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The Lark Motif and its Echoes

Lyric language invents an outstanding emblem for itself in the skylark. Poets from early on in modern tradition had identified with this bird as figuring a celestial ascent of song—followed by descent into silence. This emblem appears prominently in Dante’s Paradiso in the simile of the alodetta launched singing into the sky in celebration of the miraculous salvation (in spite of its seeming impossibility) of the pre-Christian Trojan warrior Riphaeus:

Quale allodetta che ’n aere si spazia

prima cantando, e poi race contenta

de 1’ultima dolcezza che la sazia,

tai mi sembid 1’imago de la ’mprenta

de 1’etterno piacere, al cui disio

ciascuna cosa qual ell’e diventa.

  • (XX.73-78)
  • (Like the lark, which flings itself into the air, first singing, and then goes silent, content with the ultimate sweetness that satiates it,

so seemed to me the image of the imprint of the eternal pleasure, at whose desire each thing becomes what it is.)

The simile of the skylark represents not only a lyrical climax in Dante’s text: it intimates also a meditation on the nature of lyric and its attunement to the governing structures of the universe as hinging on Justice. Not by accident, the simile occurs in the Heaven of Jove, the heaven of the just souls. Self-reflexive verbs, used prodigally and sometimes pleonastically, consistently structure all that is enacted here. The action is reflexive: the lark flings or disports itself, or, more literally, “expatiates itself” (“si spazia”). This gives a specifically reflexive inflection to the idea of flying at large, or of sweeping through the heaven. In this case, such self-reflexivity is a revelation of a higher desire or eternal pleasure that reveals all things as what they truly are. In this “eternal pleasure” (“etterno piacere”), “each thing becomes what it is” (“ciascuna cosa qual ell’e diventa”).1 The surpassing height at which the lark flies hints at the symbol’s revelatory status.

In lyric tradition, the lark is a symbol for song transporting the singer beyond the confines of consciously calculated art by the spontaneous rapture of poetic ecstasy. Thanks especially to Shelley’s “To a Skylark,” the lark enraptured by its own song seems to us still today an apt, if not an inevitable, image for the lyric poet rapt to heaven on the wings of poesy:

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!

Bird thou never wert, That from heaven, or near it, Pourest thy full heart

In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.[1]

In the Middle Ages, the topos had already been given lapidary expression by Bernart de Ventadorn:

Can vei la lauzeta mover

De joi sas alas contral rai, Que s’oblid’ e s laissa chazer Per la doussor c’al cor li vai ... .

  • (Goldin, 144)
  • (When I see the lark move

with joy its wings against the ray [of the sun], so that it forgets itself and lets itself fall because of the sweetness that invades its heart... .)

The reflexive verbs here are already structurally indispensible for the selfforgetting (“s’oblid”’) and for the action of letting oneself be enthralled in self-abandon (“s laissa”) to the sweetness of song in one’s own heart. Italian imitators of Bernart, such as Bondie Dietaiuti (mid-thirteenth century), in the entourage of Frederick II in Sicily, did not fail to transmit this important feature of the emblematic songbird, which, by its own singing, becomes enamored (“tanto si ’inamura”). This self-enamorment

is seemingly objectless and “comes” from on high into the heart of the lark, which mounts skyward and then falls precipitously, in the simile that opens Bondie’s poem:

Madonna, me e avenuto simigliante com de la spera a 1’ascelletta vene, che sormonta, guardandola, ’n altura e poi dichina, lassa, inmantenante per lo dolzore ch’a lo cor le vene e frange in terra, tanto si ’namura?

(Madam, it is with me as with the lark

that mounts the sphere on high

and beholding it, from that height

then plummets immediately, exhausted

by the sweetness that comes to its heart,

and crashes to earth, so much it is in love.)

The exhaustion and precipitous fall of the lark, moreover, suggests a metaphorical death that opens a space of negation from which flight can issue again renewed. But the full speculative potential of this image of selfreflexive mirroring first comes into its own in the theological and cosmological context of the Paradiso. Dante moves the imagery of reflection (“1’imago de la ’mprenta”) into an explicitly ontological register in which everything becomes what it (truly) is (“ciascuna cosa qual ell’e diventa”). In Dante, furthermore, this simile does not stand alone. It occurs in series with a number of other bird similes that serve diversely to illuminate its various facets. Dante refracts the special functions of reflection onto other emblematic birds that form a kind of suite in crescendo. This genre of soaring birds reaches a climax in modern lyric tradition with Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Windhover” in its ecstatic flight reflecting Christ’s exaltation through humiliation.

