Dante Alighieri (born Florence 1265, died Ravenna 1321) is, AN Wilson declares, “a modern poet”. This claim is justifiable. Over the past two centuries, Dante’s poetry has replaced the ancients as the model of what any poet should aspire to achieve in precision of word and brilliance of image. TS Eliot is Wilson’s favoured illustration. Many others could be mentioned, as diverse as Mandelstam, Borges, Beckett, Walcott and Heaney. Indeed, anyone writing about Dante’s Commedia is likely to find messages in today’s Inbox from at least three aspiring poets currently composing Commedias of their own – as, to cite one moving instance, from a Muslim scholar in embattled Basra. So do we need a history of Dante’s still-living life? Yes and no. Yes, insofar as Dante may be credited (alongside Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare) with having invented that modern “self” – compounded of quirks, follies and interesting secrets – into which biographies now so profitably inquire. As 19th-century readers enthusiastically recognised, the Commedia is full of celebrities from Dante’s own time, vividly three-dimensional in voice, gesture and passion. (The most famous case is that of Francesca da Rimini, murdered by her husband for adultery with her brother-in-law.)
more from Robin Kirkpatrick at the FT here.