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The Exaltation of Technique in the Troubadours and in Dante’s Stony Rhymes

There is, accordingly, also a highly technical side of modern lyric right from the Troubadours (trobar ric) and it, too, is the result of concentrated self-reflection. Dante writes poems that exacerbate reflexiveness to the breaking point. This acute self-consciousness of craft and artfulness remains one of the directions in which self-reflection is liable to develop throughout poetic tradition as constitutive of the essential ambiguity of self-reflection, which also produces ecstatic vision and revelation. Nearer to us, the paramount role of artistic technique surges into the foreground in conjunction with the spiritual aspirations of poetry in the French symbolist movement following Le Parnasse, Gautier, and Baudelaire. But the same unstable synthesis of inspiration and application characterized also Dante’s dolce stil novo long before. This was already a “revolution in poetic language” (Kristeva, La révolution du langage poétique) such as the modern French movement would accentuate.

In spite of its strong orientation to transcendence, lyric also evinces a powerful propensity to become a technical tour de force. This other, countervailing tendency inherent in self-reflection is the one that leads toward scientific rationalism and technological apocalypse in our late-modern world in crisis (see section 52). This propensity is already present in Dante’s works and operates powerfully still in our science-dominated culture today. Dante’s stony rhymes (rime petrose) in particular are strongly colored by the physical sciences and by a more material approach to love that tugs against its tendency toward spiritual idealization.

Unsurprising in this regard is that the Troubadour for whom Dante shows the keenest interest and affinity is Arnaut Daniel. He is celebrated as “best craftsman of the mother tongue” (“miglior fabbro del parlar materno”) in Purgatorio XXVI.117 in a tribute rendered doubly famous by T. S. Eliot’s passing it on to Ezra Pound for his ingenious editorial work on The Waste Land (1922). Dante’s own sense of the Provençal language’s artistic mystique is intimated by his actually versifying in Provençal the lines he places in the Troubadour’s mouth, ventriloquizing


Ronald Martinez, “Dante Embarks Arnaut,” NEMLA Italian Studies 15 (1991): 5-28.

Arnaut in Purgatorio XXVI.140-47.[1] Arnaut’s love for poetic form and craft is blazoned programmatically in probably his best-known poem beginning:

En cest sonet coind’e leri

fauc motz e capuig e doli,

que serant verai e cert

qan n’aurai passat la lima;

q’Amors marves plan’e daura mon chantar, que de liei mou qui pretz manten e governa?

(To this sweet and pretty air

I set words that I plane and finish;

and every word will fit well,

once I have passed the file there,

for at once Love polishes and aureates my song, which proceeds from her, ruler and guardian of merit.)

Arnaut makes the craft of poetry an obsessive love, if not a religion, and this formal emphasis is carried by Dante to its loftiest heights in the theological apotheosis of poetry in the Paradiso. Nevertheless, Dante’s attempt to assimilate Arnaut’s poetry is first concentrated into his “rime petrose,” his “stony rhymes,” named after the “stony woman” (“donna petrosa”) that they address. These lyrics have been identified as the “first full emergence in Dante’s work” of a “microcosmic poetics” based on the mirroring of the self and its existential dramas. Their perturbations include violent and negative feelings reflected into the outer world and in cosmic order and change. Dante’s newfound technique links with a larger Neoplatonic poetics based on correspondences between the macrocosm of the universe and the microcosm of the human body. This analogical language is forced to its limits in the Paradiso, where it collapses in apophasis and even in aphasia, but Dante’s tendency to push its limits, where technical virtuosity reverses into verbal incapacity, is evident much earlier.

