Sayers & Dante

June 2013By James E. Person Jr.

James E. Person Jr. is the editor of Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800 and Shakespearean Criticism.

The Passionate Intellect: Dorothy L. Sayers’ Encounter with Dante.  By Barbara Reyn­olds. Kent State University Press. 267 pages. $22.



“The variety of Dorothy Sayers’s work makes it almost impossible to find anyone who can deal properly with it all,” said C.S. Lewis in 1958. “Charles Williams might have done so; I certainly can’t,” he added.

In stating this in a pane­gyric read at Sayers’s funeral, Lewis touched on an issue that has proved troublesome for over 30 years now. Creator of the Lord Peter Wimsey myster­ies, poet, literary theorist, au­thor of several memorable dramas, formidable Christian polemicist, and controversial translator of Dante’s Commedia, Sayers seemed to stir every pot in literature. And if Lewis — of all people — considered it beyond his skill to assess her achievement accurately, who then is capable of evinc­ing an understanding of Say­ers’s life and work so as to sort out and possibly reconcile their disparate threads?

Sayers’s longtime friend and fellow Dante scholar, Barbara Reynolds, sheds much light on how to “deal properly with it all” in The Passionate In­tellect. Reynolds, who complet­ed the Penguin Classics trans­lation of the Paradiso that Say­ers left unfinished at her death (and is herself an acclaimed translator of Dante’s Vita Nuova and Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso), was in close touch with Sayers throughout their 11-year co-operation in matters related to translating the Commedia. The Passionate Intel­lect, then, is the result of decades of rumination on the subject of Sayers’s encounter with Dante, written by one with an insider’s perspective. By addressing this segment of her colleague’s life, Reynolds attempts to show that the young Sayers who created Lord Peter Wimsey in 1923 “is the same in essentials as the mature scholar-poet-interpreter who made Dante intelligible and relevant to millions of modern readers,” and that “to see this is to have a deeper understanding of her earlier works.” Lewis wrote: “There is in reality no cleavage between the detective stories and her other works.” Reynolds con­vincingly confirms Lewis’s judgment.

Inspired by Charles Wil­liams’s The Figure of Beatrice (1943), Sayers read the Comme­dia for the first time in 1944 while huddling in an air-raid shelter outside London. She had come to the poem with what she later called “an un­prepared mind,” expecting a stiff, didactic drama. What she discovered instead was a commentary on human exist­ence as true in the 20th cen­tury as it had been to the 14th — and a corking good story to boot. Of that initial reading she later wrote, “Neither the world nor the theologians, nor even Charles Williams had told me the one great, obvi­ous, glaring fact about Dante Alighieri of Florence — that he was simply the most incom­parable story-teller who ever set pen to paper.”

Skillfully drawing upon Sayers’s unpublished letters to Williams, Reynolds details how Sayers arose from her reading of the Commedia determined to translate the work better and thereby to release Dante from the exclusive demesne of Pro­fessor Dryasdust. By this time in her career, the mid-1940s, Sayers had mastered the tech­niques of the literary forms mentioned above. All this ex­pertise, Reynolds says, “she brought to bear on her reading and translation of the Comme­dia: from her novel-writing, the habit of visualising a narrative in three dimensions and the ability to handle structure, characterization and dialogue; from her experience as a playwright, a heightened awareness of the interplay of character and plot; from her polemics, skill in the marshall­ing of facts and in presenting a case with logic and cogency; from her Christian apologetics, a grasp of doctrine and a ca­pacity to expound unfamiliar concepts in present-day terms; from her poetry (which she wrote all her life), skill in verse-form, metre and rhyme.”

More importantly, Sayers possessed what she herself called “the passionate intel­lect,” defined by Reynolds as a mind attuned to “the union of the intellect and the imagina­tion as the highest means of reaching religious truth.” This quality of mind she shared with Williams, Dante, and (by all evidence, though she no­where says so) the author of the book at hand. By bringing it to bear on the original text and by recognizing the humble, everyday imagery that pervades Dante’s cantos, Say­ers was able to enter into the mind of Dante the way Ches­terton’s Father Brown pene­trates the minds of criminals: not by imposing a schema of examination from without, but through identification with their common humanity. Combining this with adept translation skills enabled Say­ers (and later Reynolds) to produce a version which has reached more readers in 40 years than had read Dante in the preceding centuries.

Professor Dryasdust has never been entirely comfort­able with this turn of events, going so far, on occasion, as spitefully to accuse Sayers of not really knowing the Italian language, and not grasping how to translate the Commedia. The first claim is utterly groundless. As for the second, even Reynolds — Sayers’s ad­miring friend, but not Sayers’s bulldog — admits that some of her friend’s audacities in lan­guage and rhythm fall some­what short of achieving Dante’s desired effect. Reyn­olds acknowledges as valid the cautionary criticisms of such renowned scholars as Colin Hardie, but exhibits little pa­tience with commentators who engage in mere abuse of the Penguin Classics translation — notably C.H. Sisson, translator of a 1980 edition of the Com­media.

Turning from her discus­sion of the Commedia, Reynolds offers insights into two of Say­ers’s unfinished works: a book of critical theory based on Dante’s thought and a novel on Dante and his daughter, Beatrice. Along the way she offers cogent explanations of the artistic and spiritual quali­ties Sayers shared with Dante, including the “Way of Affirma­tion” — by which divine truth is apprehended by the Chris­tian through the medium of everyday persons, objects, and circumstances — and the “Beatrician Vision”: unexpected instances of spiritual insight called by James Joyce “epipha­ny” and by T.S. Eliot “the timeless moment.”

Of special interest are the insights provided by Reyn­olds’s use of unpublished letters of Lewis, Williams, and Sayers, among others. Take, for example, the tempest that arose when Lewis and the volatile Sayers “learned” (through misinterpretation of a business letter) that Sir Hum­phrey Milford of Oxford University Press intended to allow them — along with J.R.R. Tolkien and Owen Barfield — to publish their 1947 collection, Essays Presented to Charles Williams, at their own expense. “Good God Al­mighty!” Sayers erupted. “And Charles served that firm faithfully nearly all his life! Pay? Pay? PAY?… Most publishers would be pretty glad to have our names on their lists at any price.” Later, after Sir Humphrey had cor­rected their misunderstanding, an embarrassed Lewis sent a brief note to the equally con­trite Sayers: “Best quality sackcloth and ashes in sealed packets delivered in plain vans at moderate charges.”

Reynolds’s book is tightly written, thoroughly research­ed, and well organized. The only flaw I could detect was her transforming of Lewis’s colleague H.V.D. (“Hugo”) Dyson into “C.H.” Dyson. Otherwise Reynolds has pro­duced what should be recog­nized as one of the two most valuable books yet written on Sayers, the other being Ralph E. Hone’s Dorothy L. Sayers: A Literary Biography (1979).



Back to June 2013 Issue

Read our posting policy Add a comment
Be the first to comment on this note!