Dante’s The Divine Comedy

Dante finished writing The Divine Comedy in 1321 shortly before his death. The subject of the final talk in my course on Dante’™s Florence was The Divine Comedy, its sources, structure, an introduction to some of its characters, concluding with Dante’™s legacy in art.

I don’™t think that I’™ve ever had such a long introduction to a literary work and I’™m eager now to actually read The Divine Comedy. My copy is the Oxford World’™s Classics publication. It is 741 pages long, including several introductory essays with plans and maps, and copious notes. I also have the much shorter The Descent Into Hell translated by Dorothy L Sayers. This is only 130 pages and contains extracts from the Inferno (the first part of The Divine Comedy).

Dante’™s first title for this was ‘˜The Vision’™. He wrote it in Italian, not Latin, so that it was accessible for everyone. It was recited and is basically a sermon, a sacred poem. He changed the title to ‘˜comedy’™, which in the ancient tradition was a story, beginning as tragedy and moving to a happy ending. Boccaccio added ‘˜Divine’™ to the title in the 14th century. It’™s an epic, allegorical poem ‘“ and also an historical chronicle of Dante’™s time packed with information on topics such as politics, theology, geography, the arts, and love.

It depicts three regions of the dead ‘“ Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise, a journey through the spiritual realms. There are 100 cantos, written in third rhyme ‘“ terza rima, invented by Dante, ie the first and third lines rhyme, with the second line indicating the next rhyme. This is an aid to memory and also helps to move the narrative forward. It’™s packed with imagery, with multiple meanings and although it includes contemporary characters it’™s amazingly modern. Florence is depicted as hell, with the Pope, Boniface VIII and clerics condemned because of the corrupt state of the church, although Dante describes meeting Christian theological thinkers in Paradise.

Dante used many sources, including the Bible, Greek mythology, Roman history, Ovid’™s Metamorphosis, Livy, legends, miracle and medieval morality plays and his own stories. The poem begins with an exciting episode at the gates to the underworld in a dark, confusing wood, symbolising doubt, sin and the sterility of the soul. Dante, the narrator, has lost the path and is guided by Virgil through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise, where he meets his beloved Beatrice, who guides him through Heaven. Paradiso is the place of perfect harmony ordained by God. Dante followed the Ptolemaic system of the Cosmos in which Earth is the centre of the universe. He placed Hell at the centre of the Earth, underneath Jerusalem, reached through nine different circles, containing sinners suffering terrible punishments and torture. Purgatory was somewhere in the southern hemisphere, ascending up to Paradise located in Heaven above the Earth.

There are about 600 characters in the whole poem, 250 from the classical era, 80 from the Bible and 250 from Dante’™s own time. Dante admired Virgil, his guide through Hell and Purgatory. He describes him as ‘œthat fount of splendour’, symbolising human reason and wisdom. Amongst the many characters are Brunetto Latini, Dante’™s mentor who took an active role in politics and the art of oratory, is found in Hell because of the sin of sodomy, which was considered as violence against nature; and Farinata degli Uberti, the leader of the Ghybelline party, also found in Hell as punishment for heresy because he was an Epicurean believing that the soul died with the body. He rises from the burning tomb of heretics to speak to Dante. The first mention of Florence is from Ciacco, guilty of the sin of gluttony, when he refers the bloodshed between the citizens of ‘œthe divided city’.

Other people mentioned are members of the ancient Donati family (Dante’™s wife was Gemma Donati) ‘“ Dante’™s friend Foresi Donati, Corso Donati, a thief being changed into a serpent and Piccarda Donati his sister, ‘œa pearl on a white forehead’, who had belonged to the Order of Poor Clares and was forced to marry to forge a political alliance; the violent tempered Agenti who opposed Dante’™s recall from exile; Gianni Schicchi (the source of Puccini’™s opera ‘“ including the beautiful aria ‘œO mio babbino caro‘); and Count Ugolino, the tyrant who had switched allegiance and was left to starve in Pisa’™s Tower of Famine ‘“ he was said to have eaten his sons and grandsons and for punishment in Hell was forced to chew on the head of Archbishop Ruggieri.

