History, literature, love, and religion come together in this graceful biography of the world's most revered and influential poet. R.W.B. Lewis, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Edith Wharton
, displays the same intelligent understanding here of the complex interplay of inner and outer forces that shape an artist. His lucid account of political and literary conflict in 13th-century Florence (subject of another Lewis book, The City of Florence
) illuminates the context in which Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) came of age, fell in love with the unattainable Beatrice Portinari, forged the "sweet new style" that transformed Italian literature, and embroiled himself in factional disputes he would angrily renounce after his exile from Florence in 1302. Lewis makes palpable the intellectual and imaginative energy that fired Dante to write an influential political treatise (De Monarchia
), a powerful argument for literature written in the common tongue (De Vulgari Eloquentia
), and of course his twin tributes to Beatrice: one of the most eloquent love poems ever written (La Vita Nuova
) and that supreme chronicle of the human spiritual quest, Divine Comedy
. The author notes autobiographical elements in all Dante's works without trivializing their creative majesty, and if the poet's personality is somewhat muffled across the distance of eight centuries, his artistic presence still "sparkles and sings and smiles like one of the spirits in Paradise." Drawing cogently (and with generous acknowledgment) on previous scholarship, this volume worthily fulfills its mission as an entry in the excellent Penguin Lives series of short biographies for the general reader. --Wendy Smith
From Publishers Weekly
There could hardly be a more fitting biographer for Dante than Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic Lewis, who has called Dante's native city of Florence his second home for 50 years. In this newest offering in the Penguin Lives series a fraction of the size of Lewis's previous biographies of Edith Wharton and the Jameses Lewis shows an uncanny ability to capture crucial moments in Dante's life and development as an artist. Whether he is presenting the intricacies of Florentine politics or the living woman behind Dante's immortal vision of Beatrice, Lewis manages to provide just enough context to illuminate the known facts of Dante's life without losing the thread of his narrative. Lewis is especially effective in tracing the artist's tormented relationship with his native city, including his banishment from Florence in the political intrigues of the 1300s. In one memorable passage, he describes the "Purgatorio" (in which Dante consigns whole populations of Tuscans to eternal suffering) as the "exile's furious song" an attempt by an all-too-human artist to pass celestial judgment on his malefactors. Always a memorable writer, Lewis shows himself a particularly spry craftsman here; this may well be one of the most pleasurable biographies of Dante, as well as one of the shortest. Anyone in search of a brief but eloquent guide to the life of the Florentine master should not hesitate to turn to this book.
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