Reading Dante's Stars

Alison Cornish

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Astronomy is one of the most prominent and perplexing features of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the final rhyme of the poem’s three parts, and in scores of descriptions and analogies, the stars are an intermediate goal and a constant point of reference for the spiritual journey the poem narrates. This book makes a sustained analysis of Dante’s use of astronomy, not only in terms of the precepts of medieval science but also in relation to specific moral, philosophical, and poetic problems laid out in each chapter.

For Dante, Alison Cornish says, the stars offer optical representations of invisible realities, from divine providence to the workings of the human soul. Dante’s often puzzling celestial figures call attention to the physical world as a scene of reading in which visible phenomena are subject to more than one explanation, Cornish contends. The poetry of Dante’s astronomy, as well as its difficulty, rests on this imperative of interpretation. Reading the stars, like reading literature, is an ethical undertaking fraught with risk, not just an exercise in technical understanding. Cornish’s book is the first guide to the astronomy of Dante’s masterpiece to encompass both ways of reading his work.

Alison Cornish is assistant professor of Italian in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan.

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"This lucid and graceful book has much to offer and, like the heavens themselves, gives us much to think on."—Rachel Jacoff, Modern Philology

“This is an elegantly concise, lucid, and beautifully written book. It is fresh Dante criticism of the first order.”—David Quint, Yale University

"Reading Dante’s Stars is a splendid accomplishment. Professor Cornish has mastered, and lucidly recounts, the intricacies of some of Dante’s most notoriously challenging astronomical references, only to reveal the complex poetic purposes that motivate them. Through Cornish’s expert treatment, we discover in Dante’s figurative heavens the dynamics, and erotics, of spiritual vision."—Albert Russell Ascoli, University of California, Berkeley

“Cornish’s scholarship is exhaustive and up-to-date, yet she never descends into pedantry or overwhelms the reader with detail; and her conclusions about the importance of Dante’s stars to the reader’s understanding of his poem are finely judged and almost always persuasive. Lucid, elegant, and above all useful, this is a genuinely distinguished contribution to Dante studies.”—Choice

“Alison Cornish has written an elegant, erudite, and engaging little book. . . . Despite its remarkable learnedness and the difficulty of the subject matter, it is simply and lucidly written. . . . Cornish’s contribution is, without a doubt, an extemely useful and supremely original addition (not a small feat in such an overcrowded field!) to the canon of American Dante criticism.”—Olivia Holmes, Annali d’Italianistica

“Cornish has given us a learned and stimulating set of essays. Often her achievement has been to draw together scattered interpretations and insights that she coordinates to illustrate Dante’s poetic use of astronomy; occasionally, . . . her interpretation seems definitive, but more usually her success is to expand our understanding of how Dante’s poetry works.”—Richard Kay, Speculum—A Journal of Medieval Studies

ISBN: 9780300076790
Publication Date: February 9, 2000
240 pages, 5 1/2 x 8 1/4
10 b/w illus.