Dante imitated Arnaut’s lyric poetry and its saturated reflexivity particularly in his sestina, “Al poco giorno e al gran cerchio d’ombra,” among the rime petroseP The “little day” encroached on by the “great circle of shadow” in this initial line may be taken for a symbolization

The Exaltation of Technique 309 of the small margin of free choice within the strict rules of the sestina form. As Leslie Fiedler perceptively interprets it, “The sestina is presided over by a kind of cold mathematics that function like fate.” The form, with its repetitious endings determined by a strict calculus, is itself “a dialogue between freedom and necessity ... loaded heavily on the side of necessity—a predestinarían dialogue.”[2] It is finally in the commiato at the end that the key words achieve “their fated relationship, which has desperately been evaded through six stanzas” (Fiedler, 25). These extremely rigorous formal demands make a myth out of technique, one found still among modernist poets like Pound. Indeed, technique becomes a “good in itself,” to the point where “technique is mythicized and becomes the actual subject of the poem” (Fiedler, 25).

Critics unanimously remark this “exasperated technicism” (Natalino Sapegno’s “esasperato tecnicismo”). The tension or even contradiction between form and intent becomes key to the poem’s impact. Verse so highly wrought by this tension could become a machine void of spiritual significance—like modern technology in our reductively secular culture today. However, Dante pursues the tension to a point where form explodes and opens to an unchartable dimension that he will later interpret as theological transcendence.

His supposed coldness of technique is mirrored thematically in the coldness of the “stony woman.” This “donna pietra,” for whom the poem is written, epitomizes an unfulfillable desire. The wintry landscape, with its rockiness and withering grass, similarly reflects the paradoxically frozen lover, his amorous and, above all, linguistic entrapment. The rigidity of disciplined form in tension with love’s impetuous passion dramatizes the essential contradictoriness of poetic expression. The lyric impulse involves both an impassioned élan toward an ineffable elevation and a concentrated focus on technical aspects of language. Gianfranco Contini emphasizes the mystical devotion to language and its form embodied in this composition. He marks Dante’s return to Arnaut Daniel as the most genuine source for this exaltation of the “energetic and evocative value of the word.” He calls this “an exercise in verbal mysticism that begins from the word in rhyme” (“... persuaso del valore enérgico ed evocativo della parola, Dante si rifa alie fonti piu genuine particularmente ad Arnaut Daniel,... un esercizio di mística verbale che parte dalla parola in rima ...”).

In De vulgari eloquentia II.iv.10, Dante goes so far as to suggest that through assiduous study of technique and strenuous ingenuity (“strenuitate ingenii”) poets can become “beloved of God” (“Dei dilectos,” echoing Aeneid VI.126-31). They can be raised by their ardent virtue to heaven

and be called children of rhe gods (“et ab ardente virtute sublimatos ad ethera deorumque filios vocat”). Technique and divine inspiration are inseparable here, and they are fused, furthermore, with moral and civic virtue. All this is one in the wholeness and nobility of human existence as Dante conceives it.

This concrete engagement of the total person of the poet is presupposed by any formalist poetics that Dante proffers. Dante covers with contempt the foolish presumption of those who think that they can arrive at the highest style of poetic song (“ad summa summe canenda prorumpant”) by ingenuity alone (“solo ingenio confidentes”), without art and science (“arte scientiaque immunes,” De vulgari II.iv.ll). The poet aspiring to sing of the highest matters must, first, drink deep from Helicon (“prius Elicone potutus,” II.iv.9) but must also submit to the exacting labor of learning his craft (“hoc opus et labor est,” II.iv.10).

In the sestina (as already in the sonnet), Dante discovers the radical reflexivity of poetic language that he pursues to an apotheosis in the Paradiso. Words tend to lose all positive content and are defined only reciprocally by their mutual difference. They compose a system of binary oppositions that enables a world to be organized as a purely linguistic universe. In the case of Dante’s sestina, key oppositions are love/loneli-ness, growth/stasis, hope/death. The six stanzas of the poem are set up as a series of such thematic antitheses: Dante’s anomalous green in Winter (I) versus Lady Petra’s anomalous cold in Spring (II); Dante as prisoner (III) versus Dante as fugitive (IV); wishful thinking (V) versus pessimism (VI). The verse-terminating words are repeated according to sestina convention in each stanza, with rotation of the last of the six to the first position in each successive stanza. They are then doubled up in the three-line finale and paired off into couples that combine warm and living (donna, erba, uerde) with cold and dead (petra, colli, ombra).

