How to Read Dante in the 21st Century

Joseph Luzzi in The American Scholar:

Dante-hellgià volgeva il mio disio e ’l velle,
sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,
l’amor che move ’l sole e l’altre stelle.

now my will and my desire were turned,
like a wheel in perfect motion,
by the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

These breathtaking lines conclude Dante’s Divine Comedy, a 14,000-line epic written in 1321 on the state of the soul after death. T. S. Eliot called such poetry the most beautiful ever written—and yet so few of us have ever read it. Since the poem appeared, and especially in modern times, those readers intrepid enough to take on Dante have tended to focus on the first leg of his journey, through the burning fires of Inferno. As Victor Hugo wrote about The Divine Comedy’s blessed realms, “The human eye was not made to look upon so much light, and when the poem becomes happy, it becomes boring.”

In truth, some of the most sublime moments in The Divine Comedy, indeed in all of literature, occur after Dante makes his way out of the Inferno’s desolation. But Hugo’s attack suggests the particular challenge in reading Dante, whose writing can seem remote and impenetrable to modern tastes. Last year marked the 750th anniversary of Dante’s birth in 1265, and as expected for a writer so famous—Eliot claimed “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third”—the solemn commemorations abounded, especially in Italy where many cities have streets and monuments dedicated to their Sommo Poeta, Supreme Poet. Yet Dante has the unenviable fate of having become more known than read: his name is immediately recognizable, his achievements justly acknowledged, but outside the classroom or graduate seminar, only the hardiest of literary enthusiasts pick up his Divine Comedy. Oddly enough, and at least in the United States, we seem to know more about Dante the man—his exile, his political struggles, his eternal love for Beatrice—than his poetry.

More here.