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Dante, a poet for all seasons

Those who have yet to read the <em>Divine Comedy</em> are missing out on one of life’s great aesthet

I remember one evening, a quarter of a century ago at New College, Oxford, sitting next to A J Ayer at dinner. I was the most junior of college lecturers; he was the Wykeham Professor of Logic and a renowned philosopher. He told me that no medieval philosopher was worth reading and he was proud to be able to say that he had not read one word of Thomas Aquinas.

Ayer was a genial man but his arrogance could take your breath away. I remember feebly asking him if he would think it permissible for an English tutor at the college not to have read any medieval literature - Chaucer, let us say - and he kindly conceded that it would not. But there was a difference. Chaucer's poetry was still worth reading. Ayer and the analytical philosophers had, in his opinion, solved the basic problems that confronted philosophy. There were a lot of questions that it was not the business of philosophy to answer and which were quite simply meaningless.

As the evening wore on, wine flowed and it would not be possible to outline his argument (if it existed) in any detail. But I do remember what he said at the end of the dinner: "Even logical positivists think love is important!"

No doubt he had trotted out a recitation of his non-creed - namely that most aesthetic, moral and spiritual judgements were "meaningless". But if even logical positivists thought that love was important, was it not strange that they had not set their nimble minds to saying why they thought it was important and what they thought it was?

Cycling home under the starry Oxford night sky, I felt that there were more interesting philosophical questions and answers in Dante's Comedy than in Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic. Love dominates our lives. Its rampages dislocate the heart. Sometimes, it seems linked to sexual desire; sometimes, it seems different. Religion, especially the Christian religion, uses the word to describe the life and activity of God. But when we are kept awake by the thought of the beautiful face of the girl we currently adore, is this love at war with the love of God or is it, as Dante apparently thought, somehow connected? What use was a philosophy that refused to ask such questions, let alone provide an answer?

I first read Dante during a visit to Florence as a teenager. I became hooked on the Inferno but it was some years before I went beyond it and read the rest of the Comedy. Forty years later, I was still looking for a book that was a life of Dante set against the background of his times, but which was also an introduction to the Comedy for the "general reader". It would be a book that gave the necessary historical and cultural background. Eventually, I tired of the search and decided to write one of my own.

I left Oxford, teaching and medieval literature behind me and became a jobbing man of letters in London, writing novels, working as a journalist on various papers and still, from time to time, adding to my Dante library when browsing in second-hand bookshops.

There was a simple reason why I got stuck, or intimidated, the first time I tried to read Dante and I suspect it is typical. I did not realise how easy it was to master the historical and biographical background to the poem. To start with, all you need to know is that this young man in Florence - his family identity pretty shadowy, if not disguised, in the early books of the Comedy - had two ambitions. One was to be a great poet and in this he was successful.

The only other thing you need to know before you begin is that Dante had political ambitions. He was married at the age of 12, by arrangement, as was the custom in the 13th century, into one of the grandest families of Florence, the Donati. He wrote not one word about his wife, Gemma. Her cousins were his boyhood friends. One, Forese Donati, was a good friend of Dante's and exchanged ribald jokes with him during their teens and early manhood. The other, Corso Donati, one of the most brutal of the big Florentine magnates, was, together with the pope at the time, Boniface VIII, responsible for Dante's fall from political grace, his exile and catastrophic ruin.

At first, I read Dante only in English, then in the little, blue Temple Classics editions that had the Italian on one side of the page with the English on the other. (It's still a very good way to read him, in my opinion.)

After school, I went to the British Institute of Florence, where Luisa Rapaccini's language classes gave me a basic grounding in Italian and Ian Greenlees's lectures opened my eyes to the extraordinary story of Italian medieval literature and culture.

But, as a young man, I still thought that the historical and biographical background of the poem was too complicated to be mastered before I read the Comedy. So, whenever a contemporary reference occurred, I did not exactly skip it but nor did I bother to see what was happening. I was racing on to the famous scenes - such as the everlasting sorrow of the doomed adulterers Paolo and Francesca or the inexhaustible intellectual curiosity of Ulysses. Those who read the Comedy in this way certainly derive something from the experience. But the book remains, for such a reader, a set of "lovely" scenes, interrupted by passages that are only semi-comprehensible.

What I needed when I first read the Comedy was a book that did not take for granted any knowledge of Dante's background. I needed a guide to 13th-century Florence. I needed someone who had read the principal Latin texts in Dante's library. I needed someone who had at least a basic grasp of medieval philosophy and who was prepared to tell me who was pope, who was king of France and, when there were battles or political quarrels, what the fuss was about. And then again, I wanted this author to tell me how Dante's life and work did, and did not, relate to his contemporaries.

Over the years, I became an amateur Dantean. Trawling the bookshops, I would look in the Italian and medieval sections first. In my early twenties I discovered a remarkable book, The Figure of Beatrice: a Study in Dante by Charles Williams. I read it throughout 1973 and 1974, over and over again, and the child that was born to us in March 1974 was inevitably christened Beatrice.

I continued to read Dante. His Sherlock Holmes-like profile haunted me. That angular, angry face was as unforgettable as his poem. The more I read the Comedy, the more it seemed a work that wanted to be read again.

For these medieval poets, whom I used to teach at Oxford, the central concerns of life were sex in general and girls in particular; they were likewise obsessed with God. Another preoccupation was a political one: wondering whether anyone would ever devise a decent method of organising human society.

In politics, Dante's questions were sane, but his answers, especially in the open letters he wrote to the emperor Henry VII and the cardinals of Italy, were deranged with violent hatred. The force of his hatreds was undiminished even when he was supposedly describing the condition of the blessed in paradise.

You can see why Dante was not widely read for centuries and why the Enlightenment, in particular, found him unsympathetic. The aesthete and wit Horace Walpole (1717-97, son of Robert) dipped into Dante and found him “extravagant, absurd, disgusting; in short, a Methodist parson in bedlam". Any account of Dante that failed to see the half-truth in Walpole's joke would be missing something.

Yet Dante was the greatest poet of the Middle Ages. It could be argued that he was the greatest of all European poets, of any time or place. But while most non-Italian readers are prepared to take this on trust, they sidestep his work, making him one of the great unreads. In so doing, they leave unsavoured one of the greatest aesthetic, imaginative, emotional and intellectual experiences on offer.

They are like those who have never attended a performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni, or of Shakespeare's Lear; who have never heard a symphony by Beethoven or visited Paris. Quite simply, they are missing out.

A N Wilson's "Dante In Love" is published by Atlantic Books on 1 June (£25)

This article first appeared in the 06 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Are we all doomed?