Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Poet Who Created a Language

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Poet Who Created a Language

Article excerpt

Why is Dante so much in favour these days? There are at least ten translations of The Divine Comedy in print, and new ones appeared in 1993, 1994 and 1996. Yet another translation of The Inferno (the first third of the book) is due from Oxford University Press this month.

There's nothing new about the book's popularity. According to Peter Dale, the most recent translator of the entire work, it was popular and influential from the date of its first appearance in the 1320s. About 600 copies were produced by scribal and other means. Dante's two sons wrote commentaries - as did Boccaccio. And, just two generations later, Geoffrey Chaucer's poetry shows that he knew the work and Dante's reputation very well.

After the Renaissance, Dante rather disappeared from view- there wasn't so much call for a Thomist world view after Henry VIII. Romanticism brought Dante the visionary poet back into the public eye at the beginning of the 19th century - Blake, Shelley and Byron translated bits of him, and Keats slipped Thomas Cary's first complete English translation of the work into his apothecary's backpack before departing on a walking tour of the Lakes.

Since then Dante has gone from strength to strength - Ezra Pound once hoped to achieve something akin to Dante's inclusive world view in his Cantos, but the chaos of the present, coupled with the chaos within his own mind, proved intractable. T S Eliot quoted from him in The Waste Land and elsewhere. Eliot also put a finger on one reason for Dante's enduring popularity: he was the first great pan-European poet. His language, rooted in medieval Latin, remains surprisingly accessible - more readily and immediately understandable, less locally "obscure", than that of Geoffrey Chaucer, for example - and his Catholic world view has a great clarity and intellectual inclusiveness.

What is amazing about Dante's language is the fluency, the plainness, the simplicity - the sheer approachability of his words. …

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