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Dante at 700 - Part 2

Watercolour by Blake
By William Blake

I finished my earlier post by highlighting Dante’s North East links – his reference to Bede and his awareness of Northumbrian border conflict.  There is, arguably a third link.  When describing Heaven, Dante often uses the expression “dolce vita” – a label which later attached itself to Fellini’s film and then to a Newcastle nightclub.  In Dante’s descriptions of Heaven (which are always accompanied by self-deprecating reminders that it is indescribable) he often talks about love, and light, and dancing, so perhaps the club owners weren’t too far off the mark.

“Dolce” is often translated as “sweet” but it seems to be a slightly bigger word than its English equivalent, with connotations of goodness and worthiness.  The life lived in Heaven is of course nothing like the hedonistic pleasure of a pudding – it is the fulfilment of all that is best in Man.  In the recent Radio 4 programme, Vittorio Montemaggi talked about his experience of reading The Divine Comedy with prisoners.  One prisoner suggested to him that Hell, Purgatory and Heaven are states of mind and indeed states of being which we inhabit at different times of our lives, and I think that this opens up interesting ways of looking at the poem.  To some, this may suggest that Dante may have been influenced by Plato’s three-fold division of the mind in Republic, but while we know that Dante was familiar with bits of Plato, this may be a red herring as I believe that the Republic was not known in the West in Dante’s time.

It’s generally agreed that the three-part story Dante tells is, in a very oblique way, his own story, the story of how he came to be the poet who was capable of writing The Divine Comedy.  The 14th century began, for Dante, with a period of great external and inner conflict.  In 1300, he was appointed to rule Florence as one of its six priori.  He ordered the banishment of his political opponent Corso Donati (who was also a relative of his wife) and his friend/poetic mentor Guido Cavalcanti.  A year or so later, Corso Donati returned triumphantly from exile and Dante was himself banished.  For the rest of his life Dante wandered Northern Italy as an asylum-seeker, dreaming of his own triumphant return as a great poet.  In the event, he died of malaria in Ravenna in 1321, having only recently finished his great work.

Perhaps the anger and vindictiveness of the Inferno derive from Dante’s still-fresh anger at his political opponents?  Perhaps, in Purgatorio, Dante is slowly coming to terms with his past and acknowledging that his own failings are partly responsible for his misfortunes.  Perhaps, in his later years, he finally “sees the light” in Ravenna, recognising that a life of imagination and love is more “dolce” than a quest for power.  There are, as we have said, many philosophical routes into The Divine Comedy, and perhaps this is a good time to think about practical ways to come to terms with the text.

On Radio 4, Katya Adler’s discussion was punctuated by Martin Sheen’s readings from the 2012 Penguin translation, done by Robin Kirkpatrick.  These readings were magnificent, and I would be interested to hear from anyone who has listened to the audiobook of this translation.  Nonetheless, I can’t really recommend anything other than getting to grips with “the original”.

I have read that 80% of Dante’s Italian is accessible to a modern Italian speaker – in a sense this is unsurprising because Italian is in essence the Florentine dialect which Dante refined for poetic use.  On the other hand, even Italian readers need plenty of explanatory notes.  There are many references in the text to Dante’s friends, enemies and other near-contemporaries, for which we all need the help of the scholars.  I found the older translation by John Ciardi extremely helpful in this regard.

Before you tackle Dante himself, I would strongly recommend two recent pieces of scholarship. The OUP’s Very Short Introductions series includes a slim volume, packed with useful knowledge, by Peter Hainsworth and David Robey.  The latter taught some of my contemporaries at Oxford, and was still effortlessly dispensing wisdom on Dante when I visited the Oxford Literary Festival in 2017.  Equally good is Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity by Prue Shaw – beautifully readable, setting down the fruits of a lifetime’s research concerning Dante’s life, historical context, and poetic method. 

No-one could call The Divine Comedy an “easy read”.  In a recent TLS article, Peter Hainsworth says that

“the boundaries between the literal and the metaphorical, the historical and the fantastic, the personal and the symbolic are constantly changing.”

Nonetheless, Dante is rarely deliberately obscure.  The writing is often strikingly direct and because we encounter hundreds of characters, each with his or her own story to tell, there is always something new to divert us.

Perhaps a good way to finish would be to ask – which is the best bit?  Back at Oxford, I was told (by an almost equally ignorant undergraduate) that the Inferno was the only bit worth reading because of the grimness and variety of the human suffering on show.  This view seems to have derived from Victor Hugo, who was not averse to scenes of misery in his own work.  It’s very clear that the tormented characters in Hell inspired many of Hugo’s fellow Romantics.  If you need proof, you need only (subject to lockdown restrictions) visit Wallington to see Alexander Munro’s sculptural group of the doomed lovers Paolo and Francesca.  However, many modern aficionados give the prize to Paradiso, because of sensational use of words to describe the indescribable.

My favourite individual canto is Inferno 26 – a very popular choice, often known as “The Ulysses Canto”.  Notice that Ulysses is quite deep in hell, with deceivers.  Possibly because of his political downfall, Dante seems to have disapproved of deception and treachery more than anything else.   Nonetheless, Ulysses makes a magnificent and stirring speech (in easily comprehensible Italian) to his men as he sails with them to destruction:

Considerate la vostra semenza;

Fatti non foste viver come bruti

Ma per seguir virtute e conoscenza.

“Consider who you are and where you came from: you were not made to live like beasts, but to pursue virtue and knowledge.”

The Ulysses Canto, and these lines in particular, were a source of inspiration to Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi during his worst days.  Even as we admire the beauty of the language, we are puzzled by the paradox that this speech is made by one of the “baddies” who is doomed to suffer in eternity.  While the Inferno appears to pigeon-hole its sinners, the poem as a whole is never quite as rigid or as logical as it looks at first sight, and this is one of its strengths.

A whole three week celebration of the life and work of Dante begins at the Lit & Phil on December 2nd - full details and how to book can be found here: Dante Celebrations 

About the author

Keith Jewitt

Keith Jewitt is a retired accountant, an environment enthusiast dedicated to the “Keep Jesmond Clean” campaign and a community activist. He is also the author of In a Magpie’s Eye: The Jesmond Year in Haiku. Keith lives in Jesmond.

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