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Issue Date:  April 1, 2005

By Harriet Rubin
Simon & Schuster, 274 pages, $23.95
A poet's pursuit of perfection

Reviewed by ANTONIA RYAN

I remember my first foray into Dante’s Divine Comedy. I was a college sophomore in literature taking one of my required courses: Beginnings of Western Literature. One of our assignments was to read John Ciardi’s translation of Dante’s Inferno. I opened the book a little reluctantly, expecting just to pick away at the required passages. Instead, I found myself mesmerized. I stayed up all night reading the entire Inferno.

Harriet Rubin’s Dante in Love wishes to kindle in every reader that same sense of fascination with Dante Alighieri’s masterpiece. Ms. Rubin, a “passionate reader,” has worked as a journalist and book editor and has authored several bestsellers. In this book (classified by the publisher as literary criticism/history), she weaves together the stories of many such readers and Dante lovers, whom she calls “Dantisti” -- most frequently T.S. Eliot, whose own poetry, especially his “Four Quartets,” was greatly influenced by reading the Florentine poet. Despite what one might guess from the title, Dante in Love is not about Dante in love with Beatrice. Beatrice is a representative of a lost perfection that only can be found in God.

In Canto 1 of the Paradiso, Dante wrote:

“I have been in that heaven of His most light
“and what I saw, those who descend from there
“lack both the knowledge and the power to write” (Ciardi’s translation).

The amazing thing about Dante is that in spite of this declaration of being overwhelmed with his taste of heaven, he did write about it -- and made his vision known to so many readers and writers down the centuries. “For Dante,” Ms. Rubin writes, “[love was] one, singular and transcendent object of unswerving dedication.”

The book opens with a brief summary of why Dante was forced into exile, a separation the author says led him to chronicle his inner experience of hell, purgatory and heaven. Ms. Rubin then divides the rest of her book into sections dealing with the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Throughout, Ms. Rubin illustrates her commentary with passages from Dante himself, using several different translations so that the reader can sample the versions available in English.

Ms. Rubin’s book also gives a packed survey of the late 13th and early 14th centuries when Dante lived and wrote (he died in 1321 at age 55), tracing the personal circumstances, relationships and world events that led him to write his great summary of human striving. (Despite Dante in Love’s subtitle, the book is really more about the world’s greatest poem and how history made it, rather than the other way around.)

Sometimes these discussions are fascinating, as with a story of Primo Levi teaching Italian to a junior guard at Auschwitz, a young Frenchman, by reciting Canto 26, the canto in which the shade of Ulysses tells Dante about the manner of his death: “Levi struggles to remember Dante’s verses and to translate them into French,” Ms. Rubin writes. “His memory falters until he gets to the verse ‘I put forth on the deep open sea’ -- ‘Ma misi me per l’alto mare aperto’ (line 100). He tries to convey the power of it -- misi me -- a man trying to crash through a barrier. Thinking of the barbed wire around them both … Levi says that he and Jean know that feeling well.”

When she is good, Ms. Rubin’s meditations build up with a certain lyrical power. Other times, her anecdotes seem a bit superfluous. Sometimes she throws out tantalizing phrases (“Before Giotto, no painter had painted the sky blue”) and then doesn’t elaborate on them, leaving the reader to wonder why the phrases are there at all. A chapter on the Florence-born poet Guido Cavalcanti is confusing; Guido’s importance to Dante’s development -- which Ms. Rubin avers is very important -- could have been better explained.

It helps to have some knowledge of the Commedia before taking up Dante in Love. Ms. Rubin spends more time on the historical surroundings and impact of the poem than she does describing the poem itself, and a beginner might not be able to follow Ms. Rubin along on her literary jaunt. But for those who have read the Commedia, this book will probably entice them to pick it up again -- and maybe even to make studying it a “lifelong project,” as T.S. Eliot did. Ms. Rubin’s final assessment of Dante is that he was trying to create a language of perfection. Though its nonlinear style can be frustrating at times, Dante in Love can inspire a person to take up her pen and try to create something beautiful, as Dante did. In creating, Dante’s life seems to say, we are acting in the image of God -- the Creator of everything.

Benedictine Sr. Antonia Ryan is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 1, 2005

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