Major Themes: Poetry

This section considers some of the ways in which the Purgatorio reflects on the nature of poetry by bringing in references to a range of types of poetry. It takes three examples of poets whose work is introduced in the poem: Dante himself, whose earlier work is referred to; four medieval love poets; and Ovid.

Dante’s earlier poetry

The first example we have of Dante’s earlier poetry being cited in the Purgatorio comes in Canto II, when Casella sings a setting of Dante’s poem, ‘Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona’. This poem is the second of three canzoni which appear in the Convivio. In it, Dante describes how the poem is meant to be read as both a love poem for a noble woman, and as an expression of Dante’s love for Wisdom.  

Critical opinion on these lines is rather divided. Some suggest that Dante wishes to signal his rejection of that love for Wisdom. Others are sceptical about this. But it seems clear that Dante wishes to make some sort of comment about his earlier poetry. Perhaps the only thing we can say for certain is that the lines make us ask ourselves about the new type of poem which Dante is writing in the Commedia, and about how it might be original in relation to what Dante has written in the past.

One of the most important references to Dante’s own poetry comes in Canto XXIV, when Bonagiunta da Lucca asks Dante to confirm his identity. Bonagiunta asks him whether he is the poet who wrote the poem beginning with the words ‘Donne Ch’avete intelletto d’amore’. Dante replies, somewhat enigmatically, by stating what his poetic intention is. Bonagiunta responds by saying that this shows the difference between himself and the other poets closest to him on the one hand, and Dante’s group on the other.

This is the first time that the term ‘dolce stil novo’ is used in Italian, and it has now become the standard term for the lyric poetry of Dante, Guinizelli and their circle. But the encounter requires considerable interpretation. We need to consider the way in which Bonagiunta refers to Dante’s poetry. The poem beginning ‘Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore’ was one of three canzoni at the centre of the Vita Nuova. It marks the key moment of transition in Dante’s early poetry, according to the Vita Nuova. Dante tells us that he had earlier aimed to receive a greeting from Beatrice. But Beatrice had withheld her greeting, and this caused Dante great distress. Here is the passage in which he explains his response:  

"Allora dissi queste parole loro [to the ladies in Beatrice’s circle]: ‘Madonne, lo fine del mio amore fue [was] già lo saluto di questa donna [Beatrice] […] e in quello dimorava la beatitudine, ché era fine di tutti li miei desiderii. Ma poi che le piacque di negarlo a me, lo mio segnore Amore, la sua merzede, ha posto tutta la mia beatitudine in quello che non mi puote venire meno.’ […] Mi disse questa donna che m’avea prima parlato, queste parole: ‘Noi ti preghiamo che tu ne dichi ove sta questa tua beatitudine.’ Ed io, rispondendo lei, dissi cotanto [this]: ‘In quelle parole che lodano la donna mia.’ "

[Then I said these words to them: ‘my ladies, the object of my love was the greeting of that lady […] and in that my happiness resided, for it was the object of all my desires. But since it pleased her to deny her greeting to me, my lord Love, in his mercy, has placed all my happiness in that which cannot fail me.’ […] The lady who had spoken to me first said these words to me: ‘We ask you to tell us where your happiness is.’ And I, answering her, said this: ‘In those words which praise my lady.’

This is the major poetic turning point of the Vita nuova. Next in the text comes the moment in which Dante describes how he came to write the poem, ‘Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore’. Here is the description: ‘Allora dico che la mia lingua parlò quasi come per sé stessa mossa, e disse: “Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore” (‘Then, I say, my tongue spoke, almost as though moved by itself, and said: “Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore”).

Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore, 
i’ vo’ con voi de la mia donna dire, 
non perch’io creda sua laude finire, 
ma ragionar per isfogar la mente.

[Ladies who have intelligence of love, I want to speak of my lady with you, not because I believe I can complete her praise, but I speak in order to relieve my mind.]

This is what is usually referred to as the ‘praise style’. When Bonagiunta quotes the first line of ‘Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore’, then, he is referring to a very specific moment in Dante’s literary biography. He seems to be suggesting that he and his associates failed to overcome a difficulty in their writing, which Dante has managed to overcome. In fact the praise style has a close equivalent on the Terrace of Gluttony

This is in the psalm being sung by the souls: Psalm 50 (see XXIII, II). The line quoted by Dante reads like this: ‘Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will speak your praise’. Praise of God is therefore a theme of this terrace. Dante’s account of how he came to write the poem emphasises how his tongue seemed to move independently of him. In other words, the action of praise, both in Dante’s praise-style poem, and in the words of the psalm, is an action which seems spontaneous, and is not under the control of the speaker (in the psalm, it is God who opens the speaker’s mouth). This canto seems to be an endorsement, then, of praise-style poetry. The ability to praise will be fundamental to the ParadisoPurgatorio XXIV suggests that Dante believed his praise style had something in common with the praise of God which would take place in Paradise.

