Sunday, 2 March 2014

Why did Dante write The Divine Comedy?

This is one of two short papers given by Philip Harvey at the first Spiritual Reading Group session for 2014 on Tuesday the 18th of February in the Carmelite Library in Middle Park. He also gave a paper on that occasion, which can be found on the Library blog, entitled ‘A Rationale for Purgatory’.

Nadezhda Mandelstam recalls in one of her books how her husband, the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, would say that when reading poetry we can spend a great deal of time discussing what it means, but the first and main question about a poem is not what does it mean, but why was it written. That is the place to start. Here are eleven reasons that I offer quietly to help us think about this poem: Why did Dante write The Divine Comedy? You may have other reasons and these are invited. We will spend most of our time today looking at meanings, but also at why. I wrote these out as they occurred to me, so there is no priority order.

1.     He wrote the poem because of Florence. Many of the people we meet in the poem are Florentines, symbolic of the politics and religion of that city in his youth.
2.     He wrote the poem because he was in exile from Florence. In other words, it is an exercise in memory. The words reconstruct the moral world of his upbringing. Exile is a great catalyst for creative record, cf. the Babylonian Captivity of Israel, the period when the Jews first wrote down everything they knew into a written, as distinct from oral, scripture.
3.     He wrote the poem because he was alone. After Dante was banished from Florence he also quarrelled with his fellow-exiles, to the extent that he fell out with them, stating that he was “a party of himself alone.” Dante is alone in the poem, himself trying to get his head around everything that has happened.
4.     He wrote the poem because he was concerned, as most of us are, with life questions and questions about death. What is the best way to live? How do we prepare for death? What happens after we die?
5.     He wrote the poem to lead readers towards knowledge and virtue, toward self-knowledge and knowledge of others.
6.     He wrote the poem because of the possibility of grace and hope, as figured in particular in Beatrice.
7.     He wrote the poem to fulfil his own expectations as a writer. The poem had to be in the vulgar tongue, i.e. Tuscan Italian, not Latin. It had to be constructed numerically. It had to be a big poem, not just a collection of lyrics or odes.
8.     He wrote the poem to connect with the ancient past, where both classical and biblical figures share the same space with Dante’s contemporaries in time.
9.     He wrote the poem in order to entertain his audience, as well as instruct them.
10. He wrote the poem for an audience that included the princely courts he wished to communicate to, his contemporaries in the literary world and especially certain poets, and other educated listeners of the time. The confidence with which he identifies himself with classical writers indicates he believes posterity will listen to his Comedy.
11. He wrote the poem for the Muse, which we may understand in its larger sense to be Beatrice, whoever and whatever we understand Beatrice to be. The Muse in Dante’s case is also very importantly the Italian language, to which he dedicates himself with unfailing love and devotion.

The source of the quote “a party of himself alone” comes from page 49 of the wonderful book by Barbara Reynolds entitled ‘Dante : the Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man’ (I.B. Tauris, 2006).