- 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.