To Read the Commedia Undaunted

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Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity by Prue Shaw (Liveright)

There is a vast amount of history contained in Dante’s Commedia. I refer not only to those events and lives that came before the poem’s composition and helped to shape it but also to its status as a wellspring of ideas and lines that found their way into some of the most accomplished writing that flowed afterwards – much of which readers today are likely to be more familiar with than they are with Dante’s poetry. That this history can be conveyed in such a relatively short volume as Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity, with clarity and close attention paid to significant contextual details and the nuances of literary technique, appealing both to a non-specialist reader and those familiar with the Commedia, is astonishing.

One prompt for writing Reading Dante, according to author Prue Shaw, was a conversation with two well-read friends:

‘Two writers I know, liberal humanists both, on being asked if they had read Dante, answered almost in unison: why would I bother? In this book I try to show why they should bother.’

A scholar of Dante’s work for decades, currently Emeritus Reader of Italian studies at University College London, the editor of an authoritative edition of the Monarchia and of an online Commedia manuscript resource, Shaw has achieved with this book a wonderful balance of critical depth and intelligibility. Intent on encouraging readers with scant knowledge of the poem, rather than merely adding another exegetical thesis on a detail of Dante’s work to a towering pile of scholarship, Shaw’s book will no doubt impress her fellow academics for its integration of the historical literature around the Commedia and the scrutiny towards the precise metre and varied vernacular elements of the poem.

Some reviewers have drawn a comparison between Virgil’s role in the Commedia as Dante’s guide and Shaw’s role as the author of Reading Dante, leading us through episodes of Florence’s complex political history, of that little of Dante’s life that is known from the few relevant documents that survive, and through the specific structure and thematic content of the poem, its allusions and those echoes found in later works of literature. But there is a deeper sense in which Shaw’s book reflects her subject, in the simple chapter headings: familiar abstract concepts that admit of myriad particular experiences, such as Friendship, Love and Power, reminiscent of the ordering of Dante’s universe according to moral types. The schematic of Dante’s afterlife, Shaw admits, ‘projects a view of the moral universe – of good and bad actions, of virtue and sin – that can be described (and not unfairly) as hierarchical and judgmental: two adjectives not best designed to arouse interest or sympathy’. Sins, punishments and angels grouped neatly and hinting at a religious stricture might be one of the reasons that more readers are not drawn to the Commedia. But as Shaw makes clear, this organisational clarity belies the complexity of the work:

‘The poem may embody moral certainties in its design, but the telling of the tale confronts us with the ambiguities, the reticences, and the self-deceptions of real human behaviour in a real human world.’

Shaw’s thematic structure allows her to range freely through the poem and the history around the poem, to highlight recurring images, draw connections between details that are spaced far apart, all to give a better sense of the intricacy of Dante’s art, which itself takes real events and figures into a timeline and architectural structure of its own:

‘The interweaving of past, present and future becomes a part of the poem’s fabric and fashioning, handled with great virtuosity as Dante moves between these different planes, orchestrating his various themes.’

Published in three cantiche, or parts – Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso – the Commedia was written between 1307-1308 and 1320 in political exile, but it is set in 1300. It features Dante himself as the central figure, a pilgrim led by the classical poet Virgil into Hell, up Mount Purgatory and finally towards Paradise and an encounter with the love of his life, Beatrice and finally his creator. Along the way Dante encounters many people familiar to him from his past – some of whom were still living in 1300 – and from literary history. Their discussions explore the spectrum of human relations, desires and errors. In Hell and Purgatory, specific instances of wrongdoing in the world are echoed in the punishments that Dante observes.

Each chapter, indeed every page of Shaw’s book brings our attention to another aspect of this apparently inexhaustible poem, considers the major aspects of Dante’s religious and political worldview, the depth of his infatuation with Beatrice and also the smaller, but no less insightful, details:

‘[E]ach section of the poem ends with the word stelle (“stars”). Each occurrence of the word marks the completion of a stage in the protagonist’s journey.’

There are helpful repetitions throughout, Shaw returning to certain points to remind and clarify. Again, this mark of a fine teacher bringing the learner along also seems to reflect the expertly woven fabric of Dante’s poem, with its terza rima scheme balancing forward motion and reference back:

‘The first and third lines of the tercet rhyme, but the middle line introduces a new rhyme, which will then become the paired rhyme of the following tercet.’

