This canto on hope begins with a hope.
Paradiso 25 begins with the forlorn hope that Dante might one day return home to Florence, to the sheepfold where he was once a lamb. This hope is tinged with doubt (“Se mai continga”) and expressed with great longing:
Se mai continga che ’l poema sacro al quale ha posto mano e cielo e terra, sì che m'ha fatto per molti anni macro, vinca la crudeltà che fuor mi serra del bello ovile ov’io dormi’ agnello, nimico ai lupi che li danno guerra; con altra voce omai, con altro vello ritornerò poeta, e in sul fonte del mio battesmo prenderò ’l cappello . . . (Par. 25.1-9)
If it should happen . . . If this sacred poem— this work so shared by heaven and by earth that it has made me lean through these long years— can ever overcome the cruelty that bars me from the fair fold where I slept, a lamb opposed to wolves that war on it, by then with other voice, with other fleece, I shall return as poet and put on, at my baptismal font, the laurel crown . . .
Of course, Dante never did return to Florence, let alone return to Florence in triumph, to be crowned in laurel by his fellow citizens. That return and that reinstatement never happened, and we can feel in the opening passage of Paradiso 25, written quite late in Dante’s life, the sorrow that he never ceased to experience. He never got over his desire for his native place, for the ovile of his youth.
Adding to the pathos of this moment is the fact that, by the time Dante wrote this passage, the first poetic coronation since antiquity had occurred, and Dante was not the recipient of the honor. The poet Albertino Mussato was crowned with laurel in 1315 before the Senate and the University of Padua. Mussato was lauded for his Latin tragedy Ecerinis, on the tyrant Ezzelino da Romano, and for his Historia augusta, which chronicled Emperor Henry VII’s expedition to Italy from 1310 to 1313. It is interesting to consider the confluence of interests between Dante and Albertino, despite the apparently very divergent profiles of the two poets. Dante shared a passionate enthusiasm for the cause of Henry VII, and he deplored the tirannia of Ezzelino da Romano, whom he placed among the tyrants in Inferno 12 and further condemns through the tirade of his sister, Cunizza da Romano, in Paradiso 9.
I mention Mussato’s coronation because the opening of Paradiso 25 (which cannot have been written too long after 1315, given Dante’s death in 1321) testifies to the renewed vogue for the laurel crown bred by early humanism. Although Dante’s humanism takes different form from that of Albertino Mussato, it is humanism, as I have long argued. In 1341, thankfully long after Dante’s death, a full-fledged humanist, Petrarch, was crowned with laurel on the Campidoglio in Rome.
At the same time that the pathos of the forlorn hope is palpable, there is also a triumphal quality to this passage, a throwing down of the poetic gauntlet.
The triumphant note can be heard in the future tense of “ritornerò” (not conditional, and not dependent on the good will of the Florentines) and in the ringing confirmation that Dante will return as poeta: “ritornerò poeta” (8). Dante here self-anoints as poeta, a title that he gives to no one else in Paradiso. As I wrote in Dante’s Poets, the use of the word poeta is highly controlled in the Commedia, and strategically placed:
Although that hope was never fulfilled, the impact of the phrase “ritornerò poeta” remains undiminished at a textual level, since it reveals the arc Dante has inscribed into his poem through the restricted use of the word poeta: the poetic mantle passes from the classical poets, essentially Vergil, to a transitional poet [Statius], whose Christianity is disjunct from his poetic practice (and hence the verse with its neat caesura: “Per te poeta fui, per te cristiano”), to the poet whose Christian faith is a sine qua non of his poetics. This is Dante himself, the [only] poeta of Paradiso.
(Dante’s Poets, p. 269)
The examination on hope, administered by Saint James, begins with three questions: What is hope? To what degree do you possess it? Whence does it come to you?
di’ quel ch’ell’è, di’ come se ne ’nfiora la mente tua, e dì onde a te venne. (Par. 25.46-47)
do tell what hope is, tell how it has blossomed within your mind, and from what source it came to you.
Beatrice answers the second question first, explaining that it might be boastful for Dante to speak about the degree to which he possesses hope, given that there is no other Christian who possesses it more:
La Chiesa militante alcun figliuolo non ha con più speranza, com’è scritto nel Sol che raggia tutto nostro stuolo . . . (Par. 25.52-54)
There is no child of the Church Militant who has more hope than he has, as is written within the Sun whose rays reach all our ranks . . .
The pilgrim then provides Saint James the scholastic definition of hope from Peter Lombard’s Sentences, “Now hope is a certain expectation of future beatitude, proceeding from God’s grace and antecedent merits”:
«Spene», diss’io, «è uno attender certo de la gloria futura, il qual produce grazia divina e precedente merto». (Par. 25.67-69)
I said: “Hope is the certain expectation of future glory; it is the result of God's grace and of merit we have earned.”
This message, Dante says, was further distilled for him by the Psalms, which he refers to as “teodìa” (“divine song”):
«Sperino in te», ne la sua teodìa dice, «color che sanno il nome tuo»: e chi nol sa, s’elli ha la fede mia? (Par. 25.73-35)
“May those”—he says within his theody— “who know Your name, put hope in You”; and if one has my faith, can he not know God's name?
The word “teodìa” in verse 73 is a Dantean neologism, correctly formed from the Greek words for God (theos) and song (ode). Dante’s coinage is based not on knowledge of Greek, which he did not possess, but on lexical familiarity, through dictionaries, of words derived from Greek.
Although technically the term “teodìa” in verse 73 refers to the Psalms, it functions as Dante’s final and most capacious word for the genre of his own poem. It appears after a build-up of metapoetic language to denote the Commedia, called “sacrato poema” in Paradiso 23, and “poema sacro” in the first verse of Paradiso 25.
In this canto that begins with the triumphal description of his poem, in the vernacular, as the “sacred poem, to which heaven and earth have given a hand” (Par. 25.1-2), it is fitting that Dante should provide a new label to replace the genre words “comedìa” (Inf. 16 and 21) and “tragedìa” (Inf. 20). A new genre, poema sacro, deserves a new word: teodìa.
In the latter part of Paradiso 25 a light appears that is brighter than any other: this is Saint John, who explains to Dante that his body is buried on earth, thus refuting the legend that Saint John was—like the Virgin Mary—assumed to heaven with his body.
Referring to the mystical vision of Christ and Mary from Paradiso 23, which includes their Assumption into heaven, John says that the only souls who ever went to heaven with their bodies are the two whom Dante witnessed rising up:
Con le due stole nel beato chiostro son le due luci sole che saliro e questo apporterai nel mondo vostro. (Par. 25.127-29)
Only those two lights that ascended wear their double garment in this blessed cloister. And carry this report back to your world.
Paradiso 25 thus concludes with a gloss of the vision of Paradiso 23 and a continuation of the theme of the resurrected body.