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The Mother Bird’s Vigil—Canto XXIII and the Lyric Circle

Some particular motifs and moments naturally display the self-reflexive character of paradisiacal poetry more intensively than others. In certain specific passages, the constant, intensely self-referential character of poetry as such, and even more broadly of language in general, is not only operative but is brought more or less directly to the surface thematically. Canto XXIII begins with one such passage that invites us to more general contemplation of the lyricism of the Paradiso. Its mother bird simile is, in some respects, the most revealing image of any in the Commedia concerning the specific capacities of the lyrical. These capacities turn on a self-reflexive opening to the Other that reaches beyond the grasp of any possible concept. The Other is imagined (or at least alluded to) as “God” and therewith as the source of all reality. This Other can be related to also, in a negative way, as the Whole: since it is unlimited, it opens an unlimited relation to the Source of All.

We have already seen how a bird image functions as a conventional emblem for lyrical song, or even for the poet himself, in Dante’s medieval tradition, notably with Bernart de Ventadorn and still in modern tradition as represented by Percy Shelley. Already in the case of Dante’s lark, the bird is rapt in silent watching. It is not, like Keats’s nightingale, engaged in pouring forth its song in “full-throated ease” (“Ode to a Nightingale”). The skylark in Paradiso XIX was said, instead, to “grow silently content” (“race contento”). Dante’s treatment of the topos already with his skylark emphasizes rather the negation of song. And again, with the mother bird in Canto XXIII, Dante focuses on the moment of silent contemplation. However, now this moment comes before any activity such as that of singing:

Come 1’augello, intra Parnate fronde, posato al nido de’ suoi dolci nati la notte che le cose ci nasconde, che, per veder li aspetti disiati e per trovar lo cibo onde li pasca, in che gravi labor li sono aggrati, previene il tempo in su 1’aperta frasca, e con ardente affetto il sole aspetta, fiso guardando pur che 1’alba nasca;

  • (XXIII.1-9)
  • (Like the bird, amidst the beloved foliage, posted on the nest of its own sweet brood, during the night that hides things from us, who in order to see the longed-for visages and to find the food with which to feed them, which makes its heavy labor welcome,

anticipates the time on the open branch and with ardent affection awaits the sun, fixedly looking, that the dawn be born;)

In the first place, the affective charge of this “poetic” action—or more precisely contemplation—on the part of the mother bird is concentrated into her love for her fledglings.1 This affection even overlays the nest with “beloved fronds” (“I’amate fronde”). Poetry is a form of desire, and indeed without love (most immediately for language) there can be no lyric. The mother bird’s love for her offspring is described in stilnovistic terms (“aspetti disiati,” etc.) that eroticize the maternal.[1] Guido Guinizzelli employed the bird image to define love in a manifesto poem—“Al cor gentil rempaira sempre amore, I come 1’ausello in selva a la verdura” (“Love always repairs to the gentle heart, / like the bird to the greenary in the forest”)—that is repeatedly quoted and echoed by Dante (Vita nuova XX.3; Convivia IV.20.7; Inferno V.100).

This emblematic image also underscores, moreover, the way that poetry does its work in the dark—in “the night that hides things from us”—thus without full cognizance, unconsciously. This bird is cousin to blind Milton’s “wakeful bird” that “sings darkling, / and in shadiest covert hid I Tunes her nocturnal note” (Paradise Lost III.39—41). The state described resembles that of someone becoming aware, but not yet fully, of something before the first thought about it comes. Dante articulates such experience in his ascent to the Heaven of the Sun: “I was not aware except as a man is aware, I before the first thought, of its coming” (“non m’accors’io se non com’om s’accorge / anzi ’1 primo pensier, del suo venire,” X.34-36). The pre-conscious work in question is represented by the bird’s endeavor to “find” food with which to feed its young (“e per trovar lo cibo onde li pasca”), where the word “trovar” also evokes

“trobar,” or the making of poetry—also a kind of nourishment. This is the essential practice of Provençal lyric, but even more transparently, of the trouvère poetry in langue d’oei'l, which uses trover for finding or inventing. Brunetto Latini in Li livres dou Trésor calls invention (the first of the five operations of rhetoric) “trovement,” thus confirming the inner connection of finding and inventing in lyric.

In this kind of work, the work of lyric, even the heaviest labor is pleasant (“in che gravi labor li sono aggrati”). Such work, furthermore, is a finding (“trovar”) and perhaps also an inventing or invenire in the literal (Latin) sense of “coming into.” Inspired poetry is, in a sense, both invented and “found.” Thus, it entails passivity or receptivity as much as activity. Yet, in either case, the waiting itself is satisfying, for this desire for something else is also a reward in its own right, as Dante explains with reference to his own imitation of Beatrice’s watchful, expectant attitude. This act on Dante’s part mirrors the disposition that has just been adumbrated through the simile of the bird:

si che, veggendola io sospesa e vaga, fecimi quai è quei che disiando altro vorria, e sperando s’appaga.

  • (XXIII.13-15)
  • (so that, seeing her suspended and in delight,

I made myself like one who desiring

would like something else, and is fulfilled with hoping.)

