The intelligent reader of the twenty-first century -- that is to say, you -- might or might not have a knowledge of classical mythology and Roman history. Dante expects you to remember who Briareus was, and who Cato, and how Arachne was transformed into a spider, and what was the fate of the Sabine women. On top of this, he expects you to share his knowledge of, and obsession with, contemporary Italian history and politics. Some translations and modern editions of his poem endeavour to 'help' you here by elaborate explanations of the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, which soon have your head spinning. And on top of all that, there is the whole confusing business of medieval philosophy and theology -- what Thomas Aquinas owed to Averroes, or the significance of St Bernard of Clairvaux.
No wonder that so many readers abandon their reading of Dante's three-part Comedy (Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso) long before they get to Purgatory. No wonder that so many who manage to read as far as the Purgatorio find that very little of it has remained in their heads. Such readers are prepared to take on trust that Dante is a great poet, but the leave him as one of the great unreads. And in so doing, they leave unsavoured one of the supreme aesthetic, imaginative, emotional and intellectual experiences on offer. The are like people who have never attended a performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni, or of King Lear, never heard a Beethoven symphony, never visited Paris. Quite definitely, they are missing out.
If you belong to this category of Dante-reader, or non-reader, then this book is specifically designed for you.Let's see how I stack up against Wilson's potential reader:
Briareus: not off the top of my head.
Sabine women: check
Guelfs and Ghibellines: mostly check
Thomas Aquinas and Averroes: check, for the purposes of this discussion
St Bernard of Clairvaux: check
Read all of Purgatorio: check
Mozart's Don Giovanni: check
King Lear: not live, but I did see Ian McKellen's stage version on TV
Beethoven symphony: check
Visited Paris: check
Well, now I'm wondering if I should return this book to the library so it can benefit one of the educationally unwashed. I did nearly fall asleep during Don Giovanni, though, so I'm sure I'm in need of Wilson's benign tutelage.