Dante's epic poem The Divine Comedy has inspired countless thinkers and writers since it was first published almost 700 years ago. Here, Dante scholar and author Nick Havely picks the best five books on how one medieval poet had such a lasting impact on world literature, and how Dante’s vitality transmits into modern culture.
When it comes to Dante, it’s the Commedia, a poetic work in three parts, or ‘canticles’ – Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso – which immediately springs to mind. It’s the kind of work that people refer to without even having read it, so tightly is it woven into our common cultural fabric. Why is it the most important work of Italian literature and, indeed, why is it considered a world masterpiece?
Well, this has to do with the work’s appeal and part of that – particularly in relation to the Inferno, which does have a primacy among the three books – is that it is a powerful story about witnessing and trying to comprehend extremes of violence and horror. This is why Dante tends to be identified with the Inferno and indeed why the Inferno is so often cited in the present day, in terms of trying to understand present day forms of horror and violence. War poems, for example, often draw to varying degrees and in various ways on the Inferno. A classic example is Seamus Heaney’s dialogue with Dante in his collection from 1979, Field Work, the concluding poem of which is Heaney’s own version of one of the most horrific stories in the Inferno, the story of Ugolino, the Pisan nobleman who is starved to death in a tower and who takes revenge on the politician who is responsible for his death.
There’s a similar sense of continuing conflict running through Heaney’s sense of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Another poem, ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’, is about his cousin who was a victim, murdered during the Troubles, and in it Heaney tries in some way to politically redeem the situation by including a ritual, which Dante describes at the beginning of Purgatorio, of cleansing the filth of the Inferno from his dead cousin’s face. Heaney continues this dialogue with Dante right the way through his career, seeing him as a precedent for writing poetry out of one’s locality – in Dante’s case the strife-ridden Florence, in Heaney’s case, the sectarian violence of Northern Ireland.
What was it about Dante’s specific historical locality that gave birth to the Commedia?
It’s a poem that comes out of conflict in Florence in various ways. In a most literal sense it comes out of Dante’s exile – he was exiled in 1302 as a result of the conflicts between several political factions and he remained exiled, in various parts of Italy, for the remainder of his life [he died in 1321]. The Commedia reflects that acute sense of the loss of one’s homeland and the resentment of that – Florence gets attacked quite viciously by characters in the Inferno. And then there’s the epigraph for the Inferno: “A Florentine by birth but not by disposition.”
“The epigraph for the Inferno reads: ‘A Florentine by birth but not by disposition’”
In the text there are constant references to divisions within the city which Dante sees as dating back to the century before him and being part of a much wider problem in Italy in general – mainly he finds a need for some higher authority to resolve conflicts. And that’s why Dante, later on in his career, becomes a strong supporter of Italy becoming a part of some kind of vivified Holy Roman Empire – which was still a possibility in his times, albeit a diminishing one. He had this ideal that if you had a single emperor who possessed everything, they wouldn’t be susceptible to greed and corruption and so they’d be able to unify warring states – not only in Italy but the whole of Europe – and provide some kind of universal government.
That can be seen as quite a dangerous vision, can’t it?
It can be, yes, and this is seen in the cultivation of Dante during the Risorgimento [in the 19th century], when he was taken as a prophet for the unification of Italy. But, when you say it’s a dangerous vision, it’s the appropriation of Dante by Mussolini that we think of first – Mussolini took the poet as part of his vision of what he called Romanità, Roman-ness, the idea of reviving an empire under a single ruler.
Dante has also been simplified quite recently as a voice which might be deployed in support of the European Union ideal. A. N. Wilson, on the occasion of the 750th anniversary of Dante’s birth, spoke of Dante as though he would be a voice for the ‘Remain’ campaign. One wonders what Dante might have thought of certain aspects of the European Union now, in relation to Greece, for instance. I expect it would be quite a dangerous thing to try to recruit Dante to your cause, whether left-wing or right-wing.
Putting the Commedia aside for a moment, how important are his other works? How do they sit alongside the Commedia?
