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Life Eternal: Dante, Religion and Reputation in the Anglosphere

English Modernist poet T. S. Eliot wrote famously that "Shakespeare and Dante divide the world between them; there is no third" (Eliot, 1965, p. 38). While Eliot’s superlative description of these two canonical writers may be exaggerated, it does propose an interesting separation between the two. It is true that Dante Alighieri and his highly influential works that comprise The Divine Comedy languished for long centuries without recognition in the Anglophone world. While this may at first seem an inevitability of linguistic barriers and a privilege given to a native English writer, the separation can be traced along centuries of religious development in Europe. Dante's work is inherently tied to Catholicism and its iconography. As the European continent has swung one way and another through centuries of warfare and shifting religious dynamics, texts like Dante's Inferno have undergone equally uneven courses in their critical and cultural standing. This essay will chart the shifting legacy of Dante’s magnum opus in English literature and how the fluctuating importance of religious identity in England and Europe has influenced the reputation and interpretation of the text throughout seven centuries.

Born in Florence in 1265, Dante Alighieri was an Italian poet and philosopher best known for his epic poem Inferno, which is the first part of his three-part work The Divine Comedy (1308-1321). The Inferno is an allegorical story of Dante’s journey through Hell, guided by the Ancient Roman poet Virgil. The narrative is a symbolic exploration of the Christian afterlife, depicting the different levels of Hell and the punishments inflicted on sinners based on the sins committed in life. Dante and Virgil encounter a diverse array of historical and mythological figures throughout their descent. This element invited criticism on its first publication, with theological discourse focusing on the extent to which Dante strayed from Biblical doctrine and incorporated elements from other cultures and mythologies, including Ancient Roman and Greek pantheons. Dante was one of the most fundamental contributors not only to Italian literature but to the Italian language itself. The Divine Comedy was disseminated in the vernacular Italian of the common population of Dante's native Tuscany rather than the Latin of the elevated classes and the clergy, making the work an essential component of the later standardisation of the language throughout the Italian peninsula as the Middle Ages progressed.

Figure 1: Domenico di Michelino's portrait of Dante featuring his depiction of Hell and the Santa Maria Del Fiore cathedral in Florence (1465).

At this early point in time Dante held a high stature in English literary circles. The fourteenth-century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who often worked in Italy as an ambassador for royal courts in his English homeland, brought back with him a profound admiration for Dante’s works, and often cited him directly in his equally foundational Middle English text The Canterbury Tales:

Redeth the grete poete of Ytaille

That highte Dante, for he kan al devyse

Fro point to point; nat o word wol he faille.

(Chaucer, The Monk's Tale, l. 2460-2642)

Is lavender in the grete court alway,

For she ne parteth, neither night no day,

Out of the Hons of Cesar; thus, saith Dante.

(Chaucer, Legend of the Good Women, l. 333-3350)

Furthermore, Chaucer was inspired by Dante to write not in Latin (as it was still the formal tongue among educated elites in England) but in vernacular English. Literary critic Ronald B. Herzmann wrote of Chaucer that "[he] read Dante the way Dante read Virgil", an assessment that puts Dante's immediate English-speaking successors as keenly aware and admiring of him (Neuse, 1991, p. ix). Suggesting a "fundamental affinity between the two texts", literary critic and historian Richard Neuse shows that in the fourteenth and early fifteenth century, the cultural and artistic influences of Dante remained strong, embodied in the principal English poet of the era.

Figure 2: A manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" (Huntington Digital Library, c. 1400).

The schism in Dante’s popularity in the Anglophone community emerged as a result of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. The split in the Christian faith provoked by Martin Luther’s 95 theses led to decades of civil strife, persecution and war across Europe. The continent became severely divided between those Catholics who remained faithful to the Church and the breakaway Protestants who agreed with Luther’s attack on the corrupt practices it upheld. The Prussian areas that now comprise Germany fell into extreme violence during the Thirty Years War, a conflict instigated by the diverging religious beliefs of the princes throughout the Holy Roman Empire. Some estimates put the death toll at close to 8 million people, while some areas of modern-day Geermany suffered over 50% population decline (Merriman, 2008). While England had formally split with the Church during the reign of King Henry VIII in the 1560s, decades later in 1639 the inherent divisions between Catholics and Protestants with Britain were a major precipitating factor in the English Civil War, which raged for over nine years, saw the execution of King Charles I, and in which millions of soldiers lost their lives. Religious antagonism would fuel internal strife in the British Isles for decades to come in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

All of the above developments had profound effects on the reception of a work such as The Divine Comedy, steeped as it is in Catholic theology and symbolism. In the northern European states where Protestantism became the predominant faith, Dante’s works all but fell completely out of favour. It was not until 1782 (over 470 years since Inferno was written) that a complete translation was published and readily available in English, while editions had existed for many years in Latin-influenced countries in which Catholicism had remained prevalent, e.g. Spain, France, and of course Italy. While Dante was never a complete unknown, his reputation had suffered a decisive split across Europe as a result of the divided Christian faith. A translation in 1812 by British Reverend Henry Francis Cary was published at his own expense as a passion project because no publisher would risk the expenses, such was the antipathy to the work.

Figure 3: The Execution of Charles 1 in 1649, the height of religious division in England during the Reformation (National Portrait Gallery).

