Review

Dante: Penguin Lives

by R. W. B. Lewis



The splendid Penguin Lives series already includes brief
biographies of a gallery of notables reaching from Buddha and Saint
Augustine to Chief Crazy Horse and Mao Zedong. The list of promised
future titles runs from Saint Therese of Lisieux to Elvis Presley.
There's inclusiveness for you!

The author of the entry on Dante Alighieri is Yale professor and
Pulitzer Prize winner R. W. B. Lewis, one of whose previous books
was a celebration of Dante's native city of Florence. He has
succeeded quite well at the daunting task of encompassing both
Dante the man and his works in a book of only 200 pages. Dante's
personal and family life, his involvement in the political and
social life of his time, his years in exile, and his major poetical
works are all covered succinctly yet in enough detail to make the
reader feel they have been led well inside man, era, and works
alike.

Dante lived from 1265 to 1321, a time of political and military
turmoil in what is now northern Italy but was then a collection of
dozens of tiny city-states fiercely competitive with one another,
all in thrall in important ways to the church authorities in Rome
and only grudgingly willing to cooperate, even against threats from
foreign invaders. Dante was in the thick of the famous feud between
Guelphs and Ghibellines in Florence (he was a Guelph), served his
time on the battlefield and in government councils and paid for his
political activism with some 19 years of exile from the city he
loved. As he wandered about from city to city, he composed his
great epic, the COMEDY (that was the title he gave it --- the
adjective "divine," now a part of the title, was added many years
later by others) and several other long poems, notably the VITA
NUOVA (New Life) as well as a number of important prose works.
He was happiest during long stays in Verona and Ravenna, where he
died and is buried.

All this is deftly told by Lewis; but what really matters with
Dante, of course, is the poetry, and the heart of Lewis's book is
three chapters of enlightening textual and historical commentary on
the COMEDY.

This is a tough assignment. Anyone who has ever tackled this
immense epic knows that virtually every page alludes to some
now-obscure person or event in Medieval Italian history. The names
and allusions must be explained for a modern reader, so reading the
COMEDY becomes a steady alternation between text and explanatory
footnotes. Lewis gets through this literary-historical thicket with
a minimum of scars. We get just enough of the background on Dante's
huge cast of characters, ranged in the circles of his Hell,
Purgatory, and Heaven, to understand what points Dante is using
them to make and how they seem to Lewis to illustrate the
overarching grand themes that run through the three parts of the
poem.

Most readers know that Dante's guide through Hell and Purgatory is
the Roman poet Vergil, and that he is shown through Heaven by his
earthly lady-love Beatrice. Beatrice was a real person, Beatrice
Portinari, whom Dante first met when they both were nine years old,
and whom he held in a kind of quasi-religious Platonic veneration
forever after, even long after the lady died at age 25 (both of
them married others, but that detail did not stop Dante from
admiring Beatrice reverentially from afar).

In the light of his considerable achievement in this book, Lewis
can perhaps be excused for a certain amount of hyperbole. He calls
the COMEDY "the greatest single poem ever written" and Dante "the
universal presence in literature around the globe, to a degree
matched only by Shakespeare." Both of these seem arguable. A
greater lack, perhaps, is any personal summing-up by Lewis of his
own critical estimation of Dante and his influence on subsequent
literary ages. He contents himself with a pedestrian list of
allusive tributes from people like T. S. Eliot and Robert Penn
Warren --- but we never get any final detailed critical assessment
from Lewis himself. Perhaps three more pages of that sort would
have made this an even better book.

Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 21, 2011

Dante: Penguin Lives
by R. W. B. Lewis

  • Publication Date: June 25, 2001
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • ISBN-10: 0670899097
  • ISBN-13: 9780670899098