“In the middle of the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.” So begins Dante’s Divine Comedy; for many modern readers, this trip through the afterlife never gets any straighter. Biographer, novelist and critic Wilson (Our Times: The Age of Elizabeth II, 2008, etc.) aims to change this with his new book, intended as both an inducement and introduction to the greatest of all epic poems.
On balance, it works splendidly. There may be no easy way to explain the fractious 13th-century Italy factions that dominated the life of Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), and the fact-crammed early chapters devoted to the church-state strife between Guelfs and Ghibellines and Whites and Blacks can be slow going. Wilson is stronger in his focus on the poet’s mysterious inner life: married to a woman, Gemma Donati, he never mentioned, and obsessed by a woman, Beatrice Portinari, he barely knew. Beatrice, who serves as Dante’s guide through heaven, was an object of both love and desire, and with her death in her early 20s, she became to Dante the very emblem of God’s perfection and love. Love was the subject of the age, for Dante no less than the other leading intellectual and artistic lights of his era. “Dante believed that Love encompassed all things, that it was the force that moved the sun and other stars,” writes the author. Wilson also explains the tradition of courtly love that Dante reacted against, his fascination with numerology and astrology; and he addresses the competing views and multiple interpretations of Dante’s poem.
Despite the occasional awkward metaphor—e.g., Dante’s “reworking of his own story is pregnant with dogs in the night-time who do not bark”—Wilson writes with crisp, conversational fluency. He’s a fine tour guide, never failing to throw light on this dark wood.