Recently I read Dante Alighieri’s unfinished book THE BANQUET in Elizabeth Price Sayer’s translation. The translation, dating from 1887 is eloquently literate. The original work is like a fascinating abandoned building.
In the preface, unusual dates are offered for the work’s composition. This edition suggests that Dante was working on THE BANQUET after completion of his poetic masterpiece THE DIVINE COMEDY. As the COMEDY was completed no earlier than 1318, and likely two years after that, this theory would place Dante’s work on THE BANQUET near the end of his life.
I agree with the more widely held view that THE BANQUET was written somewhere between 1305 and 1307. Dante, who was both poet and philosopher, probably set the philosophical BANQUET aside to work on the COMEDY.
Dante, early in his bitter exile from Florence, had intended, through THE BANQUET, to put all the knowledge of his time, philosophical, scientific, theological, historical, political and legal, into a single work. What he achieved was somewhere around 30% of his intended design.
We see, in his BANQUET, themes that Dante developed more fully in other prose and poetic works. He argues for resumption of the Roman Empire and the supremacy of Roman law, as he did in his treatise ON MONARCHY. He argues for the literary use of the Italian, as opposed to the accepted Latin language, as he did in ON THE VULGAR TONGUE. We also see here the thorough astronomy and interest in angels that permeated THE DIVINE COMEDY.
Of particular interest are the poems that are interspersed with Dante’s learned prose passages. I have always been struck by Dante’s mixing of poems with prose commentary in LA VITA NOVA. But LA VITA NOVA, while analytical, is also narrative and constitutes what we now call creative nonfiction.
THE BANQUET, by contrast, is a work aimed at philosophical and scientific exposition. By placing poems next to philosophical prose, Dante is attempting to have both parts of the brain work together. Like Plato and the Roman poet Lucretius, Dante created works successfully synthesizing artistic imagination and rational or scientific thought. THE DIVINE COMEDY is at once a magnificent poem and a treatise on Scholastic theology.
The trouble with Dante’s BANQUET venture was that in the early 1300’s Europeans knew precious little about science. Only a few years earlier, the Oxford scholars Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon had, through their experiments, taken the first baby steps toward modern science. The historian Will Durant rightly called Dante’s abandonment of the project a testament to his intelligence. Certainly Dante, as a creative artist, achieved far more through THE DIVINE COMEDY than he would have through a completed BANQUET.
Still, THE BANQUET, as it stands, is an important amalgam of creative imagination and rational thought. I recommend it to anyone serious about this Italian master.