The Sacred Poem

T.S. Eliot wrote that “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third.” I think Eliot got the order right, and not only chronologically. If the two poets divide the world between them, then the part of the world that belongs to Shakespeare—roughly, all that we can know about ourselves in this life—is finally smaller than the part that belongs to Dante, which also includes, at least imaginatively, what we learn about ourselves in the life to come.

English readers of Dante can probably date themselves from the translation of the Commedia they first used: Sayers or Ciardi, Mandelbaum or Musa. But the first decade of the twenty-first century has witnessed a profusion of fine new English versions of Dante’s great poem by Anthony Esolen, Robert and Jean Hollander, and Robert Durling. Each of these translations provides helpful introductions and notes, and each gives the original Italian on the facing page, allowing the reader to savor the original terza rima. Several good introductions to Dante’s work have also appeared in the last few years, including Peter S. Hawkins’s Dante: A Brief History and Robert Hollander’s Dante: A Life in Works.

But once the introductions have been made and the journey from hell to heaven begun, the modern reader will need to know something about the Commedia’s theological background in order to read it the way Dante wanted it to be read. (Scornful of false modesty, he himself described his great work as “the sacred poem / to which both heaven and earth have set their hand.”) Dante’s Commedia: Theology as Poetry, a new collection of essays edited by Vittorio Montemaggi and Matthew Treherne, reminds us with its subtitle that Dante’s theology is in fact more than a background. It is the poem’s organizing principle as well as its motive force.

The essays gathered here originated at a conference held at Cambridge University, which drew Dante specialists and theologians from England, Italy, and the United States. The participants sought to explore the mutual illumination of literary text and theological trope in the Commedia. As the editors of this volume write, Dante’s poem is “firmly rooted in the medieval tradition of reflection on the nature of theological language,” and presents “an unprecedented piece of sustained poetic experimentation”—one that moves “beyond traditional theological assessments of the status and value of poetry.” The poem also moves beyond conventional theological classifications, combining diverse influences. One finds Aquinas, of course, but also Bonaventure and the Franciscan school, as well as the neo-Platonists.

Vittorio Montemaggi’s contribution to this collection, “In Unknowability as Love: The Theology of Dante’s Commedia,” considers the relation between cataphatic and apophatic elements in the poem—that is, the poem’s affirmations about God and its acknowledgment of the ultimate ineffability of the Mystery in whom we live and move and have our being. The pilgrim’s path into the known unknown is supported and sustained by the poem’s trinitarian terza rima, and it culminates in a vision of the Trinity, which is a vision beyond the power of words.

The recognition that Dante is the unparalleled poet of Incarnation achieves bold relief in Oliver Davies’s essay “Dante’s Commedia and the Body of Christ.” Davies examines the intimate nexus in the poem between body, language, and community. The breakdown of communication and community constitutes the blight of hellish existence; their restoration in friendship and song signals the start of humankind’s purifying ascent. Heaven rings with the praises of the redeemed body, atoned (“at-oned”) in Christ. If heaven can be described as a kind of dance, a celebration involving the body as well as the soul, Christ is the choreographer. For Davies, the Commedia is a tale of transformations—of Dante, certainly, but also of the human community, the body, even the entire cosmos. All these transformations originate in the Incarnation of the Word and owe their realization to the glorified humanity of the ascended Christ.

Paola Nasti’s “Caritas and Ecclesiology in Dante’s Heaven of the Sun” is a close study of cantos ten through fourteen of the Paradiso, where Dante meets the dancing lights of two circles of souls prominent for wisdom. Solomon is first among these souls, but their spokesmen are Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure, each of whom famously praises the founder of the other’s religious community (a sure sign we have finally transcended earth’s rivalries). In their songs of praise, the church figures as the bride of Christ. Francis and Dominic are celebrated as those sent by Providence to rekindle the church’s love for its spouse. As Thomas says of the two founders: they came to guide the bride of Christ, wed in the shedding of his blood, to more faithful following of her Beloved (Canto 11: 28–36). This unitive experience constitutes the very heart of what the church is. It is the defining relation of each of its members to Christ that builds up the whole body in love. So the wise lose nothing of their individuality by joining in a circle of communion.

Yet neither their individuality nor their communion will be complete until the blessed souls receive their resurrected bodies. In the last canto, the flame of Solomon assures the pilgrim: “this splendor that unfolds us now will be surpassed in brightness by the flesh that earth yet covers.” And in one of the most poignant and telling passages of the Paradiso (Canto 14: 61–66), Dante marvels: “both choirs so ardently cried ‘Amen’ to his words, they showed thereby how greatly they desired their mortal bodies—not only for themselves, perhaps, but for their mothers and fathers, and others dear to them, before they became eternal flames” (“forse non pur per loro, ma per le mamme / per li padri e per li altri che fuor cari / anzi che fosser sempiterne fiamme”). Nasti rightly comments: “The resurrected soul could not come to fruition in isolation: mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters are necessary for that joy to be complete. Perfect charity is a communicative, social virtue.”

The Divine Comedy’s vision of the Incarnation comprehends body and soul, but also individual and community, the political and the mystical, this world and the world to come. Like the mystery of the Trinity in which it shares, the mystery of the Incarnation must be understood to permeate the universe in all its parts. The crucified, risen, and ascended Christ is like a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. He harrows hell; he empowers purgatorial renewal; he quickens humanity’s transformation from glory to glory. Dante’s poem follows the ongoing transformation Christ’s Incarnation has engendered, while reminding us that the cost of Incarnation, both for God and for man, is, as T. S. Eliot wrote, “not less than everything.”

 


Related: Joseph W. Koterski reviews Robert and Jean Hollander's translation of Dante's Paradiso

Published in the 2010-10-08 issue: 
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Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.

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Rich Jeremiad

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