• Email
  • Print

Keeping Up With Dante

The Divine Comedy in English: A Critical Bibliography, 1782-1900

by Gilbert F. Cunningham
Barnes & Noble, 206 pp., $6.75

Dante into English

by William J. De Sua
University of North Carolina, 138 pp., $3.50

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (Text with Translation in the Metre of the Original)

by Geoffrey L. Bickersteth
Harvard, 795 pp., $8.95

Dante, A Collection of Critical Essays

edited by John Freccero
Prentice Hall, 182 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Essays on Dante

edited by Mark Musa
Indiana, 206 pp., $2.45 (paper)

The Mind of Dante

edited by U. Limentani
Cambridge, 199 pp., $5.00

Dante Alighieri, His Life and Works

by Paget Toynbee, edited with an Introduction by Charles S. Singleton
Harper Torchbooks, 316 pp., $1.95


by Thomas G. Bergin
Orion, 326 pp., $6.50

A Concordance to the Divine Comedy

Edited for the Dante Society of America by Ernest Hatch Wilkins, by Thomas Goddard Bergin, Associate Editor, Anthony J. De Vito
Harvard (Belknap Press), 636 pp., $17.50

About sixteen years ago the late Erich Auerbach told me that the current output of writing on Dante in all languages had reached such a point that no man could keep up with it, even if he devoted full time to the job. The flood has not diminished, and 1965, the seventh centenary of Dante’s birth, brought a new crest. The books briefly described below are only a sampling of recent works in English, but taken together they give some idea of the Dante cult in our time. I have arranged them in groups according to the intentions of the authors.

Both Cunningham and De Sua propose to give an account of all the translations into English, but Cunningham takes us only from 1782, when the first translation of the Inferno appeared, to 1900, and promises a second volume to bring his study up to date. His book is a revised Ph.D. dissertation, concerned mostly with the facts, including the facts of the translators’ biographies. De Sua on the other hand is interested in the technical problems of translation, and in the widely different qualities of the English versions as an index of the changing taste in poetry during the last hundred and fifty years; and he brings the story down to the present. He has very just things to say about Bickersteth’s version in terza rima, which was begun fifty years ago, and now appears in its final form in this very handsome edition. Bickersteth, as De Sua says, was untouched by Pound’s and Eliot’s revolution in taste, and so his language “still retains echoes of Victorian banalities”—which is putting it mildly. Bickersteth does this with the first tercet:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I woke to find me astray in a dark wood,
confused by ways with the straight way at strife.

In Sinclair’s accurate prose version (Oxford Press) it goes this way:

In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost.

The prose is not only an excellent trot; it is also, to my ear, much more poetic than the verse; and in general verse translations are more fun for the translator than they are for the reader. But the statistics are impressive: there have been eighty-one translations into English since 1782, no less than forty-two of which have appeared since 1900.

The two collections edited respectively by Freccero and Musa are intended to provide “the best in contemporary critical opinion” on Dante, as the dustcover of Freccero’s book puts it. They consist of well-known essays by well-known writers, except for the contributions of the two editors, and Thomas G. Bergin’s cheerful and fluent account of the Topography and Demography of the Inferno, which was written especially for the Musa book. Samples of the work of two essential writers on Dante, Erich Auerbach and Charles S. Singleton, appear in both collections. But Musa’s book is chiefly about the Inferno, while Freccero’s is more comprehensive in scope, and much more interesting in its sampling of Dante criticism. He prints essays by Pirandello, Bruno Nardi, and Gianfranco Contini, all first-rate, for the first time in English; and one by Kenelm Foster, O.P., who is, I think, not sufficiently well-known in this country. Limentani’s collection, The Mind of Dante, consists of seven hitherto unpublished essays which were given as lectures for the seventh-centenary celebration at Cambridge University. “Each one of them is meant to illustrate an aspect of the poetry or of the thought of Dante,” the editor explains; “it is hoped that they will serve as an introduction to his works, and as an interpretation of his art and ideas.” These aims are admirably achieved, especially in the contributions of Natalino Sapegno, “Genesis and Structure: Two Approaches to the Poetry of the ‘Comedy”’; Foster, “Religion and Philosophy in Dante”; and Limentani, “Dante’s Political Thought.” All the essays, however, are readable and illuminating; they have that combination of modesty and sophistication which is commoner in England than it is with us. The essays in all three volumes, diverse as they are, all suggest a kind of “consensus” (as the President would say) about the nature of Dante’s poetry—a common view which has slowed formed during the last forty years.

