Dante's Testaments: Essays in Scriptural Imagination. By Peter S. Hawkins. Figurae Series. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1999. xvi + 378 pp. $57.50 (cloth); $23.95 (paper).
Nearly half a century ago Dorothy Sayers remarked that Dante had more readers now than ever before. That band has not diminished since her day, nor has the body of scholarship surrounding Dante's works, especially the Commedia. Surely Hawkins's contribution to the corpus will stand as one of the offerings most deserving of the laurel wreath the poet himself desired. As one who has regularly led seminarians on Dante's pilgrimage (albeit in English translation) for over twenty-five years, the adjectives that kept recurring as I read Dante's Testaments were: erudite, engrossing, and elegant.
First of all is the erudition that shows deep acquaintance with the literature of Dante studies, to say nothing of the author's own long delving directly into Dante himself, both methodically and meditatively. And behind that stands a comprehensive grasp of the literary venture (from classical to contemporary), coupled in this case with a rare appreciation of the theological enterprise. In this latter application Hawkins is particularly keen to show Dante both as an inveterate student of what we call formation and as the proponent of it for others. Thus Hawkins: "If there is a figure in my carpet, however-any overarching interest that brings this diverse body of work into focus-it is Dante's intense engagement with the Christian Scriptures" (p. 15). The engagement of the theme begins with the four chapters of the first part: "Dante and the Bible." This is the foundation upon which are built the remaining four parts: "Dante and Virgil" (two chapters), "Dante and Ovid" (three chapters), "Dante and the Saints" (three chapters), and, finally, "Dante and the World" (two chapters).
Hawkins shows how Dante got into the Scriptures and the Scriptures into Dante in such an intimate way that he was transformed and perceived himself to be on a mission of transformation for others. This is especially seen in the Purgatorio, where there is "sustained attention to God's book" and the showing to those still on pilgrimage "the power of its transforming word" (p. 43). In the end Hawkins makes a claim as audacious, but in the event as convincing, as Dante's fiction that his work is not fiction, namely, that Dante in the Commedia intended to write as an auctor, intending his audience to hear him as the writer of inspired text meant to convert and form the soul and souls-in-community. …