Robin Ward celebrates the author of the Divine Comedy, who died on 14 September 1321
This year is the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante, the poet of whom T S Eliot said, ‘Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third.’ But the unprepared reader who picks up the Divine Comedy is perhaps more likely to end up agreeing with the 18th century critic Horace Walpole, who described the poet as ‘a Methodist parson in Bedlam.’ Of course, anything written seven hundred years ago is remote to us and asks of us a particular sort of preparation to appreciate. This is particularly true of the Divine Comedy: we need to be told about the extraordinary topography of Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, and we need to know the names, places and stories of the myriad individuals he encounters, some contemporaries, some heroes and villains of the past, whom he encounters as first Vergil and then Beatrice guide him towards the concluding vision of God. Fortunately for English speakers, we have the outstanding three-volume edition of the Divine Comedy edited by Robin Kirkpatrick and published by Penguin, which gives us all this and the benefit of a fine translation of the Italian as well.
How to start? The important point to make first is that Dante is both completely confident and familiar with the conventions of the great epic poems of antiquity – Vergil is his guide after all – but also hugely creative and original as a theologian, thinker and indeed spiritual guide. His great poem begins with a descent into the underworld, familiar to any reader of Vergil’s Aeneid, but in this Christian poem we see the Hell of the mediaeval imagination transformed into a place of moral reckoning, a moral reckoning in which the damned in their sufferings give account against themselves.
The Dante scholar John Took calls the Comedy as a whole a ‘Song of Ascents’: in Hell we see ‘journeying under the aspect of seeing’, a spiritual mirror we hold up as much to ourselves as to those who are in torment. The Inferno contains some of the great set pieces of the poem: the adulterous lovers Paulo and Francesca over whom Dante weeps in Canto V (Gladstone similarly moved had a statue made of their first kiss); the wretchedly corrupt Pope Nicholas III in Canto XIX, upside down in his fiery tomb awaiting the arrival of his hated successor Boniface VIII; the grim fate of Ugolino in Canto XXXIII, who starves to death with his children, whom he eats in vain.
Dante’s Hell we can recognise, like some Doom painting in a church over the chancel arch. Dante’s Purgatory is much more extraordinary: there was no consistent iconography of purgatory at all when he wrote, and yet he creates the mountain of purgatory which is at the same time an actual physical inversion of hell, and a spiritual inversion, as it shows the souls of the saved ascend from the place of waiting at its foot, through the thorough and painful purgation of the seven deadly sins – symbolised by the seven ‘P’s marked on Dante’s forehead by the angel at the entrance to purgatory proper – to the earthly paradise at the summit. Once again, we see pains fitted to sins: gluttons starve, the lustful burn and the slothful are forced to run. Whereas in Hell Dante consigns the damned to an ordering of punishments which is classical in shape, in purgatory the saved inhabit a universe of asceticism which is self-evidently Christian.
If as John Took writes the Inferno is ‘journeying under the aspect of seeing’, and the Purgatorio ‘journeying under the aspect of striving’, then the Paradiso as ‘journeying under the aspect of surpassing’ asks of us an imaginative engagement beyond anything that has gone before. T S Eliot said that the Paradiso was either intensely exciting or wholly incomprehensible: here the reader is helped by some of the most insightful visual art ever to have been made to accompany a poem, the illuminations of Giovanni di Paulo and the drawings of Botticelli. Leaving Vergil behind, Dante ascends through the various orders of the blessed guided by Beatrice, the woman for whom he feels a human love that becomes the means by which he will encounter divine love. And as the human form of Beatrice guides the poet towards the heart of divine love, so the human form of the incarnate Christ concludes the vision of the poem: as Dante experiences the vision of God, ‘Eternal light, you sojourn in yourself alone. Alone, you know yourself. Known to yourself, you, knowing, love and smile on your own being’, so Dante sees within this Trinitarian revelation ‘our human form’, at the heart of divine love.
Why should we make the imaginative and intellectual effort of learning to read Dante now? First, he completes the work of St Thomas Aquinas, his near contemporary, by working out in poetic image what Thomas expresses through scholastic method in the Summa Theologica. Second, he holds up to us a mirror of the human condition, and most especially the fundamental insight of Augustine that evil is the absence of love, and then makes of this a uniquely powerful account of the fulfilment of human nature in the gift of divine love. Last, he lends a uniquely lay voice to the achievement of medieval theology, a man of the city and the home, an exile and a courtier, a married man and a father, whose humanity touches us with pity at the plight of the damned, urges us on with the penitent in purgatory, and carries us forward to learn to love for ourselves the vision of light that the blessed in Paradise receive.
A review of John Took’s book Why Dante Matters will appear in next month’s issue