When I was a freshman in college, I faced a choice that all English majors at Smith must make: whether to take English 207, a general survey of English literature from Beowulf to the 20th century, or General Literature 219, a survey of world literature from the Iliad to War and Peace. Most of my classmates chose English 207, which may be why so many copies of The Norton Anthology appeared in the “used textbook” section of the bookstore, year after year.
I, of course, had to be different.
My high school had had an unusually good AP senior English course. We’d started with Aeschylus and Sophocles to get a grounding in the Western literary tradition, then shifted to Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxons, Chaucer, the Gawain poet, and so on up until the War poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. We also had to write a thirty page research paper on a single English novel, and I am convinced to this day that my choice of Jude the Obscure is what permanently soured me on Thomas Hardy.
Regardless of my opinion of Hardy and his relentlessly gloomy books, I read over the English 207 syllabus and realized that I had already read about three-quarters of the course. So that is how I ended up taking Gen Lit instead, and read a book that changed my life.
That book was the first volume of Dante Alighieri’s La Divina Commedia, Inferno.
I had read books set in the Middle Ages, of course; Ivanhoe had been a childhood favorite, and of course much of the fantasy I loved was set in quasi-medieval worlds (especially Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, which were explicitly based on Welsh myth). However, nothing, even the gorgeous Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight had captured my heart until I picked up my copy of the Penguin edition of Inferno and started to read. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I knew that Dante had written a complex political, religious, and social satire in an unusual rhyme scheme, so I didn’t get my hopes up.
Boy, was I wrong.
Inferno, for those who haven't read it, is a journey through Hell. Literally. The narrator, Dante himself, is caught in the despair of a midlife loss of faith and purpose. While wandering through "a dark wood in which the straight way is lost," he is rescued by the spirit of the Roman poet Vergil, sent by his lost beloved, Beatrice, to aid him on his journey through the afterlife and out of despair. Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'entrate (All hope abandon, ye who enter here) reads the inscription above the entrance to Hell as Dante and Vergil begin their descent, and with that line I was hooked.
The righteous pagans in Limbo, Francesca and Paolo in the whirlwind of lust, Fillipo Argenti drowning in boiling mud, popes and politicians and troubadours and demons, circles and bolgia and the city of Dis…I read, and read, and loved every single line of it. I had never read anything so dense and layered in my life, and not only was it not the snorefest I had expected, it was brilliant.
Even better, there were two more books, Purgatorio (Dante sees what happens to sinners who have hopes of redemption, led by the late antique poet Statius) and Paradiso (he finally is reunited with Beatrice, who guides him through the heavenly spheres until he beholds the face of God). They were not easy to read, but they were wonderful, and the last lines of Paradiso have stuck with me ever since:
But already my desire and my will
were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,
by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars
The Love which moves the sun and the other stars. If there is a more perfect way to describe what the Divine is, and what it should be, and what we all should aspire to regardless of religion or race or anything else, I've yet to read it.
I had had a vague thought about concentrating in 20th century American literature when I entered college, but that changed the instant I started reading Dante. I devoured every book I could find about the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, from Burkhardt to Runciman, Tuchman to Panofsky, Huizinga to Tolkien. Over the next four years I took courses in early medieval architecture, the Gawain poet, the medieval revival of William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites. I even took a religion class that required us to study a single theologian/religious writer, and of course I chose Dante (and read Charles Williams’ The Figure of Beatrice, a fascinating but eccentric interpretation of Beatrice as Dante’s guide in Paradise). I started buying early music records and sang in early music ensembles, and tried my hand at translating the B text of Piers Plowman for my mother to use in her high school English classes.
In short, I went completely nuts for the Middle Ages.
I even tried graduate school in English for a year after college in hopes that I could eventually teach the literature I loved. It wasn’t my brightest or best idea, but I still loved everything medieval and continued to read and study on my own. Boston Camerata tickets, SCA events, old books I found at Avenue Victor Hugo or tag sales, costume studies on my own, the Boston Early Music Festival….
I think you get the picture.
It’s been three decades since my love affair with things medieval began, and I can honestly say that my life has never been the same. Here are just a few of the many, many ways that reading Dante changed me forever:
I joined a medieval re-enactment group in 1989 and am still a member. Among the skills I learned were kitchen management, drawing and painting, and costuming without patterns.
I’ve had much joy criticizing the lousy costumes in films from Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves to a putrid Arthurian film on Lifetime starring Noah Wyle as a simmering, sexy, overwhelmingly
wimpy masculine Sir Lancelot.
I traveled to Wales on my own to hike the area around Harlech Castle and Enlli, the Island of 20,000 Saints.
I’m one of the leading experts on medieval and Renaissance quilting and patchwork, and have presented at quilting seminars and the Kalamazoo Medieval Studies Congress.
Best of all, I finally got to visit Florence three years ago to study one of the oldest known pieces of European decorative patchwork, and could all but see the Medici whisking around the corner of the Via della Spada as I went out for dinner my first night there.
I had no idea any of this would happen to me when I chose Gen Lit over English 207. And though I’ve sometimes wondered what I missed, I have never, ever regretting reading Dante. My life is what it is because of that book, and I will be forever grateful to Signor Alighieri and his magnificent poem.