Dante in Love

A. N. Wilson

Picador

I
WHY THIS BOOK HAS BEEN WRITTEN
DANTE IS THE GREATEST POET OF THE MIDDLE AGES. IT COULD BE argued that he was the greatest of all European poets, of any time or place. Yet, for many, perhaps nearly all (non-Italian), readers, he also remains unread. Most literate people are aware of only a few facts about him and nearly all of these are wrong, such as that he was romantically involved with a girl called Beatrice. Dante, a married man with children, did have love affairs, some of them messy, and about some of them, he wrote. Beatrice was not in this sense one of the women in his life. She was something different.
There are other readers who have begun to read Dante's book the Vita Nuova under the impression that it would have been all about Beatrice, and then they have given up because it was about something else - Dante himself, chiefly. Sometimes they have tried to read his Comedy, which was named by Boccaccio (1313 - 75) the 'divine' Comedy, and they have abandoned the attempt. The intelligent general reader of the twenty-first century - that is to say, you - might or might not have a knowledge of classical mythology and Roman history. Dante expects you to remember who Briareus was, and who Cato, and how Arachne was transformed into a spider, and what was the fate of the Sabine women. On top of this, he expects you to share his knowledge of, and obsession with, contemporary Italian history and politics. Some translations and modern editions of his poem endeavour to 'help' you here by elaborate explanations of the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, which soon have your head spinning. And on top of all that, there is the whole confusing business of medieval philosophy and theology - what Thomas Aquinas owed to Averroes, or the significance of St Bernard of Clairvaux.
No wonder that so many readers abandon their reading of Dante's three-part Comedy (Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso) long before they get to Purgatory. No wonder that so many who manage to read as far as the Purgatorio find that very little of it has remained in their heads. Such readers are prepared to take on trust that Dante is a great poet, but they leave him as one of the great unreads. And in so doing, they leave unsavoured one of the supreme aesthetic, imaginative, emotional and intellectual experiences on offer. They are like people who have never attended a performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni, or of King Lear, never heard a Beethoven symphony, never visited Paris. Quite definitely, they are missing out.
If you belong to this category of Dante-reader, or non-reader, then this book is specifically designed for you. And before we go any further, it had better be admitted that, as your travel guide in unfamiliar terrain, I know that my work will be difficult. The greatest of all European poems cannot be understood unless you familiarize yourself with the Europe out of which it came. So we must set off on a journey together to the Middle Ages, which were a strange land.
Dante was the most observant, and articulate, of writers. He was profoundly absorbed in himself, but he was also involved with the central political and social issues of his time. Indeed, it was his involvement with politics which led to his being expelled from his native city, Florence, and spending the last two decades of his life in bitter exile. If he had been a successful Florentine politician, he would never have written the Comedy. He would be remembered as a poet - no doubt about that. His Canzoni and Ballate and Sonnets would ensure that his name had lasted. But his true greatness was to sum up in one narrative poem, not only his own autobiography, but the lives of his contemporaries, and the tremendous change which had taken place in Europe in his lifetime.
Dante lived from 1265 to 1321. Nation states, and independent city states, were emerging. Hindsight sees that. At the time, the institutions of papal monarchy versus the Holy Roman Emperor fought out their dinosaur battles, thinking to use the smaller units of nation state or city state. History would make nation states stronger than either the Holy Roman Empire or the papal monarchy. (The Papacy as a religious institution, which was all that Dante wanted it to be, clearly survives to this day but with no obvious hope of universal jurisdiction over all Christendom, let alone over all humankind.)
Dante's age was a time of great economic change, above all to the money supply of Europe, with Florence, the fountain of florins, being a supremely important place, as were the other Italian towns which pioneered that medieval invention, the Bank. Symptomatic of the era of change during which Dante lived was the rate of technological advance of the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries. Technological advance always brings with it great social and intellectual change. And if Dante did not live through anything so momentous as the Industrial Revolution, he nonetheless saw a Europe which would have been unimaginable to his great-grandparents, a Europe in which Arabic learning and Greek philosophy were available to Latin-speaking intellectuals for the first time for hundreds of years.
