Touching the limits of imagination

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Sandro Botticelli is one of the few readers of Dante to have fully understood the disruptive power of Paradiso. His cycle of illustrations of the Divine Comedy completed around 1485 contains 92 drawings, corresponding to nearly all of the Comedy’s 100 cantos. The last drawing is an empty sheet, the only artistic justice that can be done to Paradiso’s last canto, in which Dante’s powers of representation fail. (

No piece of world literature is more underrated than Dante’s Paradiso. Victor Hugo himself probably never read beyond the Inferno (Foscolo Benedetto). His assessment reflects most modern readers’ response to the Divine Comedy:

The human eye was not made to look upon so much light, and when the poem becomes happy, it becomes boring.

For Victor Hugo, ‘happy’ and ‘boring’ was shorthand for Paradiso, the third pan of the Divine Comedy triptych.

Mention Dante in the street and Inferno will be the shibboleth to the rest of the conversation. That is, when ‘Dante’ means anything at all, which at least one curator at the British Library thinks is not really the case for ‘the man and woman in London’. For most readers of Dante today, Dante means Inferno. Purgatorio and Paradiso are too dogmatic, too theological, too unmodern to arrest any interest, let alone ensnare the imagination. The paradox of this is that hardly anyone so thinks so, like Victor Hugo, has read ‘beyond the mark’, to (mis)quote Dante himself. The dismissal of Paradiso is a cultural inheritance, not a personal preference, a response to the poem itself. Had they read it, they would be surprised.

That is because in Paradiso, Dante ventures beyond the limits of poetry itself, into the unknown of the unutterable. Nowhere is he more modern than in the challenges he sets himself in the last part of the Comedy.

Paradiso begins with a revolutionary warning: what I’m about to do nobody has ever attempted. I am about to describe the indescribable. Forget ‘boring’, this is avant-garde beyond the avant-garde. ‘The waves I take were never sailed before! (Canto 2). Forget physics, I am going to pluck the strings of the universe, unpick the fabric of time-space and take you to the limits of imagination, the source of our ability to say something about anything. And once he gets there, the universe collapses unto itself like the CGI that never was. Paradiso is explosive, transgressive, the most creative, the most misunderstood, gesture in world poetry. On the other side of metaphor lies silence, but also the elementary particles of life, beauty and justice. And whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

I like to think that Dante knew few would venture on his ‘ship that, singing, crosses to deep seas’. His warning is still being taken seriously: ‘turn back to see your shores again: do not attempt to sail the seas I sail; you may, by losing sight of me, be left astray.’

Fearing to be left adrift on poetic seas, we stay behind, with Victor Hugo, blinded by light and paralysed by prejudice. Perhaps one day we’ll get onboard, starbound.

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