"Summer afternoon--summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language."
It's hard to disagree with Henry James, especially after this desolate New York winter and late-arriving spring. But I would amend James's words to something even sweeter: summer reading. It's always enjoyable to spend time with a book you love. But there's something about lolling about on a summer afternoon with one of those daunting tomes you've been saving up for vacation. Middlemarch, War and Peace--perhaps even the dreaded Ulysses: summer reading is a time for literary dreaming.
That's why this summer I think you should give my favorite writer, Dante and his Divine Comedy, a try. I say this in full understanding that he is one of the most demanding, impenetrable writers you may ever confront. He wrote in a breathtaking medieval Tuscan replete with rhymes and colloquial expressions that are almost impossible to translate; his lines are rife with allusions to ancient works you're not likely to have even heard of; and he was a zealous Christian who dedicated the most precious real estate of his poem, the upper cantos of Paradiso, to biblical doctrine dense enough to send a theologian's head spinning.
These are the considerable barriers to entry; they're also the reason why should read him. Despite the difficulty of updating his Tuscan, there are many fine English versions of his poem, from Longfellow's magnificently literal version in 1867 to the richly annotated edition of Robert and Jean Hollander from 2007, and poets ranging from Byron to Heaney have captured the music of Dante's original in English.
The literary allusions and religious doctrine in Dante are difficult, but they're also part of the fun: with a good critical edition like the Hollander--or for the more studious, the mammoth three-volume commentary by Charles Singleton--you can see how profoundly learned Dante was, as he synthesized an ocean of classical and medieval sources in creating what the scholar Giuseppe Mazzotta rightly calls his "encyclopedic" vision.
Summer is the perfect time to embark on this challenge because it will give you the time and space for what Dante called the lungo studio e grande amore--the long study and great love--necessary for understanding great literature.
But all this intellectual weight lifting is not why you should read Dante. To understand how deeply his poetry can affect you, it's important to remember how, for Dante himself, the idea of literature underwent a profound change. As a young man, he was seduced by poetry and immediately dedicated himself to perfecting his literary craft in a movement called the Sweet New Style: a hyper-refined lyrical exploration of love and its disastrous physical effects. He fell in love with a young Florentine woman named Beatrice who became his muse in his first book, the autobiographical Vita Nuova--New Life--while also throwing himself into Florentine politics. By age thirty he had it all: powerful friends, literary success, political power.
And then, midway through the journey of his life, he found himself in a selva oscura, a dark wood. This is the image Dante chose to describe his spiritual crisis, which coincided with an all-too-real personal crisis: his expulsion from Florence in 1302, making him an exile from his beloved city for the final twenty years of his life.
After his exile, writing could no longer be a pastime or cultural calling card for Dante; it was now a matter of life and death. I believe that in the long, bitter years of his wandering as an exile throughout Italy--where he learned come sa di sale, "how salty is the taste" of non-Florentine bread--his only true home was his poem, The Divine Comedy. There, he could be with his beloved Tuscan, make sense of the horror and injustice of his exile, and above all dedicate himself to creating a world of transcendent beauty and order--to counter the strife and chaos he experienced in real life.
Close to the end of his journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise, Dante has a vision from his celestial heights:
In its depth I saw gathered,
bound by love a single volume,
everything scattered throughout the universe.
The sight is so overwhelming, so magnificent, that he can only make sense of it in the language he knows: the language of poetry, which gives him an analogy of harmony and wholeness, as beautifully ordered as one of his unfaltering eleven-syllable lines, for his intoxicating joy. The stakes in The Divine Comedy are high: Dante's soul is at risk as he navigates the moral quandaries and ethical choices presented to him in his voyage into the world of the dead. There are no easy answers in the afterlife, just as reading Dante himself is no easy task. But with the yawning openness of summertime and its promises of renewal, there's no better time to take on Dante and his challenges. Among other things, The Divine Comedy is about how poetry saved Dante's soul. Even if yours is not in peril, his poem remains one of the best guides we have to life's most challenging questions.
Joseph Luzzi teaches at Bard and is the author of In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love. He will be in conversation about In a Dark Wood with Daniel Mendelsohn at McNally Jackson Books, 52 Prince Street, New York, NY, on Thursday, June 18th at 8 p.m.