But before we begin the story, you might like to ask what my qualifications are for telling it? And let me admit at once that I am no Dante scholar. To be a Dante scholar is a full-time, lifelong occupation. Such rare beings need to possess a knowledge of medieval theology, astronomy, linguistics, poetics, mathematics and history of which I possess only an amateur's smattering. I first began to read Dante when I made a teenage visit to Florence. I became hooked on the Inferno, but it was some years before I went beyond it and read the rest of the Comedy. I think there was a simple reason for this. I did not realize how comparatively easy it is to master the historical and biographical background to the poem. I did not realize that Dante was an impoverished aristocrat living in a burgeoning city republic; the more you know about medieval Florence, of course, the better equipped you will be when you open the Comedy. But, to start with, all you really need to know is that this young man - his family identity pretty shadowy if not actually disguised in the early books of the Comedy - has two ambitions. One is to be a great poet, and in this ambition he has been encouraged by two people - Brunetto Latini (c.1220 - 94), the most famous Florentine intellectual of the generation before Dante's own, a (probably) homosexual older friend who was in some senses Dante's teacher; and the better-born, better-placed, brilliantly innovative older poet Guido Cavalcanti (c.1250/55 - 1300).
The only other thing which you need to master before you begin is that Dante had political ambitions. He had been married by arrangement, as was the custom of those days, into one of the grandest families of Florence, the Donati. He writes not one word about his wife, Gemma, though it is possible that, as I have come to suspect, he uses her as an unnamed figure in his allegories. Her cousins were his boyhood friends. One, Forese Donati, was a good friend of Dante's and exchanged ribald sexy jokes with him during their teens and early manhood. The other, Corso Donati, one of the most brutal of the big Florentine magnates, was, together with the Pope at the time, Boniface VIII, responsible for Dante's fall from political grace and his exile from Florence, a catastrophe which ruined him financially and broke his heart.
At first I read Dante only in English, then in the little blue Temple Classics editions which had the Italian on one side of the page with English on the other. Still a very good way to read him, in my opinion. Dante's Italian, clear, concise and sharp, is comparatively easy to master. But in this book I have decided to quote him in translation, using a variety of the excellent modern English translations available. After school, I went to the British Institute in Florence where Luisa Rappaccini's lively language classes gave me a basic grounding in Italian, and Ian Greenlees's lectures began to open my eyes to the extraordinary story of Italian medieval literature and culture.
Yet, as a young man, I still thought that the historical and biographical background of the poem was too complicated to be mastered before I read the Comedy. Therefore, when any contemporary references occurred in the Comedy, I did not exactly 'skip' but I did not bother to see what was happening. I was racing on to the 'famous' scenes - such as the everlasting sorrow of the doomed adulterers, Paolo and Francesca, or the everlasting intellectual curiosity of Ulysses. Those who read the Comedy in this way definitely derive something from the experience - it would seem as if there were many Victorians who enjoyed such an approach. But the book remains for such a reader a set of 'lovely' scenes interrupted by passages which are only semi-comprehensible.
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. 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. He lived in a period which, loosely, contained the early Franciscans, St Thomas Aquinas, King Philip IV (the Fair) of France, Pope Boniface VIII. The Sicilian Vespers happened during his manhood - I needed to be reminded what they were. And then I needed to be told something of his poet-contemporaries in Italy. And oh yes, I should like some help with Courtly Love, and Love theory in general.
Over the years, I became an amateur Dantean. Trawling second-hand bookshops, I would look in the Italian and medieval sections first, and add to a collection which ranged from exceptional generalist essays, such as the superb short book by R. W. Church, friend of Gladstone and Newman, and Dean of St Paul's, to Bruno Nardi's groundbreaking and sometimes bewildering Dante e la cultura medievale. In my early twenties I discovered a remarkable book, The Figure of Beatrice in Dante by Charles Williams. I read it all the time throughout 1973 and 1974, over and over again, and the child that was born to us in March 1974 was inevitably christened Beatrice.
