The Ancient Flame

Dante and the Poets

Winthrop Wetherbee

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

Chosen by Choice Magazine as an Outstanding Academic Title in 2008

While the structure and themes of the Divine Comedy are defined by the narrative of a spiritual pilgrimage guided by Christian truth, Winthrop Wetherbee’s remarkable new study reveals that Dante’s engagement with the great Latin poets Vergil, Ovid, Lucan, and Statius constitutes a second, complementary narrative centered on psychological and artistic self-discovery.

This fresh, illuminating approach departs from the usual treatment of classical poets in Dante criticism, which assigns them a merely allegorical function. Their true importance to Dante’s project is much greater. As Wetherbee meticulously shows, Dante’s use of the poets is grounded in an astute understanding of their historical situation and a deeply sympathetic reading of their poetry.

Dante may have been motivated to correct pagan thought and imagery, but more pervasive was his desire to recreate classical style and to restore classical auctoritas to his own times. Dante’s journey in the Commedia, beginning with the pilgrim’s assumption of a tragic view of the human condition, progresses with the great poetry of the classical past as an intrinsic component of—not just a foil to—the spiritual experience. Dante ultimately recognizes classical poetry as an essential means to his discovery of truth.

A stunning contribution by one of the nation’s leading medievalists, Wetherbee’s investigation of the poem’s classicism makes possible an ethical and spiritual but non-Christian reading of Dante, one that will spur new research and become an indispensable tool for teaching the Commedia.

Winthrop Wetherbee is Professor of English and Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus, at Cornell University.

“Winthrop Wetherbee’s study of Dante’s relationship to the classical Latin poets—Vergil, Ovid, Lucan, Statius—is a genuine tour-de-force. Drawing upon an expert knowledge of these four Latin authors and tracking Dante’s manifold uses of them from the beginning of the Commedia straight through to the end, Wetherbee produces something like a ‘total reading’ of the poem’s classicism. This is a significant achievement by one of our leading medievalists.” —Albert Russell Ascoli, Terrill Distinguished Professor, University of California, Berkeley


“A well-known scholar of classical and medieval Latin poetry, Wetherbee brings his enormous expertise in that field to bear on Dante’s Commedia, with consistently original and thought-provoking results. . . . Learned, readable, genuinely and profoundly humane, these readings succeed admirably in attaining their author’s stated goal of showing ‘the extent to which [Dante’s] gradual discovery of his own mission as a vernacular poet depended on a close and attentive reading of his Latin models.’” — Choice

“Wetherbee, a leading medievalist, has written a study of Dante’s relationship with the classical Latin poets Statius, Lucan, Ovid, and Vergil and how he drew from the works created by his predecessors. The book features clear writing and diligent documentation.” — Book News

“Winthrop Wetherbee, noted classicist and Dantista… argues that Dantisti have thus far employed a limited reading of Dante’s engagement with ancient epic. . . . Wetherbee suggests that Dante’s work with pagan sources might be ‘more intimate, more closely responsive to the distinct qualities of their poetry and far less violently interpretive than even the most thoughtful modern studies would suggest.’ He proposes a Dante who is an ideal reader taking each of the poeti on their own terms, from within their own contexts.” — Renaissance Quarterly

“. . . Wetherbee is a fine medievalist, who brings to his examination of trecento poets the expertise and sensitivity of one who has studied medieval Latin poetry. On top of this, he is a good classicist and a first-class comparatist. In The Ancient Flame he paints an admirable overall picture of Dante’s relationship with the classics and of the ‘places’ they occupy in the Comedy.” — Speculum

“Wetherbee seeks to recover a Dante who encounters classical poetry ‘as nearly as possible on its own terms’ through a deeply sympathetic consideration of that poetry’s worldview and values, its insights and limitations . . . the kind of new interpretation that stands one’s understanding of a poem on its head, and such imaginative boldness is altogether typical of Wetherbee’s accomplishment in this endlessly fascinating book. Students of Dante and of medieval and Renaissance classicism will be learning from it for many years to come.” — Sixteenth Century Journal

“No detail of Dante’s poem or of the classical poems that inform his work escapes the notice of Wetherbee, who succeeds in wringing significance out of the slightest smile, sigh, or gesture—sometimes in arguments of such dizzying subtlety that one is often (to paraphrase Johnson) less at a loss to explain how one missed them than to account for Wetherbee’s uncanny success in finding them. Once found, however, these new readings are unfolded with impressive rigor and shored up by the sort of erudition sufficient to support a worldview, not just a textual interpretation.” — Modern Philology

“This is a richly suggestive and generous book with much to say about Latin epic tradition, about recent classical scholarship, about Dante and his readers. Its sweeping argument is anchored by evocative readings of individual passages, each leading to new and fruitful ways of considering both the Commedia and the poems informing it. . . . A fine addition to Notre Dame’s William and Katherine Devers Series in Dante Studies.” — Studies in the Age of Chaucer