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English, Irish, and American Dantes

ENGL 5940.401
also offered as: COML 5904, ITAL 5940
Monday 10:15-1:14


2021, the 700th anniversary of Dante's death, saw great explosions of creative response right around the world-- only partly subdued by the pandemic. And indeed, the Zooming that made us spectral to each other actually brought us closer to the afterlife conditions of Dante's souls. We also came better to appreciate the ghostly Dante drawings of Robert Rauschenberg (1958-60), made from watercolors, glossy magazines, and lighter fluid.

In this 2022 "morning after" class we will consider how a range of artists, mostly writers but also including musicians, dancers, and painters, have responded to Dante down the years, paying particular to American, African American, Irish, and English authors.

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. I recommend using the Mandelbaum translation, the one I'll be using, which i) stages a real poet's agon with the Italian; ii) has helpful notes, but not too many; iii) is very cheap (Bantam classics), and can fit in your knapsack. 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).

  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. Grads in English, by the end of the course, will have covered a generous sampling of "50 book" texts.


Chaucer's first encounter with Dante (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, Romantic Dante, black Dante, queer 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.


Anglophone candidates for inclusion include:


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


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 Dantista: Triumph of Life (terza rima); Ode to the West Wind; A Defence of Poetry (1821).


Blake: his illustrating of Dante, as a recent Tate Britain exhibition demonstrated, was his last full-scale artistic project:


Victorian: embellishing “scenes from Dante," ambivalence towards Catholicism; Cardinal Newman, the Dream of Gerontius.

Tennyson's “Ulysses,” adapted from Inferno 26, a master text of English colonialism.

Arthur Hallam; Thomas Carlyle and the Brownings.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix (1864-70), other paintings, and the tragedy of Elizabeth Siddal (died 1862): a turn to the Vita nuova.

George Eliot's Italy.


Some 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.”

Cambridge, MA, as a continuing power center of American Dantism.


African American Dantes: Frederick Douglass, Italian national liberation, and the importance of 1865; Henrietta Cordelia Ray (1852-1916),"Dante"; Spencer Williams, Go Down, Death (1944, incorporating a 1911 Italian silent film); Amiri Baraka, The System of Dante’s Hell (1965); Gloria Naylor, Linden Hills (1985); Eternal Kool Project, hiphop Inferno; Africana Dantes at Penn, featuring Benjamin Krusling, Tracie Morris, and Nathalie Anderson:


Caribbean Dante: Derek Walcott, Epitaph for the Young (1949); Omeros (1990)


TransAtlantic 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); and then also Osip Mandelstam and Edward Said.


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.

Samuel Beckett, an accomplished Dantista: More Pricks than Kicks (1934); Happy Days?


Seamus Heaney, an intensive and sustained engagement with the Inferno and Purgatorio, in the context of "The Troubles": Field Work (“Lough Beg”), Station Island (“Lough Derg”), critical writings.

Catholic Irish Dante as more authentic than Anglican forms: Heaney mocks T.S. Eliot as "the intellectual mysteryman from Missouri ... mutating into the English vestryman."


Further filmic and TV Dantes: William B. Ramous, Francesca da Rimini (1907); Henry Otto, Dante’s Inferno (1924); Peter Greenaway and Tom Phillips, TV Dante (1988/90); more since. Graphic art Dantes.


Contemporary Dantes:

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

Teatro delle Albe (Ravenna), Cantiere Dante

Royal Ballet, The Dante Project


 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 (preferably tr. Mandelbaum, Bantam); Vita nuova.


Helpful anthologies and points of departure:


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


fulfills requirements