The other works are important – they show aspects of Dante’s identity that one can perceive to a certain extent at various points in the Commedia. The Commedia is, of course, on one level, an extended love poem in the sense that it relates to a particular relationship, between Dante and Beatrice, which had been explored at great length in his earlier poetry, the collection called the Vita Nova – New Life – which is a kind of early autobiography concerned with the early development of that relationship. These are poems linked by his own prose commentary – so that is probably the most important text to look to if you’re going to move on from the Commedia. In terms of seeing Dante as a political philosopher, his most important political work, which, it is thought, he broke off at the point when he began the Commedia, is the Convivio. Like the Commedia, it’s written in the vernacular and is designed to be accessible to as many people as possible – the word ‘convivio’ means banquet, so the idea is that he is feeding a larger public.
And he wrote an essay, ‘On Eloquence in the Vernacular.’
Yes, and that has very much to do with his identity as a poet and his relation to the poetic tradition.
But writing in the vernacular could be seen as a political gesture, too, at a time when the vast majority of poetry was written in Latin – decipherable to only elite, educated members of society.
Indeed, and if you want to read one of his more overtly political works, which it is thought he wrote while writing the Commedia, read De Monarchia, in which he argues in favour of some kind of revived Holy Roman Empire. He saw that as the way forward for humanity. So, clearly, these other works are extremely important when it comes to getting a deeper understanding of the Commedia – there’s a dialogue between all the works.
Your first book is Dante’s Commedia (1308-1320) itself, and specifically the first canticle, the Inferno. Why have you chosen the Inferno over Purgatorio or Paradiso?
Well, it’s mainly through Inferno that what you might call the ‘shock and awe’ of Dante’s impact is felt. Inferno is, of course, where almost all readers start and where many of them indeed stop, which is a pity because Purgatorio is, in many senses, the ‘of this world’ part of the Commedia. It’s largely because of Inferno’s greater accessibility and vividness and indeed the violence. That’s what has always been the attraction. Plus, of course, it is the way into the Commedia, you can’t reach the higher places until you’ve travelled the lower regions.
You’ve specifically chosen the Robert Durling and Ronald Martinez translation.
The OUP edition is not the most easily accessible, nor the most attractive in style. Indeed Durling acknowledged that the style of translation is ‘literal’ and ‘craggy’. Yet it is a close and reliable translation, it gives you the original text on the facing page and it also has excellent notes. It’s very difficult to decide with the profusion of Dante translations that there are at the moment (including a number of good verse translations) what to recommend.
This edition is the one that students frequently use before they go on to the Italian editions. The notes are thorough and very accessible. Which edition to recommend for the new reader also raises several other questions about how to render Dante’s verse into English, and how much explanation is needed – both in the translation itself and in the form of commentary.
“I expect it would be quite a dangerous thing to try to recruit Dante to your cause, whether left-wing or right-wing ”
If one wanted to go for a complete translation, though – because it is such a pity for people to stop after the Inferno – I’d suggest the Everyman edition by Allen Mandelbaum, an American poet and professor who has given us one of the more readable verse translations of the Commedia. It’s not as scholarly as the Durling and Martinez, although there are plenty of notes by a Dante scholar. It’s the translation I use most in teaching Dante at university. A complete translation should encourage readers to go beyond the Inferno, through to Purgatorio – especially because, as I said, Purgatorio is the most ‘of this world’ part of the Commedia.
In what way is it ‘of this world’?
It’s a point emphasised once again in the recent OUP Very Short Introduction to Dante, edited by Peter Hainsworth and David Robey, which argues that the Purgatorio is the most humane part of the Commedia – the part most concerned with everyday lives, and the idea of Purgatorio was, of course, that it was a state which could bring the souls of the dead into contact with the souls of the living. Dante’s Purgatorio has that sense of souls reconstructing a society – it’s even been regarded as a kind of reformed church where groups of people are working together while also looking back to the world of the living, so it has that kind of humanity to it. And the humanity ties in with another prevalent theme: art and poetry. Dante is constantly encountering the souls of those who have to do with art or poetry – at the beginning, for example, he meets the soul of a musician who sets one of his poems to music – and he is always negotiating the place of his own work in relation to those who have gone before him. He pays tribute to his predecessors, while also questioning the validity of the fame given to artists. Crucially, he emphasises the value of human art, even in the afterlife, as a means to understanding the relationship between humanity and the deity.
Your second choice is Peter Hawkins’s Dante: A Brief History(2006), which explores Dante’s impact on artists and scholars alike. Does this make for a good introduction?
