The medieval theory of the four levels of meaning has often been quoted by critics as a relevant model for the study of the multi-layered language of Finnegans Wake. Dante’s versions of the theory in the Convivio and the “Letter to Can Grande della Scala” are particularly important in this context, insofar as Dante was the first modern European poet to claim for his own love poetry the same interpretative method traditionally used for the divine word. In this essay I discuss whether Dante’s theory can be “applied” to the Wake, or whether it is in fact already inscribed within Joyce’s text, made part of its self-referential interpretative system, and with what effects for the theory as well as for the text. I argue that Dante’s medieval exegetical model is transformed in the Wake through precise references that constantly evoke and confound Dante’s terms, thus showing its inadequacy for the modern polysemic work but also, at the same time, acknowledging its fundamental role in the elaboration of such modern radical polysemy
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