Dante’s Letter to Can Grande della Scala About Allegory

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Dante’s Letter to Can Grande della Scala About Allegory

Note from William Fredlund: In the following letter
Dante explains his ideas about allegory to his friend and host in
Verona, Can Grande della Scala.

The meaning of this
work is not simple. . . for we obtain one meaning from the letter
of it and another from that which the letter signifies; and the
first is called the literal, but the other allegorical or mystical.
And to make this matter of treatment clearer, it may be studied
in the verse: “When Israel came out of Egypt and the House of Jacob
from among a strange people, Judah was his sanctuary and Israel
his dominion.” For if we regard the letter alone, what is set before
us is the exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt in the days
of Moses; if the allegory, our redemption wrought by Christ; if
the moral sense, we are shown the conversion of the soul from the
grief and wretchedness of sin to the state of grace; if the anagogical,
we are shown the departure of the holy soul from the thralldom of
this corruption to the liberty of eternal glory. And although these
mystical meanings are called by various names, they may all be called
in general allegorical, since they differ from the literal and historical.
The subject of the whole
work, then, taken merely in the literal sense is “the state of the
soul after death straightforwardly affirmed,” for the development
of the whole work hinges on and about that. But if, indeed, the
work is taken allegorically, its subject is: “Man, as by good or
ill deserts, in the exercise of his free choice, he becomes liable
to rewarding or punishing Justice.”

These passages translated in Penguin Classics,
Dante, Divine Comedy, Hell (1949) by Dorothy Sayers,
Introduction, pp. 14-15.

Dante shows us that we can interpret the passage
first as simple literal or in this case historical fact: the Jews
came out of Egypt. Or in other allegorical ways and he lists three
ways which can be applied to a reading of the Divine Comedy.