In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me about Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love
by Joseph Luzzi
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
In the middle of our life's journey, I found myself in a dark wood.
"So begins one of the most celebrated and challenging poems ever written, Dante's Divine Comedy, a 14,000-line epic about the soul's journey through the afterlife. The tension between the pronouns says it all: although the 'I' belongs to Dante, who died in 1321, his journey is also part of 'our life.' We all find ourselves in a dark wood one day."
For Joseph Luzzi that day came on November 29, 2007, when he left his home in upstate New York to teach at nearby Bard College, where he is a professor of Italian. A security guard entered his classroom with a life-shattering message: "Your wife's had a terrible accident."
Katherine Luzzi was eight and a half months pregnant with their first child. A medical team performed an emergency cesarean and delivered a baby girl. Forty-five minutes after her daughter Isabel's birth, Katherine died. Within hours of leaving his home on a perfectly normal day, Joseph Luzzi became both a widower and a father.
In a Dark Wood is Luzzi's soul-searing journey into what Dante called the selva oscura (dark wood). As he struggled with loss, sorrow and single parenthood, the scholar found solace in "the book and the author I loved above all others."
Heeding the poet's advice to "consider the meaning that is hidden / beneath the veil of these strange verses," Luzzi began to discover new layers of significance. As he writes, Dante's Divine Comedy was "born from the belief that literature can transform you through lungo studio e grande amore (long study and great love), and in surrendering to beautiful writing we begin what the poet Keats called soul-making: how we must face 'a World of Pains and troubles in order to realize our true selves and our full humanity.'"
Over the course of four years, Luzzi learned the same lesson that Dante had centuries before: "Love had landed me in the dark wood to begin with, and only love could lead me out." The poet, he observes, "had the courage to believe in love, no matter how much he suffered, how much horror he endured."
With brave honesty and great humility, Luzzi describes his wanderings through the darkness until he too makes his way toward love–for his daughter, for his new wife and for the wider world that welcomes him into its light.
Dante chose to end his epic poem "with love and all its mysteries–not God or justice or free will or hope." Here are the words that reach out through the centuries to elevate and illuminate all our lives:
Già volgeva il mio disio e 'l velle,
sì come rota ch'igualmente è mossa,
l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle.
Now my will and my desire were turned
like a wheel in perfect motion,
by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
Joseph Luzzi is the author of In a Dark Wood and My Two Italies. Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.