“Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity” by Prue Shaw (Liveright, 352 pages, $28.95)
If you’ve never delved into Dante’s “Divine Comedy” for fear the great medieval epic poem might prove more hellish than heavenly, you can breathe easier now that Prue Shaw has written the definitive guide to all things Dante.
The foremost expert on Dante in the English language, Shaw escorts us on a transcendent voyage from hell to heaven and time to eternity. It is a journey, above all, about the power of Dante’s poetry – its originality, its artistic breadth, its vision of the human condition, its reaching for the stars.
Shaw calls the “Comedy,” written in the 1300s, “the greatest poem of the Middle Ages and perhaps the greatest single work of Western literature.”
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Dante, she claims, “made language say things it had not said before” as he undertook his odyssey through the afterlife, a pilgrimage precipitated by a profound psychological crisis:
In the middle journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight path was lost.
Shaw eloquently interprets this dark wood – from which Dante was rescued by the Roman poet Virgil – as “a state of moral and spiritual aberration.” Thus, guided by Virgil through hell and purgatory, and then by Beatrice, the beatified love of his life, through paradise, Dante completes a trek of radical self-discovery.
His guides, Shaw tells us, represent the “two sources of help and comfort offered to all human beings in their dealings with the vicissitudes of earthly existence: human reason and divine grace.”
Dante, writing at the height of his powers in exile from his native Florence, Italy, created a world view from his autobiographical elements that still captivates with its “capacity to move, to provoke and to engage the reader, of any faith or none, … with the most fundamental questions about the human condition.”
If that still sounds daunting, Shaw delivers more good news about Dante: “One need know very little medieval history … in order to appreciate the force of his vision. One merely needs to be alive to the power of his shaping imagination and his language.”
Those two traits make up Dante’s distinction as a lyric poet – the emergence of his unique poetic voice in the Tuscan vernacular. Shaw explores the development of Dante’s genius not by following the allegorical structure of the “Comedy” page by page, but by discussing its resonant themes of friendship, power, life, love, time, numbers and words.
In them, she finds an “exhilarating feeling of freedom – of energy, limitless expressive possibilities.”
Indeed, for Shaw, “All the great themes of literature are here … embedded in a narrative framework that is intensely personal and evocative in its concrete detail, but universal in its insight into human behaviour and its concern for human happiness.”
Such happiness extends beyond the grave, we learn, as Dante gives voice to the “fundamental principle which governs one’s destiny in the afterlife”: repentance.
In this respect, the gruesome punishments he portrays in the Inferno have wrongly garnered the greatest attention throughout the ages. Many readers never get past that first book and its inventive ways of making sinners pay for their misdeeds. But those who persevere to the Paradiso will discover that “In Dante’s view love is the key to understanding the way the universe functions. It causes the circling motion of the heavenly bodies. It drives all human behaviour.”
Moreover, the Paradiso presents the poet with the formidable challenge of expressing the ineffable.
“To transcend the human condition, to go beyond the limitations of what it is to be a human being – is what the pilgrim must do if he is to see the divinity,” Shaw writes. “This is the ultimate goal of his journey; this the ultimate challenge to the writer.”
Unlike modern poets, Dante held a deep-set conviction that “Poetry can be prophetic; poets have access to truths denied to other men; poetry can change human lives.”
What this means for the endurance of the “Comedy” is that poetic form defeats time, in Shaw’s view: “Words, unforgettable because of their expressive and rhythmic force, survive the passage of time.”
That’s why Dante remains relevant 700 years after he completed his masterpiece: In his original, sublimely elevated verse, he expressed the driving force of all human interaction with the cosmos – the irresistible power of love, which in its essence, never changes.