Dante can seem overwhelming. T.S. Eliot’s peremptory declaration that ‘Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them: there is no third’ is more likely to be off-putting these days than inspiring. Shakespeare’s plays are constantly being staged and filmed, and in all sorts of ways, with big names in the big parts, and when we see them we can connect with the characters and the issues with not too much effort.
Dante is much more remote – a medieval Italian author, writing about a trip he claims to have made through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise at Easter 1300, escorted first by a very dead poet, Virgil, and then by his dead beloved, Beatrice. and meeting the souls of lots of people we only vaguely know of, if we’ve heard of them at all. First he sees the damned being punished in ways we are likely to find grotesque or repulsive. And then, when he meets souls working their way towards heavenly bliss or already enjoying it, there are increasing doses of philosophy and theology for us to digest.
Yet we might feel we should give it a go and grit our teeth, get hold of one of the hundreds of translations that have appeared since the first complete one of 1802 by Henry Boyd. With luck we will make it through to the end of Inferno, impressed by the geography of the afterworld and by Ulysses, Francesca da Rimini and some of the other leading figures, but generally still feeling uncomfortable with the idea that Dante might be doing something up to Shakespeare’s standard. In 1818 a friend of Byron’s, John Cam Hobhouse, was told by an acquaintance working for the Longman’s publishing firm that ‘the world was sick of Dante’. And even the well-intentioned contemporary reader can feel much the same deep down.
The fact is Dante has never been for wimps. There are stories of Florentine workmen chanting bits of the poem (badly), but serious early readers needed help almost as much as we do. Manuscripts produced less than twenty years after his death in 1321 are already full of notes explaining what words mean, who the characters are, what Dante is really saying. In other words Dante asks his readers to be ready to work at his poem, to put themselves into it, rather than just be passive recipients of otherworldly wisdom, and if they do, his bet is that they will get a great deal out of it.
That too may sound off-putting. Do you have to put in a daily dose of study over fifty years as W.E. Gladstone apparently did? Modern scholarship often gives the impression of being a hotbed of internal dissent, but it seems united in presuming that to understand Dante you have to know the Bible, Aristotle, the byways of Medieval thought and much more. If that’s the situation, maybe Dante really is unreadable for most people.
The opposite is true. With a modest amount of patience the busy modern reader, Italophone or not, should be able to get a long way into Dante and to enjoy him. There isn’t an end-point, any more than there is with Shakespeare. Dante presses his readers to think (and to enjoy thinking) in a way Shakespeare doesn’t, and he has some very clear ideas he wants us to accept and assimilate. But he provides fewer definitive answers to the problems he obviously raises than we might expect. That is one of the reasons for dissent among scholars, and also one of the reasons why every reader, given a certain amount of information about the context, idiom, and history, can think things through for himself or herself, and up to a point to construct his or her own Dante. And what we think about regards not just the fate of souls after death but even more human life on this earth. The idiom may be foreign, the world view long vanished, but, though Dante is not our contemporary, much of what he says about morality, politics, language and love bears in on our lives today (for instance, his insistence that organised religion and the secular state must not interfere with each other).
And then of course there is the poetry. The power, economy and delicacy of the phrasing may or may not trickle through into English, but it’s hard not to be swept away by the sheer inventiveness of his imagery, ranging from the suicide Pier della Vigna transformed into a barren but strangely articulate tree to lovers of wisdom appearing to Dante’s amazed gaze in heaven like circles of dancing stars; from the sad father-figure of Virgil to the beautiful, authoritative Beatrice.
The addictiveness is evident from the fact that Dante enthusiasts, Christian or not, find it hard to imagine Hell in any other way, and spend happy minutes musing about which circle is best suited to some particular friend, enemy or public figure. Dante thought Paradise was much more difficult to get into and much more difficult to describe. We are certainly not accustomed to prolonged evocations of happiness. Paradiso gives us one way, and an astoundingly dynamic one, of thinking about what human happiness might ultimately be.