The Divine Comedy has been read and copied ever since with commentaries coming very quickly after Dante’™s death. The first biography of Dante was written in about 1351 by Giovanni Boccaccio, based on oral history from Dante’™s contemporaries. The poem was seen as a difficult, obscure work, gothic and heavy going in 14th century England, but Chaucer mentioned it in the Monk’™s Tale in his Canterbury Tales. English translations were made from 1802 onwards by Henry Boyd and Henry Cary (promoted by Coleridge). It influenced amongst others John Milton, Shelley and Byron, Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

There are many examples of Dante’™s legacy in art ‘“ here are just a few:

Giotto’™s Last Judgment, in the Arena Chapel in Padua.
Frescos in the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella showing the tiered compartments of Hell and Cerberus the monster three throats, wings and the body of a beast guarding Hell and the Elect ‘“ Saints and Cardinals rising up from their tombs.
The Last Judgment of Fra Angelico.

The painting of the Madonna in Majesty by the Siennese painter Martini.
Botticelli’™s scenes of Inferno commissioned to illustrate The Divine Comedy by the Medicis ‘“ 92 survive and are in the Vatican Library.

Drawn in pen and ink he intended to colour them all. The one shown below is of the City of Dis, the lower part of Hell, with winged monsters, and the Circle of Deceivers. Dante is shown in red and Virgil in blue.

Frescoes of the Last Judgment in Orvietto Cathedral in 1500 reflecting the doom and gloom of the times fearing the end of the world with images of the damned, a mass of contorted bodies, by Signorelli, a master of human anatomy ‘“ the Resurrection of the flesh showing skeletons and bodies emerging from their tombs.
Michelangelo’™s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.
Gustave Dore’™s illustrations of The Divine Comedy.

William Blake’™s watercolour paintings of Inferno

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’™s translation of La Vita Nuova in 1848.
Christina Rossetti’™s studies of Dante ‘“ she saw him as a figure of romance.
Rossetti’™s Beata Beatrix 1863 ‘“ his portrait of Lizzie Siddell in a trance-like state. The white poppy because she was thought to have been poisoned with opium and the sundial pointing to 9 relating to the meeting of Dante and Beatrice when he was 9 years old. This is one of my favourite paintings.

Rodin’™s Gates of Hell and The Thinker, also The Kiss, depicting Francesca de Rimini whom Dante meets in Canto 5 of the Inferno. Francesca had fallen in love with Paulo, her husband’s younger brother. The legend goes that they were killed by Giovanni, her husband.

There are many, many more – see this Wikipedia link.

Oh No, Not Another Challenge!

I really cannot resist this challenge – mainly because I like the title and the picture in the banner. The promise of a good story will always tempt me to open a book and start reading.

This is Carl’s Once Upon a Time Challenge. It began on Friday, March 21st and runs to Friday, June 20th: Midsummer Night’™s Eve. Joining this challenge means you are participating but not committing yourself to any specific number of books. I’m aiming to complete “Quest the First
which is to read at least 5 books that fit somewhere within the Once Upon a Time II criteria of fantasy, or folklore, or fairy tales, or mythology’¦or your five books might be a combination from the four genres.
These books are on my to-be-read list already and fit into these categories:
  1. Dante’™s Descent into Hell, translated by Dorothy L Sayers
  2. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
  3. The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake
  4. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  5. Star Wars by George Lucas
  6. Helen of Troy by Margaret George

I was intrigued to read in this Wiki link that Dante’s The Divine Comedy is categorised as Bangsian fantasy. I had never heard of this but according to Wikipedia it is named after John Kendrick Bangs, whose novels deal with the afterlives of various famous people. Whilst I do intend to read The Divine Comedy I doubt that I’ll finish it all before 20 June, so the short version by Dorothy L Sayers seems a good choice for this challenge.

