John A. Scott, a research fellow at the University of Western Australia, is one of the world’s leading authorities on the poet Dante Alighieri. In Understanding Dante, Scott goes beyond simply explaining Dante’s works and provides a detailed discussion of the medieval poet’s writings. Scott takes up the works roughly in the order they were written. In the first chapter, he takes up Dante’s New Life, or Vita Nuova, a work of thirty-one poems inspired by his love for the late Beatrice, with a prose account of the poems. The author then looks at De vulgari eloquentia, Dante’s treatise comparing literature in Latin with the use of the living languages; Dante’s lyric poetry; the philosophical work, the Convivio; and Dante’s work of political theory, the Monarchia. Appropriately, in the middle of the book he takes up the masterwork that Dante himself set in his own mid-life, the Divine Comedy.
Many commentators tend to approach the three books of the Divine Comedy individually, looking separately at the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso. Scott takes a different approach, primarily treating themes across all three books. He considers the books’ moral order, their geographies and populations, the influence of classical antiquity on the Divine Comedy, and the poetic language and styles of the great poem. This topical approach is an effective way of emphasizing the unity of the work, and it may encourage the many readers who stop with the Inferno to continue on to the second and third books. After the Divine Comedy, Scott turns to a biographical and historical discussion of the major political and social events of Dante’s world and of the poet’s place in these. The book ends with a chapter on Dante’s minor works.
John A. Scott has given readers a comprehensive account of Dante’s work that will be useful to new readers and Dante scholars alike. It contains a helpful chronology of the events in the poet’s life and a short glossary of poetic forms.