March 12, 2012
After teaching everything but English literature for 20 years, I ended up at a Chinese university teaching not only a four-semester undergraduate survey of English literature to four dozen of the brightest students but also graduate seminars in the Epic, in Spenser, in Milton; one in which we read Dante each year; and yet another in the Renaissance, which included French, English and Italian materials, among the latter, Ariosto and Tasso. Occasionally I found myself sounding like what we had heard 50 years ago at Harvard, from, say, Douglas Bush (whose course in Milton I did not take) or Herschel Baker (whose course in the English Renaissance I did take), but only because one had to explain to the Chinese students how the Biblical and the Classical traditions merge in the work of Dante, Spenser or Milton. If these students had not taken my Western Epic, they did not know Vergil.
It is not just academic educators who think that Vergil is the greatest. Dante, after all, makes of him the figure of Human Wisdom; in The Faerie Queene, Britomart is half Aeneas, half Dido; likewise, in Paradise Lost Adam and Eve represent the revival of Vergil’s “home epic,” whose Biblical story is as multi-layered as Vergil’s Roman epic. I did not, however, teach (or in Particular and Universal write about) them from a Christian Humanist viewpoint. I taught instead Dante’s universality (I was writing, and am only just completing, a universal epic myself). Dante, I find, in India, China and Japan as well as the USA and Europe, is the most universal. Asian students prove to be better readers of the Comedy than their western counterparts, for they take an interest (as do the Italians) in the Purgatorio and Paradiso equal to an interest in the Inferno. I am not, however much impressed by Dante as a teacher.
You once said that you were fascinated that Dante had a specific rank for each of the Seven Deadly Sins. I do not regard Gluttony (overeating) or Lust as sins. I think too that there may be worse things than Pride. Three Christian and four Pagan Virtues make for a creaky platform. I am not at all sure that one teaches virtue best by means of a scheme. Morality is not a simple subject. In this regard, Spenser and Milton are less morally refined than Dante. Other matters interest me more: Dante’s three archetypes: Hell, Purgatory and Paradise; Milton’s God, Adam, Eve and Satan, which work on four levels: theological, social, marital and psychological. Milton is the greatest of these poets, because his erudition was broader and deeper than Dante’s or Spenser’s. In this he rivals Vergil. Johnson, you may recall, says that but for Homer’s Iliad, Paradise Lost would be the greatest epic.
Spenser is difficult, for various reasons. He works in what Tasso called “the form most suited to the Italian genius”: the episodic narrative. Ariosto, my favorite epic writer, is not explained by Christian and Classical terms. Tasso is a brilliant critic but a tedious poet (his work is pre-eminently Christian Humanist). In the Discursi he virtually defines the project of Paradise Lost. Spenser, though, is the modern Vergil, and in this regard is greater than Dante or Milton His best guide is not a professor of Biblical and Classical traditions but rather a radical feminist like Camille Paglia (see her Sexual Personae). She ignores what academics regard as obligatory and looks instead at how the poem actually works, at its complex poly-perverse mélange of sado-masochism and sexual ambiguity. Spenser here looks backward to Vergil and to Ovid (the western poet of widest renown since Homer) and forward to Lord Byron.