Dante in Love

Dante in Love, by AN Wilson, Atlantic, RRP£25, 400 pages

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.)

Dante, moreover, represents himself, autobiographically, as a character in his own poem, always placing himself at the heart of 13th-century politics. After years as an active politician, Dante was exiled from Florence in 1301, following a coup d’état. He never returned. In his wanderings, however, he developed a detailed critique of European politics and also a world view of remedies against internecine violence. As Wilson indicates, the Commedia is concerned as much with the secular world as it is with celestial fantasies.

Yet Dante also questions the conception of self that now underlies our appetite for biography. He recognises that the economy of Florence, where modern capitalism was arguably invented, could generate, through an appetite for possessions, a conception of individualistic self-possession – all flounce, swagger and, correspondingly, envious gossip – that threatened the very basis of human community.

Dante’s Christian understanding reveals an alternative. Confronting the ultimate questions (God’s questions?), all human beings must collaborate and thus recover what humanity and social harmony truly mean. The name for that collaboration, as Wilson’s title suggests, is love.

Biographers of Dante should not, then, seek merely to photograph their victim in compromisingly tabloid postures. They need to recognise that Dante’s concerns are also our concerns. And Wilson does this admirably. True, he is ill-served by a blurb that (with an eye on the Dan Brown market?) represents Dante as “an enigmatic figure”. But Wilson is too good an analyst to be incriminated by that. He understands that curiosity without ethical engagement is, for Dante, a more destructive vice than any Twitter-able peccadillo.

So when he speaks of the Commedia as a confessional poem, Wilson does not mean that Dante “bares all” – but rather, like St Augustine, that he confesses there to be truths which neither his nor any other single mind can properly encompass.

Notably, Wilson’s book begins with an autobiographical sketch, detailing his own involvement with Dante’s writings. He admits that he remains an “amateur”. But Dante would say the same of himself: “amateurs” do not seek to cultivate any self-important expertise; they love their subject, in unfolding wisdom.

Dante in Love is accurate, lively, sometimes polemical and always delicately devout. There is little to disagree with here, and much that encourages conversation. That, too, is appropriate. Dante may have a reputation for ferocious polemic. Yet one need only read the second part of Dante’s poem, the Purgatorio – with its often comic nuances of dialogue – to realise how profoundly, for Dante, life depends upon talk.

Why, then, does Wilson not pay more attention to the shifting tones and rhythms of Dante’s poetry? Or why, theologically, does the Resurrection of the Body play no greater part in Wilson’s discussion of love? Wilson is as appalled as Dante would have been by Clinton Card-ish reductions of love to clichéd sentiment or facile consolation. But to appreciate how remote from sentimentality Dante’s thinking is, one needs to abandon introductory paraphrase and turn to the final part of the Commedia, the Paradiso. Here Dante represents himself in ever-shifting exchanges with his beloved Beatrice, now living anew. Resurrection expresses the value of body as well as soul, and the language of resurrection is communication at its most vibrantly alive.

The virtue of Dante in Love is that it readjusts certain misapprehensions and also remedies a culturally disastrous commonplace. Evil, one is told with tedious frequency, is more interesting than goodness – so read Dante’s Inferno, but not a page beyond! Yet, as anyone following the Inferno to its end will see, evil is itself finally tedious, mechanical and banal. Goodness, by contrast, is the true source of variety and surprise. “Newness” is the keyword of Dante’s theology. And the Paradiso draws its reader into unfailingly innovative collaboration. As Wilson puts it: “The Commedia is a conversation in which the dominant voice is wanting to add: ‘Oh and another thing ...’”

Robin Kirkpatrick’s translations of Dante’s ‘Inferno’, ‘Purgatorio’ and ‘Paradiso’ are published by Penguin

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.