Power Systems

John Bayley

  • Dante and English Poetry: Shelley to T.S. Eliot by Steve Ellis
    Cambridge, 280 pp, £20.00, October 1983, ISBN 0 521 25126 5
  • Dante the Maker by William Anderson
    Hutchinson, 497 pp, £7.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 09 153201 9
  • Dante: Purgatory translated with notes and commentary by Mark Musa
    Indiana, 373 pp, £19.25, September 1981, ISBN 0 253 17926 2
  • Dante: Paradiso and Purgatorio with translation and commentary by Charles Singleton
    Princeton, 610 pp, £11.80, May 1982, ISBN 0 691 01844 8
  • Virgil: The Aeneid translated by Robert Fitzgerald
    Harvill, 403 pp, £12.50, March 1984, ISBN 0 00 271008 0

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.

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