Pubic libraries are magical. You walk in and pick books, scores, DVDs, and CDs off the shelf and take them home for free. My latest find was this gem, Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity by Prue Shaw:
As you know, Baritone Boy and I named our puppy after this genius. Every time I come across the name Dante in this book, this is the face I picture:
Moving through a series of seven themes — Friendship, Power, Life, Love, Time, Numbers, and Words — Shaw weaves together biographical information and commentary on Divine Comedy to lead us through a journey of Dante’s life, principles, literary works, and aspirations. With this kind of introduction, I can’t wait to pick up a more traditional biography and also read the full poem, all 99 cantos.
These 99 cantos are divided into three canticles, each corresponding to a different leg of Dante’s pilgrimage through Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. He began writing in 1307 (or 1308) but set the journey in the year 1300. This allowed the characters of Divine Comedy to be able to accurately forecast and allude to events of the “future,” which in the real world had already occurred. Mind-blowing.
I am so used to conceptualizing Italian words as part of music that it is startlingly impactful just to read it as poetry.
The poetry of Divine Comedy is not only beautiful but rich because Dante intended the language to reflect the full range of human experience. Rather than restricting himself only to agreeable and genteel words, Dante stretches and forms language to express the high and the low, the refined and the rough, the pleasure and the pain of life and the afterlife.
His time spent in exile, traveling the Italian peninsula, exposed him to the various dialects in use and created in awareness of the shifting sounds and flavors of the vernacular language. This shifting vernacular is in stark contrast to Latin, the language of public records, elevated thinking, and cultured consistency, which was valued for its stability. He wrote in what was the Tuscan dialect of the time and crafted such a masterpiece that the dialect came to be called the Italian language itself.
Shaw reports that 80% of Divine Comedy is “immediately intelligible” to a modern native Italian speaker and that this poem includes the 2,000 core words of modern Italian vocabulary. Keep in mind this work was written 700 years ago, in the early 1300s. Isn’t that incredible? By comparison, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which was written in the same century in the late 1300s in vernacular Middle English, is pretty much incomprehensible to those who are not Middle English scholars:
Wepyng and waylyng, care and oother sorwe I knowe ynogh, on even and a-morwe,’ Quod the Marchant, ‘and so doon oother mo That wedded been.
I’m about half way through, and every chapter has been a revelation. Perhaps some of this stems from taking this book to the park and reading in the sunshine – 20 minutes of peace and philosophy in a hectic day.
Quali fioretti dal notturno gelo chianti e chiusi, poi che ’l sol li ’mbianca, si drizzan tutti aperti in loro stelo, tal mi fec’io … (Inf. ii 127-30)(Just as little flowers bent and closed by the night frost, when the sun shines on them, stand upright all open on their stalks, so I became … translated by P. Shaw, Reading Dante)