Ian Thomson, Dante’s Divine Comedy; A Journey Without End, Head of Zeus, £18.99, 2018, reviewed by Stoddard Martin
Age after age has found Dante speaking to and for them. Ours may be another: we shall see. At present it is fashionable to confine socio-political opponents to a notional inferno– ‘Lock her up!’ etc. Public humour, if extant, tends towards the sarcastic and savage; torments and tortures are envisaged by our present-day Guelphs for Ghibellines and vice versa. The banking magnates of 13th century Florence have their loathed contemporary counterparts. Too many of us seem to be of ‘the worst’ who are ‘full of passionate intensity’*.
Ours is an age, in short, full of the incivility apparent in the first, most read, most translated and adapted part of The Divine Comedy. The follow-up question is this: do we have equivalent purgatorios and paradisos to move to? Do the ‘sunny uplands’ of Brexit resemble this? Does an America made ‘great again’? Where are the Virgils and Beatrices guiding our progress? Do we revere epic predecessors? Is there a sublime Ewig weibliche which may zieht uns hinan or at least beyond porny eros towards amor and finally caritas?
Here is the rub. Dante was a surpassing idealist as well as an excoriator of the all-too-human. We, however, live in a world that seems more akin to Homer’s, where divine justice is contingent on whims of remote gods – oligarchs in olympian tax-havens, happy to bandy mere mortals or even rare heroes back and forth and/or on to destruction, according to the vicissitudes of their private rivalries and feuds. ‘The best’* are reduced to odyssean survival, sailing as in Dante into oceans unknown, propelled by an overreaching yet fatally required Nietzschean spirit of adventure.
Our age lacks essential religion. It is atrophied in romantic love. We are not Dantesque, yet still he fascinates; he understands, it would seem, what we have and indicates what we have not – or not yet – that is sorely needed. Ian Thomson’s engaging primer on the poet and his epic make this clear. He reminds us that Shelley, contrary to received opinion, thought Dante’s latter two canticles greater than the first. Certainly they are crucial to comprehension of what Thomson gracefully subtitles ‘a journey without end’. The Comedy as a whole proceeds towards the light, out of darkness. It is about revision, overcoming, achieving beatitude.
What could improve on this as a purpose – for the individual life, for collective endeavour? Yet where are we as a civilisation in pursuing it? Without God, are there universally agreed objectives? Is it ‘everyman for himself’? a ‘war of each against all’? And when ‘God’ gets brought into it, whose deity are we talking of? Yahweh? Christ? Allah? The Virgil and Beatrice figures conducting the pilgrim on his quest are perhaps more available to us – some ardent sage of the past, some beautiful woman who has died young enough not to become disillusioned. But do we search for such guidance nowadays? Doesn’t the era of gurus and flowered beloveds belong back in some pre-Raphaelite New Age? the ever-maligned 1960s?
Semiconsciously, Thomson intimates this. Like A. N. Wilson in his musings on Dante a half-decade ago or Ann Wroe in asides in her Orpheus, he cites rock-music to provide echoes of the epic divine in our times – for example, ‘Tales of Brave Ulysses’ by Cream. A scholarly reader may decide whether this jolts. More conventional excursions involve the reception of Dante over the centuries, from Chaucer to Longfellow to Pound and Eliot, those fugitives from Bob Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row’ who share a reverence the latter-day troubadour himself would finely disclose in ‘Tangled Up in Blue’. Dante may be evergreen, even if Victorian prelates sought to disguise in their translations a scatology that a Belfast poet nowadays celebrates.
Can Dante be truly translated? ‘Traduttore traditore!’ Thomson quotes an Italian proverb at the start of a chapter cataloguing the extent to which attempts have or have not succeeded. Shelley, who is said to have read two cantos of the Purgatorio to his wife every day, emerges as a hero, not least for his preservation of the Comedy’s intricate terza rima, while Clive James appears as journalist-villain for adapting it into vernacular quatrains, thereby losing the intricate ‘trinitarian’ symmetries of the original, and for including in his text potted identifications of Dante’s dramatis personae, increasing its overall length by a third. Better may be those who deviate most, using the poem as departures for their own, such as T. S. Eliot and Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Thomson traces the afterlife of Dante and his work not only in literature – Blake, Byron Beckett, Borges all figure – but in art. Here Blake figures too, also Henry Fuseli, Gustave Doré and Robert Rauschenberg, whose representations of Inferno cantos contributed to a Dante vogue in the 1960s. In film beyond Pasolini, Thomson cites works by Zeffirelli and Peter Greenaway. In music well-known Romantic works from Liszt’s Dante Symphony to operas on Inferno subjects such as Gianni Schicchi get less focus – Thomson reaches more easily to sounds from his own generation, as said. Gabriele D’Annunzio, who commissioned Riccardo Zandonai to orchestrate his Francesca da Rimini in 1914, is confined to a category of ‘dilettante of sensations’.
D’Annunzio’s ardour for italianità was galvanising for his country in the first third of the 20th century, but Thomson is drawn among Dante enthusiasts of that era more to the Marxist Antonio Gramsci. D’Annunzio, whom Mussolini feared as a rival, was by contrast treated as ‘a decayed tooth that one must cover in gold’; a return to viewing him as great national poet may be in train now as Italy draws further away from times in which so many played ambiguous roles. Thomson is less partisan about the period of the Risorgimento, pointing out how as Italy finally came together as a nation and adopted a language that Dante above all had fashioned, a Dante statue went up ‘in every village piazza’.
A last chapter is devoted to other major aspects of Dante’s legacy, notably in Florence. Boccaccio, Lorenzo da Medici, Savonarola and Machiavelli all appear before Thomson’s gaze. Does Dante’s critique of the church in his day qualify him as a precursor to Luther, as some believe, or as a Lollard avant la lettre, as some Anglo protestants would have it? After countering both of these hypotheses, our guide retires into the personal. Via memory of his own discovery of Dante when living in Rome in the early 1980s, he ends with a tribute to an aunt – a refugee from Stalin’s invasion of the Baltics – who went to Florence with an intention of studying the Comedy and painting but fell into ‘paranoid fantasies, bizarre thoughts and hallucinations [which] marked the beginning of a disintegration’ from which she never recovered.
Some readers may find this finis strange or inapt. More sympathetic ones may take it as a quiet revelation of why Thomson has travelled so far with his great ‘pilgrim of eternity’**. The darkness of Florence was crucial to Dante’s fate and his work. He was impelled from that city into a ‘selva oscura’, out of which a lesser character might never have emerged. His magnum opus is a triumph of spirit over adversity and a vindication of all such effort. Shelley could see this, and we must take his advice that to struggle from the Inferno to the Purgatorio and Paradiso is essential. In our age of conflict and demoralisation, we must work strenuously toward the positives. Ian Thomson has done just that in his inspiring book.
Dr Stoddard Martin is an author and publisher
*Yeats was a great admirer of Dante.
**Mary Shelley’s favourite description of Byron.