Atlantic, £25, 386pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Dante in Love, By AN Wilson

AN Wilson's new book is designed to help the many readers who have hitherto been "prepared to take it on trust that Dante is a great poet, but... leave him as one of the great unreads". This handsome, reassuringly substantial volume is no set of Pass Notes. Nor is it simple literary biography. Instead, Wilson explores the motivation and thought underlying the Divine Comedy. Since, as he points out, one of the difficulties this poem presents for the contemporary reader is Dante's range of allusion, his is complex task: "The greatest of all European poems cannot be understood unless you familiarise yourself with the Europe out of which it came."

Moving broadly chronologically, Dante in Love reveals a "back story" that is rich in both biographical detail and political history. Indeed, it shows how these are inseparable elements of a life spent in the public sphere of a medieval Italian city-state. Dante Alighieri was, after all, betrothed at the age of 11 to secure his father's alliance with one of the most powerful families in Florence.

The Donati were leaders of the Guelf faction, then in the ascendancy. Gemma Donati would indeed become Dante's wife and the mother of his children, even though we're more accustomed to associating the poet with the figure of Beatrice Portinari. The Guelfs' traditional enemies were the Ghibellines; but when wider European political forces divided the Guelfs into "Black" and "White" factions it was Dante's own in-law Corso Donati who in 1301 seized control of Florence, exiling the poet along with 600 other Whites. When Dante died 20 years later, still in exile though settled in Ravenna, it was of malaria contracted in the Venetian swamps after a diplomatic mission undertaken on behalf of his new home.

As ever, Wilson writes elegantly and so clearly that the least historically-minded reader can follow this story of shifting fortunes. But this isn't popular history; it's a book about a book. As with all poetry, the devil of the Divine Comedy is in its detail.

Wilson shows just how intimately-lived political experience informed the work, creating an intricate cross-patterning that binds the poem together. Canto XXIV of Purgatorio portrays Corso Donati dealt, after death, the traditional punishment for a traitor: "dragged by the tail of a beast,/ towards the valley where sins are not forgiven". Personal references sit side by side with contemporary events. Canto XX records the fatal imprisonment of Pope Boniface by the French army: "I see the Fleur-de-lis enter Anagni/ and in his vicar Christ made prisoner./ I see the gall and vinegar renewed;/ I see Him being mocked a second time,/ Killed once again between the living thieves."

The passage is from Mark Musa's 1973 edition. One of the pleasures of the book is the way Wilson uses a writer's ear to select from a variety of different translations, occasionally supplying his own versions. Part of what makes these lines so vivid is their use of transformative Christian symbolism. The Divine Comedy is much more than mere revenge-fantasy, or an escapist ideal of eventual justice. As Wilson points out, Dante's work also has theological significance. In the 13th century, doctrinal schema were not yet fully fixed, and the Comedy "was destined, almost literally, to put Purgatory on the map". Several of the colour plates illustrate the medieval cosmology from which this new, tripartite structure emerged.

A third dimension of the Comedy is Dante's sheer poetic ear and gift. This might require a different, perhaps more conventional, kind of book to do it justice. Nevertheless, we glimpse the gifted author of love lyrics and learn how revolutionary his synthesis of Christian and classical iconography was, and how he developed his signature terza rima rhyme-scheme, which Wilson sees as "Trinitarian". Such attention to the work's poetic character is unsurprising since, as he tells us in an introductory chapter, Wilson's search for ways to read Dante started when he was a scholar of medieval literature at Oxford.

Not surprisingly, he has a theory of his own to propound – and it gives his book its title. According to Wilson, Beatrice, the muse of the Vita Nuova and redemptive ideal of Paradiso, represented for Dante not just a simple love-object but the principle of divine instantiation: therefore, of the divine. Since love and childhood crushes – Dante was eight when he first saw Beatrice – are surely often just this intense, the possibility seems not so much new as a question of degree, and evidence of the transformative work of poetry. Dante in Love is not just a thoroughly readable, illuminating story but, with its fascinating store of detail, a practical reference volume. It is a worthy vade mecum with which to explore Dante's masterpiece itself.

Fiona Sampson's edition of Percy Bysshe Shelley (Faber) appears in July

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'