Poetry: Book Review | clivejames.com
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Book Review

Dante Alighieri: Monarchia. Edited by Prue Shaw 
for the Società Dantesca Italiana, 2009

More valuable than all of mine, your book
Is neatly kept like everything you do:
So clearly worth the twenty years it took,
It sparkles. Fonts well chosen, margins true,
Its every creamy page exhales the sense
Of learned judgment, tact and permanence.
If Dante waited seven centuries
To see his Latin tract receive such care
He can’t complain, though being hard to please
No doubt he did while he was lying there
Still exiled in Ravenna, still annoyed
That so much effort has to be employed
In re-establishing what he first wrote.
But what could he expect? He worked by hand,
And other hands, on skins of sheep and goat,
Made copies, and those went to every land
In Europe, and were copied once again,
And soon for every error there were ten.
Tracing the manuscripts back to the first
Few spin-offs is as good as you can get.
Often you don’t get that, and at the worst
A copy’s copy’s copy’s the best bet,
And so the scholar must compare, contrast,
And from the past deduce a deeper past.
It takes far more than sweat. It takes a mind
That can connect with the great poet’s heart,
Knowing his sweet new style was spare, refined,
Tough, difficult, precise in every part,
And therefore apt to be fudged in its gist
By scribes half qualified and some half pissed.
Such minds are rare, and often in disguise
They come into the world. My only role
In your brave saga is that I was wise
Enough to see the brilliant scholar’s soul
Shine through her beauty in the lecture hall
Even before we met. I guessed it all.
How could that be? Well, here is how it can:
You took notes at the same speed that I ate,
With an eye for truth unknown to mortal man,
Especially this man. It was my fate
To fish the surface but my luck to see
You hungered for a deeper clarity.
I saw you flower in Florence. That was where
The bigwigs spotted you and marked your card.
The sage Contini knew you were a rare
Natural philologist worth his regard,
And while you learned, you taught me. From the way
You read me Dante I foretold today.
Today, so far from our first years, I bless
My judgment, which in any other case
Is something we both know I don’t possess,
But one thing I did know. I knew my place.
I knew yours was the true gift that would bring
Our house the honours that mean everything:
The honour of our daughters raised to treat
All people with your scrupulous respect,
The honour of your laughter and the sweet
Self-abnegation of an intellect
That never vaunts itself though well it might,
And this above all, lovely in my sight –
Pursued through busy days in precious hours,
Pored over word by word and line by line
Year after year with concentrated powers
Of selfless duty to the grand design
Of someone long dead who was well aware
That dreams of peace on earth must court despair –
The honour of the necessary task
Done well, not just for show, and done for keeps.
Could I have helped you more? Don’t even ask.
I can hear Dante, grunting as he sleeps:
“You are the weakling and you always were.
If you would sing for glory, sing of her.”

Standpoint, June 2010

Note (from Collected Poems)

The eminent philologist Gianfranco Contini was the star professor at the University of Florence in the 1960s. He was the main reason why Prue Shaw, my future wife, was there, along with her studious friends, all of them sedulously copying down what Contini whispered as if it were a state secret. I myself was never equipped to follow his work at the level of scholarship, but he was also a critic and curator of modern writing. He acted as a mentor to Pasolini and was a close friend of Eugenio Montale, one of my heroes among the modern poets. (Contini’s little book of essays on Montale, Una lunga fedeltà — A Long Faithfulness — is a model of the form.) In his more scholarly work Contini’s prose style was notoriously over-condensed; and my wife was careful to absorb from him every influence except that. At the time of the poem she had not yet begun to write her pellucid handbook Reading Dante, but it was already clear that the analytical force of her writings was a tribute to her old professor. It was a long faithfulness.