Visiting US student Bryan Pannill on our Dante Alighieri event:
“Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”
Change “midway” to “about one-fifth,” and “forest” to “city,” and then the first three lines of Dante’s Inferno aptly describe my state at the beginning of this year. I am studying English literature here in London for the semester, having arrived from the U.S. in January. I arrived to the dark and cold of London’s winter. And I arrived a little lost myself, having suffered the gradual disintegration of love. And with love had gone my faith for the world, for myself, for the things I believed in—words and poetry being among them. “The straightforward pathway had been lost,” Like Dante, “I cannot well repeat how there I entered, / So full was I of slumber at the moment / In which I had abandoned the true way.”
On Thursday’s spring evening in Southwark Cathedral with Poet in the City, I woke up. I woke to the hymns of the Merbecke Choir, to the wise words of Canon Mark Oakley and Professors John Took of UCL and Robin Kirkpatrick of Cambridge, and, of course, to Dante’s Divina Comedia, its excerpts read in English and Italian by, respectively, Timothy West and Graham Fawcett. The Cathedral was dressed in its amber light, and warm spring was outside, filling the vaulted stone ceiling with halcyon twilight. It made a fitting setting to celebrate the author of Paradiso.
But of course, we began with the Inferno. Took explained how the poet came to compose them. Dante was born in 1265 in Florence, and at only 9 years he met the love and muse of his life, Beatrice—meaning “the one who brings blessings.” Among those blessings for Dante was “the right understanding of love”: not love seeking its own, but love through which the soul rises out of itself, and into the earthly heaven of human communion. Dante explored this theme in his first book of poetry, Vita Nova (The New Life), and, although Beatrice died in 1290, love remained the center of his work. Indeed, in Took’s estimation, “Dante is the world’s greatest love poet”—a bold claim to make in the city of Shakespeare! But the evening would continue to defend it.
In 1302, Dante entered his Inferno with his permanent exile from his beloved Florence. In his loneliness and melancholy, he began to compose The Divine Comedy, published in 1314. It is a masterwork of three volumes, traveling from hell to heaven, and addressing earthly topics such as love, politics, religion, and poetry along the way. Professor Kirkpatrick devoted a few words to each of these. As much as Dante was a poet of love, he was also “the great hater” : his work criticizes the corrupted church and rising proto-capitalism, forces which were warping humanity’s celebration of God’s creation. Florence means “flourish,” but Dante hated how its new capitalism was turning its community into a wasteland of self-directed people. People who, to quote Oakley, “end up like Satan, thinking we are the center of the world, and frozen.” For Dante, our communities are the heart of ourselves; following Aristotle, he believed the lone individual is no individual at all. So we can begin to imagine the kind of hell that Dante’s lonely exile was for the poet. And depending on our own experiences, perhaps not as exiles but as “ex-pats” in this globalizing world, for example, our imaginative empathy becomes sympathy. Indeed, the Divine Comedy gives an account of the next life, and of a world 700 years gone, but it remains, as Took noted, a “traveling companion” for this one.
Out of this Inferno, the “pilgrim poet,” as Oakley calls him, rises through Purgatorio. This pilgrimage, this learning and unlearning, this dance with doubt, is faith itself, Oakley reflected. And poetry—the force that counters the reductionist, scientific literalism we may find convenient for eliminating our struggle by eliminating the mystery — “poetry is a vital word of faith.”
“But let dead Poesy here rise again,” Dante writes at the opening of Purgatorio, “O holy Muses, since that I am yours.” Dante surrenders himself to his Muse. And poetry, “the little vessel of my genius[,] now / … leaves behind itself a sea so cruel.” And it is through his poetry that “the human spirit doth purge itself, / And to ascend to heaven becometh worthy.” Poetry is the pilgrimage, and through surrender to it, the poet takes his first step towards Paradiso.
And to enter Paradiso, he surrenders himself to love, to caritas. So it is through poetry, Dante might say, that we arrive at human love and community and fulfillment—a paradise of people, of friends. And here we find the true power of Thursday evening, of that springtime celebration of poetry in a cathedral. Dante—with a little help from Poet in the City—had gathered over three hundred people together.
We were the “spectrum of difference” Dante loved: we hailed from London, from Europe, from across the world; and we wore sneakers, or suits, or, in the case of one man whose fashion I complimented, a sweater with sail-boats his mother picked out. And as we silently listened to the poet’s reverberating verse, and to the hymns of the choir, we found ourselves lifted out of ourselves, and rising towards the vaults of the cathedral’s ceiling, awash with amber evening light. During one hymn, we could hear the London Overground pass by outside. I watched as golden, glittering sunlight, reflected off the train’s no-doubt smudgy windows, trailed along the cathedral’s upper arcades.
And then we return again to ourselves, enlightened. The light and the song remains with us, as do the questions which Dante, through Canon Mark Oakley, sets for us. What do we make of ourselves? What do people become in our presence? And we ask not what will be done to us in an after life, but what to do with this life that is our present—in all meanings of the word. “Judgment is now,” said Oakley. He ended urging us to “practice Dante in your life: say ‘I love you’ to someone. That is the first glimpse of light into our hearts, and the first way of celebrating Dante. But if you’re English, you might need a glass or two first.”
~ Bryan Pannill