By the metaphysics of this formal system, the world is generated in such a way that the woman (“donna”), the object of desire, is revealed as essentially “stone” (“petra”). Her being donna is reduced to semblance (“come fosse donna”) rather than essence, and indeed donna itself assumes a purely abstract significance defined by the poem’s internal system of meaning. Similar attenuations of ordinary semantic values occur to “colli” (“hills”) and “ombra” (“shadow”). “Erba” (“grass”), like “verde” (“green”), becomes interchangeably a symbol of life and of death. Growing on the stone of the tomb, grass only thinly veils death— as in Isaiah’s “all flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field” (40:6).

The words are no longer being used to express a univocal intention. They occur where they occur as predetermined by a complicated linguistic-poetic algorithm and its system of rules. Different, even contradictory, meanings are brought out of them at each occurrence. Potentially they contain any and all meanings. Wherever the verse-terminating words occur, they are nodal points of energy—centers of emanation reflecting

The Exaltation of Technique 311 meanings of other words being organized around them. As symbols, they are concrete universals, potentially identical with everything. All distinctions collapse into one reality, ostensibly that of the lyric “I.”

Dante’s experience with the dolce stil novo, as well as with the trobar dus in the form in which he found it among the “Guittoniani,” were but preliminary stages in his development as a lyric artist. His preparation was not complete until he had passed fully through his sustained encounter with the Provençal masters, particularly Arnaut. This is the line of lyric experiment that reaches its perfection in the verses of the Paradiso.

The technical emphasis of this work, as also of Book II of De vulgari eloquentia, remains still remarkably “an index of spirituality in the poet himself.”[3] In De vulgari eloquentia, Dante explains that concrete examples from the greatest of poets are indispensable for illustrating the standards and norms of the finest style of composition in the highest form, the canzone, because no fixed formulas or precepts can adequately state them (“non enim hanc quam suppremam vocamus constructionem nisi per huiusmodi exempla possumus indicate,” In this vision of poetry, technique and inspiration cannot be dissociated. Distinguished by both, Dante’s dolce stil nuovo recognizes its forerunner in Arnaut Daniel. The tension between an overly self-reflexive, narcissistic art-for-art’s sake versus an inspired poetry envisaging a transcendence of what can be said directly by language in its normal employments is already acute in this poetic progenitor.

Arnaud’s poetry is often judged to be circumscribed by a reductively technical brilliance overshadowing and even obscuring content:

The paradox of the verbal involutions of Arnaut Daniel’s verse is that it excludes the woman who would seem to inspire it in the first instance. She is an occluded pre-text of a love discourse meant to impress other poets, all of whom are male. The rhetorical challenge uses the woman to valorise the poet, and is thus etiologically linked to the primordial narcissism which demands self-glorification.

This suggestion of narcissism has far-reaching implications not only for the psychological but also for the ontological underpinnings of lyric. This is a topic in which Dante shows the keenest interest and one that his critics have assiduously pursued. Its broader implications in the cultural history of the West have been adumbrated in ways well worth reviewing.

  • [1] See Roger Dragonetti, “The Double Play of Arnaut Daniel’s Sestina and Dante’s Divine Comedy,” in La Musique et les lettres, 227-52. 2 Goldin, Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouveres, 216-17. 3 Robert M. Durling and Ronald L. Martinez, Time and the Crystal: Studies in Dante’s Rime Petrose (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 3. 4 Dante, Rime, ed., Gianfranco Contini (Torino: Einaudi, 1946), 154-57.
  • [2] Leslie A. Fiedler, “Dante: Green Thoughts in a Green Shade. Reflections on the Stony Sestina of Dante Alighieri,” in No in Thunder (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960), 21-44, Citation 24. 2 Dante, Rime, ed. Contini, 148.
  • [3] Took, Dante: Lyric Poet and Philosopher, 142—43. 2 Cholakian, Troubadour Lyric: A Psychocritical Reading, 184.
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