in 1926, Mario Aversano[12], and Selene Sarteschi[13], that di retro a me has less to do with time (as it does for the vast majority of commentators) -- if it does surely imply sequence -- than it does with imitation (Del Lungo: "sull'esempio mio"; Aversano: "seguendo il mio esempio"). Sarteschi is also in this camp, hearing an echo of Purgatorio 24.59, "di retro al dittator" in "di retro a me"; Dante will become the new "dictator" -- for other poets we assume -- but Sarteschi does not eventually make plain her interpretation of this verse. I think we must again understand that Dante is simply too bold for his readership. His self-presentation is to stand before us (or perhaps "to sit before us" is the better locution) as nothing less than scriba Dei, and thus as a poet whose role is indeed to assist us in our prayers. It takes only brief reflection to realize that, among his first readers (at least among those thinking of deceased family or friends discovered in the pages of Purgatorio), there were those who gave themselves to prayer. And can anyone doubt but that some of them prayed in order to speed their loved ones along their path to Heaven (and perhaps prayed for themselves as well)? And what purer practical purpose might a purposive Christian poet have had than that of promoting prayer?


[1] An expanded version of this paper is to be published in Letteratura Italiana Antica 7 (2006).

[2] See "Why Did Dante Write the Comedy?" in Dante Studies 111 (1993), pp. 20-21; Dante's Epistle to Cangrande (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), p. 91.

[3] Inferno/Purgatorio (New York: Doubleday, 2000/2003).

[4] All commentators cited, except Chiavacci Leonardi, were consulted through the Dartmouth Dante Project.

[5] Sette interpretazioni dantesche (Naples: Libreria scientifica editrice, 1947), pp. 80-82.

[6] Storia della poesia di Dante , vol. 2 (Naples: Quaderni di Delta, 1963), p. 321.

[7] "A l'ultimo suo : Paradiso XXX and Its Virgilian Context," Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History [ University of British Columbia ] 4 (1981), p. 65.

[8] "A l'ultimo suo ," pp. 65, 72.

[9] "Paradiso XXX," Studi Danteschi 60 (1988 [=1993]), pp. 10-13, with a review of the status of the debate.

[10] Paradiso (Milan: Mondadori, 1997), comm. to 30.34-35.

[11] La guerra della lingua (Ravenna: Longo, 2002), p. 301.

[12] Dante daccapo [glosses to the Paradiso ], copia d'eccezione (sent by the author on 11 September 2001), p. 6.

[13] "Canto I," in Lectura Dantis Turicensis: Paradiso , ed. Georges Güntert and Michelangelo Picone (Florence: Cesati, 2002), p. 17n.