T S Eliot’s genius for quotation gave me my first taste of Dante: the marvellous epigraph to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and a line at the end of ‘The Waste Land’ – “Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina” (“then he hid himself in the fire that refines them”). Torn out of Dante’s context and paraphrased by my English teacher, they had the enchanting strangeness of words in a language I couldn’t understand or pronounce properly and a poetry breathed into them by Eliot’s own.
Several years later I spent a couple of months on a basic Italian language course at the Università per Stranieri di Perugia. A fellow student had studied Canto V of the Inferno in Canada and it enchanted me so much that I learned about half of it. It stuck, and I used to murmur it to my baby daughter when I was patting her to sleep on my shoulder. Rhythmical, murmured in a soothing tone, and to her completely meaningless, it nearly always worked like a charm.
In fact this fifth canto is both incredibly dramatic and violently moving. It starts with the horror and terror of a plunge into the circle of Hell where sexual sinners are punished. Dante and his guide pass the monstrous judge at the gate. They find themselves in a vast darkness where the souls of those who surrendered to sexual desire are whirled on winds that will sweep them about helplessly for all eternity. There are many famous names among them but the overall impression is of vast nameless crowds, compared to flocks of lamenting cranes or starlings. Dante asks to speak to one particular pair, Paolo and Francesca. These fly to him like homing doves in a momentary pause of the wind. Francesca speaks, Paolo is silent. Francesca tells Dante about the moment when she and Paolo gave in to their love. There’s a sudden shift from the enormous indistinct panorama of restless movement, cacophonous wailing, snatched glimpses and horror to an individual voice, dwelling on a tender, intimate, particular memory, and a single trembling kiss. At this point, responses divide. Some people find Francesca deeply sympathetic, others not. What everyone agrees is that she’s brilliantly realised as an individual character and voice. Whether he’s evoking a real personal acquaintance, a near contemporary or a figure of ancient history or myth, Dante creates a sense of the individual with an intensity that was, I believe, utterly revolutionary in his time and is still startling today. We’ll look at several examples.
We, of course, will be doing all our reading in translation. I’ll provide passages from a variety of poet-translators. When it comes to the detail of expression, we’ll be studying Dante’s effects as filtered by these translators. They themselves are gifted poets. The personal spin they’ve put on Dante’s work itself makes for great poetry, which we can learn from both as writers and readers. We’ll also look at some work inspired by Dante but taking off in its own directions.
Dante’s genius for evoking character goes with a genius for telling stories. The Divine Comedy is one tremendous story, that of Dante’s journey down into Hell, through the centre of earth, up the mountain of Purgatory and on through the heavens to a reunion with Beatrice and the vision of God. He himself, with all his conflicting, changing feelings and developing awareness, is the hero and narrator of this overarching plot. As far as the class is concerned, we can only look at it in brief outline. However, the whole work is a swarm of shorter stories as Dante encounters spirit after spirit and they tell him about their own lives and more particularly their deaths. By looking closely at a few of these, I hope that those who want to will grow as poets by studying Dante’s narrative techniques. I hope we’ll all be imaginatively enriched by sharing responses to some of the most compelling brief tales in the literary heritage. One is that of Ulysses’ final mad journey to the uninhabited far side of the globe. For Homer, all Ulysses wanted was to get back home. Our Ulysses is the one imagined by Dante, the supreme, restless traveller who never could settle at home because there was always more of the world to discover. The Jewish Italian writer Primo Levi kept his sense of human value alive in Auschwitz by regularly repeating the speech Dante gives to Ulysses when he exhorts his men to join him in this final journey.
Really great literature must surely always both be fiercely particular and have the power to reach beyond or through the particular to speak to us all. This Dante does. His characters are utterly distinctive and at the same time universal, crystallising passions and situations with the clarity and force that have him a fruitful model to so many major writers.
If most of his most memorable characters come in the Inferno, his most sublime visionary moments are in the Paradiso, and some of his most tender personal encounters are in the Purgatorio. Magnificent though the descriptions of the Inferno are, the point of Dante’s journey is to emerge from the misery, alienation, spiritual distortion and hopelessness of Hell to the joy, love and ever greater light of Purgatory and Paradise. For this reason, although we’ll spend at least half our time in Hell we will look at the later divisions of the afterlife as well.
Explore Dante’s colossal influence on English language writers and how his work can feed your own writing on Edmund’s new course, Re-writing Dante. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.