Skip to content

· To hell with the blessed in heaven, says a deranged Dante.

By A. N. WILSON [New Statesman] – What I needed when I first read the Comedy was a book that did not take for granted any knowledge of Dante’s background. I needed a guide to 13th-century Florence. I needed someone who had read the principal Latin texts in Dante’s library. 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.

Over the years, I became an amateur Dantean. Trawling the bookshops, I would look in the Italian and medieval sections first. In my early twenties I discovered a remarkable book, The Figure of Beatrice: a Study in Dante by Charles Williams. I read it throughout 1973 and 1974, over and over again, and the child that was born to us in March 1974 was inevitably christened Beatrice.

I continued to read Dante. His Sherlock Holmes-like profile haunted me. That angular, angry face was as unforgettable as his poem. The more I read the Comedy, the more it seemed a work that wanted to be read again.

For these medieval poets, whom I used to teach at Oxford, the central concerns of life were sex in general and girls in particular; they were likewise obsessed with God. Another preoccupation was a political one: wondering whether anyone would ever devise a decent method of organising human society.

In politics, Dante’s questions were sane, but his answers, especially in the open letters he wrote to the emperor Henry VII and the cardinals of Italy, were deranged with violent hatred. The force of his hatreds was undiminished even when he was supposedly describing the condition of the blessed in paradise.

Continued at the New Statesman | More Chronicle & Notices.

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x