First Loves: Dante Alighieri
I first read Dante through when I was 15 years old. I read him largely through a lens of Romanticism, having travelled backwards through Tennyson's Ulysseus at 13 and Byron's Manfred and Don Juan at 14 to get to him.
And so, limited by the Romantic preoccupation with fancy, I read Inferno and stopped there, unable to progress further until I had resolved the Romantic quandry of reason versus fancy. Dante suffers no such division: in fact Purgatory is by far the most fanciful of poems until Shelley, proposing a science fictional cosmology and cosmogony of surpassing complexity.
Then in a great rush I read Paradise in one night, and went walking by the creek in the early morning, astonished to still be in a physical body after such an amazing trip, yet feeling like I was returned (with Dante) to the Earthly Paradise at the top of Mount Purgatory, after having had a transcendent experience.
But before then it was a hard slog. I had to read Inferno three times in three ways to understand it and to master the complexities of the notes and critical baggage attached to it. My first reading I read the critical matter more than the poem. My second reading I read the notes to the words. My third reading I read the poem itself, rapidly and with understanding, and finally got to enjoy some of the speediness, sweetness and charm that Dante is said to have in the original italian. But the English translations, of any kind at all, are a hard slog.
I chose Dorothy L. Sayers as my Vergil, and quickly found that her voice and style became inextricably intwined with Dante's in my mind... to this day I find it hard to read another translator and tell myself "Yes: it's really Dante." But she knew her stuff, and was an able enough psychopomp.
Oddly enough, as Vergil and Dante became more equals half-way up Mount Purgatory, I became a more active reader. Because this was in the days before the internet I could not look up all the references in his books easily, but I could re-imagine it myself. I began to fancy that as Dante went on a journey into his own psyche, I was also somehow travelling into the soul of European civilisation in myself. It became an experience of descending into longings, instincts and desires with Inferno, then up into the luminosity of Mount Purgatory as Dante assayed some of the philosophical and historical depth of his own period, then finally, with Paradise, Dante provided an epic overview of the enterprise of civilisation as it stood from his time in the thirteenth century.
Dante in the process became more than a guide to the psyche and became a guide to the world. Because for we moderns (meaning the folk a few hundred years each side of the present moment), Dante stands at the cusp between the Midiaeval and the Rennaissance. From the 13th century, ancient Rome and Greece are startlingly closer and clearer to the eye than here. A balkanized Italy and France still struggles with the formidable institution of the papacy, and the Crusades are as close to Dante as Vietnam and the Second World war is to us. None of the horrific viccissitudes of secularism, colonialism, and the enlightenment can be imagined from this time, although in Dante they can be foreseen and even foreshadowed in his poem.
In Paradise, Dante envisages the kingdom of God as a Roman eagle made from the souls of the blessed acting in perfect unity. This image glows in an age long before the shadow of communism was cast by similar idealisms. The rose of heaven, the premium mobile, the luminous platonic imagery used to connote divinity - all the features of the poem express the proximity of the ancients and the absolute predominance of a primitive Christian culture in Dante's time.
If you read Dante, you are forced to recontextualize what it means to be alive today. It forces a reassessment of the measure of a human being to accord with the broadness of Dante's historical, moral, and aesthetic vision.
But there is more to Dante still, because la Commedia is above all a spiritual biography of one man and a love story. Reading Dante potentiates the awareness that the complexities of history, civilisation and religion can be reduced to the love one feels for another and the desire to be absolutely and selflessly united with the object of love. Dante transcends reason and emotion to attain a state of inner union with his beloved, a direct knowing of the independence of lovingness from the arbitrary object-subject dictotomy. For me Dante is a guide to the world as well as a great mystic.