The other books are a mixture of science fiction, fantasy and mythology and I’ve owned them all for a while. Like other unread books I was keen to read them when I bought them. It is time to open them soon. I have actually read the Gormenghast books before, when I was at college, when I borrowed them from the library, but I haven’t read the copies that I own, which are wrapped in sellaphane!

The End – Booking Through Thursday

This week’s question is:

You’™ve just reached the end of a book . . . what do you do now? Savor and muse over the book? Dive right into the next one? Go take the dog for a walk, the kids to the park, before even thinking about the next book you’™re going to read? What?

(Obviously, there can be more than one answer, here’“a book with a cliff-hanger is going to engender different reactions than a serene, stand-alone, but you get the idea!)

I can’t generalise here. It really all depends upon so many things. Sometimes the book I’ve just finished was so good that anything else is an anti-climax and I don’t want or can’t decide which book to read next, even though I have a long to-be-read list and piles of unread books. So then I pause and wait for the right book to appear.

I read on impulse sometimes. It may be a book I’ve picked up at the library, or a book recommended on someone’s blog, or a friend has lent me. Sometimes it depends upon my frame of mind, and a book might or might not be right one just then. Sometimes I know just what to read and dive straight into it. Usually I have more than one book on the go anyway, so there’s no decision to make and I carry on reading that and pick and choose another book to start.

If it’s a book that’s part of a series, then I’m impatient to get to the next one. I recently read the first two of Olivia Manning’s books in The Balkan Trilogy, but didn’t have the third. It’s about two months ago that I finished the second and I was eager to read the third, but the library and bookshops didn’t have it. So I ordered the complete trilogy in one volume. At last it arrived yesterday, but I’m not diving into the third book just yet – the time isn’t right.

Robert Frost

The Celebrate the Author Challenge is designed to “celebrate” author birthdays. My author for March is Robert Frost who was born on 26 March 1874 in San Francisco. He moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts and apart from three years when he lived in England, he spent the rest of his life in New England.

I have a small collection of Frost’™s poems. It’™s illustrated by American, English and French painters of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There is a short introduction, which states, ‘œThe simple language, the vernacular style and the near-whimsy of some of the earlier poems tend to mask the fact that Frost’™s poetry is deeper and tougher than it seems.’

Before I read any of this collection I knew just a few of his poems, such as The Road Not Taken, which ends:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I ‘“
I took the one less travelled by,
And that made all the difference.

To me this poem is about the choices we have to make in life. You look as far ahead as you can, trying to see what lies ahead if you make a certain choice, but you can’™t know how things will turn out. There’™s no way of changing back to the other choice once you’™ve decided ‘“ the choice you make changes things forever.

I also like Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

This is seemingly such a simple poem with its easy rhyming scheme. The repetition of the rhyme in the final verse is hypnotic:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

There is a mystery as well – who is the traveller? His horse knows there is something different, if not odd about the wood. It’™s a silent and somewhat spooky place on the ‘œdarkest night of the year’. There is a sense of loneliness and isolation of the traveller, where is he going and what has he promised?

Frost’™s poems are not all about rural idylls; Out, Out is a powerful poem that tells of the brutal realities of life. The title refers to the brevity of life from Macbeth: ‘œOut, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.” So there’™s a hint right from the start that this is a tragic story. The scene is set ‘“ a noisy buzz saw against the backdrop of mountains in Vermont snarling and rattling, impersonal making dust as the wood is sawn. A young boy is cutting the wood, looking forward to his supper when he cuts his hand. It was as if the saw was alive as it

‘œLeaped out of his hand, or seemed to leap –
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!’

The poem reflects the callousness of the family towards life, but also the practicalities of getting on with life as the boy dies:

‘œNo one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little – less ‘“ nothing!- and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the dead, turned to their affairs.

The boy’™s hysteria and sorrow comes over through the rhythm and structure of the poem, with lines varying between 10 and 11 syllables creating an uneasy tension. It seems the tragedy could have been avoided, as the boy’™s work could have ended half an hour earlier, adding to the pathos and highlighting the fragility of life.

I still haven’™t read all the poems in this little book. I find that I have to read just one or two at a time, and then come back to them. The beauty of poetry is the way that so much meaning is condensed into such few words.

