More than most artists, poets are free in their creations. Valéry commented that after – and only after – the poet has spoken does he know what he has said. It is also true, and for the same reason, that what the poet has said may be taken in many different ways by his readers. Blake would have agreed with Shelley’s note about God at the end of ‘Queen Mab’, that ‘the works of His fingers have borne witness against Him.’ In whatever spirit of humility a great poet undertakes to demonstrate a transcendental view of our situation, and justify the ways of God to men, the labours of his imagination will be reinterpreted and even misrepresented by the different vision of later poets.
Milton’s works are made to bear witness against him, and so are Dante’s, but in more far-reaching and more subtle ways. These are analysed by Steve Ellis with great sympathy and penetration, and his book is one of the most interesting for all lovers of poetry to have appeared for some time. In La Poesia de Dante Croce made a distinction between Dante the poet and Dante ‘filosofico e politico’, the philosopher and politician. It is a distinction only valid in terms of what other poets have made of Dante, superimposing upon that image of ‘the poet’ their own philosophical and political attitudes. It is a truism that Shakespeare’s multitudinous world is a kind of mirror, in which all who gaze can find their own preoccupations and individualities. But Dante’s case is different. It is the organisation of his poetry itself that produces counter-organisations, radically different world-views, and demonstrations of different kinds of spiritual system.
In our poetry, Shelley is the prime case. Keble observed that the intensity of the Paradiso is produced by a harmony of abstractions – light, motion and music – and Steve Ellis points out that this is precisely the Shelleyan formula in his long poems, notably in the last act of ‘Prometheus Unbound’. Shelley contrived to admire Dante deeply, while rejecting everything in his system of order and belief, and Croce is only rationalising this state of affairs when he separates the ‘poetry’ of Dante from his superannuated local beliefs. What Croce omits to say, however, is that such poetry can have no vitality without beliefs, beliefs deeply and passionately held, and it is their own beliefs with which the poet and his reader at a later date are reanimating the world order of Dante. Shelley’s plea for free love in ‘Epipsychidion’ bases itself on Virgil’s description of the relationship between the blessed in Purgatorio XV, in which the caritate they enjoy grows rather than diminishes with the number of those who partake of it. In Shelley this becomes
True love in this differs from gold and clay,
That to divide is not to take away
– lines which, as Ellis observes, are not much different from an adulterer’s use of the text ‘Love thy neighbour’ as he schemes to enter the bed of the lady next door. They ‘gravelled’ T. S. Eliot when he was composing ‘The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism’, yet Eliot was to impose his own philosophy on Dante, affirming the essentiality of Hell’s existence, and that true sinners go there accepting and rejoicing in their own evil individuality.
For Eliot, the ‘horror’ from which Dante’s imagination redeemed the modern age was that of Kipling’s Tomlinson, the Hollow Man, and all those ‘decent godless people’ without substance enough to be either saved or damned. Dante created individuals, inadvertently perhaps, by exhibiting them in all the vigour of their past actions, and in all the awareness of where those had led them. Eliot’s reverence for Dante’s characters is curiously like the way the fiction reader feels about his favourites – the monsters, the comics, the men and women in art who move and fascinate us because they are not sunk in ordinary everyday nullity. For Eliot, Dante wrote a kind of theological novel, but Eliot also saw in him the source of Baudelaire’s genius, the conviction of doing evil which gives intensity to Les Fleurs du Mal, and places the individual talent of its author in the mainstream of Christian tradition.
Both in ‘Epipsychidion’ and in the unfinished ‘Triumph of Life’ Shelley uses the elements of Dante’s poetry to create poetry of a wholly different kind. Shelley couldn’t abide anything in the nature of an orderly and regulated hierarchy, whether of crimes or virtues; his wife recorded, moreover, that he ‘shrunk instinctively from portraying human passion, with its mixture of good and evil, of disappointment and disquiet’. But no other English poet has made more inspired use of the music and the feel of Dante’s verse, transubstantiating its often homely precision and clarity into an equal precision of dream-like beauty and melancholy. Byron’s interest was much more local, centring on the incestuous figures and the guilty lovers. Guilt meant nothing to Shelley, but to the Scotch Calvinist latent in Byron it meant a great deal, and in his translation of the Paolo and Francesca episode, the part of the poem which especially engrossed him, as it was to engross in more sentimental fashion the later Victorian poets, he emphasises the curse upon the lovers and the way in which they are compelled to fulfil their ‘evil fortunes’. ‘Evil fortunes’ is not a straight translation of Dante’s ‘sad pass’, nor does ‘accursed’ convey the complex, almost benign understanding in Dante’s line about the book the lovers were reading when they fell: Galeotto fu’l libro e chi lo scrisse. A work of gallantry and courtly love can, unfortunately, have deplorable effects upon those who are susceptible, but Byron’s interest was in the necessities of adultery and incest and in the torments of guilt they provoked. Like Eliot, he takes something from Dante and adapts it to his own psychological needs.
