Dante's Aesthetics of Being.
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. xvi + 176 pp. $42.50. ISBN: 0-472-10971-5.
Jackson Campbell Boswell. Dante's Fame in England: References in Printed British Books, 1477-1640.
Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999. xx + 222 pp. $36. ISBN: 0-87413-605-9.
Nick Havely, ed. Dante's Modern Afterlife: Reception and Response from Blake to Heaney.
New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. xiv + 270 pp. $69.95. ISBN: 0-312-21581-9.
These three books offer, respectively, a critical study of Dante's implied aesthetics, a catalogue of references to Dante in Renaissance English literature, and a collection of essays about Dante's impact on modern literature. Of them the first is most likely to provoke discussion in Renaissance studies today. Warren Ginsburg argues that Dante's literary aesthetic inscribes a form of knowledge that relates particular sense experience to intellectual abstraction in a discourse comprehending all other discourses. Because we possess no medieval treatises on the nature of the beautiful and how we apprehend it, we can only surmise how medieval thinkers might have constructed an aesthetics. Following upon the work of Hans Glunz, Umberto Eco, and others, Ginsburg speculates that for the late Middle Ages aesthetics was the domain where ideas about form and proportion and questions about being, love, identity, and the perfection of self converged. From this perspective Dante and poets of the stil nuovo are "nothing l ess than theorists of the aesthetic" (7). With the poetry of analogy fashioned in the Vita nuova and perfected in the Divine Comedy, Dante's impulsion toward analogy becomes "the mark of the aesthetic's coordination of the sensible and the metaphysical" (9).
In a long chapter on "The Analogies of the Vita nuova" that constitutes more
than a third of the book, Ginsburg shows that this discourse explores relations "between the everyday and the sublime, between flesh and soul, between time and eternity" (77). Successive and shorter chapters on Dante's "a quel modo / ch'e' ditta dentro vo significando" (Purgatorio 24.53-54), on the meeting with Cacciaguida in Paradiso 15 and on the punishment of the thieves in Inferno 25, exemplify its implications in the Divine Comedy. There Dante attempts "a mystical union of [poetic] words with the [Divine] Word" (105) while anchoring his discourse in a representation of historical change, and he appropriates the ancient, and specifically Ovidian, idea of metamorphosis not only "to transform it into a figure for allegory but also to announce his opposition to the common medieval tendency" to allegorize Ovid (117). To reinforce his perceptive textual analyses Ginsburg draws upon important recent work by Giuseppe Mazzotta, Roland M artinez, Robert Harrison, and Patrick Boyde.
In the absence of direct theoretical testimony from Augustine, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, and other premodern thinkers, Ginsburg plausibly reconstructs at least one possible theory of aesthetics that shaped Dante's poetry and, either directly or antithetically, that of his Renaissance successors. A particularly fertile resource for confronting fourteenth- to sixteenth-century aesthetic theory is, of course, commentaries on the Divine Comedy in manuscripts and early printed editions of the poem. Ginsburg refers to the annotations of Landino, Vellutello, Daniello, Castelvetro, and others without exploring them directly. These annotations illuminate Renaissance ideas about aesthetics, though not necessarily Dante's ideas or those of his contemporaries. Such concerns necessarily stand outside Ginsburg's purview, but the energy and intensity of his study surely lead us toward them. Ginsburg's books offers a foundation that Renaissance scholars might productively build upon to understand early modern aesthetics.
Foundational work of another sort comes to Renaissance scholars in Jackson Campbell Boswell's catalogue of references to Dante in British print to the mid-seventeenth century. Supplementing Werner Paul Friederich's and Paget Jackson Toynbee's compendia of references and allusions to Dante in English literature, Boswell offers 322 annotated references in books listed in the Short Title Catalogue. Beginning with Caxton's first printed edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1477) and ending (almost) with Ben Jonson's Volpone in his Workes (1640), this new compendium provides full quotations, useful annotations, and a goldmine of proof that Tudor and Stuart readers took very seriously their Dante, along with Petrarch, Boccaccio, and other Italian authors often mentioned with him. Campbell modestly claims to labor as "a simple bibliographer" (xvi), but he in fact offers much more than that. A measure of his thoroughness is his citation of the aforementioned commentaries by Landino, Vellutello, and others found in English possession, yet another affirmation of how important the intervening perspective of commentary turned out to be in Dante's Renaissance reception.
The essays in Dante's Modern Afterlife examine Dante's reception from Thomas Gray and William Blake to Samuel Beckett, Derek Walcott, and Seamus Heaney. Among the fine appreciative essays are ones by Jeremy Tambling on Blake, Stuart Curran on Shelley, William Keach on Shelley, Judith Woolf on Giorgio Bassani, and the volume's editor Nick Havely on Gloria Naylor. Many of us who profess early modern literature came to the field because of our passionate love for literary study. Along the way not a few appear to have lost touch with that engagement in an increasingly professionalized academic environment. This book is a salutary reminder of the continuity of literary response to a writer who figures as supremely important in Renaissance studies.
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|Author:||KENNEDY, WILLIAM J.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2000|
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