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Modern Interpretations Of The Divine Comedy By Dante Alighieri

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The Divina commedia has been a source of inspiration in pop culture since Dante’s death in 1321. Several aspects of Dante’s work have been widely incorporated in modern popular culture, whilst some literary decisions he made have been left to the Middle Ages. Dante’s piece ‘Divina Commedia’ is extremely influential when trying to explore the origins of evil. As David Lummus indicates, it was “only in the eighteenth century, with “The Discovery of the True Dante” by Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), did the Comedy become analysed as a cultural product that was definitive of its age.” From here, many modern interpretations of aspects of Dante’s story have been produced, many still finding the Divine Commedia a work which has teachings relevant to modern life. One significant aspect of Dante’s work which has been explored in popular culture is the metaphorical nature of the work itself. Ezra Pound (1885-1972) for example, responded both critically and engaged with the Divine Comedy through his poetry. In his first essay on Dante; ‘The Spirit of Romance’ (1910), he stipulates how the journey taken by Dante, a pilgrim, was more about leaving ignorance behind to find salvation. As Pound contends, the story is about Dante gaining a “clear light of philosophy”, with each word being written with the intent to be applicable in daily life. Many scholars have argued that Dante’s work is a reflection of the flaws that all men possess.

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Pound himself agrees here. He believes that Dante’s poem is an example of how poetry can engage with the living world of history. This is something that he himself later explored through his poem the ‘Cantos’. An attempt to emanate Dante’s comedy, Pound depicts much of ‘Hell’ and ‘Purgatory’. Trying to embed a deeper, more moral and political meaning to the work, Pound so too writes a journey of self-discovery and ultimately salvation (although this fails). Likewise, another American of the time who was critically engaged with the Divine Comedy was T.S. Eliot. Eliot wrote extensively on how represented the most “universal” poet ever. Eliot contended that Dante wrote in a way which could be widely understood, thus allowing many to join the journey of salvation. Eliot himself was extremely fascinated by Dante’s practice of allegorical poetry. Much like Pound, Eliot believed that behind Dante’s comedy lied many images which would be evoked upon reading. This can be seen through Eliot’s own works. His poem ‘The Waste Land’ (1922), mentions the Inferno all throughout. Eliot engaged in such a way as he saw the benefits of illuminating the ‘Inferno’ in society, again, it allows us to highlight man’s flaws and therefore solve. Herein displaying how poets in the early twentieth century engaged critically with Dante’s work, yet still found it a source of inspiration for their own poetic endeavours. Although many in the twentieth read into the Divine Comedy in a positive light, there was criticism. Many aspects of Dante’s work have been neglected from being included in modern work inspired by Dante. This for the most part has arisen as criticism toward applying problems raised in the piece in modern life.

Traditional criticism of Dante’s work focused on the importance of separating allegorical and theological interpretations from the poem itself. Benedetto Croce (1866-1952), was a fierce opponent to these interpretations. Croce contended that Dante’s poetry, his art, must be separated from the doctrine behind the poem. In Croce’s own influential work throughout the twentieth century, he attempted to implore the importance of reading Dante’s work through its vignettes, allowing for a departure from its theological elements. He encouraged this as he believed that in the Comedy there are “poetry” and “non-poetry,” and only the former deserves the critic’s attention. More modern condemnation received by Dante has been the apparent “offensive and discriminatory” nature of the Comedy itself. The Divine Comedy, which was written in 1320 was clearly written as a reflection of society at the time. As natural progression regarding morals, ethics and social norms continue to move forward, it is understandable why some of the things in Dante’s work may now seem intolerable. For example, Italian Human Rights organisation labelled the poem in 2018 as containing “racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic” content. This is in particular reference to Dante’s portrayal of Muhammad as being in the ninth ditch of hell in Canto 28 of the Inferno. Here, Dante, the character expresses; ‘See how I split open the crack in myself! See how twisted and broken Mohammed is!”. Making calls to ban the poem in classrooms on the grounds that students “lack the filters” to understand these issues, it becomes apparent that some aspects of Dante’s work may not fit what today’s societal standards and norms have become. In all, many elements of the Divine Comedy have been neglected in popular culture. This is due to critics now viewing some aspects of the poem as holding negative ideas and beliefs.

01 February 2021

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