If I could recommend only one book on Dante it would be this one by Prue Shaw.
Her scholarship is profound and I think she must be a brilliant teacher: she shows an unusual ability to enter imaginatively into the minds of people who don’t have her knowledge. This book isn’t just “approachable”; it comes to meet you, seizes your hands and whisks you away to a glittering party where you’re involved in the conversation as if you were an old friend.
Shaw’s writing style favours short, punchy sentence constructions, combining academic rigour and clarity with the vividness and immediacy of the best journalism.
The organisation of the book is no less important. At the beginning we’re drawn in in the most concrete way, with Florence’s explosive growth in wealth, population and power over the century before Dante’s birth. Consequent social tensions and explosions of political violence came to a head in his lifetime, precipitating his exile and sentence to be burned alive if captured. I came away with a clearer understanding of the struggles between Guelfs and Ghibellines and between Black Guelfs and White Guelfs than any other book has given me, largely because Shaw knows how to tell a story in a way that’s dramatic and memorable, making historical characters leap off the page like living contemporaries. Interwoven with this is an account of friendships and poetic rivalries that will resonate in the discussion of different encounters in hell, purgatory and heaven.
Shaw tells us her main concern is to communicate the power of Dante’s poetry. This of course depends on everything in the poem, its total architecture, the imaginative resonance of its themes, and the grip of its narrative as much as on the poet’s command of language and metre. Shaw skilfully orchestrates her study of these things to draw us deeper and deeper into an appreciation of the Commedia as a whole, including, when we’re ready, some of its more abstruse and technical aspects. Keenly responsive to Dante’s “exceptional capacity … to imagine a world and give it form”, his penetration into character and his skill in dramatizing it through speech and action, she conducts detailed explorations of his haunting encounters with Farinata, Ulysses, Count Ugolino and Francesca da Rimini. All are damned but each provokes admiration, sympathy or intense empathetic identification in some way. For this reason they’re often discussed, sometimes in a spirit of suppressing rather than properly confronting the contradictions in Dante’s presentation. Shaw’s discussions are particularly good, both for their local depth and sensitivity and because of how she makes them feed into the larger stories of how Dante the character in the poem is changed by his experiences and of how Dante the writer re-evaluates his own life.
Shaw writes brilliantly about the differences between the imagined worlds of the three cantiche Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso and the different artistic approaches Dante takes to them. When we’re ready she takes us through richly suggestive explorations of different linguistic contexts – the variety of Tuscan dialects, relations between Latin and the vernaculars, the revolutions in Dante’s own theories about language. This prepares for luminous explorations of the richness and variety of Dante’s use of language in the Commedia itself, with its boldness and pitch-perfect sensitivity to register, its intertextual and interlingual allusiveness, the pyrotechnic brilliance of its rhyming, its metrical expressiveness and its sheer inventiveness, especially in the Paradiso, where Dante coins neologism after neologism to express the inexpressible. Shaw builds to a climax in a thrilling study of what she calls “the crescendo of light and joy and ecstatic fervour” in the last four cantos of the Paradiso, culminating in the breathtaking final illumination of Canto 33 xxxiii , the famous image of all the apparently scattered and conflicting elements of creation as bound in one volume by love.
I reached the end of Reading Dante feeling enlightened and imaginatively vitalised by it and above all wanting to dive back into the Commedia itself.