Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 October, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 October, 2006, 12:00am

Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man

by Barbara Reynolds

I.B. Tauris, HK$273

Dante's masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, is more respected than read and the Florentine poet seems an austere, remote figure. Barbara Reynolds, a Dante scholar and translator, brings the man and his work closer in a book that connects his life with his writing.

As a young man, Dante was one of a Florentine group who wrote sophisticated, rather ethereal love poems. What transformed this gifted but limited versifier into the creator of a poem that embraces a swathe of history plus hell, purgatory and heaven? He wasn't just a poet but a front-line cavalryman in bloody battles, was burdened by family responsibilities from an early age and, famously, fell hopelessly in love with blonde and beautiful Beatrice, who took little notice of him.

Iron entered his soul, Reynolds suggests, largely because of his unfortunate political career. He was a leading city official, but chose the losing side in turbulent Florentine politics. Moreover, he was on the wrong side of the reigning pope Boniface VIII: this was a personal as well as a political feud. Dante was one of three ambassadors sent to negotiate with Boniface to ensure armed forces allied with him would respect Florence if it opened its gates to them. But the pope reneged on his promise and Dante was exiled from his home town for life. It spurred him to write something more than love lyrics.

Living as an exile in assorted Italian towns he wrote and lectured on the need for a civil power, that of an emperor, to offset the papacy.

He didn't win a large audience until he adopted the popular form of the tale of a voyage to the other world in The Divine Comedy. The other world had recently expanded with the development of notions about the intermediate region of purgatory between heaven and hell.

Dante shifted from discursive writing to narrative and put himself into it in the first person as a sort of investigative reporter in the afterlife. He not only met classical and mythological figures in his imaginative trip but also contemporaries. He set his week-long trip in the year 1300, but completed his account only in 1321, shortly before his death. This enabled him to pretend to predict the fate of certain people when he knew perfectly well what had happened to them.

Occasionally his desire for revenge gets the better of him when writing about the enemies he places in hell. He takes it out on Pope Boniface VIII and the Florentines who exiled him. His imprecations are memorable. He shows spite but also has a broad, lofty vision conveyed through memorable scenes and concise characterisation within a structure like a marvellously intricate architecture. As a whole, it's a great imaginative trip that gives the mediaeval world view.

Reynolds alternates chapters on Dante's life with explication of all his writings. Among other new and sometimes controversial ideas, she suggests that herbal stimulants might have influenced his vision of the afterlife.

She worked with novelist Dorothy Sayers on her translation of The Divine Comedy and completed it after her death. That translation, used in this book, is criticised for its use of archaicisms such as 'hath' and 'doth' but it captures some of the thrust of Dante's verse form. R.W.B. Lewis' Dante is probably the best concise introduction to the poet, but, after a lifetime of teaching, Reynolds has produced a solid, comprehensive study.