Dante: The Poet, The Political Thinker, The Man
by Barbara Reynolds.
Shoemaker & Hoard (Emeryville, Calif.),
466 pp., $35.00 cloth, 2006

Renowned not only as the greatest Italian poet but also as a signal influence upon all of Western literature, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) is synonymous with his masterwork, the Commedia (The Divine Comedy), a guided journey downward through the circles of Hell, up and around the mountain of Purgatory, and ascending into the spheres of Heaven. Indeed, so closely bound together are the title of the towering work and the name of its maker that each has long been ill served by the resulting confusion. Too often biographers of Dante have fallen to the temptation of what C.S. Lewis called “the personal heresy,” holding that the author’s written work is simply a reflection of various goings-on in his own life. Thus (as is often the case) thoughtless literature instructors have described the first section of the work, Inferno (Hell)—with its depictions of torment endured by specific historical individuals—as simply a well-crafted exercise in retribution wherein Dante scores off his real-life enemies by consigning them to eternal punishment.

If this were all the Commedia stands for, it would hardly seem a work likely to attract the scholarly attention of Lewis, T. S. Eliot, George Santayana, W. P. Ker, Benedetto Croce, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Eliot Norton, Matthew Arnold, and Russell Kirk, to name just a few of the distinguished minds that have examined, enjoyed, and expounded upon the work. The most recent scholar to devote attention to Dante’s life, Barbara Reynolds, is especially worth attending in that she shows forth the man as well as the artist, demonstrating how there are certainly reflections of Dante’s life in his work—but much more, as well. A longtime lecturer and esteemed presence within the Italian department at Cambridge University and editor of the Cambridge Italian Dictionary (1962-1980), Reynolds has devoted her life to the study, translation, and exposition of Italian literature in general and Dante in particular. During the late 1940s through the mid ’50s she was a friend of detective writer and dramatist Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) and worked with her in translating the Commedia for the Penguin Classics series, finishing the translation of Paradiso after Sayers’s death.

The Sayers-Reynolds translation, all in terza rima, like Dante’s own text, remains the most accomplished of the several English-language translations of the Commedia that have been attempted during the past two hundred years, blending a poet’s love of moving language with a scholarly intent to remain true to the original artist’s intent. (In a letter to Sayers, written as she was preparing to commence her translation of the final third of the Commedia, C. S. Lewis warned that she was about to embark on a most difficult task, saying, “Of course you and everyone else marches to certain death in translating the Paradiso: the best you can hope is to die swan-like.” It is greatly to Sayers’s credit, and especially to that of Reynolds—who tackled the lion’s share of Paradiso—that the long awaited translation is such a triumph of beauty and accessibility.)

illustration for DanteIn this latest work, Reynolds seeks to present “a new look at Dante,” which necessitates a new look at Dante’s Italy, as well. This is ambitious indeed, for at a remove of 700 years, the violent history of medieval Italy—with its clashes among the Ghibellines, White Guelphs, and Black Guelphs—may seem to modern, predominantly secular-minded readers somewhat like the battleground of the Big-Endians and the Little-Endians. How to make this world fresh and understandable to the modern reader? Not to worry, for in Reynolds’s detailed retelling, informed by her sure knowledge of medieval Italian history, the milieu becomes immediate, tangible, and understandable, a stage set for high drama. As for Dante himself, the author explains, “After a professional life spentlecturing and teaching Dante, dutifully passing on what was then received opinion, I decided to read all his works again, this time with an independent mind. This is difficult to achieve. We carry a lot of excess baggage when we set out on such a journey, and I still cling to some of it. Nevertheless, I believe that what I here present is a portrait of Dante, the poet, the political thinker and the man, which has not been seen before.” This also is an ambitious task, especially when considering that almost every factual statement about Dante’s life has been disputed for centuries, and many, as Reynolds notes in her introduction, continue to be controversial.

The key facts about Dante’s life are that he was born into a family of lesser nobility in Florence in 1265, was mentored by the Florentine poet Guido Cavalcanti, and was renowned throughout Italy as a remarkable poet. He was also a longtime exile from his native Florence, from which he was banished upon pain of death for his political activities on behalf of the White Guelphs, a faction which opposed papal overreach into the realm of secular government. In his youth he was enamored of a woman named Beatrice, who died fairly young and whom Dante never forgot. He was married to a woman named Gemma Donati, with whom he had three children. And he wrote several works besides his masterpiece, notably La Vita Nuova—a work translated by Barbara Reynolds as La Vita Nuova: Poems of Youth (1969). Dante died in exile in Ravenna in 1321. This is the barest skeleton of Dante’s life; it is the details that Reynolds examines and illuminates in the present work, which will surely take its place as one of the seminal works on Dante’s life.

