Category: Humanities

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The Divine Comedy is life-changing!

Simon Chater

That’s why you should read it, says Simon Chater. Widely revered but little read, Dante’s Divine Comedy turned 700 years old in 2021. I celebrated this anniversary by writing some Tasting Notes to introduce the poem to new readers.   Shakespeare fans say God came to earth twice: the first time as Jesus, to show us […]

Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 32 – the river of light

Simon Chater

Beatrice appears more beautiful than ever as she nears the end of her ‘special relationship’ with Dante. Doing her bidding one last time, he bathes his eyes in a river of light to free his vision from the last vestiges of earthly defects. Born a Florentine girl and now among the redeemed in paradise, Beatrice […]

Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 31 – why is God asleep?

Simon Chater

Mystics often describe their relationship with God as a love affair. Dante’s is full of joy, even ecstasy, but he also gets angry with God – a less acceptable emotion that is harder to deal with. In Paradiso 27 we see the poet moving from one extreme to the other, then turning to Beatrice for […]

Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 30 – earthrise

Simon Chater

Dante’s “earthrise” moment is entirely imagined – no astronaut’s photos were available in 1320. Its emotional impact is no less powerful for that. As we leave Saturn, the most remote of the planets, to enter the heaven of the fixed stars, Beatrice addresses him: In the array of the seven planets, each sphere enclosing another […]

Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 29 – through a glass darkly

Simon Chater

In the sphere of Saturn Dante meets a kindred spirit, Peter Damian, who leaves him in no doubt about the limits to human knowledge. Saturn is the outermost of the seven planets, the coldest and most remote from earth. This is the heaven of the mystics – those who, on earth, led a contemplative life […]

Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 28 – a refugee’s sorrows

Simon Chater

In the sphere of Mars, spiritual home of the courageous, Dante meets his great-great grandfather, Cacciaguida degli Elisei, who predicts the poet’s exile from his beloved Florence. A 12th century nobleman who fought in the second crusade and died a martyr in the Holy Land, Cacciaguida speaks of a Florence long vanished, a city “sober […]

The etymology of Brexit

Mike Zollo

‘Brexit’: a word which inspires irrational passion in some, and sadness and loathing in so many of others. “Brexit means Brexit” – really? What is its etymology, its origin? The very word ‘Brexit’ is nothing more than a corny ‘portmanteau’ word, a blend of words in which parts of multiple words are combined to make a new […]

Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 26 – I am the other, the other is me

Simon Chater

The souls in the heaven of Venus enjoy spiritual telepathy – wordless communication made possible by their participation in each other’s minds through the all-knowing mind of God. Dante invents new verb forms to convey their ecstatic mingling of identities. Venus is the third and last heaven on which the earth casts a shadow. Here […]

Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 25 – dappled splendours

Simon Chater

The opening cantos of Paradiso contain an extended and complex argument about how we gain new knowledge and how we can trust what we perceive. The challenge, for Dante, is to understand that spiritual reality works differently to the physical world he is leaving behind him. Dante begins Canto 2 with a challenge to his […]

Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 24 – the poetry of light

Simon Chater

Here’s how Dante begins his Paradiso – not with himself, as in his previous two canticas, but with God: This third and final phase of Dante’s journey begins in the relative world – the world of more or less, of hierarchy, of the many not the One, of the universe as a separate physical entity. […]

Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 21 – master of himself

Simon Chater

Reason can only take you so far. At the summit of purgatory Virgil reaches the limits of his knowledge. His task done, he crowns Dante master of himself, ushers him into the earthly paradise, watches in silence for a while, then turns for home in limbo. The wall of fire that purges the soul of […]

Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 18 – what is love?

Simon Chater

Virgil’s great exposition on love is centrally placed in the Comedy, occupying Cantos 17 and 18 of Purgatorio. With this, Dante signals that love, and the understanding of love, are at the heart of his poetic matter. Doctrinally, the ideas Dante attributes to Virgil are standard-issue medieval philosophy, derived from the teachings of Aristotle and […]

Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 17 – better together

Simon Chater

Life’s not a zero-sum game, say the souls on the terrace of envy, so don’t live it that way. Dante doesn’t ‘get it’ at first, but Virgil explains. We have just met Guido del Duca, scion of one of the leading families of Romagna, the region next-door to Tuscany, where Dante comes from. Like all […]

Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 16 – enlightening grace

Simon Chater

The Divine Comedy is primarily a vision. It is the story of how one man, through grace, becomes pure in heart and hence able to see God. During his first night on the mountain, Dante’s damaged inner sight is cleansed and healed in preparation for the work of penitence that awaits him in purgatory proper. […]

Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 14 – a dewy facial

Simon Chater

The first canto of Purgatorio celebrates our release from the pain and grief of hell. Virgil washes Dante’s face in the morning dew. Dante begins by announcing the change of mood: Boats and ships feature strongly in the Comedy, as symbols of the soul’s journey towards the divine. Here Dante is at the helm, his […]

Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 13 – the hidden passage

Simon Chater

We are out of hell, but still close to the centre of the earth and it is still dark. Through the blackness, Dante can hear the trickling of a stream: The hidden passage that connects Inferno and Purgatorio is one of Dante’s masterstrokes, entirely his own invention. It conveys the idea that there is, after […]

Education in crisis, and it can only get worse

Mick Fletcher

In any sane context the car crash that is Conservative education policy would be enough to bring down a government by itself.  The schools bill before Parliament has been so savaged in the House of Lords that ministers have stripped out 18 of the key clauses, leaving it bereft of its original purpose, yet doing […]

Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 9 – what, are YOU here?

Simon Chater

On burning sands, under a soft rain of flames, Dante meets his former mentor, Brunetto Latini. His “sin” is homosexuality, according to the dictates of formal religion. But what does Dante think? We are in the circle of the violent against God, nature and art. The naked souls here, whose baked features are caked with […]

Mickey Mouse, Peppa Pig and the war on empathy

Tom Scott

The government’s trashing of arts education will do great harm to the UK’s ‘soft power’. But as Tom Scott explains, the damage will go deeper than that. A few days ago, I was at a meeting of University and College Union (UCU) delegates from around the country. Hearing from other delegates about the swathe of […]

Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 8 – the wood of the suicides

Simon Chater

Suicide is the ultimate form of self-harm. In Inferno 13, Dante forges a new language of pain and despair to evoke the tortured minds of those who choose this ending. At the start of the canto we return to the landscape of the poem’s prologue, finding ourselves, again, in a pathless wood – not coincidentally, […]