Steinberg decodes Dante in first close reading

Finding the right path to follow in life is not a simple feat to accomplish, especially if the directions are in Italian.

Last Friday, Glenn Steinberg, professor of English, guided listeners through Canto 30 of “Purgatorio,” the second section of Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s epic masterpiece, “The Divine Comedy,” during the English Department’s first Close Reading lecture of the the new year.

“Dante was highly influential as a poet,” Steinberg said. “It is important to read his work in order to understand much of Western poetry.”

The audience was given the English translation while Steinberg read in Italian. In “The Divine Comedy,” Dante sends readers through nine circles of hell, through purgatory and finally to paradise so that his character may find salvation after wandering from the path of righteousness.

Steinberg provided historical and literary context for the text, including a discussion of Dante’s poetic style known as “Dolce Stil Novo,” or “sweet new style,” in which poets wrote about the beauty of women.

“Some people view it negatively,” Steinberg said of the poetic movement. “They feel it is patronizing to women. But I am actually a fan; Dolce Stil Novo values important things like emotion, introspection, intellect and transcendence.”

“The Divine Comedy” was revolutionary in that it combined the Dolce Stil Novo with the epic style of poetry made famous by Dante’s predecessor, Virgil, the Roman poet from the Augustan period and author of the “Aeneid.” Virgil accompanies Dante through the hell in Alighieri’s poem. Steinberg noted that Virgil treated women badly in his own writing, making them objects who stood in the way of his heroes.

Instead, Virgil focused on duty, destiny and the state, which were all in the public domain of men.

“Dante was trying to create a new kind of epic that doesn’t keep Virgil’s values,” Steinberg said. “I propose that Dante was putting Virgil to rest.”

Steinberg went to the text of the Canto, examining its language and syntax to demonstrate Dante’s movement away from Virgil’s themes.

“We’ve got a bit of gender-bending going on here,” Steinberg said.

According to Steinberg, Dante has emasculated Virgil’s character, placing him in the role of a mother as well as comparing him to Dido, the love-sick Queen of Carthage whose tragic tale is told in the “Aeneid.” Likewise, Dante compares the character Beatrice, based on his real-life love interest of the same name, to Jesus.

Also in the passage, Dante does not change the masculine gendering of nouns associated with Beatrice to their feminine forms.

“Dante seemed to be trying for Virgilian grandeur, but he was talking about women,” Steinberg said. “It was his proto-feminist manifesto.”

Reading epic Italian poetry from the turn of the 14th century is not every person’s idea of an exciting Friday afternoon, but Steinberg made a convincing case for the significance of Dante’s work to a modern audience.

“He has a great deal of wisdom about human nature,” Steinberg said, “He tells us that being flawed is okay. Try your best and salvation will come.”