Second only to Paris … 700 years ago, that is

Florentine sunset: courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/people/sherseydc/

Florentine sunset: courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/people/sherseydc/

Well, we wouldn’t have Shakespeare’s sonnets if plague hadn’t closed all the London theaters; we wouldn’t have Henry James’ novels (a mixed blessing) if he’d struck gold as a playwright; and we definitely wouldn’t have Dante’s “Comedy” if the poet hadn’t been driven out of Florence.

In other words, misfortune’s often been the handmaiden to great art.

That last example is taken from Prue Shaw, whose recent book “Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity(Liveright/W.W. Norton) achieves what seemed impossible — to provide a fresh assessment of the poet and his poem for modern readers.

Why impossible?

It’s not hard to understand, my friends. Go to the “D” shelf in your local university library. Or do a quick Google search. You’ll find that Dante’s poem is encased — entombed (like Farinata in circle 6 of Hell) — within layers of critical commentary (both scholarly and mainstream) . It seems that everything that could be said about the poem has been said about it.

And besides that, most of us cling to some snobby presumption about Dante that sounds like this:

“Devils and circles, a big terraced mountain and a damsel, and heaven at the end of it … what else is there to know?”

What would Dante think of such a response? There’s a Dore engraving that, I think, says it all:

dante-by-dore

He definitely didn’t suffer fools. A pretty intimidating image.

And for those intimidated by the poem itself, the great mediator lately has been thriller-king Dan Brown, whose latest psychopath in the Robert Langdon series is a lover of “Inferno” (ok, so what does that say about the rest of his fans?).

ReadingDante_978-0-87140-742-9-1Shaw’s the one, though, who really deserves the honor of being mediatrix, not Brown — her book makes a compelling, poignant  case for why we should really care about this epic  composed some 700 years ago.

Why? Because it is easy to forget the ingenious, intricate structuring of the tripartite poem, the scathing political commentary, and the risks that Dante took — which is why Shaw spends the first half of  her book on vivid descriptions of 13th century Florence’s socio-political landscape. Today, she’s a picturesque tour stop; in Dante’s day, Florence was far more, “a huge metropolis in medieval terms. Only Venice and Milan equalled Florence in size; only Paris was larger.”

When it comes to Dante, historical context is easily lost. But Shaw deftly sets his struggles against a tumultuous world and a corrupt pope (Boniface VIII) in terms that we can all easily understand:

Dante is as “engaged” a political writer as there has ever been, and as brave a one. A modern parallel would be Russian writers exiled under Stalin for speaking out: Osip Mandelstam comes to mind.

Dante as political dissident — this is the sort of revelation that cracks away at all of the scholarship that’s hardened over the poem through time.

There are plenty of other examples, like the “literary shoptalk” between Virgil and Statius which causes Dante to say of himself, “I listened to their talk, which gave me insight into writing poetry.”

Or this bit about why, from a practical standpoint, Dante may have chosen to write in terza rima:

Medieval scribes often took liberties with the texts they copied. They cut bits they didn’t like, added lines of their own, rather as a musician might treat a score as a basis for skilled improvisation. There is a whole scholarly industry devoted to scribal rewordings of the Roman de la Rose. Given the controversial nature of some of Dante’s material, scribes might well have been tempted to censor the text by cutting awkward passages. But this is virtually impossible with the terza rims. Any cut will leave a text which is obviously botched. Any attempt to add material is likewise doomed to failure.

What Shaw accomplishes with passages like these is to inject blood back into the poet: He was human. He struggled as a writer, and he anticipated the meddling of editors by making his poem a bit harder to edit.

Scholar extraordinaire: Prue Shaw (photo by Cordelia Beresford)

Scholar extraordinaire: Prue Shaw (photo by Cordelia Beresford)

(In this she is very much like “The Swerve’s” Stephen Greenblatt, who is also published by W.W. Norton and who yours truly heard speak not long ago.)

My friends, I could easily go on, but then I’d have a 5,000-word blog post, which sort of defeats the purpose of a blog. If you’ve perused Call of the Siren before, I’m sure you know how much I adore Dante. But instead, I’ll humbly point the way ahead to paradise, like Virgil did for the poet, and ask you to explore the riches of Shaw’s book for yourself. Ciao, amici.

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7 responses

  1. Hi; you are now following my blog, so I visited yours to have a look. I like this review of Prue Shaw’s book. I am not interested in Dante scholarship, but I’m very interested in a general guide to it, and to the world he lived in. Would it be suitable for a dilettante reader like me? I reviewed Clive James’s translation of the Divine Comedy last August: see http://memoryandyou.wordpress.com/2013/08/06/in-the-company-of-scholars-and-poets/
    And I’m very interested in the romance/tragedy of the James-Shaw story, which, I think, Clive is hoping may have another chapter. He’s a remarkable man, and she, I gather, a remarkable woman, of whom he feels unworthy.

  2. I’d definitely recommend the Shaw to any book lover. Dante’s someone every reader should at least be acquainted with, and Shaw’s is a wonderful guide for familiar and new readers.

    Thanks for commenting… I remembered your piece about James. I should’ve followed you then, but better late than never!

  3. She makes it all seem so human, doesn’t she? Lovely work.

    Thanks for “shining some light” on her and her work. I think I’ll saunter down to the bookstore and take a deeper look.

  4. Pingback: P.S. Dante’s salty bread | Call of the Siren

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