The subject and doctrine of the Comedy are not incidental; they are the roots of its poetic beauty. They are the driving force behind the rich radiance of its poetic metaphors and the magical music of its verses; they are the form of the poem’s matter, it is they which animate and kindle the poet’s sublime fantasy; it is they which lend the vision its true form and with it the power to move us and enchant us.” —
—Erich Auerbach, Dante: Poet of the Secular World (1929), trans. Ralph Manheim, New York Review of Books, 2007, pp. 158-159. Emphasis mine. (via msodradek)
I agree. To somehow believe you can ignore Dante’s “subject and doctrine” in favor of his form is like drinking a martini just for the gin: an impossible and pointless act.
Neither, though, would you want to read Dante as theology in verse, as doctrine set to music. The mission does not require spitting out the bitter bits, nor swallowing the drink whole.
The idea is to transform in your mind both the context and the content of the Comedy. First, you take Dante’s cosmology and ideas seriously, then you make them work for you in the here and now, avoiding both the prejudice of the present and the worship of the past.
It’s tricky business, but all part of the fun.