Hainsworth and Robey have to work within the limits of the Very Brief Introduction format. Their first pages rise brilliantly to the challenge. Swift-moving, decisive, sensitive and suggestive, plunging straight into a discussion of two famous encounters in the Inferno, and illustrating points with well-chosen references, this opening would have made me feel I knew why Dante’s ideas still matter, why he’s a giant among poets, and why people so praise his dramatic gifts in particular, even if I hadn’t read a word of him before.
Of course an introduction to Dante has to present a huge amount of background. In this regard there will often be differences between the needs of people who already know him and those who don’t, especially as the information has to be given in a very compressed form. Some of this background information as presented here is probably only useful to the Dante beginner – what the authors have room for on the early development of Italian vernacular poetry, for example, or changes in the way Dante presents Beatrice between different works. Pages on language at the beginning of Chapter 4 (“Writing”) lack the richness of illustration possible in a much longer book like Prue Shaw’s Reading Dante. Much of the section on allegory in Chapter 3 seems to have been written with an eye to academic respectability rather than the reader’s needs: it’s very abstract, and I felt the authors were setting up something of an Aunt Sally; declaring that “rather than searching for a single hidden meaning or set of meanings just below the surface, we will do better to look for levels of sense that are multiple, at times overwhelmingly so”, they return with apparent relief to discussing the complex particularities of the poetry.
In such discussions the book comes triumphantly into its own. The subtlety and clarity of the authors’ readings, the depth of scholarship they bring to bear, their skill in relating the analysis of particular passages to wider interpretations of Dante’s thought and their commitment to honouring unresolved tensions in the work simultaneously open the poem up to new readers and would, I believe, offer food for thought to the most serious Danteans. A banner on the back cover proclaims the series’ aim of offering “stimulating ways into new subjects”. There’s also a quotation from Gabriel Josipovici saying that this book in particular “should become the indispensable pocket companion to any reader of Dante”. “Indispensable” may be an exaggeration but in my view Hainsworth and Robey have succeeded admirably in meeting the needs of both implied sets of readers, sometimes separately but often at the same time.