It was in 1921 that Benedetto Croce drew the distinction between ‘poetry’ and ‘structure’ in the Comedy, and we shall not be risking too great a simplification if we say that all subsequent criticism of the poem has taken this distinction as its point of departure,” Sapegno writes (Limentani, p. 1). Most of the best critics have dissociated themselves from Croce’s view, sometimes most respectfully, like Sapegno, sometimes violently, like Pirandello in his essay in Freccero’s book, in order to put together again what Croce wanted to separate—poetry, structure, medieval allegory, medieval doctrine—and so affirm the organic unity, and the poetic nature, of the Commedia as a whole; and then they have proceeded to explain, in various ways, how this can be. “Only in our day,” Sapegno writes, “has it become possible to offer a rational justification of the admiration manifested down the centuries…. Today we approach the evaluation of the medieval heritage without bias…We have repudiated all polemical attitudes derived from Humanism, the Renaissance, the Englightenment or even Romanticism.” Most of the essays in these three collections are based on this free and informed attitude to the medieval masterpiece, and they lead the reader to see through the sometimes unfamiliar texture to the underlying poetic vision.

Foster and Nardi both lead to the poetry by way of Dante’s philosophy though they slightly disagree on what, exactly, that philosophy is. Foster (in The Mind of Dante) takes as his general thesis that Dante’s philosophy is to be understood as “the effect on a Christian mind of a very strong and very personal attraction to Aristotelian ethics,” and in Freccero’s volume he writes, “what we enter, as readers of the Comedy, is the continuous spiritual movement of a mind seeking God.” This is a reference to Dante’s famous definition of the inspired content of his poetry as amor, “spiritual movement,” which corresponds to Aristotle’s concept of “action.” Bruno Nardi, in his essay on “Dante and Medieval Culture” in Freccero’s volume has his eye on the same Dantesque vision of the spirit’s movement, but prefers to find his analogies in Plato: “It is in the poetic representation of the ascent of the soul beyond the heavens, celebrated in the second discourse of Socrates, and in the vision of Er at the end of the Republic, rather than in the humble visions of the Middle Ages, that the fertile seed of the philosophy and poetry of the Commedia can really be found.” There is much intricate and erudite dispute about Dante’s sources, direct and indirect, but what the nonspecialist reader needs is assistance in getting Dante’s own vision, and Foster and Nardi both brilliantly provide that.

The crucial studies of Auerbach and Singleton also illuminate Dante’s poetry, and the organic unity of the Commedia, but by way of his verbal, dramatic, and allegorical or “figural” stratagems. Auerbach shows that it is Dante’s realism that speaks to us, his picturing of “man, not as a remote legendary hero, not as an abstract or anecdotal representative of an ethical type, but man as we know him in his living historical reality” (Freccero, p.9). In his writings on Dante from 1929 to his death in 1957 Auerbach explored the roots of this “Christian realism” in Dante’s long tradition, and its flowering in the Commedia. Singleton has carried this analysis of Dante’s poetry much farther, by illuminating the actual texts of the Vita Nuova and the Commedia with apt quotations from works of theologians and mystics which Dante might have used to confirm and discipline his own insights. I think it will be a long time before the works of these writers are properly recognized and digested, for they throw light not only on Dante, but on the symbolic imagination in general. Meanwhile I hope that the samples printed by Freccero and Musa will introduce them to a wider audience.

The fourth edition of Toynbee’s work appeared in 1910, and has long been out of print, while Bergin’s book is just published. The present edition of Toynbee was edited by Singleton, who tells us that so little new information has been discovered in the last fifty years that the book can stand as Toynbee left it, with the addition of a few footnotes and an up-to-date bibliography, which he provides. This edition is therefore just what Toynbee intended it to be: a readable and completely reliable account of what little is known with certainty about Dante’s life, times, and works. More than half of the book is devoted to the life and times—mostly the times, since the trustworthy information about Dante’s own doings is very meager. Toynbee does this part of the book chiefly by quotations from contemporary chroniclers, thereby giving us the flavor of the period, and at the same time some sense of the reliability (or unreliability) of the primary sources. He does very little with the works, beyond brief indications of their contents and summaries of what is known or conjectured about the circumstances and dates of their composition. Toynbee did not design this little work to replace his own huge and fascinating reference-book, his indispensable Dictionary of Proper Names and Notable Matters in the Works of Dante; nor the exhaustive notes and commentaries in the standard Società Dantesca edition; and he has nothing to say of the vast literature of criticism and interpretation. But with its updated bibliography this book is the best factual introduction to Dante that I know of.

BERGIN’S book will inevitably be compared with Toynbee’s, though it is much more ambitious in its intention: “to present the essential facts of the life and times of Dante Alighieri, to summarize the content of his works, and to suggest, by reference and quotation, his significance for our own century,” Bergin says in his Preface, and adds, “I think I may claim that my book contains more factual information—biographical and bibliographical—than can easily be found in any other single study of like compass, and I dare hope that it may therefore have some value as a convenient work of reference.” I’m sure Professor Bergin does not expect his book to replace the Dante Dictionary or the commentaries in the standard editions, and I doubt that it contains more information than Toynbee. But he certainly knows the facts, and in the first part of his book he presents the “life and times” much as Toynbee does, with lots of good quotations, and a useful map of Florence in Dante’s time. It is in the second two-thirds of the book, devoted to “summarizing the content” of Dante’s works, and “suggesting” their significance in our century, that Bergin is most ambitious, and it is there that I lose confidence both in his methods and his results.

