THIS month brings 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.”
Not everyone has quite been able to take Dante as straightforwardly as that, and the casual reader picking up his culminating work, the Divine Comedy, might be more inclined to agree with Horace Walpole, who calls the great Tuscan “a Methodist parson in bedlam”. In short, like Dante himself accompanied by Virgil and then Beatrice, we need our own guide through his vivid topography of the afterlife, and there is already a colossal literature to help us.
John Took has already given us a full-length biography of Dante, and now he gives us a shorter and more incisive account of why Dante should matter to us 700 years after his death, addressed — perhaps a little smugly — to the “intelligent” reader.
It is important to say at the outset that this is a book about why Dante matters, not about why the Divine Comedy matters. The reader of the Comedy needs two things: a proper topographical overview of the geography and cosmology of Dante’s universe, not least because the poet is more than happy to go off on extraordinary scientific tangents about moon spots and the like; and exhaustive notes elucidating the obscurities of Italian character and history, without which the poem can seem entirely opaque. Robin Kirkpatrick’s superlative edition, published by Penguin, fulfils this need decisively.
Took has a different aim in mind: this book devotes as much space to Dante’s early work, the Vita Nuova, and the work of his middle years, the Convivio, as it does to the Comedy itself. This is because Took approaches Dante as the supreme poetic existentialist of scholasticism, quoting Paul Tillich when he writes that Dante “gives in poetic symbols an all-embracing existential doctrine of man”.
The Dante monument in the Piazza dei Signore, Verona. The statue, by Ugo Zannoni, was unveiled in 1865
And here we come to the sticking point. Existential philosophy is not easy going, especially when Took proposes it to us in this book in the full-fat version of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Reading the online reviews of this book and of the longer biography of Dante by Took, I feared that Dante would be smothered in the grim prose preferred by contemporary academic discourse.
This is not so. Took does have an extraordinary writing style: part Thomas Carlyle, part Baron Corvo. The reader will need to get used to sentences like “if only by way of honouring the kind of otherness always and everywhere entering into sameness as the condition of good conversation we need to pause for a moment over Dante himself. . .” But once we have our ear acclimatised for this, Took proves a truly illuminating guide: his characterisation of the Comedy as a “song of ascents”, in which the Inferno is journeying under the aspect of seeing, the Purgatorio, journeying under the aspect of striving, and the Paradiso, journeying under the aspect of surpassing, gives the flavour.
I did not think I would enjoy this book; I did, and I commend it.
Canon Robin Ward is the Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.
Why Dante Matters: An intelligent person’s guide
Church Times Bookshop £18