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"The Barque of Dante," by Eugène Delacroix, 1822 (Wikimedia Commons)

T. S. Eliot once stated “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third.” Even though Eliot was a modernist, writing non-traditional poems in the 20th century, he believed that this Florentine Medieval poet and this English Renaissance playwright had created work so colossal in scope and so original that writers and readers centuries later would unavoidably be influenced—and haunted—by their work.

There is no denying this. We invoke Shakespeare on a daily basis, whether we know it or not, when we use any of the many words and phrases he coined in his plays. “Method to his madness,” “love is blind,” “wear your heart on your sleeve,” “heart of gold,” are all his inventions, to cite just a few examples. We all know a little bit of Shakespeare by heart. In addition, Shakespeare is ever present to us. His plays never go out of print and have been (with the brief exceptions of the Puritan period in England and times of plague) constantly in production since they were written 400 years ago. In the past year alone, two new versions of “Macbeth” have captured the imaginations of viewers—one a film showcasing Denzel Washington in the title role, the other a Broadway performance featuring a former James Bond, Daniel Craig.

T. S. Eliot once stated “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third.”

Yet, inevitable as Shakespeare may be, even nearer and dearer to the hearts of Catholics is Dante. Perhaps this is because Dante’s gift to us is more than literary in nature. In La Commedia, Dante provides us with powerful drama and stories, just as Shakespeare does, and in addition creates a vision of a complete moral universe. His vivid depictions of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso—and the creatures who inhabit those regions—gave the Western world images of these mythic places that would inform the imaginations of Christians for centuries afterward.

There are no descriptions of hell in the Bible, certainly none of purgatory and precious few of heaven. Dante was able to begin with a clean canvas and conjure the lurid particulars of punishment, the trials of purgation and the joy of the beatific vision in unprecedented detail, visionary depictions that would inspire artists as disparate as Michelangelo and Salvador Dali and poets from Chaucer to Eliot (and beyond). His eschatological vision, filtered through these many artists, has entered into our collective imagination and into our religious tradition, filling many a Catholic child with terror (myself included) at the torments of hell and the travails of purgatory. (I spent little time thinking on heaven, for some reason.) What we think we know of these dreaded places is largely due to Dante.

For the past year, readers all over the world have been observing the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death, which occurred on September 14, 1321, and celebrating his most celebrated work, La Commedia, in a variety of inventive ways—including hosting marathon readings, discussion groups, conferences and lectures. Yet another way of honoring Dante’s art, however, is to make more art—to create paintings, music and poems that channel Dante, but also challenge him and the world view he presents modern readers with. This is how I have chosen to honor Dante, though I confess, this decision came to me as a surprise.

In La Commedia, Dante provides us with powerful drama and stories, and in addition creates a vision of a complete moral universe.

The first poem in a series of poems that I would write inspired by La Commedia is a fan letter, of sorts, (there are worse things than being a Dante FanGirl) that opens an extended, daily conversation with Dante that would last for months. The sonnet serves as an introduction to a project that would take on a life of its own, one which begins with homage to Dante’s bold decision to tell his mighty story in the form of poetry, rather than prose—a genre distrusted by philosophers and saints alike, including Plato and Thomas Aquinas.

Dear Dante
A poem ought to be free to lie its way to the truth.
-John Ciardi, poet & translator

All poets are liars. St. Thomas says so.
Yet you choose verse to tell the truth.
We glide along on your easy terza rima,
each line, each hanging rhyme, pulling us
into deeper, more dangerous waters.
You can’t look away, and neither can we
from the suffering shades, the pure agony
of unchanging pain for eternity. No
respite from the mind’s and the body’s fire.
If you hated your kind, you could not dream a
worse world than your endless Hell, a liar’s
pandemonium no loving words can soothe.
Lured by your language, we blindly follow you,
pray none of the things you write come true.

Talking back to Dante

Last summer, in anticipation of the anniversary, I committed myself to reading a canto of La Commedia each morning. Since there are exactly 100 cantos and there are very nearly 100 days of summer—and since La Commedia is divided into 3 sections in much the same way that the summer is divided into 3 months—this seemed a perfectly poetic way to spend the summer. It was an intense experience, walking with Dante each day. Even on bright, sunny mornings, I found myself drawn into the dark world of the poem. The striking images would stay with me. Dante was not only in my waking thoughts; he began entering into my dreams. He became a ghost haunting the hallways of my house as well as the corners of my mind.

Given his daily presence, it should not be surprising that I began talking back to Dante—and that talking took the form of poems. What began as passive reading gradually morphed into a species of accompaniment. I began to write poems in response to the scenarios Dante conjured. At times the poems would enter into those vivid scenes; at others they would step back and interrogate them, especially in instances where I bristled at the judgment that was being meted out to the poor sinners Dante encountered.

Let’s face it: the medieval Catholic world is a far cry from the modern secular one we inhabit. It’s true that we have much in common in terms of the values we hold—one is not supposed to commit adultery, practice greed and gluttony, lie, cheat and murder. However, we tend to look less harshly on human brokenness and imperfection, to err on the side of mercy rather than judgment. In addition, there are human behaviors that Dante considers grave sins that our contemporary culture does not, such as homosexuality and suicide. Dante also tends toward intolerance of other religions. The fact that he puts Mohammad in hell is enough to turn some modern readers away.

