Peter Hawkins presented the 2019 Pitt Lecture during Convocation at Yale to a standing room only crowd, speaking on Dante’s Commedia: From Despair to Hope to Glory. He began:
“Much of the contemporary appeal of the Commedia seems to be summed up in the poem’s opening lines – lines that for various reasons manage (to borrow a venerable Quaker phrase) “to speak to our condition.”
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita,
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
che la diritta via era smarrita.
Midway in the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost
Our “condition” may very well be the realization that we too are lost in the woods. Once there had been a path, a way through the dark places, but suddenly it is gone; there is no exit. Many of us know what this feels like, especially those who have discovered, midway in what they might expect to be the full extent of their three score and ten, that what used to “work” no longer does. The death-to-us-part relationship dies, perfect health suddenly fails, the secure job is either no longer secure or no longer bearable, so that, as John Donne put it in one of his Holy Sonnets, “all my pleasures are like yesterday.” This emotional phenomenon is familiar to us as a “midlife crisis” – a term that gained popular currency in the 1970s. Somewhere along the way, Dante became its poet laureate.”
View the full lecture on the YDS website: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jcO1_2ihlJI
The whole text is available as a .pdf below.