As Auerbach succinctly puts it in Mimesis, in Dante’s work the image of man inevitably eclipses the image of God. ‘The tremendous pattern was broken by the overwhelming power of the images it had to contain.’ The characters – Francesca, Ulysses, Ugolino – become heroes and heroines divorced from their theological context: even more remarkably, they become plain men and women, revealed, like the poet himself, against a background of inflexible realism. Auerbach’s point, that the system, however meticulous, cannot contain the human actors, explains their outward explosion into all the vividness and vagaries of subsequent historical sensibility. Dante’s unconscious creation of modern individualism has the paradoxical result that even T.S. Eliot, in his attempt to assert the values of impersonality in art and in religion, is in fact asserting the quiddity and particularity of the souls in Dante’s three circles – the kind of souls which he portrays with considerable power and differentiation in The Family Reunion and The Cocktail Party.
Cast in the role of Byronic hero, the figure of Dante displays the essential childishness of this aspect of romanticism; the gloomy exile of Lord Leighton’s picture fits naturally into the romantic image of the poet who renounces the world and despises society. Dante scholarship soon began to operate, however, and Browning perceived that the exposition of a serious and complex intellectual theme could be based on Dante’s example and his characters. Sordello, the ideal poet and man of action combined, ‘half minstrel and half emperor’, provides Browning with a modern myth of the Fall, the point where evolution, already thought of as unerring in scientific terms, shows itself all too fallible in human ones, wasting a splendid opportunity of ‘compassing Apollo’, uniting art and politics in a harmony which would both foretell and guarantee their union in man’s upward growth.
The tragedy implicit in the Commedia is of course the political one, the betrayal of an imperial ideal, the greed and wickedness of those who in life have blindly betrayed it, or sought in vain to uphold it, and whom now in his great afterscheme Dante makes articulate and perceiving. For Browning, too, 13th-century Italy provided, as Ellis says, the suitable setting to study a soul whose divisions are a microcosm of a wider political polarisation and non-fulfilment. Sordello’s story reveals how far humanity is from being able to build a City of God on earth. He is a failed experiment, ‘a sad dishevelled ghost’, and the poem about him must partake, as Ellis feels Browning unflinchingly saw, of the same dwindlement into anti-climax and unrealisable obscurity. Where Dante presents all the unalterable ordering and essentiality created by primal love, Browning must clutter up his poem with all the hugger-mugger of contingency and non-creation. Though too obfuscated to be a parody proper, Sordello, I should feel, stands in something of a parodic relation to Dante’s poem.
However remarkable, as Ellis insists, it is hardly a success: the nature of its being precludes that, as if Browning had purposely written a non-poem about a non-event. ‘But that’s the story – dull enough, confess!’ Sordello is a portentously elaborated version of Michael Frayn’s entertaining conception of the exemplary Medieval genius and innovator Ivan Kudavbin – he kudavbin but he wasn’t. There is something curiously Victorian – a touch, as it were, of the South Kensington Natural History Museum – in the spectacle of Browning laboriously imitating the forms of failure and non-viability in the form of his poem. Ellis is more beguiled by this than most readers have been, suggesting that ‘not the least of the poem’s many marvels is the sense that Browning has wrung success out of an analysis of his own potential for failure.’ The odd thing is that these preoccupations of Browning the Victorian seem abandoned now in some dusty unvisited limbo, while the extraordinary imaginative structure made by Dante the Medieval man still stands up today as fresh as paint.
Where Browning is fresh and vigorous, and seems as modern as Dante, is when he borrows directly from his method: the Duke in ‘My Last Duchess’ might easily be telling his tale from one of the bolge of the Inferno. But it is more significant of the strange and subtle shifts in poetic influence that both Shelley and Browning, in Sordello and in ‘The Triumph of Life’, replace Dante’s calm certainties with visions and reveries of disillusion and obfuscation. Both represent a retreat from idealism, and for Ellis Sordello is ‘Browning’s most serious attempt to come to terms with this life’s innate deficiencies’. This renunciation of certainties seems paradoxical, but is perhaps the mirror-image of that nostalgia for a poet’s authority as ‘unacknowledged legislator’ which is naively strong in Yeats and also, however much more diplomatically, in Eliot. Compared to Ezra Pound, Yeats knew very little about Dante, but the manifesto about the sources of his own poetic authority which he compiled in A Vision could scarcely have been written without the older poet’s example. A ‘system’ was essential to Yeats, to make ‘the right twigs for an eagle’s nest’ from the heights of which he could survey the world: but he was enough of a romantic to feel that the system must be kept out of the poetry.
