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Dante in English: Creative Responses to the Divine Comedy

ENGL 323.401
also offered as: ITAL 333, COML 333
MW 2-3:30pm


Dante's Divine Comedy has long been acclaimed as the greatest poem ever written, in any language. It is certainly among the most inclusive, covering every conceivable realm of human experience-- past, present, and future. In his Vita nuova ('New Life'), Dante tells of his growing love for a woman who first induces in him paralysis of feeling, then later free-flowing poetic creativity-- but then, suddenly, she dies. The Commedia, as it is known in Italian, proposes that death may not be the end; that lovers may meet again, and that their love forms part of the greater energy of the universe. This journey towards understanding comes in stages, or steps. First, led by the great Roman poet Vergil, Dante travels downwards through a lightless realm (Inferno) where people remain fixed in a single, inflexible attitude: Hell for Dante is another word for inability to change. Next, Dante and Vergil emerge into the light and climb the mountain of Purgatory. With first-hand knowledge of the worst of human nature behind them, they travel hopefully upwards and finally recover the first site of simple human happiness: the Earthly Paradise. Here, through much effort and much help from artists and poets, human beings can change, leaving destructive impulses behind. Finally, freed from worldly anxieties, Dante travels further beyond time to experience ultimate truths with his first beloved, Beatrice: Paradiso.


Dante was a proud Florentine, but died at Ravenna as a political exile. He died in 1321, so next year marks the 700th anniversary of his death. There will be celebrations and commemorations throughout Europe, and in Philadelphia too; this class gives you a sneak peek and a head start.


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.


The first English poet to be seriously inspired by Dante was Geoffrey Chaucer (died 1400). Chaucer's encounter with Dante's text and Dante's disciples (he travelled to Italy twice) led first to artistic crisis and then to his revolutionizing of English poetry. 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 (plus one shorter, tune-up essay). This can take the form of a traditionally-footnoted final long essay, 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 (about 600 lines) per class.  No prior knowledge of Italian needed. 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 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 struggle with the Italian; ii) his notes are helpful, but not overpowering; iii) very cheap (Bantam classics).


Anglophone writers who have been inspired by Dante, and who we might read in class, include: Geoffrey Chaucer; John Milton; Percy Bysshe Shelley; John Keats; William Blake; Alfred Lord Tennyson; Dante Gabriel Rossetti and other pre-Rapahelites; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; Fanny Appleton; H. Cordelia Ray; Ezra Pound; T.S. Eliot; James Joyce; Samuel Beckett; Seamus Heaney; Osip Mandelstam; Amiri Baraka; Derek Walcott; Eternal Kool Project; film and video makers (since 1907); Caroline Bergvall.


Required Text: Dante, Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso, translated by Allen Mandelbaum (Bantam, pb); Vita nuova (online).


Form of Assessment: one shorter essay; one longer one.






fulfills requirements
Sector 1: Theory and Poetics of the Standard Major
Sector 3: Early Literature to 1660 of the Standard Major