Love poets

In Chapter XXV of the Vita Nuova, Dante explains that vernacular love poetry is a relatively new phenomenon. Vernacular love poetry developed, he says, because the poets wanted to be understood by the women to whom they were addressing their poetry. He goes on to say that there are no love poems in either Provençal or Italian (the only vernacular traditions of love poetry of which Dante seems to be aware) that are more than 150 years old (i.e. dating back to before c.1150). In this section, we shall examine some of the vernacular love poets in these two traditions.  

Arnaut Daniel

Arnaut Daniel speaks in Provençal for eight lines at the end of Canto XXVI. He was known for having a difficult style, as well as for writing erotic verse. The famous work ‘Lo ferm voler’ (‘The steadfast desire’) was based on his obsession with entering his beloved’s bedroom.  Why does Dante makes Arnaut Daniel speak in Provençal? There are lots of possible reasons, but one is that he might be wishing to remind his readers of the poetry Arnaut Daniel wrote. In fact, these lines could be seen as Arnaut making good his poetry which he had misused: he draws a distance from his former self in these lines, and uses his language to express regret and penance.


In Cantos VI-VII Dante-personaggio meets Sordello, the troubadour poet. Notice the terms in which he expresses his respect to Virgil. How does this relate to what we know about his poetry? Find outwhat the main features of ‘troubadour’ poetry were. What point might Dante be trying to make about Sordello’s poetry?  

Guido Guinizelli

In Canto XXVI Dante expresses his debt to Guinizelli. Which aspects of Guinizelli’s work does Dante praise here? The encounter takes place on the Terrace of Lust. Dante-personaggio needs to keep his distance physically from Guinizelli (102). Might Dante be making a comment on the dangers of the love poetry which Guinizelli wrote? Finally, notice the difficult reference to Statius’s Thebaid in lines 94-6, which occurs at the moment when Dante discovers Guinizelli’s identity. What is meant by this reference is less important than the very fact it is included at all: it reminds us of how different Dante’s Commedia is from the poetry of someone like Guinizelli. At the moment in which Dante praises the skill of a love poet, he uses a reference to epic to make his point. This reminds us that the Commedia draws together all types of poetry, and is a very different type of poem.

Guido Cavalcanti

Guido Cavalcanti (c.1250ñ1300) does not appear as a soul in the Commedia, as he died in August 1300, shortly after Dante’s journey. (He is mentioned by his father, Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, in Inferno X.) He was known for writing love poetry, and one extremely difficult canzone, ‘Donna me prega’, which describes the dangerous effects of love.  

The relationship between Dante and Guido Cavalcanti is an extremely difficult one. In the Vita Nuova, Dante had described him as his ‘primo amico’ (Ch. 3); they exchanged poems at this stage of their lives. At some point, Guido Cavalcanti became disillusioned with Dante for not having lofty enough thoughts; this disillusionment is expressed in the poem ‘I’ vegno ’l giorno a te ’nfinite volte’. There is some debate about whether this poem refers to Dante’s experimentation with a ‘comic’ style over the higher style of Guido Cavalcanti’s poetry, or some other moral failing perceived by Guido.

Where Guido is mentioned in the Commedia, it is in terms which distance Dante from him. First is Canto X of the Inferno, where his father is being punished for Epicureanism - his belief that the soul died with the body. This may suggest that Dante is implying a disagreement with Guido Cavalcanti’s philosophical beliefs.  

More clear-cut is the reference to Guido in Purgatorio XI. Here Oderisi da Gubbio is speaking of the transience of earthly achievement; having mentioned the artists Cimabue and Giotto, he goes on to say that ‘“Cos’ ha tolto l’uno a l’altro Guido/la gloria de la lingua, e forse è nato/chi l’uno e l’altro caccerà del nido’’’ (97-99). One Guido (Cavalcanti) has taken the glory of the Italian language from another Guido (Guinizelli); and perhaps someone else has been born to take it from each of them. This third poet may well be Dante (after all, he is rarely modest about his own gifts – think about how he was accepted by the very greatest Classical poets in Limbo as one of their own). But the important point is that Dante clearly believes that Guido Cavalcanti’s moment is about to pass.


We considered two examples of intertextual reference from Ovid earlier, in our reading of Cantos XXV and XXVI. Ovid was one of the most widely read classical poets in the Middle Ages. His Metamorphoses were frequently commented upon and annotated, and indeed many readers found Christianised meanings in the text. It is perhaps not surprising that Dante refers to Ovid so frequently. The Commedia is full of its own metamorphoses: Pier della Vigneís soul is imprisoned in a thorny bush (Inferno XIII); the souls of the thieves in Inferno XXV undergo transformations that Dante-poeta explicitly compares with those described by Ovid.

© Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson

This resource is a collaboration between the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies at the University of Leeds, and the Devers Program in Dante Studies at the University of Notre Dame