Professor lectures on Dante’s literary and theological influences
Daniel O'Boyle | Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Dr. Robin Kirkpatrick, poet, professor emeritus of Italian and English Literature at the University of Cambridge and scholar of Dante and the Renaissance, delivered the University’s annual Religion and Literature lecture, titled “The Pace of Praise: Might Theology Walk Together with Literature?”
Dr. Kirkpatrick, whose 2006 translation of Dante’s epic poem “The Divine Comedy” has been described as “one of the most important contributions to Dante scholarship of recent times,” spoke about the relationship between religion and literature with a particular focus on “The Divine Comedy” and how literary works like it are connected to the art of praise.
“One impulse, common to literary study and theology, is a desire to cultivate and promote the language of intelligent praise” Kirkpatrick said, “But it may also be said that the point of theology in one of its aspects is to prepare our language for its use in performance, prayer and literature, and focusing our thoughts on … praise.”
Kirkpatrick said Chaucer’s “Troilus and Criseyde” and “Purgatorio” the second part of “The Divine Comedy” are works of literature that can be a approached as a form of theological discovery.
“The late Middle Ages saw the invention, or re-invention, of literature as an independent field of human endeavor,” he said. “The texts in question call into play … the stress between pain and praise that a Psalm might display, but equally, for scrupulous attention to language.”
Kirkpatrick said the combination of Dante’s use of detailed theological augmentation and distinctly poetic language characterized the way praise is approached in literature, particularly the slow tempo at which it is delivered.
“As capable as Dante is of the highest flights of imagination, grotesquery as well as ecstasy, the foundation of his art is an unremitting clarity of articulation,” he said. “As incarnate beings we speak at our best not in high-flown rhetoric, but along the pulse of silence.”
Following the logic of Dante’s references to faith revealing itself in infidelity, authors who may be seen as “searching, violent or even blasphemous” can make a serious contribution to theological studies, and similarly, the use of surprising language in the Psalms can make a contribution to praise as a form of literature, Kirkpatrick said. He said the end of Psalm 137 is one such example.
“Scripture is full of scandals, which may shock the poet out of cliche, or predictable sentiment,” Kirkpatrick said.
Dr. Kirkpatrick is a Distinguished Visiting Professor in the departments of Religion and Literature at Notre Dame this semester.