Studying Dante and Italian

Dante facing right No Sweat Shakespeare670 × 1000 Dante portrait
Dante facing right
No Sweat Shakespeare670 × 1000
Dante portrait
Dante facing left Wikipedia360 × 550 head-and-chest side portrait of Dante in red and white coat and cowl
Dante facing left
Wikipedia360 × 550
head-and-chest side portrait of Dante in red and white coat and cowl










This afternoon I will attempt to translate a canto of Dante’s Inferno from its original Italian. This is something I never would have thought possible when I joined in first year. I knew no Italian apart from ‘ciao’. But let me introduce my salvation: LFA! LFA or Languages For All is a brilliant course offered by the uni that I took in first year, to bring me some way up to scratch for  studying Dante. Italian Level 1 may not seem like much, but it gave me the basic grammar and vocabulary I needed to study more advanced Italian. Besides that, it was a lot of fun! The lively yet relaxed atmosphere was the perfect environment for studying something immensely useful, but without the pressure of it actually being part of the degree.

LFA for me was not just useful for my degree, but provided a window to what is a beautiful and vibrant language in Italian. It is often termed ‘the language of love’, or ‘the language of music’, it is the birthplace of the sonnet and the opera. And having only spoken Italian at an elementary level, it is easy to see why. There is something immensely satisfying about speaking Italian; it is rich and musical. It is, for the Literature students, the perfect language for poetry.

Which brings me on to Dante. I have only just begun the odyssey which I’m sure studying the Comedy will be, but I can already see how rich and rewarding it will be. In a two-hour seminar, we only got through half of a canto (Inferno is divided into 34 sections, or ‘songs’-‘canti’), such was the density of things there was to say about it. It is going to be a challenge, my Italian is still pretty basic, but I know that it will be a totally formative experience. This will be of course aided by my tutor, who is the most engaging, enthusiastic and inspiring tutor I’ve had.  Learning a new language is important, as I will talk about later, but also getting to grips with Dante is so important for anyone’s appreciation of poetry at large. Not only is Dante’s influence heavy on the likes of Chaucer, Milton and T.S. Eliot, but studying Dante gives you a vital toolkit for studying pretty much any poetry you will come across. The Comedy is tightly structured, each word is carefully placed, and carries so much significance. Learning how much freedom and playfulness can be found within that structure is both totally rewarding, and essential.

Now you may have heard it a million times, but I’m going to make it a million and one. Languages are important. Forging links with people from other countries is embedded in the communion of shared language. It is a sign of mutual respect. It also, to talk in more pragmatic terms, looks damn good on any CV or personal statement you may submit in the future. Here is a link to the LFA website for more info.

There are of course myriad reasons why learning a language is good for mind, body

English 205W: Poetry600 × 944 Harley 2253 (British Library, 63v)
The Harley Manuscript  English 205W: Poetry600 × 944
Harley 2253 (British Library, 63v)

and soul. But if you are here to read about English literature, and English literature alone, then foreign languages might be rooted far deeper in our literary history than you may first suspect. Last term in our Medieval seminar, we looked at a collection of poems called the ‘Harley Lyrics’, dating from about 1340. These lyrics were collated as a hallmark of English literary tradition, they were established as canonical. What is interesting is that these lyrics were not only written in Middle English, but Middle French and Latin. We have a multilingual heritage, and what is so brilliant about the course at York, English and Related Literature, is that it recognises this. This, as well as literature from around the globe, is foundational to the course, making it as enriching as any you will find.

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Hello! I am a second-year English student, who would rather not live in a world without Radiohead, the Smiths, Stewart Lee, Limmy, or theatre.