The Sacred Poem

Dante’s Commedia
Theology as Poetry
Edited by Vittorio Montemaggi and Matthew Treherne
University of Notre Dame Press, $40, 400 pp.

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...

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About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.