I think this work stands out as the strongest short introduction for probably three reasons. The first is that it’s lively and accessible without oversimplifying major issues concerning Dante’s politics, religion, poetics and sexuality. It’s also based on his own long study of Dante which resulted in one of the best critical accounts – his 1999 book Dante’s Testaments: Essays in Scriptural Imagination. And thirdly it derives from a long experience of teaching the subject. For instance, chapter three begins with the wonderful sentence: ‘There comes a time in every Dante class where someone blows the whistle on Beatrice.’ [Dante’s inamorata and guide.] Then it goes into a dramatisation of conversations between students about Dante’s relationship with Beatrice. That is some indication of its accessibility.
Take us into that classroom, then– how might some of those conversations about Beatrice go?
It’s something that has fascinated people for a long while: was it a real relationship? Hawkins, when he’s talking about the Dante classes, mentions questions like ‘how far did it go between them?’ and ‘Is he just in love with her because she’s dead?’ There was some debate in the 19th century about the historical Beatrice – is she merely a symbolic figure, symbolising theology, or was she a real person? How far is one justified in developing a kind of biography of this relationship? What does the Commedia have to do with real love and sex?
How does Hawkins lay out the history of Dante’s impact?
One way in which he contextualises Dante is to focus initially on his life and another way of historicising the subject is through an important concluding chapter which he calls ‘Dante’s Afterlife’ – dealing with the presence of Dante from the Middle Ages onwards and indeed into modern and contemporary culture.
And what was his impact in Italy itself? I’m thinking specifically of Italian writers such as Boccaccio.
The legacy is partly one of debate about whether he should have written in the vernacular as opposed to the prestige language of Latin – that’s a question that was already developing in Dante’s own time and Boccaccio was rather divided over it. He was very impressed by Dante as the vernacular writer and he began, within about ten to fifteen years of Dante’s death, to imitate him, using Dantean language in his early verse romances. Now Petrarch, the third of the three crowns of Florence as they were called – Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch – was much more chary of Dante. Petrarch was of course a vernacular writer but he also had a strong sense of resisting Dante as an influence, and the fear of being dominated by him was something Petrarch actually mentioned in a letter to Boccaccio.
“There was some debate about the historical Beatrice – is she a symbolic figure, symbolising theology, or was she a real person?”
That fear is itself a strong indication of the power of Dante’s presence in Italian culture of that period – because he had already, by that time, in the second half of the 14th century, become a bestseller. Within twenty years of his death there were at least eight commentaries being written on the Commedia, and we still have, from the late 15th century, the end of the manuscript tradition, around 800 manuscripts which contain part of the Commedia. The fact that there are so many suggests that there must have been many, many more in circulation which have not survived. By medieval standards, this denotes a phenomenal success.
Does Hawkins touch on the preference for Inferno over the other two canticles in popular culture?
He does indicate the prominence of Inferno as what most people associate with Dante. I think he recognises, like anyone who deals with the reception of Dante, that Inferno has this kind of priority for readers. In a sense that was the case from the Middle Ages onwards. For instance, the first mention of Dante by an English writer, Chaucer, identifies him as an expert on hell.
What else did Chaucer see in Dante?
He saw him as a major, and somewhat daunting, precedent for writing in the vernacular. Chaucer is, of course, writing out of a culture in England which is at least trilingual – English, Anglo-Norman and Latin all had some status – and Chaucer, writing in English, is very conscious of going into areas which had not been explored before by the vernacular. And so he saw Dante as a precedent for making big claims on behalf of writing poetry in the vernacular; he saw Dante as someone who one might want to follow in certain ways but slightly subvert in others. Some of Chaucer’s allusions to Dante are of an ironic kind, particularly in the first work in which he refers to Dante, a poem called ‘The House of Fame,’ in which he journeys into another world – his view of Dante there is slightly sideways on. He takes a sceptical view about making big pronouncements about the hereafter and about damnation.
In your third book, Dante in English(2005), Griffiths and Reynolds present the influence of Dante through other artists’ work. What’s their focus?
They’re concerned with Dante’s impact on the English-speaking world, giving us a substantial sampling of translation and imitation in English poetry from the Middle Ages through to the present. It does have its limitations. The long introduction is incisive but somewhat idiosyncratic, it doesn’t go into much detail with the texts in the anthology, nor very much with wider issues of reception over the centuries – but the whole volume is a very well edited and indispensable selection.
