Robert Hollander
(Princeton University)
17 May 2005


Paradiso 4.14: Dante as Nebuchadnezzar?

The following passage, a simile, apparently establishes a four-way typological analogy, three terms of which are disclosed, and one of which is not expressed, but is understood easily and by all who have dealt with this text. At the same time, it has always caused displeasure or avoidance in its readers:

Fé sì Beatrice qual fé Danïello,
Nabuccodonosor levando d'ira,
che l'avea fatto ingiustamente fello;
(Par. 4.13-15)

The cast of characters of this passage also (and obviously) includes the protagonist, even if he is not named in it. And indeed, all readily agree that, in this "equation," Dante is to Nebuchadnezzar as Beatrice is to Daniel. The problem only begins once we have come that far.

Dante has accustomed his readers to understanding his typological analogies readily. One such that usefully comes to mind with reference to our passage is found farther along in Paradiso, the allusion to the figurally related pair Ananias/Beatrice and its unexpressed but pellucidly clear companion duo, in similar relation, Saul of Tarsus/Dante:

"perché la donna che per questa dia
regïon ti conduce, ha ne lo sguardo
la virtù ch'ebbe la man d' Anania ."
(Par. 26.10-12)

While not all aspects of this quadripartite relation have proven to be easily assimilated (for instance, what exactly Beatrice's gaze represents), it is probably fair to say that its basic business has escaped no one: Dante, blinded by the presence of St. John, is assured by him that he will soon regain his sight by the ministrations of Beatrice, who will serve as the new Ananias to his Saul (Acts 9:8-18), blinded on the road to Damascus.

To return to our less well understood simile, we find that it puts into parallel Beatrice (placating Dante's anxiety) and Daniel (stilling Nebuchadnezzar's wrath). It thus also necessarily puts into parallel Dante and Nebuchadnezzar, a relation that at first makes no sense at all[1]. The poet has earlier in the Commedia visited this biblical text (found in the second book of the prophet Daniel), the account of the king's dream and Daniel's interpretation of it (see Inf. 14.94-111 for Dante's version of that dream, embodied in the representation of the veglio di Creta ). Here he fastens on its perhaps strangest aspect: the new king's desire to kill all the wise men in his kingdom of Babylon who could neither bring his forgotten dream back to mind nor then interpret it about as untoward a royal prerogative as anyone has ever sought to enjoy. Thus it seems natural to wonder in what way Dante may possibly be conceived of as being similar to the wrathful king of Babylon . The entire commentary tradition observes only a single link: Nebuchadnezzar's displeasure and Dante's puzzlement are both finally relieved by (divinely inspired see Trucchi on these verses [2]) external intervention on the part of Daniel, in the first case, and then of Beatrice. However, saying that is akin to associating Joseph Stalin and Mother Teresa on the nearly meaningless grounds that both were among the most famous people of their time. Why should Dante have cast himself as the tyrannical Babylonian ruler? That is a question that has only stirred the edges of the ponds in the commentaries and has never had a sufficient answer. If we turn to the work of my friend Lino Pertile, we find that he, after correctly noting the verbal playfulness of the tercet ("Fé... fé... l'avea fatto... fello" [we might want to compare Par. 7.10-12: "Io dubitava e dicea 'Dille, dille! / fra me, 'dille' dicea, 'a la mia donna / che mi diseta con le dolci stille'," an even more notably--and playfully--overwrought tercet]), characterizes this simile as being "hyperbolic and distracting rather than illuminating."[3] That is because Pertile, like almost everyone else (and perhaps understandably), believes that "Beatrice might reasonably be compared to Daniel, but the analogy between Dante's tongue-tying intellectual anxiety and Nebuchadnezzar's wrath is hardly fitting."[4] That, this writer must confess, was until very recently his own view of the matter.[5] However, if one looks in the Epistle to Cangrande (77-82), one finds a gloss to Par. 1.4-9 that is entirely germane here. And apparently, in the centuries of discussion of this passage, only G.R. Sarolli, in his entry "Nabuccodonosor" in the Enciclopedia dantesca[6], has noted the striking similarity in the two texts, going on to argue that such similarity serves as a further proof of the authenticity of the epistle.[7] In that passage Dante explains that his forgetting of his experience of the Empyrean (because he was lifted beyond normal human experience and could not retain his vision) has some egregious precursors: St. Paul, three of Jesus's disciples, Ezekiel (such visionary capacity certified by the testimony of Richard of St. Victor, St. Bernard, and St. Augustine); and then he turns to his own unworthiness to be included in such company (if not hesitating to insist on the fact that he had been the recipient of exactly the same sort of exalted vision): "Si vero in dispositionem elevationis tante propter peccatum loquentis oblatrarent, legant Danielem, ubi et Nabuchodonosor invenient contra peccatores aliqua vidisse divinitus, oblivionique mandasse" [But if on account of the sinfulness of the speaker (Dante himself, we want to remember) they should cry out against his claim to have reached such a height of exaltation, let them read Daniel, where they will find that even Nebuchadnezzar by divine permission beheld certain things as a warning to sinners, and straightway forgot them].[8] Dante, like the Babylonian king, has had a vision that was God-given, only to forget it. And now he is, Nebuchadnezzar-like, distraught; Beatrice, like the Hebrew prophet, restores his calm. It is worth observing that Dante's way of stating what Daniel accomplished is set forth in negative terms: He helped the king put off the wrath that had made him unjustly cruel; the poet does not say Daniel restored the dream, the loss of which caused the king to become angry with his wise men in the first place. But that is precisely what we are meant to conclude, as the text of the epistle makes still clearer. Thus the typological equation here is not otiose; Dante is the new Nebuchadnezzar in that both of them, if far from being holy men (indeed both were sinners), were nonetheless permitted access to visionary experience of God, only to be unable to retain their visions in memory. The king enters this perhaps unusual history, that of those who, less than morally worthy, forgot the divine revelation charitably extended to them, as the first forgetter; Dante, as the second. This is exactly the sort of spirited, self-conscious playfulness that we expect from this greatest of poets, who doubled as his own commentator. And that commentator, in the Epistle to Cangrande, was not only the first to deal with this passage but the only one to have got it right.[9]

