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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man presents Barbara Reynolds’s distillation of her lifelong study of Dante. Largely shunning footnotes (other than to Dante’s texts) and references to other scholars, she offers personal readings of all of Dante’s writings, which she places within the context of his life and his age. While some of her comments will provoke disagreement, her book offers a highly readable introduction to some of the most complex works of the Middle Ages. Although she addresses her book to a general audience, even advanced students of Dante will find it thought provoking and informative.

One recurring theme in Reynolds’s account is that of orality. The fourteenth century witnessed a leap in literacy beyond the clerisy. In canto 5 of the Inferno (hell), Beatrice explains that she and her lover, Paolo, were first enticed into adultery by reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere. Indeed, reading pervades The Divine Comedy. The Latin Silver Age poet Statius says that reading Vergil’s works made him both a poet and a Christian. There are more illustrated manuscripts of Dante’s The Divine Comedy than of any other secular medieval text. Reynolds pays tribute to the role Giovanni Boccaccio played in popularizing Dante’s works by making and distributing copies.

Boccaccio also enhanced Dante’s reputation by lecturing on The Divine Comedy, for despite the growth of a literate public, most people still could not read. Reynolds argues that Dante’s works were always intended to be heard. She suggests that his De vulgari eloquentia (c.1306; English translation, 1890) and Il convivio (c.1307; The Banquet, 1887) both composed while Dante was living in Bologna, were intended to be presented as series of lectures at the local university, where Dante is known to have taught. These works were left unfinished, perhaps, Reynolds suggests, because Dante failed to find an audience. She thinks that the Epistola a Cangrande (1318; Epistle to Cangrande), in which Dante explains his purpose in writing his The Divine Comedy and his use of allegory in the work, was also designed as a lecture. Similarly, Reynolds notes that poetry in this period was written to be sung; ballata were danced as well.

Hence, sounds play an important role in Dante’s poetry. Reynolds points out the harsh rhymes Dante uses as he writes about the hoarders and wasters in the fourth circle of hell. Presiding over these sinners is the Greek god of wealth, Plutus, who is enraged by the intrusion of the living Dante. His sputtering speech is reflected in rhymes ending with -occia, as his collapse after Vergil’s rebuke is heard in the rhyming words ending in -acca. Dante employs double rhymes to mimic the hurtling of those condemned to this circle: viddi, Cariddi, riddi, intoppa, troppa, poppa. When in canto 27 of the Paradiso St. Peter denounces Pope Boniface VIII, the agent of Dante’s exile from Florence, Dante uses harsh rhymes (vaca, cloaca, placa), and St. Peter repeats three times il loco mio (my place) to show his rage at Boniface’s usurpation of the Holy See. The pauses in the following line of canto 24 of the Inferno capture the breathlessness of Vergil and Dante as they climb over rocks: chè noi a pena, ei lieve, e io sospinto (for we barely, he light, I pushing . . . ). Sounds also link passages. In canto 26 of the Inferno, Ulysses relates how he almost reached Mount Purgatory before his ship sank. The first canto of the Purgatorio recalls that ill-fated voyage by using the same rhyme and even two of the three same rhyming words. The third rhyming word varies only slightly: nacque (began) in Inferno 26.137, rinacque (spring up again) in Purgatorio 1.135.

Numerology looms large in medieval thought. Reynolds shows how from his very first work Dante consciously played with variations on the number three, which symbolizes the Trinity, and ten, the number of perfection and also unity, since the digits in ten add up to one. La vita nuova (c. 1292; Vita Nuova, 1861; better known as The...

(The entire section is 1,735 words.)