Passionate study of Dante and ‘Divine Comedy’ is a winning labor of love

“Dante in Love” by A. N. Wilson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 386 pages, $35)

Chances are that you have not read a word by Dante Alighieri, the great medieval Italian poet.

Or chances are that if you have read Dante, it was during an undergraduate literature course in which you struggled to make sense of the “Inferno,” the first book in Dante’s three-volume narrative poem, the “Comedy” –– later christened the “Divine Comedy” by Boccaccio, also a celebrated medieval Italian poet.

In the poem, Dante travels from Hell to Heaven in search of Beatrice, his long-lost love on Earth, and his everlasting Muse among the stars.

But love must have seemed light-years away from the “Inferno,” with its cornucopia of cruel and unusual punishments that Dante inflicted on his souls in Hell, many of them his political enemies from 14thcentury Florence.

Chances are, however, that the sheer power of those images lingers in your brain, inclining you to agree with A.N. Wilson when he claims that Dante could be called “the greatest of all European poets, of any time or place.”

But that is as far as you wish to take matters. Great poet? Check. Long, intricate poem? Check. Case closed. Books closed. Let’s skedaddle out of the dark woods that got the whole thing started.

Not so fast. Wilson knows that you would like to pronounce Dante “great” because you understand why he is great. He knows that you may not have the intellectual and cultural resources to recite the Roman history, classical mythology, and backstabbing Italian politics needed to divine all the poem’s devilish details.

Nor can you imagine how a three-day pilgrimage to Rome in 1300 could incite such a collision between the poet and his world that from its wreckage would emerge the first modern man.

Yet, whatever else he may be in the annals of Western literature, Dante is modernity’s Adam. And Wilson is his scribe, writing a 21st-century “Genesis,” an inspired and personal account of one poet’s paradise lost and regained.

Best known as a British novelist and biographer, Wilson proves to be an intelligent, witty and erudite guide to Dante and his “Divine Comedy.” He prides himself on being a lifelong amateur, not an expert, whose love affair with Dante began on a teenage visit to Florence.

Clearly, he knows more than you or I need to. He knows how Dante’s run-in with Pope Boniface during the pilgrimage in 1300 turned the poet’s world upside down. At the time, Dante was a venerated poet, diplomat and politician, but “as he left Rome, [he] heard the news which would change his life, and later the fate of European literature.” Because of a trumped-up charge of political corruption, he was banished from his native Florence forever, spending the last two decades of his life in exile.

Wilson also knows that Dante’s failings as a politician let him thrive as a poet, creating the magisterial work that proclaimed that “Love encompassed all things, that it was the force which moved the sun and other stars.”

Chances are that most of us would be satisfied with such knowledge, but not Wilson:

“Although I continued to read, decade by decade, in the field of Dantean studies, and although, every few years, I reread the Comedy, ‘my book’ –– the book I wish I had read before I started –– had still eluded my grasp.”

Luckily for us, chances are quite good that the book Wilson searched for is the one he has written..

Last year, my wife, Laura, and I visited Italy to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. During the first part of our trip, we stayed in a farmhouse apartment in the Umbrian countryside, where I started each chilly, October morning with a simple breakfast and a hearty chapter of the “Paradiso,” the third of the “Divine Comedy’s” three books, in which Dante ascends into Heaven in pursuit of Beatrice.

I ignored whatever I didn’t understand about the poem, and some of what I did (the numerology), and dived into the heart of the matter: Love conquers all.

No doubt, Wilson would say that I had failed to appreciate how Dante’s “true greatness was to sum up in one narrative poem, not only his own autobiography, but the lives of his contemporaries, and the tremendous change which had taken place in Europe in his lifetime.”

But each morning renewed my fervor, as I was transported into the ever-ascending realms of Paradise.

This was my Dante, an existential hero staking his life, indeed, his afterlife on the elevating power of love.

Would Wilson’s book have helped my understanding? Perhaps. But I would have beheld his Dante, not mine. And what, after all, is more personal than love? Check.

Why Dante? Chances are, that is the question on your lips. Let’s let Wilson answer:

“The Comedy is more than just a book. Once read, it will take on a life of its own inside you. . . . [I]t has the power to make its own version of us. The dark wood into which it takes us in the opening lines is not safe. No more is the scorching light at the poem’s end. Nor is –– however we define it, and whatever form it takes –– nor is Love.”

Dante became the first modern man, Wilson says, because his private passion turned into an allegory for all of us: that love is the most important thing in our lives, that love is what defines us.

Chances are that you will not find a finer introduction to the genius of Dante and his “Divine Comedy” than Wilson’s book.

At bottom, it is a labor of love. And love conquers all, right? Check.