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After Dante

ENGL 594.401
also offered as: COML 591, ITAL 594
Monday 9-12:00pm


Next year marks the 700th anniversary of Dante's death, in 1321. Marking will take many creative and scholarly forms, and this class will help you make an early start: perhaps your final essay can be worked into a paper or publishable piece.


Dante died as an exile from Florence in Ravenna, and his daughter (Sister Beatrice) became a nun there. The contemporary performance troupe Teatro delle Albe makes its home in Ravenna, staging amazing Dante dramatizations in its civic spaces:


Teatro delle Albe will be coming to Penn in Fall 2020, and we will devote that week to their on-campus performing. Hopefully we might also welcome the Franco-Norwegian, English-language performance artist Caroline Bergvall to class, too.


Creative responses to Dante in paint, illumination, performance, and written word sparked off all over Europe after his death and have never really stopped. The recent William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain showed him illustrating Dante as his very last creative project.


Centuries earlier, Geoffrey Chaucer's encounter with Dante's text and Dante's disciples (he travelled to Italy twice) led first to artistic crisis and then to a revolutionizing of English poetics. Many poets and writers since have seen revolutionary potential (Irish Dante, black Dante), across Europe and beyond. Students in this class will sample a wide range of this creativity while formulating their own, unique research project. This can take the form of traditional, footnoted scholarship or be given a more creative spin.


We will read substantial sections of the Commedia, using parallel Italian-English texts, but never more than five cantos per class.  No prior knowledge of Italian needed. Following the pattern of adaptors over the centuries, we'll read more of Inferno than Paradiso, but not neglect Purgatorio or the Vita nuova. It's not crucial that we all employ the same edition, since the Commedia's text (thanks to its intricate verse form) is designedly stable (tamperproof). There are many excellent recent translations to choose from (plus some duds and eccentricities). For a first pass through the poem I recommend the translation of Allan Mandelbaum, that I'll likely use myself, because i) he stages a real poet's agon with the Italian; ii) his notes are helpful, but not overpowering; iii) very cheap (Bantam classics).


Other translations into English of interest include: Robin Kirkpatrick (brilliant, ingenious, especially if you can handle the Italian: Penguin); Durling & Martinez (excellent translating, copious notes); C.S. Singleton (prose translation, phenomenal notes, 6 volumes); Dorothy L. Sayers (Penguin, 1949-62);Temple Classics (beautiful, portable, used by T.S. Eliot); Henry Francis Cary (1814, portable, praised by Coleridge and read on holiday by Keats).


We will not essay an historical-chronological trawl, and the syllabus may be tailored to fit niche needs and interests. Adaptations and creative responses in many languages can be considered, including Italian: for Italians, the legacy of Dante (culturally, politically) has been both a blessing and a burden.


Anglophone candidates for inclusion include:


Chaucer, House of Fame; Troilus and Criseyde, Books I-III; “De Hugelino.”


Renaissance: Dante re-figured as Proto-Protestant by Foxe, Actes and Monuments; deeply absorbed by Milton, a brilliant Italianist, in Paradise Lost.


Eighteenth century: how Dante gets folded into anti-Catholic discourses post 1707; Voltaire’s anti-Dantism; Thomas Warton, Poet Laureate, on Dante’s “disgusting fooleries”; Dante as “A Methodist parson in Bedlam” (Horace Walpole).


Romantics: early part-Englishings of the Commedia, and in 1802 the first full translation, by Irishman Henry Boyd. The first line-by-line translation by H.F. Cary (1814), endorsed by Coleridge and then Wordsworth, carried by Keats in his knapsack.

Shelley, a brilliant Dantist: Triumph of Life (terza rima); A Defence of Poetry (1821).

Blake (as illustrator, more than as poet)


Victorian: fondness for embellishing “scenes from Dante,” rather than grappling with the Commedia tout court. Tennyson, “Ulysses”; Arthur Hallam; Thomas Carlyle and the Brownings. Dante Gabriel Rossetti: a turn to the Vita nuova and the cult of Beatrice.

George Eliot's Italy.


Nineteenth-Century Americans: Lorenzo da Ponte (1749-1838), born in a ghetto, Mozart’s librettist, later Professor of Italian at Columbia.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, complete translation (1867), with support of Charles Eliot Norton and James Russell Lowell, and the Harvard “Dante Club”; Fanny Appleton.

H. Cordelia Ray (Oxford-Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers)


Modernists: Ezra Pound (distantly related to Longfellow, devotee of Rossetti), Cantos.

T.S. Eliot: “Dante” (1921); Waste Land (1922); “Little Gidding” (1942), "What Dante Means to Me" (1950); Osip Mandelstam.


Irish Dantes: Yeats, a little (Pound served him as secretary, on and off, 1913-16).

Joyce, from Stephen Hero to Finnegans Wake; acquired a Vita nuova at Trieste.

Beckett, More Pricks than Kicks (1934); Happy Days?

Heaney, Field Work (“Lough Beg”), Station Island (“Lough Derg”), critical writings.


20th c. Caribbean and African-American Dantes: Derek Walcott, Epitaph for the Young (1949); Omeros (1990); Amiri Baraka, The System of Dante’s Hell (1965); Gloria Naylor, Linden Hills (1985); Eternal Kool Project, hiphop Inferno


Filmic and TV Dantes: William B. Ramous, Francesca da Rimini (1907); Henry Otto, Dante’s Inferno (1924); Spencer Williams, Go Down, Death (1944, incorporating a 1911 Italian silent); Peter Greenaway and Tom Phillips, TV Dante (1988/90); more since.


Contemporary Dantes:

To include Caroline Bergvall, 48 Dante Variations; Bergvall, Via.


Participants will write one long essay, will have the opportunity to preview their work during the last two weeks of class, and may give class reports on their areas of expertise. This will be a collaborative effort; none of us can pretend to know all fields.


Required Texts: parallel text editions of Dante, Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso, Vita nuova.


Helpful anthologies and crit:


Eric Griffiths and Matthew Reynolds, Dante in English (Penguin), anthology

Bibliotheca Dantesca:

Boswell, J.C., Dante’s Fame in England… 1477-1640 (1999)

Burwick and Douglas (eds), Dante and Italy in British Romanticism (2011)

Havely, N.R., ed., Dante’s Modern Afterlife (1998); Dante in the Nineteenth Century (2011)

Iannucci, I.A. (ed.), Dante, Cinema and Television (2004)

Looney, Dennis, Freedom Readers: the African-American Reception of Dante (2011)

Toynbee, Dante in English Literature… c. 1380-1844, 2 vols (1909)

Wallace, David, “Dante in English,” in Jacoff (ed.), Cambridge Companion to Dante

further biblio:


fulfills requirements