One of the many areas Reynolds explores concerns a key question in many discussions of Dante: the facts surrounding Beatrice dei Portinari, the Florentine woman who inspired the Divine Comedy and appears in the work as Dante’s guide into Heaven after the departure of the poet’s good-at-need guide through Hell and Purgatory, the poet Virgil. Some scholars have claimed that perhaps she never existed, or (if she did exist) that she died before Dante was born. For her part, Reynolds draws upon her own sure knowledge of Italian history and Dante’s life to indicate that Beatrice indeed lived, that she and Dante were acquainted, that she married a man named Simone Bardi, and that she died at age 24 in 1290. Dante was both smitten by Beatrice and haunted by her; he longed for her in life when she was unattainable, and in death when she was unreachable. (A cloud of mystery surrounds the identity of the unknown donna gentile, or “gracious lady,” who served as a welcome but faint substitute for Dante’s affections after Beatrice’s death.) With the truth of Beatrice’s existence and role in Dante’s life settled, Reynolds demonstrates something much more germane to the understanding of the poet’s artistry by walking the reader through the Divine Comedy to demonstrate that Beatrice plays several roles in the narrative—an unprecedented achievement inpoetic artistry—serving not only as Dante’s guide, but also as his scourge and comforter, as well as an explainer, prophet, teacher, and reflector of the Divine Presence.

The God to which Beatrice guides the reader is a God of severe mercies: love everlasting, but justice as well. Reynolds convincingly illustrates that at the center of Dante’s life and work is the poet’s fervent belief in and desire for godly justice, a desire based in part upon his own sense of injustice at having been driven from Florence. To understand this, Reynolds notes, it is necessary to read not only the Divine Comedy, but especially his treatise on world monarchy, De Monarchia (On Monarchy). As the author has explained elsewhere,

Justice, as Dante conceived it philosophically, is an absolute standard of righteousness. In the world, in which nothing can be perfect, a maximum of justice can be found where there is a minimum of injustice. The antithesis of justice, which provokes injustice, is greed or covetousness. The sharpener and enlightener of justice is charity, which is incompatible with covetousness. The establishment, therefore, of universal love is a necessary condition of the reign of justice. How can this be brought about? Only by a universal Monarch, a single world Emperor, who alone, of all temporal rulers, would be free from covetousness and disposed, therefore, to act in accordance with the maximum justice possible on earth [emphasis added].

Dante staked his most fervent hopes upon the advent of such a monarch, and for a time it seemed to him that the ill-fated Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII might prove to be that dispenser of divine justice on earth. Henry’s failure to bring Florence under his sway, followed shortly by his untimely death, greatly disappointed Dante. However, writes Reynolds, “from the tragedy he managed to draw forth renewed resolve, stronger now than ever, to set forth in the Commedia his unshaken conviction that one day a supreme monarch would arise and bring peace and justice to the world.” Given his convictions, it is understandable why Dante turned his hand to the composition of Hell, in which he lashed out “against the enemies of justice, namely, greed and rivalry for wealth and power, particularly as manifested in the temporal ambitions of the Church and clergy, whose betrayal of their divine function he attacks with an implacable hatred.”

While many today, as in ages past, do not believe in God they are nonetheless fascinated by horror and pain; perhaps this is one reason why Dante’s Hell has always been many readers’ favorite section of the Commedia. In Hell, Dante condemns the betrayal of justice, indicating that he despises this sin above all others, with the infernal realm being filled chiefly with those who have committed sins of injustice in one sense or another. As Reynolds has written in her introduction to Paradise, “What he esteems and exalts above all virtues is loyalty to the ideal of justice, to the temporal powers appointed by God for its establishment on earth, to the great authorities whose origins are sacred, the Church and the Empire; for justice is rendering what is due to God as well as to man,” recognizing the claims of both the City of God and the City of Man, while understanding that they are not totally distinct.

Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man is written in a learned but accessible style, making for a study that is both informative and delightful—in part because Reynolds wears her immense learning lightly. Despite her claim to having read Dante with fresh eyes, it is notable that there are no jarring “aha” moments in her book, except where she posits that the rich visions of God and His saints in Paradise bear some similarity to the mystical visions of individuals who have taken hallucinogenic drugs. She does not, as some reviewers have mistakenly claimed, say that Dante was a partaker of drugs; only that the similarity is there, and that such drugs were known and sometimes indulged in within Dante’s milieu. This detail does not detract in the least from Reynolds’s book. Instead it joins with other details provided in the book to portray the man and his time in all their particulars. Across the centuries, Dante the exile, the poet who longed for justice and a return to his homeland, stands out in fresh relief as a man in full.

Kirk once described Dante in terms with which Reynolds would concur:

Dante knew all the woes to which humanity is heir. Yet Dante was not an Anxious Man, though he lived in a time of violent disorder. He knew that the principles of order abide, and that justice is more than human, and that art is the servant of enduring standards. His vision of eternal happiness and eternal torment was not a vision of disharmony; it was governed by norms; and in the certitude of those standards, all his mundane sorrows found their remedy. He faced Terror unflinchingly, and his achievement was not simply artistic mastery, nor yet remedy of the immediate distresses of his century, but rather the burning renewal of certain ancient moral insights, which he bequeathed as a legacy beyond price to the troubled souls who were to succeed him in time. It is thus that the consummate artist fights his battle against obsessive Anxiety.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (Madison Books, 1999) and Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow<.em> (Cumberland House Publishing, 2005).