This is one of several volumes in the Penguin Lives Series, each of which written by a distinguished author in her or his own right. Each provides a concise but remarkably comprehensive biography of its subject in combination with a penetrating analysis of the significance of that subject's life and career. I think this is a brilliant concept. My only regret is that even an abbreviated index is not provided. Those who wish to learn more about the given subject are directed to other sources.
When preparing to review various volumes in this series, I have struggled with determining what would be of greatest interest and assistance to those who read my reviews. Finally I decided that a few brief excerpts and then some concluding comments of my own would be appropriate.
On Dante's masterpiece: "The Commedia, to which the adjective Divina was affixed two centuries afterward, is, all things considered, the greatest single poem ever written; and in one perspective, as has been said, it is autobiographical: the journey of a man to find himself and make himself after having been cruelly mistreated in his homeland. It is also a rhythmic exploration of the entire cultural world Dante had inherited: classical, pre-Christian, Christian, medieval, Tuscan, and emphatically Florentine. And it is the long poetic tribute to Beatrice Portinari which Dante promised, at the end of the Vita Nuova." (pages 12 and 13)
On Dante's response to Beatrice's death: He "did more than write an occasional poem of memorial grief; he put together the work to which he gave the title La Vita Nuova di Dante Alighieri. It was essentially an act of compilation, probably begun in 1293 and finished two years later. Dante drew up[ a narrative account of his relationship with Beatrice Portinari, from his first sight of her at the May Day party in 1274 to her death sixteen years later, sprinkling through it the poems -- canzones, sonnets, a ballad -- written to enshrine each successive moment." (page 59)
On progression in the Paradiso: In it, "Dante ascends; he does not climb, as in the Purgatorio, but, as he is constantly remarking, is propelled upward with the speed of an arrow. He is swept up through the lower planets -- the Moon, Mercury, Venus, and Saturn; into the Fixed Stars; then upwards to the Primum Mobile, when come all distinctions of space and time, of 'where' and 'when,' through itself beyond space and time; to the Empyrean, the actual and eternal dwelling-place of the Three-in-One God, of the angels and the saints, of the community of the blessed." (page 170)
In the concluding portion of his biography, Lewis briefly but eloquently suggests the ubiquitous and energizing presence of Dante in English and American literature, notably in the works of Shelley, Byron, Robert Browning, Rossetti, Emerson, Pound, Eliot, and Warren. According to Lewis, that presence "sparkles and sings and smiles like one of the spirits in Paradise." The same can be said of Lewis' writing style which, in combination with his erudition, enables the modern reader to gain a greater appreciation of someone who lived more than 600 years ago but whose Comedy is as contemporary as tomorrow's sunrise.
As is also true of the other volumes in the "Penguin Lives" series, this one provides all of the essential historical and biographical information but its greatest strength lies in the extended commentary, in this instance by R.W.B. Lewis. He also includes a brief but sufficient "Bibliographical Notes" section for those who wish to learn more about Dante. I hope these brief excerpts encourage those who read this review to read Lewis' biography. It is indeed a brilliant achievement.