May 19, 2024


Simple Impartial Art

My Route to Dante

Though we all know the joys of browsing, none of us have the time to discover all our literary treasures on our own without help. Recommendation must play a part. With regard to Dante’s poetry, the following, so far as I can remember, is how it happened to me:

When I was a boy my mother – who knows no Italian and has never read Dante – once mentioned Charles Williams’ work The Figure of Beatrice. Mother was simply chatting a bit about snatches of ideas she had encountered at Oxford. She was not a terribly academic type in the sense of enjoying study though she had the brains for it – her parents had pushed her into Oxford, hoping that after getting a degree in modern languages she would become an interpreter; an absurd notion for a quiet, contemplative type such as she. Anyway, she mentioned Dante’s love for Beatrice and how he had been with her for maybe a total of a few hours in his life, and it had changed him for ever.

That was one snatch of thought, one little whiff, one clue. Then, some years later, I was browsing in the local town library, in the English Literature section, doing my usual thing of diffuse reading around instead of concentrating on my schoolwork – one of the reasons why my school exam results were so mediocre, but also the reason why it was a different story once it was time for the Cambridge entrance exam. Incidentally I don’t recommend this attitude – I was lucky to get in, having read a book the night before which turned out to be on the pet subject (American history) of one of the dons marking the paper. It’s not a good idea to rely on flukes like that. But that’s by the way; the fluke that is relevant here, is that I found – in some book which I’ll never find again – a passage in which some critic remarked on the vividness of the characters in Dante. The critic said that this vividness was unusual, unparalleled in medieval writing. Hmm, I thought. Interesting. I didn’t do anything about it at the time, but I remembered the little accumulation of ideas: Middle Ages – Dante – vivid characters – Beatrice.

Then at age 18 I came across the Sinclair edition of the Divine Comedy at one of the big London bookshops – either Foyles or Dillons, I can’t remember which. Just the look of the paperback volumes, with the Dore illustrations on the covers, was impressive and mysterious. I decided to give it a go. Big adventures are attractive at any age, but perhaps especially at 18!

The mental brew which caused me to take the plunge, was, I suppose, concocted out of the following incredients: being in love (and here perhaps I wanted to compare notes with Dante! After all, no woman ever got such a write-up as Beatrice); loving the vistas of science fiction and any related grandeur; being religious; liking languages; being fascinated with history.

I learned the language while reading the poem. Hence, the slightly different Italian of the fourteenth century was as familiar and natural to me as the Italian of the twentieth; indeed it was a long while before I noticed any differences (they are very minor).

I got an Italian government scholarship to study for a month at Florence in summer 1975; it’s the only time I have been to Italy as an adult. The teacher at the Centro Linguistico Italiano Dante Alighieri was at first amazed at how many lines I could recite, but later I think it dawned on him that this was thanks to the method by which I had been introduced to the poem – namely, getting to know it at the same time as I learned the language itself. That made it natural, vivid as any contemporary work. I recommend that route to others. Go for it, and if possible go for it young, so that the poem is your friend for life. But if you are no longer young, go for it anyway – as William Blake did in old age, for instance. It would be ridiculous to die without having read it.