The selection does seem to focus on the canonical writers.
Yes, there is a risk when accepting the Griffiths and Reynolds collection, excellent as it is, as the dominant model for Dante in English. The risk is that it could limit awareness of Dante’s impact mostly to white Anglo-Saxon (and Celtic) poets. Although they do include one Caribbean author, Derek Walcott.
How does Dante feed into Walcott?
Walcott – following the precedent of T S Eliot, who had already made great claims for Dante in relation to modernism – began by writing work that in some ways imitated Dante by looking, for example, at one of the most popular episodes in the Commedia, the story of the doomed lovers, Paolo and Francesca, in Canto Five of the Inferno. But he moved on, in his later writing, and in particular in Omeros (1990), to looking at the idea of the journey and of seeing his own country and its problems in terms that might be regarded as drawing on the language of Dante’s Inferno. Walcott is someone who absorbs Dante in various ways and indeed in a later work, The Bounty, from 1997, he drew on the language of Paradiso, too – he’s a writer who grows into Dante and is not simply confined to a dialogue with the Inferno. One might argue that several other Caribbean writers have conducted their own dialogues with Dante, too – the Jamaican Lorna Goodison for example, or the Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris, who reinvented Paradiso in his novel called Carnival from 1985. So the influence really is global.
Let’s go on to book number 4. Do Antonella Braida and Luisa Calè present that wider scope of influence in Dante on View(2007)?
They provide a perspective of impact that goes in several important further directions. The essays deal with what the editors call ‘intermedial cultural practices.’ They’re not only concerned with illustrations and paintings on Dantean subjects from the Middle Ages through to Salvador Dalí, they’re also interested in the traditions of bringing the Inferno and the Commedia to life by embodying Dante’s poem in performance, in recitation, in theatrical, cinematic and even televisual adaptation.
So focusing on the mainstream then?
The structuring of the collection leads to the more popular and contemporary media, so part three focuses on Dante in the cinema and multimedia. They deal with Dante in performance, which of course implies wider accessibility. I think they’re also chiefly concerned in the way in which, as they put it, the literary text is first ‘read as part of the media culture in which it was conceived and then reinscribed within the contemporary and subsequent media cultures and practices of its readers.’ They then quote a line from the beginning of Dante’s Paradiso: ‘Poca favilla gran fiamma seconda’ – ‘A great flame follows a little spark.’ So what they’re aiming to do is to show how that vitality of Dante transmits itself into modern culture.
Much like Dante writing in the vernacular Italian rather than Latin. Contemporary appropriation seems to follow that trend of accessibility.
I think that’s right. That’s certainly a feature that several of the contributors in the anthology focus upon. For example, the essay by Amilcare Iannucci focuses on the importance of the popularisation of the Commedia. I think another quite striking instance of the continuing vitality of Inferno, particularly, is that [in April 2009] in London alone there were three different forms of Dante performance. There was the avant-garde Italian theatre-company staging an approach to all three parts of the Commedia at the Barbican, there was Roberto Benigni’s one man show at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and there was also a showing at the Barbican cinema of the 1911 silent film of the Inferno. Dante continues to be a very vigorous presence outside the academy.
Do Braida and Calè touch on Dante’s impact on political or social structures?
One example is the connection between Dante and Italian nationalism and this is particularly evident in Antonella Braida’s essay, when she makes some interesting suggestions about the relationship between Dante and Italian nationalism after the unification of Italy and before the First World War.
Does this resonate in present day politics?
Perhaps there have been some signs under the Berlusconi regime in Italy. A proposal was put forward in 2008 by some members of the Florence city council to revoke Dante’s exile, which looks awfully like appropriating Dante to further a right-wing agenda.
Your last book is Gloria Naylor’s novel, Linden Hills(1985), a fairly on-the-nose use of Dante as social commentary.
The reason I’ve chosen this is that a form of Dante’s impact that tends to be underrated is his presence in the novel. I think that the contemporary African-American novelist, Gloria Naylor, has been the most successful of those who have attempted to assimilate the structure of Dante’s work into their own narratives and to relate it to their own culture. As Naylor herself acknowledged in a conversation she had with Toni Morrison, her sense of the structure of the Inferno is itself derived from the ‘Great Books’ course she took as a student in Brooklyn.
