“To set something down is a way of understanding it”, says Dante in Stephen Wyatt’s current Radio 4 adaptation of the Divine Comedy (BBC Radio 4 Classic Serial, Sundays 3pm, repeated Saturdays 9pm).
Stephen Wyatt skilfully blends Dante, the middle-aged poet who narrates the poem, with Dante in old age, reflecting on his life and writing. And so, painlessly, the listener is introduced to the historical and biographical background to the poem, notably Dante’s love for Beatrice, the political squabbles in Florence and Dante’s exile from his native city. John Hurt’s voice is perfect for the older Dante.
Dante was the subject of Radio 4’s Great Lives last week. The journalist Sarah Vine, a Dante enthusiast, and Claire Holness, professor of Italian studies at Leeds, talked about Dante’s greatness and his accessibility (don’t keep stopping to read the notes!). I learnt that for Dante the three-fold journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise was merely the Commedia. It was Boccaccio who added the Divina adjective, giving Dante’s work the title by which we know it today. Sarah Vine and Claire Holness pointed out that the most memorable parts of the poem are the many characters Dante encounters in the course of his journey.
Because of these multiple characters the Divine Comedy is ideal for dramatisation – so many voices, so many personal stories to tell. The poem also creates its own sound world – perfect for radio – the horrific cries and bitter regrets of those in hell for example. The Medieval mind certainly knew how to make the punishment fit the crime. There will, I am sure, be angelic music when we get to Paradise in the last episode.
But to me, the best part of the Divine Comedy is the relationship between Dante and his guide, Virgil. Virgil is voiced by David Warner as a thoughtful matter-of-fact older man. He has to deal with Dante the poet (played by Blake Ritson) who, despite being “at the mid-point of the path through life”, sometimes behaves childishly in his journey through the spiritual realms. Virgil’s “smile was kind,/As if aimed at a child that we can sway/With just an apple”. Virgil gives patient answers to Dante’s persistent questioning. Several times he has to speak firmly to Dante and tell him to pull himself together. Virgil protects him from harm and extricates him from potential trouble. Theirs is the close bond that develops between travelling companions.
I started my second reading of the Divine Comedy in January (this time in the recent translation by Clive James). I’ve been reading a canto each morning. By a strange coincidence I finished the Inferno on the day my father died. In the poem Dante calls Virgil “my master” to begin with, then “my guide” and “my friend”. By the Purgatorio Virgil is calling Dante “my son” and Dante is calling him “father”. When the time is near for their parting (Virgil has to hand over to Beatrice for the Paradiso) the sadness under the surface of the words is strong: “Don’t keep/A vigil any longer for my tongue”, says Virgil, “Move on. You’ll never hear from me again”. Dante does go on, walking through a beautiful forest, and encounters Beatrice. He is overcome and turns to say to Virgil “Not a drop, not one/Of blood remains in me that does not shake”. But “Virgil, who’d done so much for my sake,/Virgil my father, Virgil, he that came/For me ... now was gone.”
It is a picture of loss and grief so universal in human experience and yet still so moving.