From darkness to light; Poet/scientist, William Anderson

"The central man of all the world," representing in perfect balance "the imaginative, moral and intellectual faculties all at their highest," was John Ruskin's characterization of Dante.

The 13th-century Italian poet has so profoundly influenced Western literature that his appeal has been timeless and unconfined to one nation, equaled only by shakespeare, born 250 years later.

William Anderson, the British writer and poet, was so captivated by Dante and by Dante's legendary love for Beatrice -- an ideal never objectified -- that he spent nine years on his biography, Dante the Maker, which was published in 1980.

As a poet, Anderson has suffused the entire word with lyrical writing. As a historian, he has woven historical and cultural patterns together in rich background of information. But as a scientist, working as publications manager of Nuffield Foundation's Science and Mathematics Projects, he has given the book the rare qualities of precision and accessibility. Nuffield is a foundation that strives to make the sciences understandable to the young and lay community. It follows, then, that Mr. Anderson has made his scholarly study sensible to the interested common reader. Dante the Maker has been called the first recent and reliable account in English of Dante -- his world and his work as a whole.

In 1980, William Anderson received the Silver Pen Award for Dante the Maker. He is also the recipient of the Richard Hillary Memorial Award. His several books include castele of Europe and Cathedrals in Britain and Ireland, and his long poem "Haddow Sonata" has recently been published.

In a recent interview with Barbara Acton-Bond, who talked with him at his home outside London, William Anderson discusses his work on Dante, Dante's The Divine Commedy, and the concept of creativity.

You are a poet, a scientist, a biographer, and an architectural historian -- is there a unifying thread running through all of these pursuits? Do they nourish or interfere with each other? How did they evolve?

Yes, there is a thread. Each one of these interests is a reflection of that unifying concern -- which is a deep interest in where and how things start. This is partly because I've been writing poetry since the age of 15 and becoming quite used to its extraordinary demands.

As a child I was expected to be interested in everything around me. This was my training for learning about the sciences, though I've had no formal training in them. I was brought up as a naturalist, with gardening and animals, so that I know a great deal of biology in an entirely practical way. I read history at Oxford, and the Age of Dante was my special subject, but I was never failed of science. Because I had studied history and the history of ideas, I was able to study the history of science -- to trace patterns and see where things came from. This is another aspect of beginnings, or what it is in individuals and societies that allows new things to happen. This led later to my book on cathedrals and the marvelous story of the spread of the Gothic throughout Europe.

Dante the Makerm was also a vehicle for my reflections on the nature of creativity -- not unfairly, I think, because Dante is one of the chief sources for any studies on creativity. And yet, no one has used his direct accounts of how his inspirations came to him, nor has anyone discussed why he deliberately incorporated these descriptions into his work. This is a strange omission, but I think it needed someone like me, with a background different from the usual academic training, to touch on this.

Why were you drawn to Dante instead of to one of the other great figures in medieval history?

I grew up with illustrations of Dante, with volumes of Dante around the house -- a medallion of Dante was above the fireplace in my grandmother's house. When it came to choosing a special subject at Oxford, I chose the Age of Dante, and read an enormous amount about the history of Florence and the chronicles of the time. And then, shortly after I married, I translated Dante's Vita Nuova.

But I was more drawn to Beatrice than to Dante. There is something terrifying and hard about Dante. You come up against the hardess of one individual and against an element of Western man which has not changed. What frightens me is the desire for judgment -- the lower side of the desire for justice. There are many things in Dante's nature -- sadism, cruelty, the capacity for malice -- which he didn't suppress. He transformed them into something higher, something that could be useful to humanity instead of damaging to it. He was capable, through a transformation of his understanding, of a higher consciousness. And he therefore performed a great service for Western man.

Dante saw his inspiration as coming from God or angelic messengers. He saw that these visions and inspirations had not only to be interpreted but established as from the greatest and highest source. He speaks, at the beginning of Paradise,m in a most triumphant, certain, and confident way about the source and glory of his inspiration. He's also anticipating the civilization that is to come -- the Renaissance.

One can admire a man who starts out with so many difficulties and conflicts in his nature and turns them into something positive.

I feel that you were propelled in this biography by a specific intention. Dante wrote that his Divine Comedy was conceived not for speculation but with a practical object in mind. What was Dante the Maker conceived for?

To try to convey to others the instruction and delight I'd received from Dante, and in that way pay a debt -- not only a personal debt but the one which English literature owes to Dante. He gave a tremendous gift to Western Europe.

I wanted to remind people of their beginnings, that is, what they owe to European civilization as a whole, and to look at our own society and see where it needs regenerating.

