BA Art History and English Literature

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
Dante in Modernism

Unit code ENGL34001
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by English and American Studies
Available as a free choice unit? No


Dante is ubiquitous in modernism. Ezra Pound celebrated in 1910 the advent of what T.S. Eliot called ‘the master’. Eliot, who was for Pound ‘the true Dantescan voice’ of modernism, praised Dante’s supranational quality in The Sacred Wood, and acclaimed him as ‘a European’ in his Dante essay of 1929, a work which Samuel Beckett judged to be ‘insufferably condescending, restrained & professorial’. After Joyce’s Ulysses and Work in Progress­, Beckett crafted instead his preposterously purgatorial Belacqua Shuah, whose shadowy presence haunted his entire oeuvre. Dante, however, is also central to perhaps lesser known modernist authors, such as Djuna Barnes and Dorothy Richardson, while his allegorical method proved surprisingly intriguing for Virginia Woolf.

 This course will explore how and why the fourteenth-century poet became so central to early twentieth-century English speaking literature. We will focus our attention on a select number of authors: Dorothy Richardson, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, but we will make reference to Pound and Woolf, too. 

 The main questions we will address are: 1) what does it mean to think of literary influence and intertextuality in the early twentieth-century? 2) why did an author from the middle ages writing in a different language become so central to modernist aesthetics? 3) how can modernist experimentalism help us to re-read Dante differently?


This course will ask you to reflect about your critical position through close reading.

In order to do so, we will discuss what is at stake in ‘recognising’ an external presence in a text, especially in the context of modernist texts which constantly ask the question: ‘where does language come from?’ and ‘whom does it belong to?’ We will also reflect on the pleasures and the challenges of translation and interpretation of an oeuvre that is geographically, culturally, and temporally distant. We will learn how to close read some challenging medieval and modernist texts, teasing out conceptual differences and similarities. And we will also spend time debating the politics of authority, and how gender affects the way in which critics have conceptualised literary history.

 We will be dealing with a number of challenging issues, which should help you to gradually develop the ability to read complex modernist texts and think about their composite nature; to engage with the Inferno (and a few cantos from Purgatorio and Paradiso) in translation; to participate in current debates around authority, periodization and intertextuality; to enter into a dialogue profoundly different texts; and to produce independent interpretive work.




• To equip students with the close reading skills necessary to analyse formally innovative works of modernist writing and fourteenth-century poetry in translation;
• To encourage students to acquire and reflect on the critical vocabulary necessary to explain and contextualise the works of modernist writers;
• To engage philosophically and theoretically with the different ways in which modernist texts explore questions of literary influence, intertextuality, and tradition;
• To familiarise students with important critical and theoretical debates and controversies within the field of modernist studies;
• To encourage reflection on the definition of modernism and especially on the relationship between canonical and marginal modernism;
• To prepare students for the advanced study of modernist texts at MA level.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course students will be able to:
• Identify the key formal and thematic concerns of modernist writing;
• Be able to engage competently with sections from the Divine Comedy (in translation);
• Be able to reflect on the challenges posed by different translations;
• Be able to engage with debates about influence, intertextuality, and tradition;
• Appreciate the variety of ‘modernisms’ grouped under the catch-all term ‘modernism’;
• Analyse and explain the distinctive formal properties of modernist literary texts.


Week 1 (week beginning September 23rd):

Dante – a very brief introduction


Week 2 (week beginning September 30th):

Dante and Modernism – an overview


Week 3 and 4 (weeks beginning October 7th and 14th):

Eliot and Pound as ‘forgers’


Week 5 and 7 (October 21st and November 4th) [NB week 6 is reading week]:

Stephen Dedalus’s ‘refrigerating apparatus’ (James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)


Week 8 and 9 (November 11th and 18th):

Beckett’s Belaqua and other lazy types


Week 10 and 11 (November 29th and 30th and December 6th and 7th):

Dante in Dorothy Richardson’s Interim: a lesson in political economy


Week 12 (December 13th and 14th):

On not knowing Dante: Virginia Woolf’s The Years


Teaching and learning methods

1 hour lecture and 2 hours seminars per week

Knowledge and understanding

• A good knowledge of sections of The Divine Comedy in translation;
• A good knowledge of key authors in modernism;
• A good understanding of the complex ways in which we can think of literary tradition, influence, and authority;
• A good understanding of the complexities of working with texts in translation. 

