Dante and the Way of Love
by Andrew Harvey
Dante, a serious rival to Shakespeare as the world’s greatest literary genius, was born in Florence, Italy 750 years ago. Italy properly celebrated the birthday of its national poet (indeed he who virtually invented the modern Italian language) on May 4, and Pope Francis has encouraged Dante to be read as a “prophet of hope” and spiritual guide. And so he should be. Just as he has for three-quarters of a millennium.
Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” written at the beginning of the 14th century during Dante’s permanent exile from Florence, is at once the crowning literary achievement of the Middle Ages as well as the announcing angel of the Renaissance. Every true epic poem offers a totalizing vision of its age—its philosophy, science, theology, and history are all distilled to dramatize how humanity, the world, and the divine struggle together.
In Dante’s epic allegorical dream vision of a journey through the afterlife that devotes equal sections to hell (“Inferno”), purgatory (“Purgatorio”), and Heaven (“Paradiso”) one sees all that was thought and felt by Saints Augustine and Aquinas but never so well expressed. Thus Dante is the utmost medieval philosopher, theologian, and poet. On the other hand, his magnum opus also ushers in a new age: Dante’s Christian appropriation of pagan learning proves to be a model for all Christian humanists of the incipient Renaissance era, and his unflinching satire of moral corruption in the Church (albeit from squarely within the Church) anticipates many Protestant voices that will emerge during the Reformation.
Beyond his immediate historical context Dante, like Shakespeare, has proven to be for all time. Even in our own secular and non-poetical age. Dante’s reimagining of the heroic and the self has inspired artists, poets, and novelists all across Europe and America for the past 200 years—Romantics, Victorians, Modernists and existentialists. Dante’s sustained irony and dizzying super-structure of poetic design continues to enthrall postmodernists of every stripe. The thralldom and inspiration that I speak of has manifested itself in novels, paintings, sculptures, opera, and endless translations by every poet determined to prove his craft.
Read more: www.visionandvalues.org