Yours, humbly

‘Humility’ by Jim Ballman

Literary humility is as deceiving as it is important. While no writer ever declared their pride at tackling a given topic, theme or subject, ancient or modern, few authors were driven by anything other than pride and a sense of self-worth.

In the Divine Comedy, Dante the pilgrim, as Dante the author casts himself in the narrative, is anything but prideful. But the author is haughty. In the opening to Paradiso, he makes claims that few authors had before or since dared to make. Likening his poem to a little boat, or bark, sailing into the unknown, he says:

The waves I take were never sailed before!

Paradiso, Canto 2

This is no mere Captain Jean-Luc Picard venturing into unchartered territory, but a high-handed author well aware of the originality of his endeavour and the daring of his enterprise. To sail to the end of time and space, as he does in the poem, hadn’t been tried before. The water, the waves, the heading were indeed new, and the captain knew it!

Steeped in ancient and contemporary (i.e medieval) literature, the Florentine poet, wounded by the pain of exile and sliced by the realisation that he will never return to his homeland or achieve fame in his lifetime, asserts himself as a trailblazer, a pioneer of letters, without the humility that medieval writing had hoisted up as the hallmark of good, godly letters.

Tacking his ‘piccioleta barca’ (little boat) away from the wind of humility, Dante proved more of a man of the Renaissance than he has been given credit for. The literary conceit of humility continued to float on the surface of his sea, but in its depths ran the sense of glory, greatness and panache.

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