Daniel Isn’™t Talking by Marti Leimbach

We discussed Daniel Isn’™t Talking last Wednesday evening at the book group. One of the others summed up my feelings when she said, ‘œI was rather under whelmed by it’. I had very mixed feelings whilst reading. I was intrigued to know more about autism, and the book certainly made me a lot more knowledgeable, but I thought that some of the characters were two-dimensional and unconvincing.

Daniel is autistic, but at first Stephen his British father refuses to accept that there is anything wrong with him, whilst his American mother, Melanie, struggles to find out what is wrong with him and the best way of looking after him and helping him to talk, play and become as ‘œnormal’ as possible.

I found it quite a disturbing read not just because of the difficulties and cruelties that autism carries with it, but also because of the way such illnesses are dealt with in our society. There is seemingly a stigma, autism is something that is not generally understood, and the causes are unknown, although there are various ideas circulating (eg the MMR vaccination). The book deals with loyalties, families and ways of coping with illness, health and ways of healing and there are many angry assaults on the education system and its ways of dealing with children who are different in one way or another. Daniel has an older sister, Emily, who is a happy, healthy, cheerful child with ‘œa mop of blonde curls billowing around her face, smiling eyes, aquamarine.’ Stephen insists she goes to a pre-school, whilst Melanie wants to keep her at home. Emily is not interested in school and wants to play, looking at children in the playground as though they are in prison. Stephen has his way and Emily goes to the pre-school and finds that what she likes best is going home.

It’™s a book full of angst. One poignant scene that remains with me after reading the book is the scene in the supermarket where Daniel is having a tantrum, screaming, trying to hurl himself out of the trolley, grabbing biscuits when Melanie meets a woman who understands, is sympathetic and helpful. The other customers are watching, imagining, so Melanie thinks, that she is merely indulging a spoilt child. Next time I’™m out shopping surrounded by screaming children I’™ll remember this scene!

Melanie is paranoid in her antagonism towards special schools. The people who visited Melanie trying to enlist him at a school are described as ‘œa horrible pair who came by with their clipboards and their raincoats, looking more like spies than anybody who should be near children. They regarded Daniel as one might a wild animal, admiring him from a safe distance as we did the tiger who paced his enclosure.’ Well, this is a novel, but my experience is far from that (my daughter-in-law is a special needs teacher).

This book is a quick, easy read, although the subject is far from easy, and is good at portraying a mother desperately trying to help her autistic child. However, some of the other characters (Stephen, his parents, Veena, the cleaner and Larry, Melanie’™s brother) come over as wooden stereotypes and I found the sub-plot of, the alternative play therapist, Andy as Melanie’™s lover unconvincing. The blurb on the back cover says it’™s ‘œPowerful and moving, and also surprisingly funny. A love story in every sense.’ Yes, it is powerful and moving, and also sad, but I didn’™t find any humour and the love story that came over to me is that of a mother for her child.

Sunday Reading

It’™s wild wet and windy outside, so I’™ve decided today is a day for reading, not gardening. I’™ve started to read Victor Hugo’™s Les Miserables and so far it’™s looking good, although I’™ve not got very far into it. I really like Monseigneur Bienvenue and this quote seems apt after my gardening post yesterday:

‘œ ‘¦ he dug his garden or read or wrote, and for him both kinds of work bore the same name; both he called gardening. ‘The spirit is a garden,’™ he said.’

Danielle at A Work in Progress is reading this too, aiming to finish it in about two months. This means reading about 200 pages a week. I’™ll have to see if I can manage that.

I think I’™m going to give up on reading Edith Wharton’™s The House of Mirth, even though I’™ve read nearly half the book. It’™s wordy and I’™m getting bored with Lily Bart and her liking for luxury and her mixed up life, trying to find a husband who can afford to keep her in the custom she longs for. It’™s not often I abandon a book and I may give it another go, but not today. I’™m not in the mood for it; I think that’™s my problem with it rather than the writing.

