Why is Dante hot?

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March 26 2003 1:25 PM

A 21st-Century Man

Why is Dante hot all of a sudden?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

For 500 years after Dante wrote The Divine Comedy, there was no way for an English speaker to read it. Not until the early 19th century did Henry Cary publish the first complete English translation. Even by 1867, when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published the first American edition of the poem, Dante was almost unknown in this country.

Today, publishers seem to be trying to make up for that long drought by issuing new translations of Dante at a breakneck pace. In fact, we're living in a golden age of Dante translation. Former Poet Laureate (and Slate poetry editor) Robert Pinsky touched it off when he published an excellent, widely acclaimed verse translation of the Inferno in 1995. In just the last year, five new editions of the Inferno have appeared, including a reprint of Longfellow's landmark version. Still more surprising, there are three new translations of the much less popular Purgatorio, the second of the Comedy's three "canticles."And the torrent doesn't stop there. New York Review Books Classics has issued a new edition of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 19th-century translation of Dante's autobiographical book La Vita Nuova; there are short biographies by Robert Hollander and RWB Lewis and a collection of essays in homage to the master, The Poets' Dante. There's even a historical thriller, The Dante Club, starring Longfellow as the detective-hero, now on the best-seller lists. Why are so many scholars and poets being drawn to this 700-year-old poem—and why do their publishers believe there's such a vast market for Dante?

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Among American poets, Dante's reputation has been very high for nearly a century, thanks largely to T.S. Eliot. His poetry is saturated with Dante: The epigraph to "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" comes from the Inferno, as do some famous lines from "The Waste Land"; a long sequence in "Little Gidding" is an imitation of Dante's style; and the poem "Animula" is based on a passage from the Purgatorio. As Eliot explained in one of his best essays, Dante was important to him for two reasons. Poetically, Dante was a master of lucid, direct, dramatic language: Unlike the English Romantic poets Eliot despised, Dante never used words for vague emotional effect, but always had his object clearly in view. And philosophically Dante expressed the complete worldview of medieval Christianity, in which everything from falling in love to the arrangement of the stars could be understood as part of the divine plan. Dante's poetic lucidity was something Eliot hoped to import into modernist poetry; the philosophic wholeness was something he could only long for.

Eliot's view of Dante was highly influential for generations of poets and critics, and it even created a vogue for the medieval philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. Today, however, there is no one central interpretation of Dante among writers and readers, and his popularity does not seem connected to any broad intellectual movement. The contributors to The Poets' Dante treat their relation to Dante as frankly personal—a matter of taking what they need. So, Seamus Heaney values the Dante who can "accommodate the political and the transcendent," which is also a concern of his own Northern Irish poetry; J.D. McClatchy remembers the erotic force of the Gustave Doré lithographs reproduced in his childhood edition of Dante; W.S. Merwin points out the way that poets themselves, as teachers and role models, are important characters in the Comedy.

What the poets find, in other words, is a postmodern Dante, a text that each reader collaborates in writing. This Dante has power but not authority; he is a great artist but not a commanding model, and certainly not a compelling religious example. This fits perfectly with the eclectic spirit of contemporary poetry, in which no one style is dominant and each poet must invent his own language and idiom.

Dante's appealto ordinary readers seems more mysterious. After all, TheDivine Comedy is suffused with Aristotelian philosophy, medieval astronomy, and the petty political rivalries of 13th-century Italy—not exactly best-seller material. What is it about this difficult masterpiece that would make today's readers want five different Infernos and three Purgatorios?

For one thing, Dante had a curiously modern sense of violent spectacle. The central dramatic technique of the Inferno is what Dante called the contrapasso—the fitting punishment that each sinner receives in the afterlife. In coming up with those punishments, Dante appealed to a basic appetite for fantastic violence—the kind that, today, is gratified by horror or science-fiction films. Take this scene (from the Robert and Jean Hollander translation) in which aman is morphed into a lizard and a lizard into a man:

First his calves and then his thighs began
to knit so that in but a moment
no sign of a division could be seen.

The cloven tail assumed the shapes
the other one was losing, and his skin
was turning soft while the other's hardened.

I saw the man's arms shrinking toward the armpits
and the brute's forepaws, which had been short,
lengthen, precisely as the other's dwindled.

Then the hind-paws, twisting together,
became the member that a man conceals,
and from his own the wretch had grown two paws.

Dante's poetry is made up of such visions. They have a hallucinatory power, and their emotional force is clear even to a reader bored by the Aristotelian logic that makes Dante see usury as a sin of violence rather than a sin of avarice. And in a strange way, our own post-literate age has much in common with Dante's pre-literate one. For good and ill, we have become accustomed to thinking in images almost more than in words.

The second reason we are ripe for Dante is more troubling. Dante fell out of fashion during the Renaissance and the 18th century in part due to the sadism of the Inferno. A world that believed in the myths of reason and progress refused to see its reflection in Dante's butchered, charred, maggot-eaten corpses, his torturing devils and rivers of fire. But after the Battle of the Somme, the Holocaust, and Hiroshima, it is only too easy to see Dante's world as reflection of our own. Once again, there is an ironic counterpoint between the 13th century and the 21st. Dante could imagine vivid bodily tortures because he believed completely in the soul; our world inflicts those tortures because it doesn't believe in the soul at all.

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