The Divine Comedy, Inferno
A late starter on the road to classic status, Dante stands very high today. The Modernist masters and critics joined in paying him homage. His prestige in the literary world is unquestioned. And now Professor Singleton’s great edition of the Divine Comedy has been completed, each cantica with a volume to itself, the verse beautifully spaced and disposed in the most elegant of columns, each cantica with its volume of intensive commentary, 3,296 pages in all. Whatever may be the place in modern society of the classic texts of our literature, with Dante at least all seems to be well.
And yet in a matter of such moment it is best to be sure, sure that we really do possess the Comedy, in spirit, not merely in the letter. For the burden of Singleton’s criticism has been that we do not. “For some time now,” he wrote in 1958, “we have been reading the great work in what amounts to an amputated version. It is not that the text of the poem…suffers from any serious lacunae…. The lacunae are rather in us, the readers, and reside in that deficient knowledge and lack of awareness which we continue to bring to our reading of the poem.” To the task of filling in these lacunae Singleton has devoted the best part of his life as a scholar.
For much has fallen out of our minds that must be “reinstated” there, as he puts it, if we are to become “such readers as Dante expected us to be.” Scholarship has had to piece together the “recoverable context” of the poem, not merely a multiplicity of facts about people and places and events but “the dominant modes of thought and feeling, the master patterns of the Christian mind and imagination that had come to prevail through the Christian centuries,” patterns which Dante could assume were public property.
To recover not simply knowledge but modes of thought and feeling, modes which our minds have, historically, not mislaid but rejected: this, it might seem, could lead only to a formal, academic response. Yet Singleton has always seen the Comedy as far more than a historical document. The difficulty, as he here and there grants, is that not merely ignorance stands between Dante and ourselves. There are |metaphysical obstacles. Thanks to the Renaissance, “our faith in the ability of the word to contain a changeless truth continues to diminish….” Before long, we may have “completely lost the belief in the possibility of transcending the world of change….” And religious obstacles. The Comedy is addressed to the unquiet heart of the Christian pilgrim who knows that this world is only a place of transit. And yet this conception, as Singleton himself tells us, was already starting to fail six centuries ago, with Boccaccio.
More than our ignorance is at issue. Unavoidably the question of belief crops up and no one has found anything very helpful to say about it. Eliot declared in the …