on Dante In Love by A. N. Wilson (Farrar Straus Giroux)

Summing up why Dante’s Commedia was neglected between the Renaissance and the Romantics, Robert Lowell said that changes in literary styles had eclipsed Dante’s status as a forerunner. “Something too in his character must have awed and scared men off by its arrogance,” he wrote. “He was too mystical for other men of letters, too worldly for other mystics, too embroiled in the ephemera of his times, too Italian, too much the eternal judge.”

Dante3.jpgBy 1900, Dante was back. The Swiss cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt voiced a revived appreciation. With Dante, he said, “the human spirit had taken a mighty step towards consciousness of its own secret life.” Suddenly Dante could be heard again. In his rapturous essay “Conversation About Dante,” Mandelstam wrote:

“The inner anxiety and painful, troubled gaucheries which accompany each step of the diffident man, as if his upbringing were somehow insufficient, the man untutored in the ways of applying his inner experience or of objectifying it in etiquette, the tormented ands downtrodden man – such are the qualities which both provide the poem with all its charm, with all its drama, and serve as its background source, its psychological foundation.”

Nevertheless, approaching Dante still entails wondering if we’re equal to the task of dealing with all that footnoted ephemera. Even if we conscientiously note the historical references, “getting” Dante may seem like a daunting stretch. “What I needed as a young man when I first read the Comedy was a book which did not take for granted any knowledge of Dante’s background,” writes A. N. Wilson in his introduction to Dante In Love. “I needed a guide to thirteenth-century Florence. I needed someone who had read the principal Latin texts in Dante’s own library – Virgil, of course, Lucan, Boethius. I needed someone who had at least a basic grasp of medieval philosophy, and who was prepared to tell me who was Pope, who was King of France, and, when there were battles or political quarrels, what the fuss was about. And then again, I wanted this author to tell me how Dante’s life and work did, and did not, relate to his contemporaries.”

DanteCover.jpgEnter Dante in Love. Although Wilson has now illuminated Dante and his age, he has done much more than parcel out the facts, the most important of which may be found in any number of titles, such as R.W.B. Lewis’ short biography Dante (2001). Lewis says that the Commedia is “the greatest single poem ever written; it is autobiographical: the journey of a man to find himself and make himself after being cruelly mistreated in his homeland. It is also a rhythmic exploration of the entire cultural world Dante had inherited: classical, pre-Christian, Christian, medieval, Tuscan, and emphatically Florentine. And it is the long poetic tribute to Beatrice Portinari which Dante promised, at the end of the Vita Nuova.”

Who would disagree? Wilson would. He writes, “It would be to miss the point of Dante, and of his Comedy, if we thought of him as a man who was so fixated upon one, idealized love – that for Beatrice – that he never looked at another woman. It would also be completely to miss the significance of Beatrice in his imaginative life, and in his masterpiece.” He rubs it in: “Surely the fact which ‘everyone knows’ (everyone who has not read him, that is) is that Dante fell in love with Beatrice and went on loving her devotedly for the rest of his life.”

Dante In Love isn’t a book of close readings or pedantry. It proceeds by way of enthusiasm, leaning on Wilson’s long admiring acquaintance with Charles Williams’ The Figure of Beatrice in Dante. The great poets of any age give us the tremulous feeling that something in our nature, in the world, has not yet been unfolded. Watching avidly for Dante’s unfoldings, Wilson covers his banishment from Florence and his many influences, but he also envisions the extremities of Dante’s thought and the exile’s jagged path toward the writing of Europe’s greatest poem.

DanteBook.jpegHis larger project is to show that Dante’s love makes the poem heretical – a desire for the unity of flesh and spirit, the condition that could both justly organize society (exposing the despots and cheats) and save an individual’s soul. Through the love of a woman (who was that mysterious woman he loved during his exile in Casentino?) he found a pathway to Heaven. But to write the poem, he had to evolve his own language, imagery, and tone. He absorbed and recast the conventions of courtly love. He imitated and then rejected the cynical attitude toward love of his mentor Cavalcanti. Wilson writes:

“From the beginning of Dante’s serious poetic career, there exists the bold idea that in the experience of loving Beatrice, he will discover not only what is generally meant by the term Love. He will discover that Love itself (the force, as he would conclude, which moves the sun and the other stars) is going to bring about great changes in his lifetime – changes to the Church, changes to the way that society is ordered – as well as changes in the relations between men and women. To this extent, Dante and Beatrice are to be seen as subversives, as revolutionaries, in the sphere of human or secular love …”

Disliking Wilson’s wanderings, reiterations, and familiar tone, Andrew Motion sees Dante In Love as a botched attempt to hustle downmarket and drum up an audience for the Commedia. He does have a point about Wilson’s unkempt eagerness. But Wilson's mode not only aptly expresses a lively, personal relationship with the poem, but tries to run alongside Dante’s psychic waywardness, his use of and influence on colloquial Italian (“30 per cent of Italian words are Dantean coinages”), his meandering readings of classical and medieval writers, and his rootless movements toward a measure of safety. Wilson’s Dante is a disenfranchised iconoclast – and there is just enough disorderliness in Dante In Love to enhance our feel for the age’s turmoil and the overturnings of thought in Dante’s mind.

Dante2.jpegFurthermore, Dante in Love may inspire any poet or writer who contemplates the transit between the public and private aspects of life. “Who is a poet?” asked Thomas Mann, who then answered, “He whose life is symbolic.” In exile, Dante was not just a Florentine poet but also one for all of Italy. He could perceive it as a single if strife-filled entity – and a linguistic whole. In his exiled maturity, everything Dante had known became accessible material for his personal mythos, processed and sounded through terza rima. Wilson says, “He is putting the intensity of his experience into taut, three-lined confinement … The rhyme-scheme is always anticipating the next incident, the next thought, the next encounter, and as the ingenuity of the rhymes builds and rises, Dante would find it a marvellously versatile form, allowing for violent alternations of mood which the Comedy would eventually encompass.”

GiottoDevil.jpegSometime between 1304 and 1306, Dante visited Giotto in Padua. Wilson lays out the case for the telling effect of Giotto’s work on Dante – “to make the figures of actual life carry meaning ... to find a way in which our reaching after God in heaven can be made from our own mundane location.” Dante was the first to tell us that the role of the solitary poet is to confront the chaos out of which a world may unfold. The mundus is envisioned from a mundane location. As Wilson points out, Dante is the poet of cultural collapse whose example answers the question, “What happens to the common culture when it no longer relates to what is going on inside the heads of individual men, women and children?”

In his essay “Dantino Mio,” Charles Wright says, “Dante makes you think seriously about your own life. He makes you want to have your own life, and to do the best you can with it.” Wilson’s Dante In Love does its spirited best to show how Dante confronted the chaos and thus had his own life.

[Published October 25, 2011. 386 pages, $35.00 hardcover]


That Dante, he had a nerve...