Understanding Dante

John A. Scott

The William and Katherine Devers Series in Dante and Medieval Italian Literature

A 2005 Choice Outstanding Academic Book

“This is the summa of a lifetime’s work on Dante by one of the leading Dantisti in the English-speaking world. Written in perfectly lucid, often vigorous prose, it is a nearly perfect assessment of the status quaestionis in Dante studies.” —Piero Boitani, University of Rome, “La Sapienza”

“Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third.”

Understanding Dante attempts to explain and justify T. S. Eliot’s bold claim. John Scott offers readers at all levels a critical overview of Dante’s writings: five chapters deal with his New Life of love and poetry (Vita Nova), the Banquet of knowledge (Convivio), his Latin treatise on language and poetics (De Vulgari Eloquentia), Italian lyrics (Rime), and his blueprint for world government (Monarchia). The next five chapters concentrate on Dante’s masterpiece, the Comedy: its structure, Dante’s worldview (still relevant today), and the Comedy examined as a poem. Much has been written on Dante’s moral, political, and religious ideas; important as these are, however, such discussions are perforce limited. It is above all as a work of poetry that the Divine Comedy maintains its appeal and fascination to readers of all backgrounds and beliefs.

Firmly grounded in the latest advances of Dante scholarship, Understanding Dante offers an original and uniquely detailed, global analysis of Dante as poet of the Comedy that will be welcomed by those who read the poem in translation as well as by those who study the original Italian text. At the same time, Scott&#150s book will be welcome for its rich and insightful analysis of the whole corpus of Dante’s writings, as well as Scott’s mastery of the vast sea of critical literature in various languages. Scott bridges the gap that often exists between Dante studies in English-speaking countries and the great tradition of Dante scholarship in the poet’s homeland. No work in English about the great Italian poet can rival Understanding Dante’s scope in both depth and breadth of close reading and critical vision.

JOHN A. SCOTT is a senior research fellow in the department of European Languages and Studies at the University of Western Australia.


“. . . No one has done for Homer what John A. Scott has now done for Dante in Understanding Dante. An Australian scholar, Scott is one of the world’s leading Dantisti. In this summa of his career he has written a commanding, elegant overview of Dante’s works, analyzing his historical context; his political, moral, and religious ideas; the structure and texture of his writing; and the state of Dante scholarship. Scott has accomplished the nearly impossible: he has married close interpretation with broad synthesis—and in clear, often vigorous prose. This is a significant and deeply satisfying book.” — The Atlantic Monthly

“Scott explains the fundamental ideas we need to comprehend in order to read all of Dante’s works, from the poet’s fundamental choice between writing in Latin or the vernacular, to his complex and probably varying conception of allegory. Scott’s account of these ideas serves as an excellent general introduction to the poet; but it also conveys and renders accessible many of the major scholarly debates about Dante. . . . [His] book gives English-speaking readers the richest and clearest account in any language of Dante’s entire oeuvre. . . .” — Times Literary Supplement

“Scott, a leading Dante scholar, has written a useful, comprehensive book that will appeal to a broad audience. . . . Genuinely impressive for the amount of information it provides and for its sensitive analysis of Dante’s writings, this book is obviously the distillation of decades of dedicated study and teaching by one of the giants of world literature. The concise, lucid, and elegant prose does justice to its subject and makes it a book that will enrich any library and any reader. Essential.” — Choice

“In Understanding Dante, Scott goes beyond simply explaining Dante’s works and provides a detailed discussion of the medieval poet’s writings. John A. Scott has given readers a comprehensive account of Dante’s work that will be useful to new readers and Dante scholars alike. It contains a helpful chronology of the events in the poet’s life and a short glossary of poetic forms.” — Magill Book Reviews

”. . . Very good, almost ideal. . . . Scott’s genial good sense is reflected in every detail of his text. . . . [E]very page bursts with insights and brief accounts of disputed interpretations without ever feeling forced.” — Commonweal

“Scott . . . is one of the leading Dantista in the world today. He brings this life of teaching and reading to this magisterial overview of Dante’s known works. . . . [I]t is hard to imagine a better single-volume handbook suitable as an introductory text for students and a handy reference for advanced scholars. Highly recommended . . . .” — Library Journal

“This book introduces the beginner to Dante’s opera omnia, without disregarding aspects that may interest the more experienced reader. . . Scott successfully encapsulates in one important work all the research a beginner needs to undertake in order to understand Dante the author, his problematic life, and how this is reflected in his writings. Rarely has a comprehensive study shown how the man’s own experience and his work are inextricably intertwined in such an accessible way.” — MLR

“John A. Scott, one of the most distinguished English-speaking Dantists now working, offers in his magisterial Understanding Dante a complete survey of Dante’s works that handily supersedes other recent introductions to the poet. . . This volume will without any question establish itself as the indispensable vade mecum for students whether beginning or advanced.” — Speculum

”. . . a most useful, enjoyable, and accomplished resource in Dante studies, and should be found on the shelves not just of every Dante student, or novice seeking a scholarly introduction to the writer, but also of those with a more general interest in medieval literature.” — Medium Ævum

Understanding Dante goes a long way to help bridge this gap between the so-called minor works and the Comedy, and will become a standard handbook in any language and literature department teaching Dante. . . There is no book quite like this in English: it is part introduction, part critical review, and part close reading, and the overall result is a very readable and stimulating survey of Dante’s opera omnia.” — Sixteenth Century Journal

“John Scott’s Understanding Dante is a significant contribution to the study and teachings of Dante. In eleven chapters Scott has succeeded in providing a relatively succinct overview of Dante’s life, world, and work. . . . Although several influential collections of essays on Dante’s work have been published in English in the last decades, . . . none of these comes close to the comprehensiveness of Understanding Dante. Scott provides the essential background and orientation for the nonspecialist to teach and write about Dante. The book will be especially helpful for teaching Dante in translation in ‘great book’ or ‘world civilization’ courses. At the same time, it could also serve as an ideal textbook for courses dealing in more depth with Dante.” — Modern Philology

“For the reader looking for an all-purpose guide that takes account of just about everything, John A. Scott’s magisterial Understanding Dante is the clear choice. . . . What he has produced is a one-volume handbook that may be helpful to someone trying to ‘understand Dante’ for the first time—a college student, for instance, or the ‘general educated reader’ we all still hope is out there—but even more useful to the advanced reader or even the Dante professional.” — Christianity and Literature

“ . . . an always intelligent and eloquent guide to the works of the prince of poets. The book is organized chronologically, beginning with Dante’s early La Vita Nuova and ending with a discussion of his late eclogues and philosophical disquisitions; about 150 pages are devoted to La Commedia alone.” — Faith and Reason