Like the bird’s desire, Dante’s own desire, in the silence and immobility of a moment gathered in interior concentration of the soul stretching toward something mysteriously infinite and vague, satisfies itself with its own hoping. More than the dawn itself as an event in the external world, these verses capture and tremulously convey the interiority of the bird’s sentiment of waiting for dawn. They describe an attendere (waiting) rather than a vedere (seeing). The moment before vision that is supposed to fulfill the vigilant observer tends to supplant the vision itself and to become its own fulfillment. This is a feature essential to the character of lyric language. It must satisfy with its own sweetness, short-circuiting (at least in a first instant) the reference to an extra-linguistic object with its promise of satisfaction.

This structure of a satisfaction immanent to language, which is numerically figured by the attitude of the mother bird, is nevertheless turned


Lucia Lazzerini, Letteratura ntedievale in lingua d’oc (Modena: Mucchi, 2001) confirms that the word trobar is from tropus—the fruit of inventio in a rhetorical sense, a composition that is “found” (“trovata”). She cites Guiraut Riquier equating “troubadours” with “inventores” (43).

The Mother Bird’s Vigil 73 entirely toward what transcends it. Dante’s paradisiacal language is so oriented through an intensity of hope and expectant waiting. This intentionality directed toward what transcends it doubles back and intends also language itself in its sensuous plenitude—yet self-effacement before what it expects. Its constant attention to language itself makes Dante’s lyrical language wondrously alive and palpable. Lyric is language turned back upon itself, language in love with and fulfilled by itself. And yet it is this precisely by being a structure of open expectation of fulfillment. It is an anticipation of sense, which itself makes sense and becomes a kind of virtual or second-order referentiality, a type of referral to something beyond what can be said or delivered in words. The dynamism of self-reflexive form alone produces such sense as ever novel—because ever open—meaning.

The self-reflexive closure of lyric is provisional and harbors in itself also the greatest evocation of something beyond language, something so other to language—taken as a positively perceptible and intellectually understandable phenomenon—as not even to be properly describable as a “referent.” The absolutely indescribable is what Dante’s language, which is lyrical in its core, conspires to intimate. Theologically, this ineffa-bility, which is evoked by language most powerfully in its lyrical, selfreflexive self-relatedness, is construed as being about God. In De vulgari eloquentia, Dante assimilates the ideal language, his vulgare illustre, to a superlatively simple substance and thus to God (“sicut simplicissima substantiarum, que Deus est,” I.xvi.5), who is ineffable by virtue of being non-composite. In Paradiso, Dante still uses the concept “Dio,” even though the logic of his project, as a kind of negative theology in poetry, undermines this concept’s ability to signify in any way that is not metaphorical, not based on something other than what words can properly mean.

The language of the Paradiso—emblematically that used in the representation of its birds and their singing—exhibits a structure of self-referentiality striving to reveal itself in its ungraspable otherness through the prismatic (sur)faces of its appearances. This striving is, after all, its “real presence” as a “true substance.” The presence in question here must be understood as a spiritual presence discerned by spiritual senses. The lark in Canto XX symbolizes one conspicuous instance of such perception. Another is imaged in the simile of the mother bird that opens Canto XXIII. Both deal with the way that language—through the desire it embodies—attempts to transcend time and gain access to its origin. The lark is suspended in a moment of contemplative silence that repeats its


The Spiritual Senses: Perceiving God in Western Christianity, ed. Paul L. Gavrilyuk and Sarah Coakley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), surveys source texts from patristic to contemporary times, including a vast literature of medieval exegesis and theology on the spiritual senses employed by the “mind” and “heart” beyond all physical organs.

own creation in God’s eternal good-pleasure. The mother bird is poised on a threshold before the dawn of day—an eternal day beyond all temporal measures.

The mother bird represents a state suspended between waiting (“attendere”) and seeing (“vedere”). To this extent, she is also an allegory of faith understood as the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen (“fede e sostanza di cose sperate I e argomento de le non parventi,” XXIV.64-65), according to Dante’s definition following Hebrews 11:1. Dante’s lyric poetics, in this regard, is a poetics of faith. The waiting itself, in this case, becomes a seeing that fills and satisfies desire with desire itself. This enacts the typical structure of Christian time as anticipating and realizing a future end—the eschaton—in the present. The parousia of the futural Second Coming is experienced here and now in the time of grace or kairos. The Resurrection of Christ is already the beginning or “firstfruits” of the event of the end, the inauguration of the end-time, as Saint Paul so wonderously announces in I Corinthians 15:20-24. Authentic Christianity is lived most intensely in just such a dimension of anticipation.

  • [1] The bird’s tender care for its young is constant in the wide range of classical texts on which the simile draws: Virgil’s Georgies I, 413-14; II, 523; III, 178; IV, 514; Aeneid II, 138; IV, 33; VI, 271; Statius, Aehelleide I, 215; Lactantius, De ave Phoenice 39-42. 2 Cf. Rachel Jacoff, “Circular Melody,” California Lectura Dantis, Paradiso Canto XXIII. Manuscript.
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