Tall of figure, cocknified of speech, Charles Williams (1886 - 1945) is a cult author among a small number of people at present alive; it is a number which includes the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (no relation). Charles Williams worked all his adult life as a publisher for the Oxford University Press (OUP), he was fascinated by magic, and his series of supernatural thrillers (Shadows of Ecstasy, All Hallows' Eve, etc.) are unlike anything else either in the genre of spiritual writing or of crime adventures. He was also a poet, believing himself to have been heavily influenced by Dante - a 'Beatrician experience' in 1910 convinced him that romantic love was a path to God,1 a belief which caused his long-suffering wife, Michal, some anguish as he moved from one passionate, though apparently platonic, obsession to the next. The poet W. H. Auden met him when OUP commissioned the poet to edit The Oxford Book of Light Verse. Auden only spent a few moments in Williams's company, but he felt himself in the presence of sanctity, of palpable goodness. T. S. Eliot, who published Williams's books, said something similar.2
My feelings about Williams, and his book, changed a good deal over the years. At one time, to escape the all-pervading influence he seemed to be having, not just over my attitude to Dante, but over my life, I lampooned him in a series of novels.3 When this did not seem enough, I abandoned the Christianity which was at the core of his life-view. When, years later, I came back to the Church, I found I was worshipping at Williams's regular place of worship, St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town - though I had no idea of this when I started going there, nor when a third child had been christened there. To Williams, with his fascination for the occult and the bizarre, perhaps nothing was accidental. Nor, too, was anything accidental for Dante, who would have found nothing odd in Williams's preoccupations with magic and astrology, nor his capacity to mix them up with both sexual fantasy and Christian piety of an arcane and ritualistic flavour.
Even when I had set Williams on one side - and for eighteen years I did not read a word he wrote - I continued to read Dante. His Sherlock Holmes - like profile haunted me. That angular, angry face, living 700 years ago, was as unforgettable as his poem. The more often I read the Comedy the more it seemed a work which wanted to be read again. For seven years of my adult life I taught, in a very junior capacity, at two colleges in the University of Oxford. My brief was to help the young people master the rudiments of medieval English - the Old English of Beowulf, the Middle English of Chaucer. In Chaucer I found a man steeped in Dante. If Charles Williams was - is - the Crazy Guy among Danteans (and quite a crazy company some of us are), Chaucer was the voice of sanity. He had absorbed Dante, seen his stupendous, gigantic significance in the history of Europe, and at the same time domesticated him.
For these medieval poets, the central concerns of life were obsessions with sex in general, girls in particular; ditto with God. Another preoccupation was the political one, wondering whether anyone would ever devise a decent method of organizing human society. In politics, Dante's questions were sane - but his answers, particularly in the open letters he wrote to the Emperor Henry VII and to the cardinals of Italy - were deranged with violent hatred. The force of Dante's hatreds was undiminished, even when he was supposedly describing the condition of the blessed in Paradise. You can see why Dante was not widely read for centuries, and why the Enlightenment, in particular, found him unsympathetic. The aesthete and wit Horace Walpole (1717 - 97; son of Sir Robert) dipped into Dante and found him 'extravagant, absurd, disgusting, in short a Methodist parson in Bedlam'.4 Any account of Dante which does not capture some of these qualities, of the Methodist parson in Bedlam, misses some of his flavour. That is what is so good about Charles Williams's book, though Williams lacks Dante's wrath and is closer at heart to his weird quasi-sexual women-mysticism.
A contemporary political figure in England in my lifetime who did possess some of Dante's rage, and quirkiness - his memory already fading fast - was Enoch Powell. Elias Canetti, exiled in England because of Hitler, met Powell at a London party.
