Reading Dante, His Life and Poetry

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:


Color-coordinated and reading in the park. Bryant Park, 2014.

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:


Dante the Puppy hanging out at home. Washington Heights, 2014.

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.


Page 117 from Reading Dante by Prue Shaw. NYC, 2014.

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.

… see what I mean? Also, see here for an interesting tidbit regarding the pronunciation of Middle English or here for a more in-depth guide.

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)


4 responses to “Reading Dante, His Life and Poetry

  1. Dear Joyce,
    I am so delighted that you are having the chance to read (and listen to) Dante, who had the type of magnificent impact on the Italian language which Shakespeare had on the English language. Even today, it feels as if these two Renaissance geniuses created the languages in which they wrote their works . Reading Dante’s Commedia during my junior year of college (1970) was one of the great intellectual experiences of my life. I’m so glad that you are having that experience, too.

    • Hi Bill,

      I’m no linguistic/literary expert, but Shakespeare also came to mind as I was reading about Dante’s contribution to and mastery of Italian. I still need to read through Commedia in its entirety – Shaw’s book has very successfully piqued my interest! With all the historical and literary references sprinkled throughout, I think I will look for an annotated edition that can help guide me. Please let me know if you happen to have any suggestions.


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