“The world has a handful of supreme poets. Homer, Shakespeare and Goethe are up there. I’m sure you have your own suggestions. All of these writers – even Homer, with his Trojan war epic The Iliad – can be made contemporary to us, made to approximate our world-view. Yet the greatest and most universal poet of all is the least ‘modern’ and at times the most obscure. He is Dante Alighieri.
“The world-view Dante unfolds in mesmerizing images in the three books of his Divine Comedy – Hell, Purgatory and Paradise – is truly medieval. No wonder: he lived most of his life in the 13th century before completing his masterpiece in the early 14th. But it is the relentless Gothic-style Christianity of Dante’s vision that makes it so unnerving: the profound sense of sin behind his biting portraits of the damned in Hell, and the equally absolute faith in a machine-accurate divine justice the poet finally glimpses in Paradise. The Divine Comedy is a dogmatic, cruel work that haunts the imagination like no other. Paradoxically, no ‘modern’ poet has been so frequently illustrated by modern artists; only Byron excites comparable interest. [. . .]
“My own first experience of Dante was a translation of just one part of the Inferno by Seamus Heaney. Ugolino is in Heaney’s collection Field Work, which is a moving response to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Dante’s tale of Ugolino, who was cruelly treated and took bitter revenge in eternity, fits into the landscape of reprisal Heaney depicts. In other words, one reason for Dante’s enduring power is that we have not really left the middle ages. Vendetta still rules. Entire foreign policies, not to mention civil wars and terror campaigns, are based on ideas of revenge and polarities of good and evil just as primitive as anything in Dante.
“Another reason the great Italian challenges us is that he proposes a morally absolute vision of life that cuts through modern relativism like a knight’s broadsword. So the world is ambiguous and our own actions impossible to morally judge? Dante menaces us with the alternative possibility that every act is scrutinized, that every moment of our lives is weighed in the balance.” [. . .] –Jonathan Jones, The Guardian, May 5, 2011.