I’™ve got some good books to look forward to; at least I hope they are. I had a trip to the library on Friday and picked up The Shipping News, by Annie Proulx (a Pulitzer Prize winner), Consequences by Penelope Lively (I’™ve yet to read a book by her that I haven’™t liked) and Giving Up the Ghost: A Memoir by Hilary Mantel, which I read about on Table Talk’™s blog. I’™ve dipped into this and it looks intriguing. I like the openness and candour in her writing:

‘œSo now I come to write a memoir I argue with myself over every word. Is my writing clear: or is it deceptively clear? I tell myself, just say how you came to sell a house with a ghost in it. But this story can only be told once and I need to get it right. Why does the act of writing generate so much anxiety? Margaret Atwood says, ‘œThe written word is so much like evidence ‘“ like something that can be used against you.’ I used to think that autobiography was a form of weakness, and perhaps I still do. But I also think that, if you’™re weak, it’™s childish to pretend to be strong.’

I’™ll be settling down this afternoon to a session with Les Miserables.

Our Cottage Garden

This is what I would like our garden to look like.

This book, The Cottage Gardener’™s Companion, paints an idyllic picture of the typical English Cottage Garden:

‘œ’¦ where there is a feeling of freedom and exuberance, leisure and opportunity to potter, to water, to contemplate. ‘¦ Flowers, vegetables and fruit are mingled together in the epitome of the cottage garden, where bounty may be gathered at every season. The cottage gardener makes salads, apple jelly, herbal medicine, plum and damson jam from her garden; there is even something in midwinter when parsnips and turnips, brussels sprouts and leeks come into their own.’

Oh, if only that were so. This cottage garden has some of those things. There are fruit trees – a cherry tree, with bitter morello cherries that the birds love. I make pies and cherry sauce, if I can pick them before the birds eat them. There are two little espalier apple trees, which last summer produced a lot of fruit (more pies and crumble) and there is a plum tree that produced so much that it was rotting on the tree before I could pick them all.

There are some flowers ‘“ the primroses are doing really well, so well that I’ve put a photo of some of them on the blog header. There is a climbing rose that seems to be dying, maybe because of my efforts at pruning, despite reading ‘œPruning‘ in the Garden Guides series and any other books on pruning that I can find. I’™m doing something wrong, but what I don’™t know. I’™ve managed to plant and grow a lovely camellia – that had an abundance of flowers last year and a fuchsia that was quite tall and spindly, but it did have some flowers. The other plant that does well, however I mangle it with my pruning is a potentilla, covered in yellow flowers for most of last summer. And the aubretia spreads itself all over the wall in the front garden whatever I do to it ‘“ it’™s just starting to flower now.

We have a rambling honeysuckle growing up the fence, mingling in with a berberis, which has shiny red berries later in the year, privet and a rampant Russian vine, which threatens to swamp everything. There are violets and aquilegia which self-seed and appear in different places in the garden. There are other plants as well, shrubs and bushes that I occasionally prune back and trees ‘“ a flowering cherry tree, a pussy willow and a couple of conifers.

But the plant that grows really well in our garden is the bindweed ‘“ it gets everywhere. We have a good amount of ivy as well, growing up the fences and throttling whatever it can find. Just now it is beginning to pop up through the soil. I wish we could eradicate it completely!

I went out this morning to try to take control and did some pruning, whether I’™ve killed more plants remains to be seen. I noticed that the daffodils and tulips are coming on nicely, the bluebells in the front garden are coming up well, and there is a new little holly that has planted itself in one of the borders. The rosemary bush looks strong and healthy; it grows vigorously and I always have to chop it back.

We like herbs and in the past have failed to grow basil ‘“ not enough sun here I suppose, even the basil I buy in a pot and keep on the kitchen windowsill doesn’™t do very well! We had sage and mint in pots on the patio, but as they’™ve got very straggly and thin we decided to start again and yesterday went to a garden centre where we bought some pots of thyme, sage, flat leaf parsley and mint. We also bought a rhubarb plant, as I do like it. I hope these will survive.