Ancient Flame, The
Dante and the Poets
Paperback | 9780268044121 | March 2008
eBook (PDF) | 9780268096595 | March 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.
"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
"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. . . . [S]cholars of Dante . . . will benefit greatly from Wetherbee's masterful work of drawing connections between Dante's world and the worlds of the ancient epic." ~Renaissance Quarterly
“In The Ancient Flame, Winthrop Wetherbee brings together two longstanding passions, Roman epic and Dante’s Divine Comedy; his study wonderfully illuminates both. Wetherbee presents a Dante who opened himself as fully as possible to the forces that shaped the poetic worlds of his pagan forebears. In Vergil he experienced the tragedy of history, the constraints of life in a universe ruled by inexorable fate, where virtue and piety were never far from fury. In Lucan he witnessed the anger and despair that would mark the damned in Hell, and a moral inflexibility that qualifies the worthiness of Cato in Purgatory. In Ovid Dante felt the sweep and the shortfall of humanity and imagination in the classical age. In Statius he registered the impulse of an era to transcend what it could not fully understand. Comprehensive and unfailingly sensitive, The Ancient Flame is as poetically responsive a reading of the Divine Comedy and Latin literature as we have ever had.” ~Warren Ginsberg, Knight Professor of Humanities, University of Oregon
"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 'placesÆ they occupy in the Comedy." ~Speculum