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Dante at 700 – Part 1

Portrait of Dante

“Of all world-famous poets, none is less likely to appeal to the modern reader than Dante (c1265-1321).”

Thus spake the magisterial John Carey, in his new book A Little History of Poetry. 

Dante fails most of Carey’s tests for identifying likeable poetry – he is not interested in class, he does not generally see both sides of a question, and he is (horrid word) “judgemental”.  He imagines his own political enemies suffering in Hell, and he thinks of himself heading for eternal bliss with Beatrice.  Sometimes, reading Dante, I am reminded of a marvellous quote from The Buddha of Suburbia – “we dream of treating others badly, and of being treated well ourselves.”

Does Dante need a Defence Counsel?  If The Divine Comedy itself is to be believed, the answer may be yes.  Unusually, Dante doesn’t just give us clues about how he lived his life – he also tells us what he expects to be doing after he is dead.  Dante indicates that before ascending to heaven, he is likely to spend a fairly long time on the first level of Purgatory, being punished for his pride.  The punishment, as Carey says, suggests “an ingenious interest in cruelty”.

The Proud, like Dante, are punished by being forced to climb the gigantic mountain of Purgatory, crushed by enormous boulders which they can barely carry.  Perhaps, 700 years on, he is still grinding his way up the spiral path.  As an orthodox Catholic of the 14th century, he believed that the prayers of the living could shorten the punishment of the souls in Purgatory – so it’s just possible that by celebrating his life and work in this 700th anniversary year we are shortening his painful journey up the stairway to heaven.

In the after-life itself, Dante has plenty of illustrious fans.  Dante Gabriel Rossetti liked Dante so much he even changed his name (he was christened Gabriel Charles).  W.E. Gladstone, while stupendously industrious as a politician and moral reformer, was also a published Dante scholar.  Oscar Wilde begged to have The Divine Comedy in his prison cell and, thanks to the intercession of honorary Jesmondite Richard Burdon Haldane, he received an English translation.  Best of all is TS Eliot – “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them – there is no third.”

Dante also has living supporters.  Earlier this year, Dante was discussed in a three-part programme on Radio 4 presented by the BBC’s Brussels correspondent Katya Adler.  From this programme I learned that there is a Centre for Dante Studies not far away from us at Leeds University, and its Head, Professor Matthew Treherne, Is studying Dante’s views on money.  Florence, in Dante’s time, was a major financial centre and he was clearly troubled by the way in which money seemed to have taken on a life of its own, undermining the value of good honest toil.

My reasons for taking The Divine Comedy off the shelf in March 2020 were very bad ones, mainly to do with numerology.  Over 40 years ago at Oxford I had some friends in the Italian faculty and one of them outlined its extraordinary structure.  Each line has 11 syllables. The poem is written in tercets of three lines – so each tercet has 33 syllables.  There are 33 cantos for Hell, 33 for Purgatory and 33 for Heaven – plus an extra introductory canto, making a nice round 100.  Bizarrely, it was this strange mesmerising pattern of numbers which made me resolve that “one day” I would read it.  It was almost a disappointment when one of my friends quoted the first lines of the actual text:

“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura

Che la diritta via era smarrita.”

The unshowy words of this opening tercet tell us that at 35 years old Dante found himself in a dark wood, having lost his way.  The wood is of course not a literal wood – fortunately scholars all seem to agree (and when does that ever happen?) that the wood is a metaphorical or allegorical one, representing sin.  Frustratingly, for a confession-addicted modern reader, Dante never tells us what sort of sin.  Presently, Dante’s poetic hero Virgil appears to guide him, explaining that the only way out involves going down into hell.

Thus, I wasn’t looking for “relevance” when I embarked on this journey with Dante, juggling my large-print Italian copy of Inferno (bought on holiday in Bologna), my John Ciardi translation (complete with useful notes) and an Italian dictionary so old it was priced both in £ s d and the “new” decimal currency.  Once I read beyond the opening tercet, the poem initially transported me away from everyday life, just as it transported its first readers over 700 years ago.  It’s worth mentioning at this point that Inferno was an almost instant hit, and that Purgatorio and Paradiso were, to use modern parlance, “eagerly-anticipated sequels”.  It’s also worth mentioning that those first mediaeval readers (you’ll note that I prefer the old spelling of mediaeval which I learned at school) understood that Dante had not actually been to Hell, Purgatory and Heaven.  They knew that they were reading a carefully-crafted piece of allegorical fiction.  Many of those early fans would already have read other fictional works featuring complex allegorical schemes and therefore, in a way, they were a more sophisticated audience than us.  Modern literary English is essentially accountant’s English – simple words, short sentences, nothing fancy.  I should know, as I’m an accountant.

While the enjoyment of reading the poem never ceased, the poem seemed determined not to be left out of modern times.  In March and April 2020, as the death toll from the virus mounted, I felt as though I was spiralling down into Hell with Dante as my Virgil.  The middle of 2020 was like a foretaste of Purgatory – a long and patient ascent of endurance and expiation.  Late in the year I felt myself, like Dante, realising that love is answer to most of our questions, as I savoured more and more the companionship of those closest to me.

Dante, like Shakespeare, is so all-encompassing that almost any approach to the text, however absurd, yields fresh insights.  To prove this, I’m going to ask – what does Dante have to say about North East England?  In Canto 10 of Paradiso Thomas Aquinas lists the illustrious Doctors of the Church, telling us to “see next the flames breathed forth by Isidore and Bede”.  In Canto 19 of Paradise, during a long denunciation of the misrule prevalent throughout Christendom, we are told of “the unquenchable pride which makes the Scot and the Englishman mad, so that they cannot bear to stay within their own borders.”  These lines were written in about 1320, while cross-border raiding was at its height, and the great walls of Newcastle took the form we see today.  Dante, as an ex-diplomat, clearly knew what was going on in the North East, and intended his work to have relevance for his own times.

In later blog posts, I will continue to explore Dante, and I’ll try to include some more pointers for those who are wondering whether the journey is worth making.

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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