It doesn’t do much damage, perhaps, to summarize a prose work, though it would be very hard to be more clear or more concise than Dante himself was in De Vulgari Eloquentia, De Monarchia, and even much of the Convivio. But how can one seriously propose to summarize the content of the Divine Comedy? Bergin tackles the job under three headings, Narrative, Allegory, and Doctrine. The notion that these elements can properly be separated from each other sounds very much like Croce’s way of disregarding the organic form of the Commedia, which (as I mentioned) the best Dantisti of the last forty years have carefully discredited. Bergin is a little uneasy with his three categories at first: “to be sure,” he writes, “the first two are sometimes intertwined, but usually with no loss of individual identity…Doctrine is tolerably easy to isolate from the other ingredients.” With that slightly defensive Preface, he proceeds to his three “ingredients.”

When he summarizes the narrative apart from the meanings Dante enbodied in it, he gets results like this (page 216):

After limbo true hell may be said to begin. The poets pass successively through the circles of the incontinent: the storm-tossed lustful, where Dante swoons again on hearing the sad story of Francesca (V); the gluttonous, buried in mud, one of whom, Ciacco, gives him a gloomy prophecy (VI); the avaricious and prodigal, nameless and compelled forever to roll heavy stones about, in sordid and pointless striving (VII).

The story of these cantos is plain enough as Dante tells it, and it is hard to see what purpose a “summary” serves, if not that of the “College Outlines” of Shakespeare’s plays, which enable lazy sophomores to avoid Shakespeare altogether. The section on Allegory has more point, because there is a great deal of theorizing about allegory, figure, symbol, metaphor, and so on, in Dante’s time and ours, which may be discussed apart from the Commedia. Bergin at least mentions many of the important studies of such matters, including Auerbach’s and Singleton’s, and that extraordinary and much-neglected work, Dunbar’s Symbolism in Medieval Thought. But he cannot have taken them seriously, for they teach us that the allegorical meanings of the Commedia cannot be properly understood apart from the contexts in which they emerge, and Bergin, following his Crocean way, tries to consider bits of what he calls “allegory” outside of the story. Thus he treats the procession of Revelation in the earthly paradise (Purgatorio XXX) as a “medieval artifact” apart from the elaborate context that Dante so carefully provides, never pointing out that it marks the climax and peripety of Dante’s dramatic relations with Virgil and Beatrice, and that its visually clear but uninterpreted iconography serves, among other things, to dramatize the traveler’s helpless bewilderment at that point. As for the third category, “Doctrine,” the reader might naturally expect an account of the philosophical, theological, and astronomical doctrines that Dante used as blue-prints for the great poem—if that were possible in one book—but it turns out that Bergin means simply the passages in which Virgil or another of Dante’s guides explains something to him. But these passages also, like the speeches in a Platonic dialogue or a Shakespeare play, can only be properly understood as the utterances of particular spirits in particular situations. For example, Marco Lombardo, in the smoke of anger re-lived, halfway up the Mount of Purgatory, explains the proper relation of the Papacy to the Empire; but if we are to grasp Dante’s whole understanding of this matter we must correct Marco with reference to the dreamlike visions in the terrestrial paradise, and those, in turn, with what Justinian and Beatrice tell Dante in the Paradiso. Dante planned his great poem with infinite care, so that the meanings he saw in the life of the human spirit should open up gradually as we follow him on his journey of enlightenment, and always one mode of understanding is qualified and amplified higher up. But one would never gather that from Bergin’s “summaries.”

He tells us in the Preface that one of his aims is to suggest Dante’s significance for our own century, and that, I suppose, is the best reason for writing another general book on Dante. But as he starts his summaries of the Commedia he writes, “The intent is not to offer any particular interpretation, but rather to consider what the poet says and his manner of saying it.” Perhaps this explains his way of treating the great critical studies of the last generation: generously and approvingly mentioning them without making use of them in his own account of the poem. But is it possible to suggest significance without any particular interpretation? I do not think so; and I fear that Bergin’s omniscient-impartial manner does more to deprive Dante of significance in our time than the personal testimonies of Eliot or Pirandello which are printed in Freccero’s book, partial and inadequate as they are.

The dustcover of this book accurately describes its raison d’être:

In 1957 the Dante Society of America undertook the preparation of a new concordance to the Divine Comedy—the first in this century—to be published in 1965…This vast project, shared in by more than a hundred members and friends of the Society, has now been completed. Its publication represents an extraordinarily important event in Dante Scholarship.

I have little to add to that, except an expression of gratitude to the editors and their collaborators, who must have toiled indeed. I can’t think of any more welcome aid in the study of the Commedia; it is sure to be recognized as indispensable, and its utility will be proved over the years as many Dante fans resort to it for their various purposes.

  • Email
  • Print