Review by Nicholas Richardson
Mark Vernon’s book was published in 2021, seven hundred years after the death of Dante Alighieri.
In the introduction he explains that it is intended to fill a gap, because most other books on the Divine Comedy are ‘guides to the brilliance of Dante’s poetry, the history of his turbulent times, and the significance of his theological innovations’, but ‘it is hard to find a companion to the journey as a revelation’. For him, Dante ‘undergoes a process of realization’, and he believes that the poet’s work can still help us today ‘to see the world afresh and find ways to reorient ourselves’. Vernon is a practising psychotherapist. He also acknowledges the particular influence of Owen Barfield, one of the close friends of C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien, on whose ideas he has also published a book.
For us today there are many things that can make Dante seem a difficult poet, despite the directness of his style and the unforgettable power of his images. First is the fact that few English readers are familiar with the Italian of his time and place, and we have to rely heavily on translations. This means that we miss the music of his verse. The version by Dorothy Sayers (1949-62) has the great merit that it reproduces Dante’s terza rima verse-form and rhyming structure (aba, bcb, etc), but her language can sometimes seem too archaic. Vernon uses the more recent version by Mark Musa, which keeps the terza rima stanza form, but without the rhymes. His style is more easily intelligible, and the introduction and notes are excellent.
Dante’s science, politics, religion and love
Then there is the whole apparatus of cosmology and science of the poet’s day, with its religious implications. This all needs explanation. So too does the historical context. Dante’s life was inextricably bound up in the political upheavals of his time in Italy. He wrote in exile, indelibly marked by his sufferings. Fundamental too are his views on government. He saw Rome as divinely ordained to spread the Christan faith throughout the world, and looked (in vain) for a good ruler who could embody his ideals. Intense bitterness over the corruption that he saw in the Roman Church and some of its Popes runs through the whole poem. More generally, Dante’s religious views can be problematic for the average modern reader, who tends to be more comfortable with the idea of the God of love than with that of a God of justice. The concept of Hell is difficult for many, and Purgatory is seldom mentioned nowadays.
Central also to the poem is Dante’s idealization of Beatrice, who first begs Virgil to rescue him from the ‘dark wood’ in which he was lost, and who ultimately guides him through Paradise. Such an intensely idealized portrayal of a woman may seem strange to readers unfamiliar with the medieval ideals of chivalry and courtly love.
Commentary or interpretation
These considerations show that the poem needs commentary of some kind. This, as Vernon says, has been done by others. His own work, whilst fully aware of these aspects, is more like a retelling of the story, which aims to re-interpret it for a modern reader in terms of Vernon’s own approach to spirituality. As such, it is usually lively and readable. After setting the scene, he will often go on to add his own interpretation of what he thinks is going on or questions about what might be the further implications of the narrative. One might say that his approach is a modernized form of allegory, that method of reading which was so important for Dante himself. A particularly good feature of the book is that each Canto is headed by one of the pictures by those great artists who have illustrated the work, especially Botticelli, Giovanni de Paolo, Blake and Doré. These help to set the scene and suggest the atmospheric effect of what follows.
For a traditionally-minded Roman Catholic reader, however, I think that Vernon’s approach has serious drawbacks. Several important aspects of Catholic belief cause him trouble. When it comes to explaining the concept of Hell in psychological terms, he is good at showing how souls can become trapped through the consequences of their own actions and attitudes, but it seems that for him Hell is not so much a permanent state, but rather a spiritual stage from which some, or in the end all, may hope to escape (cf. for example pp.109, 247, 256, 328, 402). It can certainly seem unfair to us that Virgil, Dante’s revered guide, should remain in Limbo (even though he was believed to have prophesied the birth of Christ), whereas the later Roman poet Statius is found in Purgatory. But it is hard to see any sign that Dante himself believed in a last-minute rescue for all or most of the souls he meets in Hell. Vernon also has trouble with the idea of death-bed conversion (p. 163), and with the belief, fundamental to the concept of Purgatory, that prayers for the dead can be effective (pp. 168-9).
He is particularly upset about Dante’s condemnation of Muhammad, in view of his own admiration for Sufi texts, and spends some pages vainly strugging to find a way of incorporating this fault on the poet’s part, as he sees it, with his his own approach (114-8). More generally, he seems uncomfortable with the idea of Christian faith as the only true way to salvation. At the end of the introduction he writes: ‘Dante was a realist about his vision. He knew it to be authentic, not in the limited sense that Christianity is the one true religion, but in the sense understood by all great visionaries: their path is one path to the common goal.’
As a result of this syncretist outlook, the directness of his style when telling the story can be counteracted by the more vague or obscure language of his comments. A sentence like ‘Constancy is in the interiority that shines all around’, summing up a paragraph about spiritual and wisdom traditions like that of the Sufis (p.418), left me (at any rate) baffled. In the same paragraph he says that ‘the deepest truths are found in subjectivity, not objectivity’. This is typical of much modern spirituality, but surely could not be further from that of Dante, for whom everything depended on the objective truth that flows down from God through reason and revelation. Reading Paradiso one is immediately struck by how much of it is taken up with analytical discourses about the truth, designed to answer Dante’s questions, whose character reminds one of the style of the scholastic theologians. These can seem dry to us, whereas Dante’s audience would have been more familiar with this kind of argument.
In the end, then, I find myself returning for enlightenment to the more traditional type of commentary, like that of Dorothy Sayers or Mark Musa, which enters into the whole religious outlook and world-view of Dante, rather than trying to reshape him to fit a modern form of spirituality.
Nicholas Richardson is a classical scholar, whose recent books include a verse translation of the hymns of the early Christian poet Prudentius.