Dante, by John Took

Rachel Moss is both amazed and puzzled by a vast new study of a giant of world literature

March 12, 2020
Henry Holiday’s 1883 painting Dante and Beatrice
Source: Getty
Inspiration: Henry Holiday’s 1883 painting Dante and Beatrice was inspired by Dante’s allegorical poem Vita Nova, which told of his love for Beatrice

Dante Aligheri was born in Florence in about 1265 and was betrothed to Gemma Donati at around the age of 12, by which time he had already met the immortal Beatrice. Between the early 1280s – when his father died and when his betrothal to Gemma probably became formalised into marriage – and his exile from the city in 1302, he served as a soldier and held several civic offices, becoming deeply embedded in Florentine political life. Since the early 13th century, two great factions, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, had struggled for mastery of Florence. Dante’s family was allied with the Guelphs, who after the late 1260s became the dominant force. But they, too, became riven by faction, splitting into Whites and Blacks. The Whites’ exile forced Dante from his beloved city, never to return, although he remained passionately interested in its politics. He died in Ravenna in 1321.

This is one kind of biography: of a man very much of his time and of his city, embedded to his profit and then to his cost in the daily struggle of a great late medieval urban polity. John Took’s Dante is a different kind of biography. There is no timeline at the start of his capacious volume, no map of Italy; there are instead charts of the cosmos, of the nine circles of hell, purgatory and heaven, rendered in neat spheres. This is a book about Dante’s mind, and although Took writes that “Dante’s was indeed a journeying humanity”, the journey he takes with him is one of words and intellect rather than the very many dusty, weary roads our hero must have taken bodily throughout the second half of his life.

The book begins with a chapter of “historical considerations”, which plunges us immediately into blood and passion, a story of murder both nothing and everything to do with Dante, 50 years before his birth. Then comes a chapter of “biographical considerations”, which offers a sketch of Dante’s life, although not in any conventional mould: it would take some work to pick out from Dante the details in my first paragraph and line them up in neat chronological order. Here we already glimpse Took’s ambition to unpack the making not of Dante’s life but of his inner self. Then follow 10 substantial chapters in three parts, from the early years leading to the writing of Dante’s first great work, the Vita nova, to the middle years of the famed Convivio and then to the final years of the Divina Commedia, a journey in Dante’s “commitment to the being and becoming of the anxious subject”: that is, of understanding what it means to be truly human.

Sitting with this great biography – great in the sense of its intellectual ambition, but also and most particularly in its physical heft, all 578 pages of it bound up in hardback – I wondered: who is it for? I will admit that I am no Danteist, but I am a medievalist, a historian and a scholar of romance. And yet I found myself overwhelmed by this work, by the density of its prose and by the implicit expectation that you, the reader, know all this already, both the historical context and the content of Dante’s texts.

This reads as criticism. For my own part, I might have better enjoyed a volume that led me in a clearer biographical style through what we know of Dante’s life and of the city that made him, where the opening of each new chapter located the text under discussion in its temporal place and in the historiography of its scholarship. That is probably because I have come to expect biographers to lead me, rather like Virgil takes Dante through the underworld. Charon does not wish to let Dante pass, as he is a living man, and Virgil forces the ferryman to let him through. So perhaps I expected a biography that would hold open the way and give me a clear path.

But that is not what this book is for, and I am not its intended audience. After spending time with it, I am left with the suspicion that the only intended audience is the poet himself, and that what we have here is hundreds of pages of love letter written to a man almost three-quarters of a millennium dead. In a love letter, there is no need to outline the beloved’s biography in any conventional sense, but there is always a need to draw out their inner biography: to demonstrate how well one knows the beloved, that with a forensic devotion one can unpick and unpack each concentric layer – each sphere of hell and purgatory and paradise – within their heart. It is the great private joy of the lover to show him- or herself the master of the inner workings of the beloved, and it is the great gift of a generous lover to present that unpacking to the beloved and say: here, see yourself known.

That might give the impression that Took’s Dante is an indulgent exercise in a one-sided conversation with the dead. It is not, although for the reader without the privilege of a great deal of scholastic expertise in Dante it might feel that way. I will leave it to other reviewers to say how successfully Took handles the verse. What I will say, as a historian interested in what and why medieval human beings thought and felt, is that this book both frustrated and delighted me. For a work preoccupied in every chapter, on almost every page, with Dante’s interest in the act of being human, the figure of Dante the man is frustratingly hard to find. Took captures passionately and in meticulous detail the intellectual journeying Dante took in becoming one of the great portrait artists of the human condition, but despite clearly having a capacious understanding of the writer’s historic context, Dante feels at many points almost a man out of time. His work is timeless, but he was not, and I longed to see something more of the politician, husband, father, lover, soldier, friend. I would also have appreciated a more heavily peopled world than that presented here; although there are hundreds of names in the index, this book feels for much of the time like a novel with only one character.

But then again, I said this is a love letter, did I not? Perhaps it is unfair to expect the lover to pay much attention to anyone but the beloved. This is a love letter magisterially crafted, eloquently rendered. I would expect that it will receive many letters in response from other scholars in the field. What would Dante himself make of it? I have no doubt that throughout his work, Dante issued an “invitation to the feast” and that he would welcome Took “to talk it all over”. This is as necessary a seal of approval as I can give, and one that I suspect Took would be willing to receive.

Rachel Moss is lecturer in history at the University of Northampton.

By John Took
Princeton University Press, 616pp, £30.00
ISBN 9780691154046
Published 28 January 2020

The author

John Took, professor emeritus of Dante studies at UCL, was born in Romford, Essex, and attended a grammar school in Ilford, where, he recalls, a teacher read to the class “the poet Giacomo Leopardi, whose Canti, even then, made a great impression on me”. His passion for Italian was also stoked by the “exquisitely Florentine” and “wholly ravishing” accent of his aunt Lucia, whom his uncle had “met, wooed and courted as part of his contribution to the Allied advance in Italy during the war”.

After studying Italian with French and philosophy at the University of Leeds, Took went on to a PhD about Dante. Although his student years were “among the loneliest of [his] life”, the courses he took reinforced in him “a sense of the need as far as may be to confirm the deep reasons of our being as creatures of ultimate concern and of how through literature and philosophy this might best be done” – a perspective that has guided his whole career as a university teacher.

Asked why he has largely devoted his life to a single literary giant, Took responds: “T. S. Eliot used to say that when it comes to writing about great as distinct from lesser men, there is always a chance of finding something useful to say about them, for here especially there is ample room for manoeuvre.” Dante’s Divine Comedy, he goes on, works as “an essay in fundamental thoughtfulness”. Although it apparently offers an account of a journey through the three realms of the afterlife (hell, purgatory, paradise), it “is at a deeper level concerned with the structures of human consciousness”, and thus forms “an existential analytic preliminary” to engaging with whatever serious challenges we face on the plane of ethics and politics.

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: A love letter across the ages

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles