A Poignant Commentary on Dante’s Relevance Today by Bard Professor Joseph Luzzi

Joseph Luzzi, a leading academic authority on Dante and Italian language and literature, wrote “I Found Myself in a Dark Wood,” for the New York Times online edition December 18. As we draw to year-end, and think about life, our future, our past, our wonderful experiences, and our emotional losses, this is a wise, beautiful, and poignant commentary. Excerpts are below. For the full essay, visit this page.

I Found Myself in a Dark Wood
By JOSEPH LUZZI

“In the middle of our life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood.”

So begins one of the most celebrated and difficult poems ever written, Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” a more than 14,000-line epic on the soul’s journey through the afterlife. The tension between the pronouns says it all: Although the “I” belongs to Dante, who died in 1321, his journey is also part of “our life.” We will all find ourselves in a dark wood one day, the lines suggest.

That day came six years ago for me, when my pregnant wife, Katherine, died suddenly in a car accident. Forty-five minutes before her death, she delivered our daughter, Isabel, a miracle of health rescued by emergency cesarean. I had left the house that morning at 8:30 to teach a class; by noon, I was a father and a widower.

A few days later, I found myself standing in a cemetery outside Detroit in the cold rain, watching as my wife’s body was returned to the earth close to where she was born. The words for the emotions I had known till then — pain, sadness, suffering — no longer made sense, as a feeling of cosmic, paralyzing sorrow washed over me. My personal loss felt almost beside the point: A young woman who had been bursting with life was now no more. I could feel part of me going down with Katherine’s coffin. It was the last communion I would ever have with her, and I have never felt so unbearably connected to the rhythms of the universe. But I was on forbidden ground. Like all other mortals, I would have to return to the planet earth of grief. An hour with the angels is about all we can take.

Soon after, I went for a walk in the upstate New York village where Katherine and I had been living. I ran into the priest who had assisted at my college’s memorial service.

“You’re in hell,” she said to me.

I immediately thought of Dante, the author I had devoted much of my career to teaching and writing about. After a charmed youth as a leading poet and politician in Florence, Dante was sentenced to exile while on a diplomatic mission. In those first years, Dante wandered around Tuscany, desperately seeking to return to his beloved city. He met with fellow exiles, plotted military action, connived with former enemies — anything to get home. But he never saw Florence again. His words on the experience would become a mantra to me:

“You will leave behind everything you love / most dearly, and this is the arrow / the bow of exile first lets fly.”

Nothing better captured how I felt the four years I spent struggling to find my way out of the dark wood of grief and mourning.

And yet Dante could write “The Divine Comedy” only because of his exile, when he accepted once and for all that he would never return to Florence. Before 1302, the year of his expulsion, he had been a fine lyric poet and an impressive scholar. But he had yet to find his voice. Only in exile did he gain the heaven’s-eye view of human life, detached from all earthly allegiances, that enabled him to speak of the soul.

“The Divine Comedy” didn’t rescue me after Katherine’s death. That fell to the love of my family and friends, my passion for teaching and writing, the support of colleagues and students, and above all the gift of my daughter. But I would not have been able to make my way without Dante. In a time of soul-crunching loneliness — I was surrounded everywhere by love, but such is grief — his words helped me refuse to surrender.

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