Dante's Other World: The Purgatorio as Guide to the Divine Comedy

Dante's Other World: The Purgatorio as Guide to the Divine Comedy

Dante's Other World: The Purgatorio as Guide to the Divine Comedy

Dante's Other World: The Purgatorio as Guide to the Divine Comedy

Excerpt

What--apart from his being a 'classic'--impels one to read Dante today? There is a temptation to answer not that he is the greatest of poets but simply that whatever motives there may be for reading poetry are amply fulfilled in the Divine Comedy.

But the questioner persists: What can Dante mean to me? Dante himself would have approved the question; the Comedy shows a constant, almost nervous concern with the rights and the needs of his reader. We may try to answer this question today by considering one segment of modern readers of the poem and hoping that a discussion of them may extend to others.

T. S. Eliot's 1929 essay on Dante, disclaiming alike possession and depreciation of the 'scholarship' in the field, has introduced a host of readers and, by now, a generation of critics, to the Divine Comedy. The quality of this essay, like that of the Dante criticism by Eliot's master Pound, is of inspired enthusiasm leading into poetic dogma and followed by a string of poetic pearls. The isolation of pearls in the Comedy is not new; the magnitude and the episodic structure of the poem have exposed it to this kind of fragmentation almost from the beginning, whether the selection has been of philosophical, moral, and theological sentences or of emotional and dramatic episodes.

Two of Eliot's dicta call for attention; not only do they serve as his indirect justification for thus excerpting the poetic beauties of Dante but they have had an effect on critical theory even beyond the study of Dante. The statements are that 'genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood,' and that one who 'can read poetry as poetry' may or must 'suspend both belief and disbelief.' (Has any other single word created more fuzzy criticism than this intransitive 'communicate'?) . . .

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