Danielle Callegari

Mother’s Milk: Nourishing Poets in Dante’s Purgatorio

In an imagined encounter dramatized in Dante’s Purgatorio, the Roman poet Statius affirms that his predecessor Virgil’s Aeneid was to him both “mamma” (mother) and “nutrice” (wet-nurse): a text by which he was gestated and then given the nourishment he used to produce his own poetry (Purg. 21.97–98). Statius’s ability to [re]produce is then contrasted with the hollow, empty verses that other poets generate, without substance because they have not been given the raw material to grow and mature themselves. This language of feeding and generation–wherein the poets must inhabit the space typically coded as female in order to be successful in their production of verse–is hardly a Dantesque invention, and indeed thinkers as far back Plato saw the artistic birth as parallel, though distinct from, to a human birth. Yet Dante’s insistence on the act of breastfeeding is a crucial modification, in that it emphasizes the intimacy and naturalness of the act of feeding, and more strikingly, suggests that there is not an opposition between the male and female forms of procreation, but rather a fluid integration.