on 17 November 2014
I found Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity compulsively readable both because of the directness, sensitivity and eloquence with which Shaw responded to the poetry and fiction of the Commedia itself and because of the vividness with which she brought the historical background alive. I'll certainly read it again, and more than once, both for the sheer pleasure of reading it and because it's so rich in information and ideas. Of the different books on the Commedia that I've enjoyed it's certainly the one I've enjoyed the most. It's probably the one that's taught me the most too.
In fact I thought it hit the spot on every level. It's crammed with knowledge and insight that are informative and stimulating even for people who know Dante much better than I do. At the same time, Prue Shaw has the great gift of being able to see things from the point of view of people who aren't Dante scholars and speak to them in a way that's neither patronising nor intimidating. Above all, this is a matter of clarity of mind, of knowing exactly what she needs to tell her readers so that they can follow her arguments and explanations clearly and emerge with solid knowledge and insight. I'd have loved to have her as a teacher.
on 28 July 2014
For me, one who thought himself to be well-acquainted with the "Commedia", well - I felt like some rookie detective at the scene of a crime stumbling over the body having never seen it; Prue Shaw is the seasoned expert shining her light here, then there, pointing out all the little things I'd missed or could never have noticed. This wonderful book inspires one to read again. It is written, on the whole, in a very clear manner and, I believe, is accessible to anyone who is even vaguely interested in Dante.
Prue Shaw tackles the "Commedia" through topics ("Friendship", "Power", "Life", "Love" etc) that transcend all three books, thus highlighting links between them or the way that themes are developed, sometimes running parallel to each other (certain themes recurring at the same point in each book) or flowing through from one to the other. In the process, she unfolds the social, cultural and historical background to Dante's vision.
It is really when we get to her final topics of "Numbers" and "Words" that I experienced what I can only call an epiphany because Prue Shaw revealed the true magic of Dante's work which can only be appreciated by reading the "Commedia" in its original language. Her absolutely fascinating chapter, "Numbers", starts off quite simply by highlighting the importance of the number three - centred, of course, on the Trinity - but goes on to reveal the numerical patterns that underpin the work. The whole of the "Commedia" is divided into cantos; there are thirty-three cantos in each of the three books, plus a preface to "Inferno" (which creates a total of, what was seen as the perfect number, one hundred). Each canto is around one hundred plus lines, divided into groups of three ("tercets"). Each line has eleven syllables so in each "tercet" there are thirty-three syllables. The last word in the first line of each "tercet" rhymes with the last word in the group. The last word in the middle line creates the rhymes for the next "tercet", and so on, so we get aba, bcb, cdc, etc. This is the "terza rima".
Dante invented the "terza rima", a way of writing poetry, he then took vernacular Tuscan and adapted it to fit in with his new invention, in the process creating Italian. Since no formal vernacular structure existed Dante would invent his own rules, even invent words. Unless you read the "Commedia" in it's original language then it is impossible to appreciate the subtleties of his creation just as it is impossible to appreciate his shifting from Tuscan to Latin and, at one point, even to Provencial for narrative and dramatic effect. Dante was fascinated by language; he carried out a study of the vernacular languages of Italy and was one of the first to identify not only the differences between towns but even of streets - he was the Henry Higgins of his age! In the "Commedia", language becomes an incredibly important tool which is used to create atmosphere and to reinforce Dante's vision.
I cannot praise Prue Shaw's book enough. I first read the "Inferno" at the young age of twenty and have lived with it, and been inspired by it, ever since. I know I am not alone. Artists and poets have been inspired by Dante almost since the day he first published his great creation. As an artist I am driven to look again at the "Commedia", to look at the potential it unleashes as I contemplate further works and to reveal that vision in a fusion of my own. I feel reborn.