Solzhenitsyn said something very beautiful in his Nobel Prize speech, when he speaks of the literature of nation being the memory of the nation. He said that a nation that is cut off from its literature ceases to remember itself. He also said that the experience of one nation can be transmitted, through its literature, to another nation. So that other nations don't have to go through the horrors and the sufferings that may have gone into creating that indigenous literature in the first place.

In the same sense, the experience of centuries, which intially built up to Dante, was transferred to England -- to Chaucer and his contemporaries. It was Dante who helped create the Renaissance, which in turn gave us Shakespeare.

As I read about this poet who lived 700 years ago I felt as though you were decoding and simplifying ideas and values that have mystified our own contemporary minds -- recovering a lost world -- joining us to something timeless. What enabled you to do this?

When you are dealing with history on such a big scale -- as well as its highly sensitive expression in literature -- there's great excitement in looking for the main undercurrents. They're usually expressed at their best by symbols. You start to see through and beneath the flow of history and of time, and you then see these great principles working through men and women, because there are profounf levels of existence in us -- levels which also demand symbols and devices in order to be expressed.

But what was the key for you?

I think the key was asking simple questions.

Another way of putting it is that I was fortunate, because of my background, to be able to bring so many strands together into what seems a rational whole. But it was all very closely linked to what I wrote of the creative process. I hoped to show that all of thses different influences on Dante -- religious, political -- were synthesized into something entirely new.

When Dante was banned from his beloved Florence for political reasons, you said that he turned to art as the only outlet for his energies and talent. Is there a connection between suffering and creativity, and is this fusion necessary?

It's necessary only insofar as it provides more experience that can be transformed into art. I should think that extreme happiness could be as much a barrier to a work of art as extreme suffering. Both are incidental. It is the response to life, not the shocks and blows of life, that are important.

At the period Dante was writing, questions of happiness were quite beside the point. He lived in a completely different world, where ordinary standards of happiness did not apply.

Yet you wrote of Dante working towards the recovery of divine joy in art, although such an art depended first on the artist himself being a "true poem." What did you mean?

It's a quotation from Milton's An apology for smectymnus.m "He who would not be frustrated of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought himself to be a true poem, that is, a composition, and pattern of the best and honorablest things; not presuming to sing high praises of heroic men, or famous cities, unless he have in himself the experience and the practice of all that which is praiseworthy." He has to achieve an imaginative union between his subject and himself. Dante said, "For he who paints a face cannot succeed unless he is it first."

The entire book is immersed in the idea and analysis of inspiration and creativity. Why, in such a biography, did you feel this was necessary?

It is very important to have so much on the theory of creativity in this book because Dante is so important to our understanding of civilization -- of why we are as we are. Dante created or re-created a new method for Western man to represent himself in literature. This means that Dante's influence is in every play, opera, or work of fiction with which we console, support, and delight ourselves. He invented the method of presenting individual man -- as opposed to the Greek tradition of man as a metaphor. So you aren't just asking about Dante; you're asking, whare are the origins of our civilization?

By analyzing what creativity is, you demystified your own role and the whole esoteric image of the poet. What was your purpose in doing this?

It seemed only fair to make plain from the beginning that the theme of creativity was going to figure largely in the book. Also, I wished to make the reader feel that the nature of inspiration isn't something hidden from everyone -- it's close to each one's experience and part of that experience.

Behind my actual interest in creativity is something much deeper -- an interest in the conscious experience of which man or society isa creative part. One of the remarkable things about inspiration is the extraordinary way it so often appears as a whole -- appears in a very short time -- in an instant. It is what Blake said in Milton:m "Every great work of man is achieved in a moment less than the pulsation of an artery." I would regard such moments as moments of higher consciousness coming from a source that is an infinitely greater power, intelligence, and imagination. So it would appear that the source of creativity , through such moments of consciousness, is something independent of the individual. It's a gift. When all the stairs had passed beneath our feet And we were standing on the highest step, My Virgil fixed his gaze on me and said, "My son, the temporal and eternal fires You have now seen, and you have reached a place Where Iam no more able to discern. My skill and understanding brought you here, Henceforth take your own pleasure for your guide Now you have left the steep and narrow ways. Behold the sun that shines upon your brow, Behold the tender grass, the flowers, the shrubs, Which spring uncultivated from the earth. While you are waiting for those joyful eyes Which by their weeping made me come to you, You may sit here or wander as you will. Expect no further word or sign from me. For now your will is upright, free and whole -- It would be wrong to disobey it -- hence I crown and mitre you lord of yourself."

Dante alighieri,m The Divine Comedy. Translated and introduced by Kenneth MacKenzie. London: The Folio Society. 1979.m

The second half of this interview will appear on tomorrow's Home Forum Page.m

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.