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This report is taken from PN Review 179, Volume 34 Number 3, January - February 2008.

Poets in Paradise: Chaucer, Pound, Eliot Michael Alexander

In the fourth canto of the Inferno Dante has Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan welcome Virgil and then invite him, Dante, to join them. This immodesty is not unjustified: Dante is the first major poet in the new literatures of Europe who can stand the comparison with the great ones of antiquity. His work has a greater scope than that of Horace, Ovid and Lucan, and his style has all the terseness of Horace and the authority of Virgil. Of subsequent European poets I can read, only Milton has an ambition and stylistic command comparable with Dante's. But Milton's epic suffers at times from the author's egotism and the controversialist nature of his Christianity. Mediaeval Catholicism offered a grand structure strong enough to resist Dante's fierce sense of grievance; which is one reason why his humility (though he is so confident about ultimate destinations) seems more genuine than Milton's. Shakespeare is both greater and more humane than Milton, by reason of his profound interest in all sorts of other people and their predicaments, and his ability to forget himself. As befits a dramatist, Shakespeare is also more varied and accessible than the epic poets; though The Odyssey is more varied than Racine.

Varied, humane and accessible are words which apply also to Chaucer, who is the first English poet to place himself in the European tradition. Towards the end of his Troilus and Criseyde, he instructs his 'little ...


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