Infernally, eternally here and now

Dante's Modern Afterlife
March 19, 1999

One of the remarkable things about Dante - and this is always the impression created by volumes such as this on his fortuna - is his modernity, his capacity to quicken and sustain an order of discourse substantially other than his own and yet at the same time, and in a variety of different ways, intimately dependent on it. There is in this sense nothing archival about him, nothing passé or captive to the thought patterns of late medieval scholasticism. On the contrary, he is present throughout as a spur to self-interrogation and as a means to self-rationalisation.

Thus for Blake, pondering the episode of Ugolino, the text stimulates a fresh meditation on the question of forgiveness, while for Shelley, by no means an uncritical reader of Dante, it witnesses in an exemplary fashion to the ideal union in poetry of "energy and beauty", to the inextinguishable liveliness of the image.

For the Victorians, oppressed by the anxieties generated by Darwinism and worried by trends in biblical criticism, it offers a model of (among other things) "muscular Christianity", the kind of Christianity equal to the corrosiveness of scientific scepticism.

For Ezra Pound and Louis MacNeice it encourages a meditation on the ideal community and on questions of commitment and neutrality, while in Samuel Beckett it sustains an interpretation of the world in terms preeminently of the tortured and the torturer. And so it goes on, each successive period (and the book has a helpful chronological structure) witnessing to a new way of appropriating the altissimo poeta .

For Bassani (the object of Judith Woolf's attention in one of the best essays of the collection) it is a question of the Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini as counterpoint to the Vita nuova , while in Sereni and in Derek Walcott it is a question, respectively, of affirmation and denial on the plane of specifically human existence and of reconciling the divergent and potentially destructive forces at work within the life of the individual and of the community. In each case, Dante is there, less as a point of reference than as a companion, as one apt to suggest a line of thought and a means, if only by way of counterpoint, irony or plain antithesis, of resolving it.

But, and this is the point about Dante and his modern afterlife, this is companionship of a rich and complex kind, a companionship operative both at the moral and at the poetic level. Morally, it is a question of the unique comprehensiveness of Dante's universe, of a universe which, in the words of Paul Tillich, acknowledges in one and the same grand sweep both "the deepest places of self-destruction and despair as well as the highest places of courage and salvation". This is a universe into that precisely in its comprehensiveness, anyone caught up in the nothing if not purgatorial business of self-explication is invited as an interlocutor, for there are few aspects of the existential issue which Dante had not identified and lingered over as an object of systematic concern. Poetically, it is a question of Dante as the great image-maker, as a model for all those in our tradition concerned, not simply with understanding the existential situation but with its imaginative projection. Not only a poet, therefore, Dante is a poet's poet, a fellow-traveller and source of inspiration for all those committed at the level - over and above the what - of the how of significant utterance, of the way in which poetry as poetry might be said to function. And that, for a would-be man of letters, makes him irresistible.

Nevertheless, there is a problem, for this is the kind of book that, thoughtfully conceived and articulated as it is, cries out for a fuller development of its own leading emphases. Though in some cases (Gray, for example, or MacNeice) the encounter with Dante remains in the event a marginal affair, elsewhere (as with Blake, say, or Beckett) it enters into the author's experience to assist in shaping it from the centre, and here the question becomes really interesting. For it is a matter now, not of the documented or documentable reminiscence or of the moment of imaginative nostalgia, but of the angst everywhere generated by a serious look at Dante's portrayal of the great existential possibilities, at his vast and vastly compelling account of what it is to be here and now infernally, purgatorially and paradisiacally.

No longer, then, in cases of this kind, is it a question of literary camaraderie, but of the way in which one world view, a world view born of the dialecticism and mysticism of the late Middle Ages, engages with and helps to define another: a world view, as far as we are concerned, born of the successive catastrophes of the 19th and, especially, of the 20th centuries. This, again, is where the issue really becomes interesting. This is where, in the context of lively encounter, of what amounts to a dialogue between those most attuned to and most eloquent in respect of world-historical consciousness, it really takes off.

So far, then, so good. But what we have here, in a volume as "thoughtfully conceived and articulated" as any of its kind, is a mere launching pad, a spring-board for an altogether more sustained inquiry.

John Took is reader in Dante studies, University College London.

Dante's Modern Afterlife: Reception and Response from Blake to Heaney

Editor - Nick Havely
ISBN - 0 333 67004 3
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £45.00
Pages - 0

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