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From Manuscripts to Pop Culture, Dante Endures

Dante's English Public glances at current adaptations of Dante's work, from the comic Nightcrawler's Inferno to Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves.

Dante's English Public: Readers and Texts, from the Fourteenth Century to the Present

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Length: 384 pages
Price: $99.00
Author: Nick Havely
Publication date: 2014-09

Many poets and painters have responded in our language to Dante. Rather than document the reactions by authors and artists since Chaucer to their Italian inspiration, Nick Havely investigates the conditions under which "intellectual, religious, political, bibliographic, textual" reactions occurred since medieval times. Havely specializes in the reception of Italian literature in his English homeland, so this Dante scholar at the University of York seems ideally suited for this scholarly study.

Beginning with the 1451 sale of a copy of Dante's Commedia in London, this professor follows the mercantile route which brought such works to the capital and its centers of learning. One handsome edition of the poem, with illustrations canto-by-canto, goes back to the previous century. A hint of its colors appears on the dust jacket, but I wished that the Holkham manuscript was depicted in detail, as it sounds wonderful to see. Havely's book contains 25 illustrations, all in black and white.

Havely prefers to delve into the efforts of bibliophiles such as Thomas Coke. Many chapters diligently trace the dissemination of Dante through collectors and scholars. As a medievalist, Havely conveys these phases clearly. Yet all this careful evidence may appear eye-glazing for non-scholars.

By the Romantic era, the pace picks up. Political exile Ugo Foscolo contributed reviews to the Edinburgh Review. His coverage propelled H.F. Cary's 1814 translation of the Commedia into prominence, as Coleridge praised both the critic and the translator at a lecture at the Royal Institution. This blank-verse version dominated the Victorian age, well into the 20th century.

Actress Fanny Kemble posed as the famed and doomed lover Francesca da Rimini for Ary Scheffer, a Dutch artist working in Paris. Havely covers this episode well, for the combination of Kemble's sinuous curves and Scheffer's talent imprinted this scene upon the imagination of many. The Pre-Raphaelites soon followed in their devotion to similar scenarios. Drawings and images by John Flaxman and William Dyce found the same success. For 19th century audiences, even before Gustave Doré's ubiquitous engravings between 1857 and 1867, Dante came alive in emotional art.

What is less known to audiences now is the attention Prime Minister William Gladstone gave to his own copies of the poem. Havely shows, by comparing the marginalia and annotations in the various editions Gladstone uses, the range of political and ecclesiastical issues by which the Florence native seemed to guide the Liverpool-born statesman, as he dealt with the debate on Catholic emancipation.

Beyond the British heartland, the lands once ruled by the Crown take notice of Dante. For example, Havely smartly tells of a recent visit to Mumbai by one "N. Harley" which leads to local repercussion as mysterious articles about an "original" Commedia manuscript in Dante's hand emanate. Apparently, the digital age spreads misinformation no less than the press of an earlier era had.

Speaking of new platforms, the last chapter, if far too rapidly and briefly, looks at Dante within popular culture. Ranging from a 1980 X-Men Marvel comic titled Nightcrawler's Inferno to African-American reactions to the Commedia, Havely glances at current adaptations. Crime novels, Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves, and attempts to transfer Dante's journey to screen or stage flit past.

Havely concludes with what is for now, the latest version in print of what the English-speaking audience continues to call The Divine Comedy. Contrasting this ambitious series of quatrains by Clive James with the far more bestselling Inferno by Dan Brown, poet James ruefully admits to Mark Lawson on BBC Radio 4 in 2013: "I was hoping that a small proportion of that audience might want to check up on the poem. It's available -- that's all I can say -- in every good bookshop." And so it is.

Readers curious about the expanding English impacts of this poem, as we now mark seven centuries since it appeared, will consult Havely with appreciation for the careful research he has compiled here.

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