Thursday, 16 October 2014

Dante's Similes - In Preparation for a Visit to Hell

In preparation for starting my MOOCs course, Dante's Journey to Freedom Part I, I thought it might be a good idea to do some pre-reading about Dante, his world and the poem itself, and it took me less than a second to decide who I wanted to take me there.  In spite of being known for his children's and theological books, C.S. Lewis' specialty was actually Medieval and Renaissance Literature.  In fact, his knowledge was so respected that Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge created a chair especially for him.

I'm not sure how interesting this post will be for people who aren't interested in Dante, but I thought it would be a good reference for myself as Lewis' lecture contains some very detailed information.  If anyone makes it to the end you win a prize of a virtual pat on the back and my enduring gratitude! ;-)

Dante’s Simile’s

by C.S. Lewis

The simile is a poetic device that is used for illustration.  It can fall into three categories:
  1. Homeric type - the simile of Tennyson, Arnold, Wordsworth, Milton and Spenser which is derived through Virgil from Homer
  2. the unhappily named 'metaphysical' simile
  3. the Dantesque simile, which warrants a category of its own, being surprisingly almost confined to Dante

Dante’s Similes

four classes

1.  Virgilian or Homeric Similes

         >  straight similes built on ancient principles
         >  a state or action in the story is compared to a state or action that can
                    be observed in external nature, whether animate or inanimate
        >  short by Virgilian standards

2.  Pictorial Simile

        >  illustrations of a traveler
        >  introduced in plain, business-like manner, simply in order to make the
                  meaning of the writer as clear to the reader as it is to himself
       >  a vividness that produces the maximum of illusion
       >  immediate impact on the senses
       >  connections purely pictorial
       >  eg.  "  As frogs confronted by their enemy, 
                   the snake, will scatter underwater till
                   each hunches in a heap along the bottom." 
                      Inferno IX, line 76 (Mandelbaum)

3.  Psychological Simile

       >  one emotion is compared with another
       >  Homer and Virgil rarely used this form (Homer only once)
       >  eg. #1  "so-and-so feels in this situation just like I would feel in that
                            situation in ordinary life"
       >  eg. #2  "  At that he turned and took the filthy road
                        and did not speak to us, but had the look 
                        of one who is obsessed by other cares" 
                        Inferno IX, line 101-103 (Mandelbaum)
                   ** illustrates psychological and pictorial simile combined **

4.  Dantesque Metaphysical Simile

        >  things are linked together by a profound philosophical analogy or even
        >  "like" in these similes turn into "same"
        >  relation between things is one of response or correspondence, like that
               of a mirror image to a real object or, (as Dante says) of shadow to
        >  "... in the greatest Dantesque similes, the longer you look the greater
                  the likeness becomes and the more fruitful in thoughts that are
                  interesting as long as you live." p. 72
        >  eg.  In Paradiso, Beatrice gazes at the sun and Dante, who was gazing
                     at Beatrice, imitates her and also gazes at the sun.  The process
                     whereby Beatrice's gaze produces Dante's is compared to the
                     process of reflexion by which one beam begets a second.  And
                     this second beam is in its turn compared to a pilgrim desirous of
                     return.  Dante and Beatrice are literaliter [literal] to the sun (and
                     allegorice [allegorical] to God) what all reflected beams are to the
                     original source of light and what Dante is literaliter to Beatrice
                     and the human understanding allegorice to Wisdom and the
                     whole universe is to the Unmoved Mover.  The whole of
                     Christian-Aristotelian theology is brought together.  The image
                     reverberates from that one imagined moment over all space and
                     time, and further.

Other interesting notes:

  • Anglo-Saxon poetry uses no similes
  • popular song uses about the same amount of simile as ordinary conversation
  • Homer's similes are not poetical, used more to convey or illustrate information than for an emotional response
  • Virgil at his best uses simile for purposes both good and new
  • Dante's similes are "less poetical" than Virgil's, because Virgil's could not exist outside of poetry

   ectype - copy from an original


"There is so much besides poetry in Dante that anyone but a fool can enjoy him in some way or other ...." p. 75

"If bees were associated only with honey and not with stings, I should say that Dante every now and then wakes up a whole beehive, by giving us some image which seems to focus all the rays of his universe at a single point or touching some wire which sets the whole system vibrating in unison." p.73

On the Virgilian simile:  "Clearly, when it has reached this stage, the original purpose of illustration has become a mere excuse, though an excuse still necessary to lull the logical faculty to sleep, and the real purpose of simile is to turn epic poetry from a solo to an orchestra in which any theme the poet chooses may be brought to bear on the reader at any moment and for any number of purposes" p. 66

"It is hard for a translator to ruin the great passages in Dante as every translation ruins Virgil." p. 76

"I think Dante's poetry, on the whole, the greatest of all the poetry I have read:  yet when it is at its highest pitch of excellence, I hardly feel that Dante has very much to do.  There is a curious feeling that the great poem is writing itself, or at most, that the tiny figure of the poet is merely giving the gentlest guiding touch, here and there, to energies which, for the most part, spontaneously group themselves and perform the delicate evolutions which make up the Comedy." p. 76

" ..... I draw the conclusion that the highest reach of the whole poetic art turn out to be a kind of abdication, and is attained when the whole image of the world the poet sees has entered so deeply into his mind that henceforth he has only to get himself out of the way, to let the seas roll and the mountains shake their leaves or the light shine and the spheres revolve, and all this will be poetry, not thing you write poetry about ..........  We are made to dream while keeping awake at the same time." p. 76-77



  1. Replies
    1. Oh good. I was hoping that someone might find it useful. :-)

  2. This is very helpful and very cool. Thanks for sharing. I love the quote about the poem seeming to write itself.

    1. Hi Frank! You're welcome and thanks for helping me to get a deeper appreciation of the Commedia.