- BuyDante: The Divine Comedy translated by Clive James
Picador, 526 pp, £25.00, July 2013, ISBN 978 1 4472 4219 2
Everyone agrees that The Divine Comedy is wonderful. Just a shaft of song from the spirits in paradise, a phrase or two of Marco of Lombardy in purgatory explaining the birth of the soul, or even one of the squirts of desperate rage from one of the souls in hell, makes everything else seem small and distant. It’s extremely hard, though, to describe the exact mixture of qualities that makes it wonderful. In the first half of the 20th century the Commedia was often regarded as a classic with a philosophical core – Thomistic, Aristotelian, Virgilian – that enabled it to speak for the entire civilisation of Europe. The critics who saw the poem in this solemn light, particularly T.S. Eliot and E.R. Curtius, had obvious reasons for wanting to believe in a southern European classic which was supranational and religious. To these conservatively inclined modernists Dante’s theological and political vision was the ultimate antidote to Führer-worship and doodlebugs, providing a direct link between Christianity and the civilisation of ancient Rome.
The intellectual substructure of Dante’s poem is indeed part of what makes it wonderful. It matters that he is attempting to take the imperialism of Virgil’s Aeneid and give it an Aristotelian and Catholic intellectual foundation (otherworldly Catholic rather than papal bulls and bells). It matters too that he has a systematic understanding of the cardinal and theological virtues, and their corresponding vices, around which he can shape his imagined progress through hell and purgatory to heaven. These larger structures give perspective to individual episodes within the Commedia, and bring to the poem its peculiar kind of irony. Because he is writing within a larger structure of judgment and salvation Dante can present mortal passions fully and often indulgently while at the same time intimating that they are just shadows of the vast creative love that moves the sun and the other stars. In hell he sees his poetic master Brunetto Latini, who is below him in one of the circles of the pit along with a band of sodomites who are endlessly fleeing to avoid flakes of fire. Because Dante is above the ditch he has to look down on his master, so he bends over to listen to him ‘like one who walks with reverence’. That physical gesture gives expression to Dante’s genuine reverence for Brunetto, but it is the fact of his master’s damnation and the ruthless geography of hell that generate his need to bend. The poem as a whole lets you simultaneously inhabit human affections and put them in their place.
Dante’s philosophy and theology give an underlying pattern to his universe, a structuring dance beneath the music of the lines, but the really great moments in Dante are surprises: when a voice bursts out of a tree, or when a pope, head-first in a hole with his feet on fire, yells out, ‘Already here,/Boniface?’ when he thinks that Dante and Virgil are the next corrupt pontiff to arrive in hell. Dante was not just a serene philosopher. He was also an angry partisan. He wrote the Commedia while exiled from Florence and when he had both personal and intellectual scores to settle. He had come to believe that government by a Holy Roman Emperor was the only solution to Italy’s troubles, and those troubles included a worldly and avaricious church. His disappointment at the failure of Florence makes his poem a snarl of rage as well as a hymn of heavenly love. Those who betray, and particularly those who betray imperial ideals, are given viciously biting punishments. He gives Satan three mouths so that in the deepest centre of hell he can chew for eternity on Brutus and Cassius, the betrayers of Julius Caesar, as well as on Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Christ. The miracle of the poem is the way that Dante’s eccentric and violently held opinions seem themselves to be subjected to the large-scale irony of his cosmic vision. They – like the passion Dante the wayfarer feels for Francesca da Rimini, condemned to hell for having her head turned by reading mildly smutty romances, or the wonder that Ulysses’ description of his curiosity and voyages elicits in his listeners – are fully registered but also positioned within a larger picture of the world. The Commedia is epic rewritten in the key of autobiography and satire, and the widening of the poem at its end is partly the product of Dante trying to transcend his own imprisoning obsessions.