An appointment with Dante
By Jack H C Dean, on 30 May 2014
Professor John Took’s (UCL School of European Languages Culture and Society) profound love and passion for this subject seeped through this hour-long seminar. He must have drawn breath on all of one occasion as he delivered a great river of speech on the man he considers to be the ‘world’s greatest love poet’.
There’s nothing effete about Commedia – the Divina was added later by Dantian disciple and fellow wordsmith Bocaccio. Hell-like apparitions abound. The Roman poet Virgil leads Dante from the dark wood through the layers of the Inferno, through to Purgatorio and Paradiso. Most of all, Took says ‘enjoy the story, my goodness is he a yarn spinner’.
His hell was a place for the ‘uncommitted’ where the spirit is alienated and movement eliminated. In hell, no one admits guilt into the self. It is always someone else’s fault. Purgatorio sounded far more appealing. The people may be in limbo but they can at least sing together on a mountain in the southern seas.
Dante had an intimate love of the Italian language and took to writing in that vernacular, eschewing the traditional Latin. Italian became a vernacular that accompanied him more intimately than his fellow man. He was a difficult man. He complained about the taste of other people’s bread and the difficulty of climbing other’s stairs.
It was his belligerence that Took suggested led to his exile. Pre-exile he was not only a man of letters but an administrator embroiled in the bloody feuds that took hold of Florence at that time. Beatrice, who he was so in love with, became ‘his muse, she was a literary necessity: his madonna’. After Beatrice’s premature death, Dante dedicated his life to his first work La Vita Nuova, which Took notes ‘is not a story, it is not an anecdote. It has to with the nature of love’.
Listening to this lecture was an exciting window into the riches of these texts. Took explained complicated ideas and history with wonderful vitality and clarity and it was a real pleasure to be able to attend. The downside was that the timeframe didn’t allow him to go into the detail this subject requires.
When Took said ‘you cannot be the same person after reading this poet, just as you are not the same person after seeing King Lear’, you believed it. He certainly convinced the audience to get their teeth into these poems but ‘do not, do not, do not buy the Clive James translation it is atrocious’. A damning verdict.
‘Dante is the poet of life, light and energy. But the first step is downwards. Into the pit, into the self”. And into the afternoon I went, looking forward to my next Festival event.