A Dante Pilgrimage

Around Easter time a year ago, Ewan put forward the possibility of a group to accompany him on a 'pilgrimage' over two years to read the whole of Dante’s epic medieval poem, The Divine Comedy. The proposal was that we meet weekly on Zoom for three quarters of an hour, to read the cantos out loud one by one, with Ewan then leading the discussion, followed by reading the canto again. Since the original was in Italian, we would begin each time with Ewan reading the first lines in Italian, to capture the beauty of the poetry and the language.

It’s an interesting group that has come together; it includes those who know about Dante and his times, who speak Italian, and who add a great deal to the discussion. It also includes others who, like myself, have little prior knowledge but are curious to know more, with the thought of joining the group in its travels alongside Dante over time. It also felt like an excellent way to approach this multilayered poem, not from a purely academic point of view but as an experience together, very like a pilgrimage. There has been no homework, but reading the cantos has proved powerful and maybe served also to bring the group together.

As many will know, the journey taken by Dante and Virgil, his guide, is in three stages as conceptualised by Dante: Hell, Purgatory and lastly, Paradise. At this midway stage, we have been through Hell and are now poised to enter Purgatory. After thirty weeks meeting the sufferers in the darkness of Hell, hearing about their crimes and their sufferings, it has been with considerable relief that we have emerged into the light with more of a sense of ultimate hopefulness. It hasn’t all been grim. Dante’s poetry is superb, with every now and again the most lyrical and memorable stanzas. We are made aware of the people, the rough terrain, and the beauty of nature. The exhaustion of the journey itself has been powerfully described, alongside the fascination of the developing relationship of closeness between Dante and Virgil as they travel together.

Throughout there has been an underlying sense of Dante’s love for humanity, and with the use of allegory, the bedrock of his Christian faith shines through.

The group has felt very committed to working together, and the readings have been powerful and enjoyable. At this point we look forward to exploring Purgatory, with considerable curiosity about what trials it may bring. But there is no doubt that we are committed to the journey and deriving a great deal from it. And we are extremely fortunate to have Ewan as our leader and guide.

Gillian Miles

Being able to study the whole of the Divine Comedy is nothing less than a great privilege; week by week we are guided by Ewan, a wonderfully enthusiastic Dante scholar, through this work. It was radical, a bestseller, in 1320 and so remains, in different ways to different times, ever since.

With no knowledge of the language it is a particular pleasure for me when Ewan reads some lines in Italian and talks about the poetry. In today’s world of barely comprehensible modern threats, accompanying Dante on his long journey through the horrors of Hell, the anxieties of Purgatory and the hardly imaginable delights of Paradise may seem indulgent or a poor use of time, but our reading the poem aloud each week brings the characters, with all their virtues and vices, to life over the centuries. In “Dante” the narrator, the poet has surely created a sympathetic character for readers to identify with. We see him grapple with a fantastic and at times dangerous world in an entirely human way, and we become aware of the spiritual and ethical values that are the backbone of the poem.

Reading and discussing the whole work in this group is for me, in spite of the limitations of Zoom, both helpful and an encouragement to persevere. Thank you, Ewan!


(For more information about the Dante Pilgrimage and the weekly schedule, see the church webpage here.)

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