THE 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death (and, let’s hope, also the fulfilment of his own divine vision) is a prime moment to expand the vast output of work delivered regularly by committed glossators.
Mark Vernon’s detailed and immensely thoughtful commentary arrives at approximately the same distance from its focus as did the Mishna and Talmud on Hebrew scripture. I have a growing sense that some time in the future some classic copies of la Divina Commedia will be produced with an encircling text of diverse and intellectually solid and/or adventurous glosses; Vernon’s reflections and arguments would certainly win a place in such divine encirclement.
Although he clearly loves Dante’s poetry (and love in all its forms is at the heart of the Divine Comedy’s revelation), Vernon’s glossator’s mode is not especially analytic as regards the verse itself. You must read quite a way in before coming across an allusion to a simile, for example. His personal experience as a psychotherapist and student of philosophy, polished further with physics, theology, and ordination, opens, however, a very special reflective door into Dante’s thinking and expression: its dreamlike design is peppered constantly with personal experience and knowledge.
Vernon’s description and analysis of The Gate of Purgatory in Canto 9 of the work’s second part is a good example of his insight: “If inwardly, Dante had experienced the outward actions of Lucia as a kidnap, almost a rape, as he awakens, he realizes how profoundly mistaken he is. Eros is actually speeding him on his journey towards divine love.”
Treating the whole content of the text from hell to heaven on an extremely level playing field is also a notable element of Vernon’s approach. References to all characters encountered (of Greek mythological, Roman and medieval Italian historical, and Christian saintly types) are assessed equally. There seems to be no hierarchy here in the author’s thought — something that he obviously believes he shares with Dante, and something that certainly gives his analysis an efficient and potentially useful edge for assisting some of the poem’s readers. His early inclusion of the fact that each part of the work ends with the same word “stelle”, “stars”, also indicates this.
Within the Inferno, Vernon’s assessment of Dante’s treatment of Muhammad (and by extension Muslims in general) is appropriately contemporary, showing that Islam is indeed possessed with rich intellectual and spiritual elements, whether it provides an individual with a pathway to the divine or not. Also, in the commentary on Inferno’s Canto 18, his equivalent assessment of “Malebolge” with the sun or the city of Jerusalem as “real” places or things that the body, mind, and soul encounter makes the connection between the work’s sections, asserting a unity: “‘There is a place in Hell called Malebolge.’ . . .The direct statement underlines the realism of the Divine Comedy.”
Vernon’s interest in, and knowledge, of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and other members of their Inklings group may well have been a path to this engagement with Dante. Charles Williams’s analysis of romantic love as a source of enlightenment far excelling logic and pure reason is reflected throughout Vernon’s text. Vernon’s own published study of Owen Barfield (A Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the last Inkling, and the evolution of consciousness) suggests that he has his own array of Virgil, Statius, and Beatrice to assist the ascent. Clearly, Vernon in this commentary proposes that we all must be our own Dante, and make his journey.
Canon Jonathan Boardman is Vicar of St Paul’s, Clapham, and Priest-in-Charge of St Peter’s, Clapham, in the diocese of Southwark. He also writes on Italian cultural history.
Dante’s Divine Comedy: A guide for the spiritual journey
Angelico Press £18
Church Times Bookshop £16.20
Listen to an interview with Mark Vernon on this week’s Church Times Podcast.