Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Purgatorio 23: The voice of Forese

I'm unable to find a text of Dante's tenzone with Forese Donati online. Forese, in Canto 23, is made unrecognizeable by famine until he speaks:

Mai non l'avrei riconosciuto al viso;
ma ne la voce sua mi fu palese
cio che l'aspetto in se avea conquiso.

Questa favilla tutta mi raccese
mia conoscenza a la cangiata labbia,
e ravvisai la faccia di Forese.

I never would have recognized him by
his face; and yet his voice made plain to me
what his appearance had obliterated.

This spark rekindled in me everything
I knew about those altered features; thus,
I realized it was Forese's face.

Hearing something in a voice that causes interest or recognition to occur is a recurring motif in the poem -- the voice, of all elements of identity, remains intact for Dante beyond death.

Their tenzone was a sort of poetic duel of wits and insults. Here are a few "lowlights," as the Princeton Dante has it:

Dante's Tenzone with Forese. Canto 23.115-17

Dante tells Forese Donati that recalling their past life together would weigh heavily on them (23.115-17) because he no doubt regrets the sort of crude, bawdy humor they each expressed so well in a youthful exchange of poems. The tenzone, a literary "dispute" in which the two writers show off by alternately insulting one another, was a popular medieval genre, an early precursor of the verbal dueling heard today in "rap dissing." The combatants usually take a word or an image from the previous poem and use it as a hook upon which to hang a new theme and continue the assault. Thus we find in the six sonnets exchanged between Dante and Forese (3 poems each) the following lowlights:

1a. Dante feels sorry for Forese's coughing wife (perpetually cold in bed): "Her cough, her cold, and all her other fears / are not because she is advanced in years / but only for some lack inside her nest."

1b. The morning after a coughing fit, Forese expects to find pearls and gold coins in a graveyard but instead comes upon an Alighieri--Dante's father?--tied in knots in a graveyard.

2a. Dante picks up on the knot motif to underscore Forese's dissolute ways and subsequent debt: "And mind you, even if you stopped your gluttony / it's now too late to pay back what you owe."

2b. Forese tosses back the poverty theme, countering that "if we're such beggars as you say, / why do you come back right here to beg?"

3a. To which Dante replies by linking Forese's gluttony with criminal behavior: "into your throat so much you have gulped down / you are now forced to steal what is not yours."

3b. Forese finally exploits the fact that Dante's father had financial problems of his own and may have been involved in some shady dealings. He knows Dante is Alighieri's son by the revenge Dante took "against the man who changed his money just the other night."

(Dante's Lyric Poems, trans. Joseph Tusiani [Brooklyn: LEGAS, 1992], 109-15)

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