'He straightaway broached Nietzsche and Dante with me. Dante he quoted in Italian, and at considerable length. The thing that attracted him about Dante was the explicitly partisan nature of it, the civil war in the population still meant something, it hadn't degenerated into civilities. The civilized tone that prevailed in the House of Commons he [i.e. Powell] disliked. In Dante's day, people were burned at the stake. When the other side came to power, you had to leave the city, and not come back as long as you lived. Hatred of the enemy burned. Dante's Commedia was full of this. He was a man who neither forgot, nor forgave.'5 Canetti almost seems here to equate Dante with the eccentric and marginal figure of Powell. But the ultra-Conservative, intellectual English politician had found something in Dante which was there, as had, in the eighteenth century, the languid wit who saw the Methodist parson in Bedlam.
But, while these snapshots of Dante explain some of his power, and flavour, they are distortions. Central to the abiding Dantean fascination is the question of Love - how we understand it, what the very word means. We live in a culture whose popular songs, music, films and soap operas are obsessed by Love, but whose articulate thinkers shy away from exploring it. This is very unlike the Middle Ages. We leave it to pop singers to tell us what Love is, whereas the Middle Ages brought forward the weighty intellect of Thomas Aquinas.
I remember one evening over thirty years ago at New College, Oxford, when sitting next to A. J. Ayer at dinner. I was the most junior of college lecturers, he was the Wykeham Professor of Logic and a famous philosopher. He told me that no medieval philosopher was worth reading, and he was proud to be able to say he had not read one word of Thomas Aquinas. Ayer was a genial man, but his breathtaking arrogance meant that, unless you were skilled in the tricks of analytical philosophy, it was difficult to keep up with him. I remember feebly asking him if he would think it permissible for the English tutor at the college not to have read any medieval literature - Chaucer, let us say - and he kindly conceded that it would not. But there was a difference. Chaucer's poetry was still worth reading. Ayer and the analytical philosophers had, in his opinion, solved the basic problems which confronted philosophy. There were a whole lot of questions which it was not the business of philosophy to answer and which were quite simply meaningless.
As the evening wore on, wine flowed and it would not be possible to outline his argument (if it existed) in any detail. But I do remember what he said at the end of the dinner: 'Even Logical Positivists think Love is important!'
He had no doubt trotted out, in the previous hour, a recitation of his non-creed - namely, that most aesthetic, moral and spiritual judgements were 'meaningless'. Logical Positivism is itself a vanished philosophical concept, based upon a strange notion devised in Vienna nearly a century ago - namely, the 'Verification principle': a proposition could not be said to have meaning unless it could be verified either by sense-perceptions or a priori. That 'a priori' begged so many questions that even champions of the notion, such as the young Ayer, came to abandon it. I asked myself - if even Logical Positivists thought Love was important, was it not strange that they had not set their nimble minds to saying why they thought it was important, and what they thought it was? Cycling home under the starry sky of an Oxford night, I felt, yet again, that there were more interesting philosophical questions, and answers, in Dante's Comedy than in A. J. Ayer's once-famous book, Language, Truth and Logic. Love dominates our lives. Its rampages dislocate the heart. Sometimes it seems linked to sexual desire, sometimes it seems different. Religion, especially the Christian religion, uses the word to describe the life and activity of God. But when we are kept awake by thinking of the beautiful face of the girl we currently adore, is this 'love' at war with the Love of God or is it, as Charles Williams and Dante apparently thought, somehow or other connected? What use was a philosophy which refused to ask such questions, let alone provide an answer?
I left Oxford, and teaching and medieval literature, behind me, and for twenty years became a jobbing man of letters in London, writing novels, working as a journalist on various papers, and still, from time to time, adding to my Dante library when browsing in a second-hand bookshop. The bibliography in the back of this volume is a list of the books which I have consulted over the years. Particular mention deserves to be made of W. W. Vernon's readings of the Comedy, which I found in a Norwich bookshop when rummaging about in Tombland with my brother Stephen. Vernon was a Victorian aristocrat who based his readings on one of the medieval commentaries on Dante - that of Benvenuto da Imola. If that makes his book sound alarming or high-falutin, it shouldn't. The six volumes of Vernon are wonderfully approachable books, and they elucidate line after line of the poem. So too did a book by a brilliant amateur Dantean called M. A. Orr - Dante and the Early Astronomers - to which I was introduced by Barbara Reynolds, herself the translator, with Dorothy L. Sayers, of the Paradiso, and author of a fine book on Dante. Among the French Danteans, I learnt much from Etienne Gilson, and among the Americans, Richard Pogue Harrison of Stanford University reawakened in me the sense of Dante's perennial and ever-repeated modernity.