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[1] If one also considers Dante's other typological reference to the book of Daniel (6:22; see Mon. III.i.1), where Dante compares himself to the prophet in the lions' den, one quickly understands the non-binding nature of any particular identity in his series of self-definitions. See note 5 for his drawing attention to himself as David or as Uzzah, depending on the context in which he is working.

[2] Ernesto Trucchi, comm. to Par. 4.13-15, DDP.

[3] Lino Pertile, "Paradiso IV," in Dante's "Divine Comedy," Introductory Readings III: "Paradiso," ed. Tibor Wlassics ( Lectura Dantis [virginiana], 16-17, supplement, 1995), p. 50.

[4] Ibid.

[5] But see an earlier study of another figural construction in which Dante is observed connecting himself as antitype to an entirely negative precursor in surprisingly positive terms: Robert Hollander, "Dante as Uzzah? (Purg. X.57 and Epistle XI.9-12)," in Sotto il segno di Dante: Scritti in onore di Francesco Mazzoni, ed. L. Coglievina & D. De Robertis (Florence: Le Lettere, 1999), pp. 143-51. In that instance also the meaning of a passage in the poem is deepened by one in an epistle, if in that case the Latin text may have preceded the vernacular one, as is almost certainly not true in this.

[6] ED IV, 1973, p. 1a.  For an independent and similar argument (without reference to Sarolli's voce), see Albert Ascoli, "Dante after Dante," in Dante for the New Millennium, ed. T. Barolini and H.W. Storey (New York: Fordham University Press, 2003), pp. 358-59 & nn.

[7] Sarolli continues, brushing aside the traditional commentator's explanation, which focuses on the Daniel/Beatrice typology by simply avoiding the Nebuchadnezzar/Dante one, to speculate that what is really at stake is the parallelism Babylonian wise men/Plato, a pairing that simply doesn't compute. (The wise men are not wrong; Plato is--or at least his ideas, in their raw form, are deeply culpable.)

[8] Epistola XIII.81, ed. E. Pistelli (SDI, 1960); tr. P. Toynbee (both cited from the Princeton Dante Project).

[9] Whatever doubt remains concerning the authenticity of the epistle has been effectively and considerably challenged by a recent study: Luca Azzetta, "Le chiose alla Commedia di Andrea Lancia, l'Epistola a Cangrande e altre questioni dantesche," L'Alighieri 21 (2003): 5-76.