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This report is taken from PN Review 220, Volume 41 Number 2, November - December 2014.

Reading Dante’s Inferno in Port of Spain Vahni Capildeo
The ‘rabbit-throwing riots’ which occurred in 1696 in an area of Oxfordshire that nowadays falls within David Cameron’s constituency are recorded as having involved some ordinary people. These included a blacksmith, a gardener, and the yeoman William Stock, named as an alleged leader in digging out the rabbits live and hurling them (possibly chopped up) at the better half of the wealthy couple whose recent enclosure of land to build a mansion on Eynsham Heath had impeded access to furze, bracken, firewood, and coney meat.

Any mention of ‘ordinary people’ naturally leads to thoughts of poetry. However, such an incident – perhaps a seventeenth-century commonplace; arguably unacceptable today, when it might be understood less as an expression from the heart of the folk than as symptomatic of deviancies fitter for prose (Lionel Shriver or the Guardian) – could shake one’s faith in the universality of human emotion across place and time, had one’s faith not already been cracked by poetry books with and without annotations, and by poetry reviewers who, ignoring biography, mis-attribute, for example, nationality, as did a good British poet-reviewer who reassigned a good (Canada-based) Caribbean poet-­scholar to Jamaica, 789 kilometres distant from his native Bahamas.

What if a sceptic about universality re-reads a canonical text like Dante’s Inferno in three places – Italy, England, and Trinidad – and finds it each time equally but differently arresting? Might aspects of those locations draw out, or hint at, the poem’s quasi-inexhaustible richness? Hurrying over the Ponte Vecchio, noticing how people catch at each other with ...

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