Universal and Eternal: Review of Discovering Dante at Durham Book Festival

Beautifully illuminated manuscript detail of Virgil and Dante meeting the poets of antiquity Homer Horace Ovid Lucan
Detail of a miniature of Virgil introducing Dante to the poets of antiquity, Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan. Via British Library Yates Thompson 36 f. 7v.

Dante may have lived 700 years ago, but the epic poem he wrote, The Divine Comedy, lives on through later writers. Three speakers with expertise ranging from Romantic poetry to world literature to modern writing were able to demonstrate the range of Dante’s influence at a Durham Book Festival talk. Lucia Scigliano-Suarez reviews.

In his fictional journey to the other worlds, Dante meets real people (historical characters and individuals he knew) who share real stories. The Divine Comedy (written between c. 1308 and 1320) is, indeed, an epic poem about second chances which gives voice not only to those who are dead but also to female victims of what is nowadays understood as domestic violence. Dante created an universal and eternal masterpiece which carries messages of resilience, justice, love, and hope for desperate times, and which thus makes it very apt to our present-day.

Professors Michael O'Neill, Jason Harding, Nicola Gardini and Annalisa Cipollone
Professors Michael O’Neill, Jason Harding, Nicola Gardini and Annalisa Cipollone. Photo credit: Aalia Ahmed.

Professor Michael O’Neill reflected on his own experience as translator and poet, and scholar of Percy Bysshe Shelley. His reading of some of his own poems from Gangs of Shadows (2014) and Wheel (2008) was intended so as to explain the ways in which Dante’s journey through Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory served as inspiration for his own compositions; it was an example of the lasting influence the mediaeval poet and his work have had over centuries and which can be found in contemporary poetry. Shelley’s work, O’Neill explained, is steeped in Dante. The pervasive power of his lyrics can be especially seen in the Romantic poet’s Italian compositions (1818-1822), his later work published while self-exiled in Italy, which made Shelley the great poet that he is. Adonais (1821) shows how even an atheist, unlike Dante, was compelled to imagine a world beyond this world. Shelley’s use of similes in this elegy to his fellow Romantic poet John Keats derives from Dante. His expression of loneliness in the last stanza of that poem, however, departs from Dante’s work:

I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;
Whilst burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.

Dante’s influence can also be seen in Shelley’s prose work. His renowned A Defence of Poetry (1821) questions the relevance of the works of writers such as Dante and Milton, which have a religious belief system woven into them and are at their basis, for individuals in later generations. Shelley concludes that these works can be stripped of their ‘religious scaffolding’, as Professor O’Neill put it, so that we can receive and absorb their universal truths. Both the Commedia and the Defence of Poetry remain relevant and important because they show people the ungratefulness of society which does not listen to a poet who speaks divine truths.

Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them there is no third
Dante, by Sandro Botticelli, via Wikimedia Commons; William Shakespeare, by John Taylor, via NPG 1

Professor Jason Harding, who specialises in twentieth-century poetry, inaugurated his talk with T. S. Eliot’s assertion that ‘Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third’. While identifying the three strands of Dante’s importance for Eliot, as poet and scholar, Harding explained that Dante was perceived by Eliot as the unifying factor of European culture, what characterises and influences each nation, showing that, beyond national identity, there is an European one to which individuals can aspire. For Eliot, Dante was impossible to translate; he can be adapted or used as inspiration but his works cannot be directly translated. He thus admits to the complexities of a translator’s work, revealing his admiration for Shelley’s translation. Eliot points to Shelley’s The Triumph of Life (1822) as an achievement in the use of terza rima, a rhyming verse stanza form first used by Dante, which Eliot himself could not achieve.

Professor Nicola Gardini, poet and specialist in comparative literature, shared his remarks on regarding Dante’s relevance and importance for contemporary audience, with reference to his book on temporality and literature. Interfused with readings from the Commedia in the vernacular, his lively talk focused on the role of the reader and the notion that Dante’s work transforms different characters from different ages into contemporaries by placing them in the same work. He dwelled on the literary importance of Purgatory as a repository of famous characters and writers.

The exhibition Hell, Heaven and Hope: A Journey through life and the afterlife with Dante will be on display at Durham’s Palace Green Library from 2nd December 2017 to 18th March 2018. The exhibition follows the story of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, bringing it to life through Durham University’s collections, displayed alongside books and manuscripts from the internationally-renowned collections of Mr Livio Ambrogio, on show in Durham for the first time. 


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