Saturday, 11 June 2011

A Confession: The Divine Comedy

Here is the next section of the story of how I got here.

One aspect of this period has had such an influence that I believe it deserves to be addressed separately. During my GCSE Drama lessons we were often sent up to one of the English department classrooms to practice as a smaller group. Supervision, I fear, was not always tight and so we spent much of the time we should have been reading from The Crucible lazing around.

Being a huge square even at so young an age I browsed the shelves for books which piqued my interest. I can’t remember most of the books I browsed through, and the English literary canon is still, for the most part, territory known to me only by hearsay. There are two books I do remember: Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy. Both were far beyond me, and I cannot imagine either being particularly accessible to even A-level students, but something about them captured my imagination.

I have, to date, still never managed more than the first third of Paradise Lost. There is still time, I hope.

The Divine Comedy, however, is a marvel. I delighted in the maps of hell, purgatory and heaven and read each canto’s prĂ©cis and some of the notes, trying to figure out the structure and narrative of this fantastic book. I was fifteen at the time, so I had very little success but Dante went to the back of my mind and stayed there for three years until I arrived at university.

In my first semester at York St. John’s I came across the Inferno translated with notes by Dorothy L. Sayers in Goodramgate’s Oxfam, the same edition I had perused previously. I bought it and spent the next month or so slowly working through it. By the end of the second semester I had acquired and read Purgatory and Paradise.

Quite apart from the appealingly, Ptolemaically tidy vision of the universe depicted in the Comedy I was struck more deeply than I then realised by the “love that moves the sun and other stars.” This is Dante’s central theme and his final end, one which is lost upon those who only read his most famous and least lovely first canticle, Inferno.

Everything in the Comedy is somehow related to this central theme. In hell we see sin, which is not a new creation but rather a perversion of God’s perfect Creation, love unrestrained, misdirected or corrupted. Because Inferno has a certain grotesque appeal which is not at all reliant upon its spiritual or theological content it is easy to miss, and if one were to read the first canticle without reading any further one would be missing the better aspects of the work. Dante, the self-deprecating protagonist of his own tale, climbs from the depths of hell to ascend Mount Purgatory, upon which repentant sinners are cleansed (himself included), before he is taken up to heaven and converses with the saints.

Through all this, Dante is guided, either personally or by proxy, by Beatrice Portinari, the unrequited object of his courtly love. Romantic as well as divine love is an important theme of the Comedy.

I believe unreservedly that, if there is a God, love must be His most perfect principal. It is by following this belief to its sensible conclusion, maturing in my understanding of love as I go, that I have arrived in my present position.

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