Intellectual skills

By the end of this course students will be able to:
• Close read complex modernist texts and key sections from the Comedy in translation;
• Compare radically different aesthetics;
• Think about how such comparisons can be made;
• Think about literary and critical authority, including questions of literary value.

Practical skills

By the end of this course students will be able to:

• Close read;
• Contextualise and historicise;
• Achieve a familiarity with literature in translation;
• Achieve an historical understanding of key aesthetic problems.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

By the end of this course students will be able to demonstrate:

  • The ability to interpret texts patiently and rigorously;
  • The ability to discuss complex issues with peers;
  • The ability to write lucidly about complex issues.

Employability skills

Analytical skills
The ability to interpret accurately and effectively
¿ The ability to be confronted by unfamiliar material without fear
Oral communication
The ability to discuss complex issues with their peers and mentors
Problem solving
The ability to take on a challenge
Written communication
The ability to write lucidly about complex issues

Assessment methods

Essay 1:

2000 words; 30% of final mark; due in on 25th October, 12 noon, via turnitin.

This essay will ask you to close read select passages from two texts studied on the module so far.


Essay 2: 4000 words; 70% of final mark; due in on 17th January, 12 noon, via turnitin.

This essay will ask you to look at least two modernist authors studied on the course in relation to Dante. Essay questions will be given in week 5.


You cannot write on the same text(s) or author(s) for essays 1 and 2. You will have to refer to the works of Dante in each of the essays. Overall, you will need to demonstrate a good knowledge of at least four modernist texts in addition to the Divine Comedy.

Feedback methods

• Written feedback on essays 1 and 2
• Additional one-to-one feedback (during consultation hour or by making an appointment)

Recommended reading

Essential Bibliography


T.S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1921), pp. 144–155. [available in booklet] 

– – “Dante” (London: Faber& Faber, 1929) [available in booklet]

– – ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and The Waste Land. [available in booklet]

Ezra Pound, “Dante.” The Spirit of Romance (London: Peter Owen, 1952 [1910]).  [available in booklet]

–– “For T.S.E..” Sewanee Review, special issue on T.S. Eliot (Jan-March 1966): 109. [available in booklet]

James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, edited by Jeri Johnson (Oxford: Oxford University Press [World’s Classics Series], 2008) [please buy]

Samuel Beckett, ‘Dante…Bruno.Vico..Joyce’, in Disjecta. Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment, Ruby Cohn (ed.), New York: Grove Press, 1984. [available in booklet]

– – More Pricks Than Kicks, ed. Cassandra Nelson (London: Faber and Faber, 2012 [1934]) [please buy]

Dorothy Richardson, Interim. Pilgrimage. With an Introduction by Gillian Hanscombe. Vol. 2. (London: Virago, 2002) [please buy]

Woolf, Virginia, The Years, with Introductions by Susan Hill and Steven Connor (London: Vintage, 2004) [please buy]

Dante, The Divine Comedy, translated by Robert and Jean Hollander (Random House, 2003-2008). [please buy at least the Inferno]

Dante, The Divine Comedy, translated with a commentary by Charles S. Singleton, Princeton: Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series LXXX, 3 vols., 1973. [excerpts available in booklet]


Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 11
Seminars 22
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Daniela Caselli Unit coordinator

Additional notes

Timetable for 2019/20:

Lecture: Mon 1pm - 2pm

Seminar: Thu 1pm - 3pm

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