Dante (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.
Other than his The Divine Comedy, Dante left a volume of works in poetic and prose forms. Around 1292, his La vita nuova (c. 1292; Vita Nuova, 1861; better known as The New Life, 1867), a collection of love lyrics linked by prose commentaries that tell the history of Dante’s love for Beatrice, was published. Il convivio (c. 1307; The Banquet, 1903) was intended to be a commentary on fourteen of Dante’s canzoni; the philosophical work was left unfinished. A theoretical work on the common language, De vulgari eloquentia (c. 1306; English translation, 1890) is a treatise on philology. De monarchia (c. 1313; English translation, 1890) is a treatise on monarchy and its relation to the church. Thirteen surviving letters written in Latin and poetic essays exchanged with Giovanni del Virgilio are contained in Epistolae (c. 1300-1321; English translation, 1902) and Eclogae (1319; Eclogues, 1902). A Latin dissertation on natural philosophy, Quaestio de aqua et terra (1320; English translation, 1902) is the text of a lecture Dante gave in Verona at the invitation of Cangrande della Scala.
Dante is the most famous Italian author and perhaps the most widely read of all medieval writers. His works are the foundation for all Italian literature, and his stature was instrumental in establishing the Florentine dialect as the basis for the modern Italian language. The Divine Comedy has been translated into virtually all languages, and it has been the source of inspiration for famous and diverse authors such as William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes, T. S. Eliot, Albert Camus, and William Faulkner. This monumental work is recognized as a compendium of all medieval learning; it is an erudite and masterful presentation of the philosophical, theological, astronomical, lyrical, and cultural ideas of the times, while on a narrative level it weaves together myriad fascinating tales. Throughout Italy and the entire civilized world there are schools, cultural organizations, benevolent societies, literary journals, medals of achievement, and even city streets and other landmarks named in his honor. Dante’s The Divine Comedy is a classic and a magnificent tribute to the human spirit.
Dante’s prose works are not usually taken as major literary achievements in themselves, although they provide many useful sidelights and clarifications to a reader of The Divine Comedy. Dante titled the work Commedia. It was Giovanni Boccaccio, forty years after Dante’s death, who called the work La divina commedia, the name by which it is commonly known. Il convivio (c. 1307; The Banquet, 1887) was probably written between 1304 and 1307. An unfinished work of some seventy thousand words in Italian prose, it is a commentary on three canzones or odes in which the poet proposes a theory of allegory for moral readings of his poetic compositions, so that it will be clear that virtue, not passion, is the topic. A digressive apologia, The Banquet is a mine of information about medieval literary culture. De vulgari eloquentia (c. 1306; English translation, 1890), a Latin prose work of nearly twelve thousand words, was probably composed in the period from 1304 to 1306. It is believed to be the first study ever written about vernacular language and poetic style and contains fascinating conjectures about the origin of language, Romance linguistics, verse forms, metrics, and poetic sounds. De monarchia (c. 1313; On World Government, 1957) is a Latin prose work of nearly eighteen thousand words, probably written in 1312 and 1313; it is a series of arguments for world rule unified under the Holy Roman Empire. Dante’s explanations of his ideas about the separate but complementary functions of church and state are particularly valuable. Only a few of Dante’s letters survive, but several of them contain seminal passages of Dantean thought.
Many of Dante’s lyrics are probably lost forever, but if the eighty or so miscellaneous ones attributed to him are a fair sampling of his efforts, he put his finest in The New Life. Many of these smaller poems show only average craftsmanship and are interesting because they reveal a poet who actively participated in his society. Some of the sonnets are exchanges of opinions with friends; six are part of an invective, a contest both socially and intellectually (which was common then), between Dante and Forese Donati. There are love poems to various ladies, some of them real individuals, others clearly allegorical. The lyrics show a very human poet, playful and experimental, heated by anger and love, embittered by exile.
Dante is among the greatest and most influential figures in the long history of Western literature, and no brief summary can do justice to the scope of his achievements. Perhaps his most enduring legacy has been the astonishing supply of signs and symbols for describing and evaluating inner experience which succeeding generations of readers have found in The Divine Comedy. Dante was ultimately a mystic in his approach to God, but he wrote with systematic clarity about every spiritual event, stopping only at the point where language and reason had to be abandoned. Probably the most learned, articulate voice in the Christian West since Saint Augustine, Dante created a powerful mindscape able to reflect every movement of the soul. He did this without subjectivism and narcissism. Dante’s vision is both a mirror of the self and a window onto the outside world, the cosmos, and the divine. His inward journey is recounted with great intensity and variety, but with no surprises, for that inner world is no more ambiguous or mysterious than the outer world, and Dante did not confront either world in a metaphysical void. His vision is not a hallucinatory refuge, but a site where the interconnectedness of all things can be rationally presented and the consequent need for spiritual discipline and social duty can be argued.
Dante responded to two primary imaginative impulses. One drove him to put all of his experiences into an ordered relationship: eros,...
Auerbach, Erich. Dante: Poet of the Secular World. Translated by Ralph Manheim. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961. Auerbach applies his mimetic theory to The Divine Comedy to illustrate how the poet used the circumstances of his own life to shape a poetic fiction which holds universal reality for its readers. Auerbach’s work continues to have a profound influence on contemporary Dante studies.
Barbi, Michele. Life of Dante. Translated and edited by Paul G. Ruggiers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960. The definitive biography of Dante. Divided into three parts: the life, minor works, and The Divine Comedy. Contains a lengthy and thorough bibliography of English works on Dante and English translations of his works. Although somewhat dated, this book is a very interesting resource.
Barolini, Teodolinda. Dante’s Poets. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984. An extensive study of the poets that appear in The Divine Comedy and their influence on Dante’s thought and literary style. The first chapter examines references to Dante’s own early poetic works, while the second analyzes major figures such as Guido Cavalcanti, Guittone d’Arezzo, and Bertran de Born. The final chapter deals with the influence of the epic poets such as Vergil and Statius and Dante’s resolution of classical thought with medieval philosophy.
Bergin, Thomas. Dante. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965. Perhaps the best concise study of Dante and his times available in English. Sets the foundation for an understanding of Dante’s works, with an introduction to the social and intellectual life in Europe and Florence during the Middle Ages, and then proceeds to discuss Dante’s early formation. Analyzes all the major works and concludes with an extensive discussion of The Divine Comedy. Includes a bibliography, notes, and an index of names.
Fletcher, Jefferson Butler. Dante. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1965. A short but helpful introduction to Dante’s work. Does not focus on Dante’s biographical details unless relevant to the literary discussion. Shows how the reader must appreciate Dante’s work first for its poetic vitality, so as not to become lost in the intricacies of its philosophical, theological, and political details. However, Fletcher also points out that the power of Dante’s poetry and the profundity of his thought work hand in hand.
Freccero, John. Dante: The Poetics of Confession. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. This is a collection of...