Comparing the skylark image with the other bird images that adorn Dante’s heaven of Jupiter reveals that the other aviary figures display closely analogous patterns of lyricism and self-reflexiveness. The revolving of the stork around its nest after feeding its young is likewise reflexively expressed (“Quale sovresso il nido si rigira ...”) in a manner resembling that of the image of the imperial eagle (“cotal si fece,” 94) hovering over Dante, who has just been fed with explanations concerning divine Justice:

Quale sovresso il nido si rigira

poi c’ha pasciuti la cicogna i figli, e come quel ch’e pasto la rimira;

cotal si fece, e si levai i cigli,

3 Le rime della scuola siciliana, 2 vols., ed. Bruno Panvini (Florence: Olschki, 1962-64).

la benedetta imagine, che Pali

movea sospinte da tanti consigli.

  • (XIX.91-96)
  • (As above the nest the stork turns about

after it has fed its young,

and as the one just fed looks back upward;

so the blessed image made itself, and so

I raised my brows, as the wings

moved, pushed along by so many counsels.)

Dante is nourished, by the many soul-lights composing the eagle, with the wisdom that justice simply is whatever is “consonant” (“consuona”) with “the first Will”:

La prima Volonta, ch’e da se buona

da se, ch’e sommo Ben, mai non si mosse.

  • (XIX.86-87)
  • (The first Will, which is in itself good,

from itself, the highest Good, has never changed.)

So God and Justice, as sources of the jubilation, are likewise described here in wholly self-referential and self-reflexive terms. It is tautological for the first Will to will itself as the highest Good. Dante is using selfreflection as the key to exposition of the great doctrines of Christianity ranging from the nature of God to the justification of wrong in the world by theodicy. God’s infinity reflexively measures itself only with itself (“non ha fine e se con se misura,” XIX.51), since there can be only one absolute infinity, and it is infinitely in excess of everything else. All other things are susceptible of defects or lack because of their inability to receive the full measure of such perfection:

Non pote suo valor si fare impresso

in tutto Puniverso che ’1 suo Verbo

non rimanesse in infinite eccesso.

  • (XIX.43-45)
  • (Its value could not impress itself so

in the whole universe that its Word

not remain in infinite excess.)

Canto XIX thus delivers the Paradiso's Job-like theodicy. The infinite disproportion of the Creator to the creation makes it impossible for finite intelligence to understand divine Justice.

The bird images hover over and metaphorically revolve around this issue of exceeding earthbound intelligence by the grace of revelation. Precisely where the question of divine justice exceeds Dante’s capacities, the unhooded falcon springs into action (XIX.34-39). A canto later, the incredible fact (“chi crederebbe?”) of Ripheus’s salvation modulates into the melodious riff of the skylark in XX.73-78. Where no words can suffice to explain, lyrical vibrations move in to take up the slack— with a fluttering of wings. Lyrical flourish and musical rapture take flight where reasoned discourse can no longer make headway. The self-reflexive shining and resonance of these images substitutes for any more articulate explanation, which is simply not possible because of the unbridgeable gap between finite and infinite intelligence. Although God cannot be understood or encompassed, self-reflective performances are still a way of reflecting and participating in something of God’s total oneness with Godself. By reflecting this higher Good, even mortal and creaturely limits paradoxically become means of enjoyment of the unlimited, the highest and greatest Good.

The Eagle itself does not understand why Ripheus was saved. No created intelligence has ever sounded the depth of grace welling from the first wave of the primal fountain (XX. 118-20). Yet at just this pass—or impasse—the Eagle breaks into celebration of its own song, as if celebrating its own limitations were a way of acknowledging and praising a greater good. Even their lack of understanding is sweet to the blessed (“ ed énne dolce cost fatto scemo”), since they are trained simply to will what God wills (“che quel che vuol Iddio e noi volemo,” XX.136-38). Their good is “refined” and perfected in this higher good of God (“perché il ben nostro in questo ben s’affina”). Their peace is in his will, as was announced early on by Piccarda (“‘E ’n la sua voluntade é nostra pace,’” III.85). Reflecting on their own finite limits turns the blessed to the infinite, in which their deficiency or negativity is sublated into willing and rejoicing in a greater harmony and whole than they can attain to by themselves.

  • [1] Franco Ferrucci, Il poema del desiderio: Poetica e passione in Dante (Milan: Leonardo, 1990) prefers to understand desire in this passage on the lark as desire not of Cod but of every thing (“ciascuna cosa”) which becomes what it should be through the desire for God. Nonetheless, he too perceives a “dialectic between being and becoming, between Creator and creature,” such that “everything realizes its full innate potential only by remaining immersed in the desire of God” (“immersa continuamente nel desiderio di Dio,” 251). 2 Accessed 7/29/2020
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