The Erotic Inferno

Book review of Dante in Love by A.N. Wilson

Books Literature
Divine Comedian: Sandro Botticelli's 1495 portrait of Dante

Boccaccio had a keen eye for the foibles of the great. In his otherwise reverential Life of Dante, written some 50 years after the poet’s death in 1321, the author of the Decameron noted that “in the midst of all the virtue, and all the knowledge, that has been shown to have belonged to this marvellous poet, lust found an ample place not only in the years of his youth but also of his maturity.” Boccaccio withheld judgment (as the father of five illegitimate children, he was hardly in a position to judge). What surprises us, as gossipy Boccaccio no doubt intended, is the mention of Dante’s lechery in later years at a time when he was in full thrall to the transfigured image of the long-dead Beatrice. Certainly as a young man Dante belonged to a randy crowd of fellow poets. When he circulated a sonnet describing a dream in which love, “lord of us all,” fed his “blazing heart” to his lady, his friend Dante da Maiano replied with a joshing sonnet in which he urged Dante not only to see a doctor at once but to “wash his balls”. The cult of love, of amor cortese, which Dante and his circle cultivated, had its ribald side and Dante shared it. Lust and love were not in opposition; they formed a continuum. The “love that moves the sun and the other stars” extended from the highest heaven down to the beast — or for that matter, the poet — in rut. The great English dantista Barbara Reynolds has even argued (in her wonderful Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man of 2006) that when Dante finally encounters Beatrice at the approach to paradise, the sight of her in glory gives him the stirrings of an erection. As far as I can tell, the only thing Beatrice stiffens in Dante is his resolve. But Reynolds is right to draw attention to the “overtly sexual imagery” of Il Paradiso. His ascent is impelled throughout by a desire as fierce as it is rarefied.

Dante’s conception of love poses the central riddle of A.N. Wilson’s compendious account of the poet’s life and works. It lies behind his unexpected title. To understand Dante means understanding what he meant by “love”. As Wilson notes, an answer to the riddle may be found in the canzone which Dante included in his early work, La Vita Nuova, and which begins, “Ladies that have intelligence of love” — Donne ch’avete l’intelletto d’amore. For Dante, love is a way of knowing, the ultimate way; at the highest stage of cognition, love and the intellect are one. Wilson never really gets to grips with this “loving intelligence” but in pursuing it, he follows Dante from his birth and upbringing in Florence through his years of apprenticeship as poet and philosopher, his disastrous involvement in Florentine politics, and his bitter exile, cut off from family and friends, a virtual mendicant living at the sufferance of various patrons and potentates in Verona, Venice and Ravenna. Wilson has written his book for “non-readers of Dante”, for those intimidated by the sheer extent of the historical, political, philosophical and theological knowledge needed for a comprehension of  La Commedia (it was Boccaccio who called it The Divine Comedy and the name has stuck). In this Wilson succeeds very well. But he also aims to “retain the excitement” which Dante’s great work offers and here he is distinctly less successful.

Wilson’s account of the bewildering power-struggles in Dante’s Florence — whether between the Guelphs defending the primacy of the papacy or the Ghibellines who advanced the cause of the Holy Roman Emperor or, even more confusingly, the feuds between Black Guelphs, led by the ruthless Corso Donati, and White Guelphs, whom Dante supported though he was related by marriage to the “Big Baron” Corso Donati — is admirably lucid. From his description of such violent clashes we get a strong sense of the venomous milieu in which Dante lived. Wilson also brings his skills as a novelist to the story, especially in his vivid cameos of individuals. His portrait of the much-hated Pope Boniface VIII, for whom Dante kept a niche warm in hell, is both nuanced and strangely compelling; for Boniface wasn’t only the domineering pontiff who exclaimed to the envoys of the Holy Roman Emperor, “It is I who am Emperor!” He was also a man of great refinement and cultivated tastes, an aesthete whose “long beautiful hands” were much admired.  Sometimes Wilson captures a personality in a pungent phrase. Thus, he characterises the “flea-ridden” Pope Celestine V (whom Dante condemned for his “great refusal” of the papacy) as an “octogenarian bumpkin”. Or he sheds a homely light on Dante by noting that he “was wonderfully observant of dogs” and then provides a tally of his “doggy references” throughout La Commedia. His final chapter on Dante’s “afterlife” is particularly fine. He pays moving tribute to the 19th-century translator Henry Francis Cary, plagued by mental illness and continually disappointed in his ambition to become a keeper at the British Museum. Thanks to a chance meeting with Coleridge on the Sussex coast, Cary’s translation of The Divine Comedy became hugely popular and inspired not only Coleridge but Keats, Ruskin and Tennyson as well as thousands of other 19th-century readers. Wilson gives a charming account of Gladstone’s lifelong study of Dante and is particularly amusing on the great Victorian’s ingenious attempts, only half in jest, to prove that Dante had sojourned in Oxford.