Throughout the nineteenth century, interest began to grow once more among English literati, particularly as the 20th century approached. Further translations followed the eventual successes of Cary’s, and by the 1920s Dante had once again assumed an elevated status, with the aforementioned admiration of Eliot’s showcasing his re-emergence as an influence on the Modernist writers. The Modernists often sought to incorporate allusions and influences to classical art and literature into their own texts, and this plumbing of the past brought Dante once more to the fore of European literature, even in geographical areas where he had been previously neglected. For example, in Eliot’s seminal work The Waste Land (1922) certain passages are directly taken from Inferno:

Unreal City

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

(Eliot, 1922, l. 60-65)

The phrase "I had not thought death had undone so many" is admitted by Eliot himself to be a direct adaptation of the line "I should never have believed death had undone so many" ("Di gente, ch’i’ non avrei mai creduto, / Che tanta morte n’avesse disfatta") from Canto III of Dante’s work (l. 56-57). Eliot’s adoration of the Italian poet is confirmed in several critical essays, in which he admits “certainly [to having] borrowed lines from him, in the attempt to reproduce, or rather to arouse in the reader’s mind the memory, of some Dantesque scene, and thus establish a relationship between the medieval inferno and modern life" (Eliot, 1965, p. 42).

Figure 4: The European terrain in ruins following WW1, one of Eliot's major influences on The Waste Land (National Archives and Records Administration, 1918).

The resurgent popularity of Dante as an influence amongst the Modernists once again features a distinctly religious character. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europe was divided in its convictions on how to follow Christian teaching, with the continental powers rent asunder by which Christian path to follow. In the years following the catastrophic devastation of the First World War, Modernist artists, writers, and the public at large suffered a crisis of faith like none before: it was, in the words of historian Eric Hobsbawm "the breakdown of Western civilisation" as it had known itself before the nineteenth century, a moment where the society that had dominated world affairs for centuries and thus convinced itself of its inherent superiority, was brought to its knees by its own hand (1995, p. 6). Even before the war, increased urbanisation and industrialisation had seen a new society emerge, secularised and increasingly at odds with traditional Christian values, of either Protestant or Catholic denomination. The brutal, industrialised destruction of millions of lives for seemingly no purpose at all left many questioning traditional moralities and the direction of the modern world. Artists and writers looked to the strange and the avant-garde to make sense of a shifting and unrecognisable world, and in literary terms, this often meant finding allusions to ancient and classical texts and drawing the parallels and differences between societies and eras to locate some semblance of sense among the chaos. Eliot’s invocation of Hell in contemporary London demonstrates the demoralised and spiritually bereft state of those left to count the wreckage in purgatorial contemplation of the sins they have committed and with which they must now continue to live.

That the second life given to Dante’s oeuvre is attributable to his inherent tie to religion is evidenced further in another essential Modernist contemporary of Eliot’s: James Joyce. Born in Dublin in 1882, Joyce lived a great deal of his adult life in mainland Europe after he fled a repressive Catholic society in his native Ireland. Living sporadically in France and mostly in Italy, Joyce was heavily influenced by reading Dante in Italian. Joyce produced his first novel in 1916, a heavily autobiographical work titled A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Describing an Ireland still dealing with the repercussions of the same religious divisions which brought England, Scotland and Ireland to the Civil War over three hundred years before, the bildungsroman paints a vivid picture of the use of religion as an instrument of fear in young schoolchildren. The prospect of eternal damnation is repetitively and harshly drummed into the young protagonist and his classmates in language and imagery overtly referencing Dante’s infernal descriptions:

Figure 5: Modernist writers like James Joyce (right), Ezra Pound (left) and Ford Madox Ford (center) brought renewed attention to Dante in the English-speaking world (Harry Ransom Center, 1922).

They lie in exterior darkness. For, remember, the fire of hell gives forth no light. As, at the command of God, the fire of the Babylonian furnace lost its heat but not its light, so, at the command of God, the fire of hell, while retaining the intensity of its heat, burns eternally in darkness. It is a never ending storm of darkness, dark flames and dark smoke of burning brimstone, amid which the bodies are heaped one upon another without even a glimpse of air. Of all the plagues with which the land of the Pharaohs were smitten one plague alone, that of darkness, was called horrible. What name, then, shall we give to the darkness of hell which is to last not for three days alone but for all eternity. (Joyce, 1916, p. 100)

Dante’s Divina Commedia has had one of the most enduring influences of any work of fiction in Western literature. Forming the basis of not simply a national canon but a national language itself, it took the sparse descriptions of punishment and damnation in the Bible and signified them with some of the most lasting symbols of Christian theology in existence today. Its influence has spread across languages and cultures. Yet, equally, it is a showcase of precisely how extant factors can influence the reception and significance of a literary text. The prospect of such a schism as the Protestant Reformation splitting the Church in Europe may have seemed beyond even Dante’s imagination in the early fourteenth century, yet its enduring effects on European history have shaped the legacy and interpretation of Dante’s work as much as any other factor could have possibly done. The work's fundamentally religious character defined its popularity in its native Italy and caused its downfall in much of the rest of Europe, and by this same token, it was resurrected by the agnosticism of the Modernists and its spiritual journey through the post-war wastes, without which it may forever have remained (in the Anglosphere at least) in purgatory.

Bibliographical References

Alighieri, D. (2011 ed.). Inferno. Collins Classics

Chaucer, G. (2003 ed.). The Canterbury Tales. Penguin Classics.

Deyab, M. (2022). "What Dante Means to Me": Dante Alighieri's Influence on T.S Eliot and Other English Writers. Transcultural Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences. Vol. 3, Number 1. pp. 20-34

Eliot, T. S. (1922). The Waste Land. The Dial.

Eliot, T. S. (1965). To Criticise the Critic, and Other Writings on Literature and Education. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux.

Hobsbawm, E. (1995). The Age of Extremes. Abacus.

Joyce, J. (2012 ed.). A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Collins Classics.

Neuse, R. (1991). Chaucer's Dante: Allegory and Epic Theatre in The Canterbury Tales. University of California Press.

Nicoli, V. (2003). L'Influenza Di Dante Nell'Opera di Eliot. Publicazioni dell'Universita di Salento.

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Seán Downey

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