Yet although I continued to read, decade by decade, in the field of Dantean studies, and although, every few years, I reread the Comedy, 'my book' - the book I wish I had read before I started - has still eluded my grasp. W. B. Yeats would probably have been able to write such a book. I see the outline of it glimmering in his magnificent poem - one of the best things ever written about (among other things) Dante - 'Ego Dominus Tuus', which are the words spoken to Dante by Love in a dream in the Vita Nuova:

Hic:
And yet
The chief imagination of Christendom, Dante Alighieri, so utterly found himself That he has made that hollow face of his More plain to the mind's eye than any face But that of Christ.

 
Ille:
And did he find himself
Or was the hunger that had made it hollow A hunger for the apple on the bough
Most out of reach? and is that spectral image
The man that Lapo and that Guido knew?
I think he fashioned from his opposite
An image that might have been a stony face
Staring upon a Bedouin's horse-hair roof
From doored and windowed cliff, or half upturned
Among the coarse grass and the camel-dung.
He set his chisel to the hardest stone.
Being mocked by Guido for his lecherous life,
Derided and deriding, driven out
To climb that stair and eat that bitter bread,
He found the unpersuadable justice, he found
The most exalted lady loved by a man.6

Yeats saw that Dante was the first modernist, the first modern man. The puzzle of existence either resolves itself into the materialist notion that this overcrowded planet is crawling with lumps of surplus meat, calling themselves human, but eating and making war to such a destructive extent that the only sane approach to life would be that adopted by Stalin or Hitler, to cull and remove the surplus. Or - or! - it is worth investigating the sense possessed by most, if not all, of these individuals on the planet that love is the most important thing in their life, that love is what defines them, that 'even Logical Positivists think Love is important'. The general can therefore only be understood in terms of the particular, the experience of one man seen as an allegory of all men. Yet solipsism, egotism which excludes consciousness of the Other - both as beloved human love-object, and as a society of which we are all part - is not merely a moral, but an intellectual mistake. Into this picture, God fits somewhere. Thomas Aquinas has interesting things to say about this, some of which a modern philosopher could read with profit. Dante had set some of these thoughts to poetry which continues to haunt the intellects, as well as the imaginations, of his readers.
I am still looking for a book which is a life of Dante set against the background of his times, which is also an introduction to the Comedy, and which gives the necessary historical and cultural background. At the same time, I want a book which will retain the excitement which Charles Williams continues to inspire in me, the sense that there is a connection between fancying women, wanting to understand poetry, and answering the deepest questions about life and the deepest needs of the human heart. Hence my title - Dante in Love. Dante believed that Love encompassed all things, that it was the force which moved the sun and other stars, so my title must be allowed to cover a wide range. At the outset, I should like to repeat that I am in no sense a Dantean scholar or expert. This book would be so much better if such a scholar had written it, but only provided that he or she had kept in mind the enthusiastic intelligent audience whom I know to be out there - persuadable, if not easily - to do that difficult but infinitely rewarding thing, beginning to read Dante. In the absence of such a book, I have done my best.
Let's start in the middle. Dante did. He set his Comedy in the year 1300. By then he was the most celebrated poet in Italy. He was also a diplomat and politician, who, during this year, occupied one of the most important offices of state in the biggest city republic in Italy - Florence. He was in middle age, but also 'in the middle' not of 'my life', but of 'our life' [Inferno I.1]. It is, in a sense, to be a poem for everybody and about everybody. But it was focused upon the experience of one remarkable man; focused during one particular three-day period - 7 - 10 April 1300; and the mighty clash of personalities between the greatest poet of the age and the most autocratic of Popes - between Dante Alighieri and Pope Boniface VIII.
Copyright © 2011 by A. N. Wilson