Amid the wealth of detail there are a few factual errors and some dubious assumptions. Michelangelo’s David is in Florence’s Accademia Gallery, not the Bargello, as Wilson claims. And it’s a bit startling to find a biographer of Milton misquoting “Lycidas”.  The lines are not “Fame is the spur which the clear spirit doth raise/The last infirmity of noble days,” as Wilson has it, but “Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise/(That last infirmity of Noble mind”). In his discussion of Dante’s encounter with his beloved teacher Brunetto Latini in the circle of the sodomites, Wilson remarks that “it is surely not fanciful to suppose that in his encounter with Brunetto, he is, among other things, facing his own adolescent homosexuality?” But surely, in the absence of any evidence, such a supposition is fanciful. More alarming is Wilson’s discomfort with the sheer virulence of Dante’s various hatreds. He writes, “The serene scholarly poet sits side by side at the desk with the vengeful malicious madman and the reader never knows which of them is going to frame the next taut terza rima.” Wilson harps on this throughout, at one point going so far as to refer to “the Tourette’s Syndrome Dante.” This is nonsense. Wilson fails to see that Dante’s hatred both of malefactors and of his personal enemies is as hot and quick and incandescent as his love. Dante was a great hater. As Wilson’s own account makes plain, he lived in an age of extremes, an age of vehemence; in the Paradiso, even St Peter is thunderous in denunciation. Dante shared the ferocity of the psalmist when he exclaimed, “Lord, I hate Thy enemies with a perfect hatred.” Dante’s hates are in a mysterious way the obverse of his loves; they are inextricably correlated; each sets the other in passionate relief.

If the excitement with Dante which Wilson wishes to stimulate is largely lacking this may be because he almost never engages with Dante’s verse purely as poetry. He clearly loves the poetry — he has been reading and studying it for decades in Italian and in translation — and he quotes copiously from it in an impressive range of translations. But the non-reader of Dante might be puzzled by the absence of any close attention to the actual verse. Wilson is right to say of terza rima, for example, that “its Trinitarian significance suited his purpose, but so too did its forward movement.” But there’s more to terza rima than simple forward movement. Throughout the Commedia, Dante’s singing cadences impel the verses forward — true enough — while the interlacing triple rhymes provide brief intervals of rest, like pauses in a melody. The effect is one of braided momentum.

This has a bearing on the extraordinary music of Dante’s verse which Wilson scarcely notices. One example: when Dante encounters Paolo and Francesca in the wind-tossed circle of the lustful, he listens spellbound as Francesca delivers her seductive self-justifying soliloquy. When she describes their first kiss, she says, la bocca mi baciò tutto tremante (He kissed my mouth all tremblingly). It may be the sexiest evocation of a kiss in literature; its sounds, its cadence, virtually nuzzle the ear. Six lines later, in the conclusion of the canto, Dante faints and the verse both echoes and rebukes Francesca: E caddi come corpo morto cade (“And I fell as a dead body falls”). The terza rima, cunningly intertwined, intensifies such effects. Here the hard c of bocca (mouth), repeated four times, is anything but seductive; it cuts like a knife through silk.

Since language itself, whether bestial in hell or angelic in paradise, with the hard human stammering of purgatory in between, constitutes one of Dante’s principal themes, it seems inexplicable that Wilson, apart from a few cursory comments, should so neglect it. Interested readers should turn instead to Irma Brandeis’s The Ladder of Vision or the work of the late American dantista Glauco Cambon — neither of whom is listed in Wilson’s extensive bibliography — to get a sense of how much Wilson has overlooked. Dante in Love gives us everything we need to know about Dante; only the incomparable living texture of the poetry is strangely absent.