Sunday, October 12, 2014

George Holmes' "Dante": Book Review

Although only a hundred pages, like its counterparts in the Past Masters series from Oxford UP, this contribution by a professor at Oxford is pitched at an elevated level. It introduces Dante Alighieri and covers his life, but it emphasizes his works. Not only his most famous, but the predecessors, the Vita Nuova, the unfinished Convivio, and the crucial Monarchy prepare the reader for La Commedia.

For, Holmes stresses the tension between the younger Dante, pre-exile, debating the issues of his time, and the man who after the pivotal year of 1300 soon found himself cast out from Florence and in danger. From Ravenna, he wrote his supreme work, one which Holmes ties to earlier texts by the author's increasing immersion into a novel combination of Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic lore. Out of this ethical and cosmological concoction, Dante went from score-settling and digressive debates that enlivened Inferno to a more extended depiction of otherworldly concerns beyond the circles of hell, ones that invited Dante as pilgrim to participate.

As Holmes sums it up: "Hell is a tour conducted by Virgil; Purgatory is a purification from which Dante emerges changed and able to understand what he had not understood before." (74) That is, how the secular and the spiritual occupy their own principalities, how Dante's backing of both a divine plan and a Roman Empire open to non-Christian influences might endure in an era where the popes battled princes and the Italians had to choose allegiances, and how Thomistic theology and Franciscan controversies over poverty and millennial messages infused Dante's own mindset as well as his work.

By the end, with Paradiso, Holmes notes how the quest compelled Dante in its lines to carry back the reminder to his fellow humans about not only here "what he wished to say, but what he had 'seen.'" (92) Emboldened by divine authority, Holmes reads Dante as commissioning himself to condemn corruption and promise "imperial salvation." Despite the poem's poetic power, which can be glimpsed best in the Italian verse sometimes placed before the English snippets throughout, this book works best in conveying the way Dante took pieces of learning from classical commentaries and combined them into his idiosyncratic epic, as it evolved over decades. You don't find in such a brief study much depth about much of the vision or the verse, but you will learn how the epic unfolded and altered as it served to record and to respond to Dante's fate, his faith, and his particularly personal concerns.

Many facile readers forget how long the 100 cantos took to emerge, and Holmes places their evolution within the longer cycle of Dante's obsessions and preoccupations which flavored his sprawling work so markedly, so it lacked imitators. What it did best was merge, Holmes concludes, the emerging vision of a European mind akin to Michelangelo or Shakespeare, with a fusion of the Northern scholastic thinking and the Italian city-state mentality, for a new way of perception. The 1980 book ends with some reading recommendations, which may be updated by consulting recent translations, but the overview remains helpful, if rather austere--perhaps like its subject himself. (10-10-14 to Amazon US)

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