Rather than a nod or homage to Dante, Naylor seems to appropriate wholesale Inferno’s structure and themes.
Yes, this is an ambitious project. Other writers, such as Eliot or Heaney, may appropriate episodes or lines in a way that focuses upon them as part of the agenda of their own poems. But what Naylor is doing is quite striking, as a placing of that structure in the culture of the African-American experience. She reconstructs the Inferno in terms of an African-American suburb somewhere in the Midwest, where people live in terraces or circles according to their degree of prosperity.
“She’s sees African-Americans as being dispossessed by following the American dream of material betterment”
The narrative follows two central characters, a couple of African-American poets, as they make their way down through the circles of this suburb called Linden Hills, doing various odd jobs and encountering people of varying levels of prosperity – Naylor calls them, ironically, ‘the prosperous people.’ Basically, the more prosperous you get the more you lose your identity and there’s a sort of dialogue between the young poets and the suburbanites which scrutinises the loss of identity which accompanies the journey down into this modern Inferno. She’s very much seeing these African-Americans as being dispossessed by following the American dream of material betterment.
Dante’s wandering poet seems almost to be a proto-detective of the Philip Marlowe ilk – flawed and lost. Does that influence contemporary authors such as Naylor?
Although Linden Hills is not a crime novel it has the unfolding of a crime at its core and as such it shows affinity with some recent crime fiction in which the murders have some kind of Dantean resonance – for example, Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club. I think this does suggest some degree of connection between the Inferno and crime. After all, something of the appeal of the journey through Dante’s hell for modern readers is that of following a kind of criminal investigator at work, pursuing wrongdoers and getting them to confess. And, like many detectives, Dante’s pilgrim is a dysfunctional figure – that’s why he’s in the dark wood in the first place.
Get the weekly Five Books newsletter
But, unlike most of the detectives of fiction, he doesn’t remain dysfunctional – part of the journey is a therapeutic one, to restore him. If one’s referring just to Inferno, though, he is still very much in that dysfunctional state; his investigation – getting the wrongdoers to confess and reveal themselves (which they do) – is part of the work of getting better. I suppose not many detectives that one thinks of do get restored to society or integrated into some moral scheme in the way that Dante’s pilgrim does, in order to go on into Purgatorio and then Paradiso. But the reason crime writers got interested, and why they continue to be so, is that process of going down into that dark underworld, to work out, to investigate, and get people to talk.
Which sort of brings us back to the point at the beginning, about how the power in Dante’s storytelling, when it comes to violence and horror, is what makes Inferno the text that still seems to speak to us most strongly in the present day.
Where would you like to see Dante scholarship go in the future? With 2020 being the 700th anniversary of the completion of the Commedia, what new currents would you like to see develop?
Well, I certainly think there’s more to be done! I recently  published a book on the reception of Dante – Dante’s British Public– and that is chiefly concerned with the reception of his work in English-speaking culture, from Chaucer’s time to the present, and I think there is clearly more to be done about the nature of what Dante might mean for modern readers. The question was put to Clive James, who recently gave us another translation of Dante, when Mark Lawson, interviewing him on BBC Radio 4, said: ‘It seems strange to think of popularising Dante.’ I think this is a question which might be addressed a bit more – to what extent has Dante become a figure who has meaning for a wider audience? How can one bring Dante to a broader audience? It was a text originally designed to be performed and it’s quite striking that the Italians have preserved that tradition – particularly through the work of Robert Benigni, who is still performing Dante in Italy’s piazzas. Dante still provides a challenge for popularisers. Since I spoke first to you [Five Books] in 2009, there have been a number of attempts, including a video game, a young person’s Dante and several cartoon versions.
So it’s a case of making true Dante’s original aim, to make the work accessible to as wide an audience as possible?
Yes, and perhaps time has shown that it is the Inferno that is the most accessible because that’s the part that has been picked up for the video games, comics and so on. And Dante himself clearly regarded the Paradiso as a challenge. But I do want to say, as indeed the authors of the Very Short Introduction to Dante have said, that it’s perhaps time for people to go beyond Inferno, at least into the Purgatorio. The most humane passages of Dante, which have to do with souls in transition, seem now, in our age of migrants and of souls in progress between different worlds, to suggest that Purgatorio is a text for our times.
Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at email@example.com