It should come as no surprise to us that the world has changed since 1321, when Dante completed La Commedia. And yet, Dante has bequeathed us a vision and a vast cast of characters that enable us to see ourselves, with all of our failings, our strivings and our aspirations. He has captured what is universal in the human condition, even as he was subject to the limitations and prejudices of his own time.

Dante has bequeathed us a vision and a vast cast of characters that enable us to see ourselves, with all of our failings, our strivings and our aspirations.

And so we read La Commedia with a double mind: we inevitably enter into the spirit of the poem as we are pulled into Dante’s fantastic story, but we are also aware of the ways in which we are different from Dante. This tension provides a creative space within which to confront Dante—to let him know where we agree and where we part ways.

This was the spirit of the project I began last summer—to engage Dante in conversation, in argumentation and in appreciation. The poems that I wrote in response to La Commedia gave me the opportunity to place myself in his poem, to become Dante even as Dante became my Virgil—the pagan poet who guides him through hell and purgatory—and to deepen my understanding of this challenging poem.

I confess, at first it felt presumptuous setting my little poems beside Dante’s Great Big One. But I enjoyed the proximity and the sense of intimacy with Dante, so I ignored those nay-saying voices and just kept writing. By the end of the summer, I had 25 poems—and more have come since. Most of them are formal poems, some of them sonnets and some written in Dante’s terza rima—both forms Dante favored and the latter one he invented—to honor the master’s craft. The sonnets included in this essay provide brief outtakes from our ongoing conversation and, I hope, the inspiration to (re)read the brilliant poem that catalyzed them.

Dante in hell and paradise

One of the more strident poems in the series confronts the fact of Dante’s placement of those who commit suicide in Inferno. His setting these afflicted people among sinners who commit acts of violence that can never be redeemed is deeply troubling to 21st century readers, who understand the causes of suicide from a psychological and mental health perspective. (In the sonnet below, I attempt to suggest the relentless, obsessive nature of suicidal thoughts through the use of monorhyme, wherein each line echoes the same end rhyme.) The punishment of these unfortunate souls seems particularly cruel and unjust to our modern eyes.

Yet, interestingly, even though Dante the poet consigns them to hell, Dante the pilgrim feels compassion for the suicides he encounters in Canto 13 of the Inferno, reflecting a complex double-mindedness. In fact, Dante spends a good portion of La Commedia weeping—the doomed lovers Francesca and Paolo, the Suicides, and the envious in purgatory whose eyes are sewn shut to keep them from temptation, among others, arouse his pity. This is one of the aspects of Dante’s poem that moves us most—that even as he recognizes the necessity of divine justice, he doesn’t lose sight of the humanity of those who suffer before him or of his own.

Dante Among the Suicides
The poet [Virgil] waited, then he said to me:
“Since he [the Suicide] is silent now do not waste time
but speak if you would ask him more.”
And I replied, “Please question him
about the things you think I need to know.
For I cannot, such pity fills my heart.”
-Inferno, XIII, 79-84

The forest of suicides the darkest place
for Dante—and for us. The tortured face-
less, their bodies are not theirs, no saving grace
allows them to reclaim themselves. They are erased
forever, their flesh become dead wood, disgraced
for a moment’s mortal error. No place
for mercy in their Maker’s mind, so base
is this act in God’s eyes. And, yet, encased
in Dante’s chest is a heart like ours, birthplace
of love for the sinner in the face
of sin. He’s learning that life is a race
none of us can win. We’re all in last place.
Some of us fall, can’t keep the killer pace.
Perfection is a dream the heartless chase.

Not all of the poems in the series address moments of darkness. Just as the pilgrim in Dante’s poem gradually makes his way from the depths of depravity in Inferno to the vision of virtue in Paradiso, the “Talking Back to Dante” poems trace the same trajectory, leading the reader from hell to heaven, with stops along the journey.

One of the final poems in the series addresses a central paradox of La Commedia. It is interesting—and telling—that when Dante finally arrives at the pinnacle of Paradise and is bequeathed a vision of God, the Virgin Mary and all the saints, he is rendered, for all practical purposes, speechless. Mere words simply can’t convey the beatific vision, and Dante finds himself in the awkward, ironic and somewhat humorous position of having written a 14,000-line poem that culminates in the recognition of the failure of language. For the word-loving, loquacious Dante (as for Shakespeare’s dying Hamlet), the rest is silence:

The Price of Paradise
Henceforth my speech will be briefer, even
about what I remember, than that of a child that
still bathes his tongue at the breast.
-Paradiso, XXXIII, 106-108

The power of speech the price Dante paid
for a brief fleeting vision of God.
Words his instruments, tools of his trade,
simply vanished. The stunned poet saw
deep mysteries his tongue could not tell.
The pyres of purgation, the horrors of Hell
did not rob him as high heaven did.
Lost to himself, he became otherwise,
was rendered young and dumb again.
This is what happens in paradise.
When the soul encounters the Holy One
there is no longer need for a poem.
All you have written becomes mere straw.
An eternity looms of language-less awe.

“Talking Back to Dante” is but one of many recent projects created to honor the master poet and his masterful poem. Writers and artists all over the world are penning stories and poems, molding sculptures, making paintings and movies and music in conversation with Dante. All of this artistic energy, set in motion by Dante, serves as evidence and celebration of the fact that La Commedia is a living work of genius, not some dead artifact or dusty museum piece frozen in time. As T. S. Eliot and the countless creative works inspired by Dante, can attest, La Commedia is very much alive 700 years after its completion and promises to charm us, challenge us and haunt us for centuries to come.

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