Surely there must be a circle in Hell reserved for literary critics who maliciously misread Dante.
John Carey’s discussion of Dante Alighieri in his latest book, A Little History of Poetry (Yale, 2020) has little on fairness, while being quite big on latter-day moralism. To wildly paraphrase Ben Johnson, A Little History has, at least in its depiction of the Florentine poet, small balance and lesse grace.
This is by no means a review of A Little History but simply a response to Carey’s cursory treatment, or should I say, mistreatment of Dante in the book (pp. 25-8). Chapter 5, ‘Continental Masters of the Middle Ages, Dante, [Arnaut] Daniel, Petrarch, Villon’, to which the discussion of Dante is confined, begins ex abrupto:
“Of all world-famous poets, none is less likely to appeal to the modern reader than Dante Alighieri (c. 1265-1321). This is not just because his poetry is soaked in mediaeval theology. It is also because his beliefs are, for us, often repellent. He does not seem to have been attractive as a man, either. He comes across as vengeful and unforgiving. (p. 25).
The Comedy has had its critics since day one, including many ecclesiastics, who weren’t at all impressed that the author was ‘soaked in medieval theology’. But to say that Dante is least likely to appeal to modern readers is a gross misapprehension of Dante’s reception over the last 50 years. Let me be clear, one thing is to dislike Dante and his works, quite another to mistify his reception. The Comedy has been translated and retranslated many times over the last 100 years, and not just in English; biographies and studies of Dante have multiplied; references to the Comedy in the arts abound, even if Inferno, following Victor Hugo’s prophecy, has the lion’s share. Statistically, Dante has never been more popular. The Comedy has enjoyed a far wider readership around the world than Milton’s Paradise Lost, to which it is sometimes compared.
At least Carey is being honest about his disapproval of Dante, the man of ‘repellent beliefs’, and he doesn’t make a secret of it. I’ll (try to) pass over the book’s anglo-centrism, which is evident from its first 25 pages. Ancient Greek poetry is reduced to Homer and Sappho, while Anglo-Saxon verse is given more ample treatment. From Gilgamesh (chapter 1) to François Villon (chapter 5), most, if not all, verse quotes are from Shakespeare and Pope. The book is, in fact, a ‘little history’ of English poetry. That this is not acknowledged in the title, or elsewhere (the book doesn’t have an introduction, and the only hint is Bernard O’Donoghue’s brief quote on the lower dust jacket, describing the book as an ‘introduction to English poetry’), only makes Carey’s bias more patent. On the other hand, if the book is a history of English poetry, then why are Dante, Petrarch and countless other non-English authors given separate chapters throughout?
Carey must have written chapter 5 à contre coeur, as there is nothing in the book to suggest that Dante was a ‘master’, except a master of cruelty, desexualisation of the female body and humourlessness. On this last point, Carey makes clear in chapter 6 (devoted to Chaucer) that Dante is ‘never’ funny. To expect from Dante the kind of humour one finds in the Canterbury Tales is to mistake Aquinas for Asterix. Besides, scholars have been discussing Dante’s wit and humour since the early 20th century, so Carey’s absolute statements are more likely to display the critic’s contempt than to inform the reader.
Reading Carey on Dante, one gets the impression that both Dantes (Dante the poet and Dante the pilgrim, as scholars are wont to distinguish) are the faces of the same monster/bigot/vendettist with ‘an ingenious interest in cruelty’ (p. 25). What the poet designs, the pilgrim executes, inflicting suffering on Hell’s damned (p. 26). What about the pilgrim’s emotional collapse upon hearing Francesca’s story in Inferno 5? Or the poet going against the medieval grain in ‘saving’ Trajan, Statius and Capaneus? Or even his compassion for the afflicted, tested again and again? Dante the pilgrim (not to mention the poet) is a far more complex figure than Carey’s harsh dismissal allows. Scholars have long since highlighted Dante’s commitment to freedom, to the separation of church and state, to personhood and responsibility and has rightly been hailed as a proto-humanist. I’m not suggesting that Carey hasn’t read all of the Inferno (or even all of the Comedy), so I must conclude that he’s just practising a low form of dantephobia, whose source I cannot claim to know. An equally low form of reductionism is also practised in these pages devoted to Dante. The Comedy is reduced to one of its parts, the Inferno, which is not even mentioned by name. A questionable metonym, to say the least. Dante’s humanism in Purgatorio and his commitment to describe the indescribable in Paradiso, to say the least, are passed over in sepulchral silence by Carey. That the Comedy itself is the densest poem ever written, capable of holding in its clever terzine the fragrance of an entire age – a poetic encyclopedia of the Middle Ages –, is something the reader of the Little History will never find out.
The question of Dante’s treatment of women will undoubtedly have the Dantist scholarly community up in arms – if they even bother to consider Carey’s ‘little’ Dante. The Italian monster keeps getting bigger and more ferocious, now he’s ‘depriving [women] of full womanhood’ (p. 27). The injustice of this statement is only matched by Carey’s other pronouncement, namely that the Vita Nova is ‘a series of adulatory poems with prose commentaries’ (p. 27). Carey is right, however, to bring Vita Nova into dialogue with the Comedy if we ever hope to understand Dante’s complex, fascinating and subversive way of writing about women. Carey, on the other hand, apparently doesn’t want to, otherwise, he would have bracketed his blustery bitterness against Dante the disabler of female sexuality (p. 27). He could have then consulted some of the now numerous scholarly works (remember what I said earlier about reception?) focusing on women in Dante’s poems. But he’s deprived himself of that bonus, and his coverage of this topic, like the others just mentioned, remains, indeed, little.
Admittedly, not much can be said about Dante’s extraordinary achievements in a mere three pages. But this still feels like a missed opportunity for a book which, elsewhere, seeks to put poetry back into popular taste. And whether you like the Florentine poet or not – and there are good reasons not to like him, which Carey doesn’t mention –, it’s probably not very judicious to offer a dismissal in lieu of an exposition: what Dante is rather than what he isn’t, what he achieved rather than what, from our modern vantage point, he failed to do. That over a thousand years of history and culture can dance, like the proverbial scholastic angels, on the head of the Dante’s Comedy pin would have been an argument more likely to serve Carey’s overall book project than his underhand repudiation of the ‘continental master’.