As I went, ruined, rushing to that low,
there had, before my eyes, been offered one
who seemed -long silent- to be faint and dry.
Seeing him near in that great wilderness,
to him I screamed my ‘miserere’: ‘Save me,
whatever – shadow or truly man – you be.’
His answer came to me: ‘No man; a man
I was in times long gone. Of Lombard stock,
my parents both by patria and Mantuan.
And I was born, though late, sub Iulio.
I lived at Rome in good Augustus’ day,
in times when all the gods were lying cheats.
I was a poet then. I sang in praise
of all the virtues of Anchises’ son. From Troy
he came ‒ proud Ilion razed in flame.
But you turn back. Why seek such grief and harm?
Why climb no higher up at lovely hill?
The cause and origin of joy shines there.’
‘So, could it be’, I answered him, (my brow,
in shy respect bent low), ‘you are that Virgil,
whose words flow wide, a river running full?
You are the light and glory of all poets.
May this serve me: my ceaseless care, the love
so great, that made me search your writings through!
You are my teacher. You, my lord and law.
From you alone I took the fine-tuned style
that has, already, brought me so much honour.
See you there? That beast! I turned because of that.
Help me ‒ your wisdom’s known ‒ escape from her.
To every pulsing vein, she brings the tremor.
Seeing my tears, he answered me: ‘There is
another road. And that, if you intend
to quit this wilderness, you’re bound to take.’
Dante, The Divine Comedy, I Inferno, lines 61−93
René Descartes said “The reading of all good books is like conversation with the finest men of past centuries.” Here, at the beginning of his quest, Dante envisions an accompanied journey with the Roman poet Virgil, to whom he says “You are my teacher. You, my lord and law, from you alone I took the fine-tuned style that has, already, brought me so much honour.” Let the lesson begin.
Dante was cheered by the poet’s presence, but Virgil’s message to him was corrective, not affirming: He was on the wrong road. As Malcolm Guite points out in his book The Word in the Wilderness, this is what great literature is for. He writes:
Dante’s first encounter with Virgil is justly famous and readers of C. S. Lewis’s ‘The Great Divorce’ will recognize how closely his own encounter with George Macdonald, of whom Lewis could also say: ‘You are my teacher. You my lord and law’, is modelled on this passage. But all of us, probably have one particular writer of whom we could say ‘you are the one who has most found, most helped, most guided me’, For some it has been C. S. Lewis, for me it has been two very different poetic companions, one of them Dante and the other S. T. Coleridge. If you have such an author in your life, then doubtless you have fantasized about meeting them and telling them how you felt, even if they lived in another age and wrote in another language. Dante realizes that fantasy and models it for us here.
We begin today a study within a study. This week we look to Dante’s poetry with a student’s eye. As Malcolm wrote of great literature:
It’s not an exclusive cultural acquisition, a badge of educated status, or something on which academics can hang their displays of erudition, it is there, in the words of Sidney’s Defence of poetry, ‘to delight and instruct’. First and foremost it delights, as I hope all the poetry in this anthology will do, and then it leads to truth, teaches us something worth knowing. It seems to me that both of these simple aims have been lost sight of in our age. Here is a chance to restore them.
Which great author would you choose as a journey’s companion?
“Blessed is the man Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, Nor stands in the path of sinners, Nor sits in the seat of the scornful; But his delight is in the law of the Lord, And in His law he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree Planted by the rivers of water, That brings forth its fruit in its season, Whose leaf also shall not wither; And whatever he does shall prosper. The ungodly are not so, But are like the chaff which the wind drives away. Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, Nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, But the way of the ungodly shall perish.”
D i g D e e p e r
(1265–1321), Italian poet and philosopher. Little is known of his early life except that he was born in Florence, lost his parents before he was 18, was betrothed at the age of 12 and married in 1293. In 1274 he first met his Beatrice (prob. Bice Portinari, the daughter of a Florentine citizen and wife of Simone dei Bardi), and he became her poet nine years later. Her death in 1290 led to a crisis, resolved by writing the Vita nuova (prob. in 1292, possibly later) in which he promised her a poem ‘such as had been written for no lady before’, a promise fulfilled in the *Divina Commedia. He then turned to the study of philosophy, prob. under the *Dominicans at Florence, and wrote a series of allegorical Canzoni or odes on the Lady Philosophy and literal ones on Courtesy, Nobility, Liberality, and Justice. In 1294 he entered politics but, having supported the opponents of Pope *Boniface VIII, he was exiled from Florence in 1301 and travelled widely in Italy. He returned to the study of philosophy and wrote the incomplete De Vulgari Eloquentia in Latin and began the Convivio (Banquet), which was designed to comment freely on his earlier philosophical Canzoni. In the course of the fourth book he became aware of the significance of the Roman Empire; the appearance of the Emp. Henry VII in Italy at the same time (1310) converted Dante into an ardent supporter of the Emperor, for whom he wrote in Latin the treatise De Monarchia (1312–14?). This work, which was condemned as heretical (*Averroist) in 1329, argued the need for a universal monarchy to achieve the temporal happiness of mankind and the independence of the Empire from the Pope and the Church, which should abandon all temporal authority and possessions and concentrate on happiness in the world to come. Dante’s political prospects were shattered by the death of Henry VII in 1313, and in 1315 his native city of Florence renewed its sentence against him. He spent some years at *Verona and from c. 1316 lived at *Ravenna, where he died. The last period of his life was devoted to the completion of the Divina Commedia (q.v.), which established him as one of the few poets who belong to all times and all nations.
Malcolm Guite is poet-priest and Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge, but he often travels round Great Britain, and to North America, to give lectures, concerts and poetry readings. For more details of these and other engagements go to his Events Page.
For every day from Shrove Tuesday to Easter Day, the bestselling poet Malcolm Guite chooses a favourite poem from across the Christian spiritual and English literary traditions and offers incisive seasonal reflections on it.