A Look Into Medieval Sensibilities

Prose Illuminates Solitary Nature of Dante

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (Vol. 1)

Edited and translated

by Robert M. Durling

Oxford University Press

654 pp. $39.95

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) composed his magnum opus, "The Divine Comedy," during his years of exile from his native Florence, from which he was banished in 1302 never to return (following a trial in absentia over trumped-up charges). Soldier, statesman, poet, scholar, Dante was in many respects a true Renaissance man, yet he also seems to embody the apotheosis of the civilization of the later Middle Ages.

His most recent translator, Robert Durling, sees the "Divine Comedy" as the product of a unique moment in intellectual history. Dante's complete portrait of a unified spiritual, physical, and moral cosmos embracing heaven, hell, and purgatory, Durling contends, could only have been achieved before the dissolution of the grand medieval attempt to harmonize the classical philosophy of Aristotle with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The luminously articulated summae of Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas are the necessary background for Dante's vividly detailed, intricately conceived vision of realms unseen.

Indeed, many scholars have viewed Dante's epic as the grand culmination of medieval culture and civilization. The two-volume anthology "World Masterpieces," under the general editorship of Maynard Mack (W.W. Norton, 1973) places "The Divine Comedy" - along with Boccaccio's "Decameron" and Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" - as a masterpiece of the Middle Ages, in contrast to Petrarch (Boccaccio's contemporary), who is classified as a Renaissance figure.

But there is also a considerable body of opinion that views Dante as one of the first harbingers of the Renaissance.

Jacob Burckhardt's classic study "The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy" places Dante at the forefront of such Renaissance phenomena as the rediscovery of classical antiquity, a new interest in the natural world, and the flowering of individualism: "Dante, who even in his lifetime was called by some a poet, by others a philosopher, by others a theologian, pours forth in all his writings a stream of personal force, by which the reader, apart from the interest of the subject, feels himself carried away," wrote Burckhardt in 1860.

Dante's world is medieval: a pre-Copernican cosmos, with the unmoving earth at the center, heaven above and hell below. In viewing himself, the people he knew, and the historical world from the final perspective of the next world, Dante was continuing the medieval tradition. Yet Dante's way of presenting this world and this perspective is so intensely personal and radically original as to justify classifying this medieval thinker as a Renaissance mind and personality.

Dante's originality has almost nothing in common with the originality sought by modern avant-garde artists self-consciously setting out to be innovative or vainly flaunting their idiosyncrasies in the hope of seeming unique.

Dante's originality is linked to his firm belief in his ability as an individual to comprehend the divinely created cosmos through the medium of his personal experiences. These experiences include both the events of his life and times and the many books he had read.

Not only does Dante confidently blend natural philosophy, classical lore, and Christian doctrine in the lofty tradition of medieval summae, but, with a proto-Romantic self-assurance matched only by the likes of Milton and Blake, he offers up the particular passions, loves, errors, and enmities of his own life as significant events in the universal scheme of things.

Perhaps the most remarkable instance of his radically personal approach is his use of Beatrice as his guide to Paradise. With a religious tradition full of potential mediators, from the Virgin Mary to hosts of apostles and saints, Dante achieves his revelatory vision through the intervention of a beautiful young Florentine woman whom he first glimpsed and fell in love with at the age of 9, who died when he was 25, and whose life and virtues were known to him chiefly through the idealizing powers of his passionate imagination.

Intensely individualistic, Dante ingested immense quantities of doctrine and learning and made them his own, while transforming his individual life into a paradigm for Everyman. He is also credited with inventing the intricately interlinked terza rima rhyme scheme, in which "The Divine Comedy" is written.

Indisputably one of the world's greatest works of literature, "The Divine Comedy" has not lacked for translators. Scholars and poets from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to Charles Eliot Norton, Dorothy Sayers, John Ciardi, Robert Pinsky, and John Sinclair have offered their versions.

Prose translations, by and large, tend to cleave far more closely to Dante's actual words, but generally fail to convey the poetic qualities that make the poem a masterpiece. Many translations (both in prose and in verse) helpfully provide readers with a parallel text in the original Italian.

In this translation, Durling has opted for the greater exactitude of prose, but he presents it in a form that roughly replicates the spacing of Dante's verse on the facing pages. The reader is thus encouraged to refer back and forth between translation and original.

A reader with some knowledge of Italian who is trying to read it in the original can glance across for a quick clarification of unfamiliar words and tricky passages. Conversely, those reading the story in English can easily refer back to the Italian original to try to recapture some sense of the sounds - alliteration, rhyme, rhythm, assonance - lost in translation.

Indeed, this new edition of "Inferno" (subsequent volumes of "Purgatorio" and "Paradiso" are scheduled for next year) is distinctly user-friendly.

It features a lucid biographical-historical introduction to Dante and his times, along with helpful notes and commentary and a small number of well-chosen illustrations including a detailed "map" of Dante's many-leveled Hell.

The book's layout is attractive and practical, the printing clear, the commentary cogent. Serious students - in or out of the classroom - who are willing to put in the time and effort to examine the original poem alongside a readable and reliable prose translation will find this edition excellently suited to their needs.

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