Apart from the 28 phases and the other structural apparatus of A Vision, Yeats valued Dante for that stylisation of conflict which he saw as leading to the security and ‘self-possession’ which great poetry must attain. In these ways Yeats sought Dantean power. ‘The supreme artist ... is the supreme intelligence. Like Dante he can pass through hell unsinged ... when he looks into the darkness, he sees.’ This ability contrasts with that of ‘the vague dreamer, the insecure artist and uncertain mystic’, with whom Yeats had been associated in his Celtic twilight days, and whose state he now repudiated. In his essays on Blake’s Dante, early and unscholarly as they are (all his life Yeats foreswore the pedantries of scholarship), he nonetheless hit on what for him was to be the essential point and inspiration. Dante ‘deified’ law, Blake imaginative freedom, and from the confrontation could emerge that self and anti-self which was true unity of being: ‘blood, imagination, intellect running together’. The Yeats who loved aristocratic order, and disdained the mob, who wished for his daughter a marriage ‘where all’s accustomed, ceremonious’, was also as poet the wild old wicked man, danced attendance on by lust and rage, anarchic furies of the free imagination who brought him other kinds of metaphor for his poetry.
For Yeats, the Commedia bore the scars of a titanic battle to establish self and anti-self, the one aspiring to a great vision of impartial justice, the other fuelled by anger and revenge, bitterness and violence. Out of this ‘quarrel with ourselves’, as Yeats wrote with a certain complacency, ‘we make poetry’, and achieve ‘unity of being’ – the unity he celebrates in the poem ‘Demon and Beast’, whose image may well echo that of the three beasts whom Dante meets in the opening canto of the Commedia, the image that Eliot also used in ‘Ash Wednesday’.
For certain minutes at the least
That crafty demon and that loud beast
That plague me day and night
Ran out of my sight;
Though I had long perned in the gyre,
Between my hatred and desire,
I saw my freedom won
And all laugh in the sun.
Yeats’s images of this unity are really, it must be said, not at all moving, because they are so theoretical. Indeed one of the most interesting implications to emerge from Ellis’s study, one which he himself appears unconscious of, is that the extreme deliberation of Dante’s genius produces an even more calculated emphasis on system and theory – however different to his own – in the English poets who have been most conscious of him. Wordsworth said of Goethe that he was not spontaneous enough, and the tradition of English poetry, even before the romantic revival, is towards, as it were, the joyful rush of words, the pleasure in language and in the immediacy of feeling, as plain in the Metaphysicals as in Shakespeare, in Spenser as in Chaucer.
Yeats’s is thus a singular instance in English of great poetry that has become great by taking earnest thought on its stature. It is notable that our own great deliberate poet, Milton, though he put so many successors in his shadow, gave them nothing but a diction, a way of putting things that determined, usually in a comfortable way, what was put. The legacy of Dante for Yeats was quite different. The way to be a great poet was to work out one’s own spacious and self-justifying system. There is something more than a little comical in Yeats’s decision to be great, and in his analysis of what was lacking for such greatness in other poets whom he associated with Dante. ‘Shelley,’ he writes in A Vision, ‘lacked the Vision of Evil, could not conceive of the world as a continual conflict, so, though great poet he certainly was, he was not of the greatest kind.’ Yeats himself conscientiously pursues the mask of unity through ‘continual conflict’, and one cannot but feel that the ‘Vision of Evil’ was for him a symbolic and intellectualised affair, symbolic in the same disabling sense in which Blok’s vision of Russia’s ‘terrible years’ was to be. As Pasternak dryly observed, what was a visionary stimulus of apocalypse for Blok as poet was to be an all too real misery and suffering for the Russian people.
Ellis is much too intelligent a critic not to be aware of the kinds of weakness which attack poetry when a bitter passion – Dante’s own – for the hopes and tragedies of politics, spiritual and secular, become a search for ‘passion’ and ‘bitterness’ as ingredients of poetics, aids towards poetic synthesis. He comments: ‘It seems absurd to write off Dante’s political passion as “rhetoric” when it results in the vigorous and moving drama of a speech like St Peter’s; it deprives Dante’s poem of half its force to see his concern for the destiny of his fellow-men exchanged for the search for his anti-self, and his examination of the bases of Medieval society modernised into the Romantic quest’ – a quest determined by modern assumptions of what is, and what is not, poetry. For much modern criticism, of course, the ‘poetical’ in poetry is all there is, and Yeats’s recipe is to be taken for granted. In a sense, the contrast between Yeats’s ‘vision’ and Dante’s is bound to be an unreal one, because all poetry works in the end in the same sorts of way: and yet there is a radical difference in attitude between Yeats’s wish to ‘see all things set in order’ for his poetry, and Dante’s to see them so set for the peace of mankind and the glory of God.