Shaw considers the politics of Italy in the Middle Ages, of the conflict between the anti-imperial Guelfs and anti-papal Ghibellines in thirteenth-century Italy – and the later split between Black Guelfs and White Guelfs, and the corruption of Pope Boniface VIII – on Dante’s life and writing. With equal brilliance, Shaw unpacks the history of two types of allegory in European and Biblical literature and the way in which allegory is manifested in particular in the Commedia. Shaw’s text is also complemented by several of Botticelli’s drawings, among other selected illustrations, offering perceptive comments on the art relating to her subject as well.

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In the chapter on Numbers, Shaw shows a self-awareness as enthusiastic scholar, in her discussion of trinitarian conceptions in the Commedia and wider literature. A convincing case is made for the centrality of the idea of ‘three-in-one’ – from the cantiche focusing on the three realms of the afterlife, to the form of the terza rima. But Shaw admits that it is easy to get carried away with such patterns, finding instances in ever more places, within or beyond the margins of the poem:

‘While it is wise to be wary of the literal-mindedness that detects a trinitarian allusion in every instance of the number three in the Commedia, it remains true that the resonance of the number enriches the poem by connecting it meaningfully with the view of the world it celebrates.’

Still, Shaw’s reference to codons, part of the human genetic code, adds to the sense that Dante’s vision of a cosmic order finds a mirror not only in human psychology but also at the deepest level of modern scientific research:

‘Dante would surely have felt awe and delight had he lived to hear what molecular biologists discovered as recently as 1959 – that a principle of three-in-one is the very basis of life itself at the molecular level. The unit of meaning in the genetic code is a triplet – a sequence of three base pairs which specifies a particular amino acid.’

The pair who had the biggest influence on the Commedia are Virgil and Beatrice, ‘the one a literary passion, the other an enigmatic, elusive real-life relationship.’ Shaw also considers how Dante’s friendships with two contemporaries, Guido Cavalcanti and Guido Guinizzelli also fed into the Commedia’s conception of love, and how he pondered two metaphorical approaches to life, represented as a ‘journey’, as expressed by Ovid in the story of Ulysses and Virgil, in that of Aeneas.

In the final chapter, on Words, perhaps the most illuminating of all the chapters – again, just as the Commedia ends in the heavens – the richness of Dante’s language is confirmed, especially in the skill with which he drew on a range of Italian dialects, including the Tuscan songs of troubadour Arnaut Daniel, as well as Biblical and Latin references, all transformed within the confines of a strict poetic metre to express fundamental aspects of humanity. Shaw’s analysis of an early line when the pilgrim calls for help using the word Miserere is masterful:

‘Only by keeping it in Latin can he preserve the double allusiveness, to the Bible and to the Aeneid. But it is fitted here into a vernacular context: Miserere di me, where di me is Italian and where the hybrid phrase forms a perfect first half of a 6, 10 hendecasyllable. The Latin form Miserere mei would not have worked here metrically.’

Shaw explains, as well as anyone might, why Dante is considered to have invented the Italian language as it is today. The ways in which his words have echoed down the ages is also addressed by Shaw, by reference to the work of the Romantic poets, Tennyson, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound, Primo Levi and more recently Seamus Heaney. Far from being unappreciated in his time, though, Shaw draws attention to examples of verses from the Commedia written on legal documents in the fourteenth-century:

‘Lawyers at the time took pains to avoid leaving any blank space in legal documents, in order to prevent the amending of the documents by the addition of codicils. Fragments of poetic text, probably cited from memory, were often used as a space filler. In 1317 and again in 1319, while Dante was still alive and well before he had finished writing the Paradiso, we find lines from the Inferno quoted for this purpose in Bolognese documents. We can safely conclude that the Inferno had been released to the public before the poem was complete, and that it was widely popular.’

I finished Reading Dante with a sense that there is perhaps no more finely crafted work of literature in existence, one which is both drawn from a very specific historical context whilst exploring universal questions and emotions; one in which use of language and musicality are interwoven so precisely with thematic content, and which has found its way into the everyday language of modern Europe and underpinned some of the finest poetry written since. Shaw has won me over, for certain. Her book will leave any reader prepared to go forward, or back, to Dante’s masterpiece.

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