The most ingenious, and also ingenuous, way in which Yeats stylises his theory is to decree an absolute distinction between the man and the poet, or the man and the Mask. Carlyle looked at the portraits, with their grim, thin-lipped dignity, their suggestion of great passion and great intellect under iron control, and exclaimed ‘This is Dante!’ – the hero one with the man and the poet. For Yeats the portrait was the Mask, and the man who climbed stairs in exile, fathered children and pursued maidenheads, something quite perishably other, what Yeats called ‘the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast’. Like so many distinctions, this one has a misleading plausibility. Of course the artist and the man are different, but not that different – Yeats wants to make the artist as separate from the man as art necessarily is from the business of living. Why he wants to is evident from the statement in A Vision that Dante was ‘Daimonic, not a writer of poetry alone like Guido Calvacanti’. This is highly disingenuous – Shakespeare or Keats or Hardy are not ‘writers of poetry alone’, but their poetry is a part of their daily being, a part even of its ‘accident and incoherence’.
‘I must have a system or be destroyed by another man’s,’ said Blake. This in a sense is true of all the English poets who have come under Dante’s spell, and Yeats wrote that ‘Blake was very certain that he and Dante represented spiritual states which face one another in an eternal enmity.’ Yeats rejoiced in the same kind of opposition, and in the conviction that he and the others are like power-systems, rivals and yet co-equals in the struggle for poetic ascendancy. It is worth noting that Auden, exemplar of English poets for whom Dante’s example has meant little or nothing, pooh-poohs the idea of the poet as a man of power, making his own distinction, both similar to and radically different from Yeats’s, between the poet as benevolent magician and harmless fantasist (‘for poetry makes nothing happen’), and as a human being who must live like a man of this world under the moral law. Auden took a Freudian view of Dante, as a poet who craved for his poetry to bring him ‘honour, power, riches and the love of women’.
It might have been worth Steve Ellis’s while to mention Auden as a case of the on the whole silent majority of English poets who have not been inspired by Dante, or, like Chaucer, have made simple and equable use of him in the course of borrowing and adaptation. The genius of our poetry has not craved the systematic, but this makes the exceptions all the more significant. Pound’s Cantos, the most purely Dantesque of all modern poems, show how the inspiration has produced the new kind of international style in art which used to be thought of as Modernism. There is something ‘Daimonic’ in the intentions of Modernism, and in the power it determines to fetch from all possible sources of learning.
Considerations of this kind make Ellis’s a particularly absorbing and rewarding study, one giving its own specialised contribution to Dante studies as represented by William Anderson’s masterly Dante the Maker, now reissued in paperback. Professor Mark Musa’s new version of the Purgatorio is also a notable contribution not only to Dante studies but to the poet’s accessibility to English readers. Musa’s excellent notes at the end of each Canto, more helpful than those in the old Temple Classics translation, are easily referred to the text, and he has achieved a superlatively readable new version, an easy rhythmical terza rima with occasional rhymes and half-rhymes which suggest the music of the original while the tempo keeps up its methodic onward movement. This makes it considerably easier to read than an unversed translation: and since it is essentially as accurate, the reader without Italian can become absorbed in Dante without too much in the way of intermediary expertise.
Charles Singleton’s version in the Bollingen series takes the more orthodox old-fashioned course – the original Italian facing a plain prose translation – and represents, together with its meticulous apparatus, the summit of what can be done by that scholarly method. All serious students of Dante and Dante’s Italian will wish to have this edition. By contrast, Mark Musa’s rendering has something in common with Robert Fitzgerald’s new version of the Aeneid, following his similar productions of the Iliad and Odyssey. Here again the achievement is to involve the common reader in the whole scope and meaning of a poem which has usually been presented to him through the medium of single books, or the static prose of Mackail and the Loeb volumes. The gain is very considerable. Like Musa’s Dante, Fitzgerald’s Virgil does not attempt poetic individuality, but both are organically poetical, and thus far closer to the structural excitements of the original than any prose arrangement could be. Sense grows out of the lines with the proper ritualistic pace and intensity.
Virgil, Dante, Blake, Yeats, Pound himself, are all poets who have to be studied and understood historically, if they are to be fully appreciated. Great poets may make what they like out of them, and other poets (such as Lowell and Christopher Logue) may subject them to specialised sorts of updating in their own verse. Logue in particular, with his versions of Homer, is engaged in the often valuable as well as always fashionable business of bringing the past in line with the tastes of the present. But Musa and Fitzgerald have done something more fundamentally worthwhile, as well as truly educational, which is to enable ourselves in the present to become absorbed and excited by the ways in which things were written and responded to in the past.