The Divine Comedy
by Dante Alighieri (1265 - 1321)
Type of Work:
Allegorical religious poem
Hell, Purgatory and Paradise; A.D. 1300
Dante, the Pilgrim
Virgil, the Poet, and Dante's guide
Beatrice, Dante's womanly ideal and religious inspiration
Prologue: Dante, realizing he has strayed from the "true way,. into worldliness, tells of a vision where he travels through all the levels of Hell, up the mount of Purgatory, and finally through the realms of Paradise, where he is allowed a brief glimpse of God.
The traveler sets out on the night before Good Friday, and finds himself in the middle of a dark wood. There he encounters three beasts: a leopard (representing lust), a lion (pride) and a she-wolf (covetousness). Fortunately, his lady, Beatrice, along with the Virgin Mary herself, sends the spirit of Virgil, the classical Latin poet, to guide Dante through much of his journey. But as much as Dante admires and reveres Virgil, and though Dante considers him to have prophesied of the coming of Christ, Virgil is not a Christian. To Dante he represents human knowledge, or unholy reason, which cannot lead a person to God. This infidel may not pass into the highest realms. Thus, Dante is finally led to Heaven by Beatrice, his own personal and unattainable incarnation of the Virgin, who represents divine knowledge, or faith.
Pilgrimage: Terrified, lost "midway in life's journey" in the worldly darkness of error, Dante met Virgil, who offered himself as a guide. Together they passed through the gates of Hell inscribed with the terrifying words: "Abandon every hope, Ye that Enter." Dante, however, as a living soul who had not yet tasted death, was exempt from such final despair. He found Hell to be a huge funnel-shaped pit divided into terraces each a standing-place for those individuals who were guilty of a particular sin. After passing Limbo, reserved for the unbaptized, Dante observed and conversed with hundreds of Hell's souls, many of whom, guilty of carnal sins, were being whirled about in the air or forced to lie deep in mud or snow, under the decrees of eternal damnation. Ciacco, a fellow Florentine, implored of Dante "... When thou shalt be in the sweet world, I pray thee bring me to men's memory."
In pity, Dante frequently offered to write about those he met when he returned to mortality. These gluttons, seducers, and robbers were, for the most part, either historical figures or Dante's personal acquaintances - and each one of them represented one of the apt and horrible possibilities of Hell. For example, Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun were found dwelling in Hell's seventh terrace, forced to grovel in boiling blood - a just end for those who in life loved violence.
In the very depths of Hell was Satan - with three heads, each grasping a sinner in its mouth, and with three pairs of wings that continuously beat over the waters around him, freezing them into perpetual currents of ice.
Dante and Virgil cautiously climbed down the body of Satan. About midway, they turned and scrambled out through an opening (earth's center of gravity) where all things were the opposite of Hell: The sun was shining; it was Easter morning. Now hiking on in silence, they finally arrived on the shores of the Mount of Purgatory, located exactly opposite Jerusalem on the globe.
First and lowest on the mountain was Antepurgatory, a place reserved for those spirits who were penitent in life, who had died without achieving full repentance or without receiving the last sacrament of the church. They were required to spend time there before they could begin their arduous climb up the mountain. A group of those poor souls who had passed away suddenly, unable to receive extreme unction, pled with the mortal visitor to speak with their relatives and friends, urging them to pray that their stay in Ante-purgatory might be shortened.
As the pilgrims entered Purgatory, an angel inscribed the letter "P" on Dante's forehead seven times, to represent the seven deadly sins (pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust). As Dante made his way through the seven areas reserved for those who committed each of these sins, the letters were erased one by one, and the climb became less difficult.
Like Hell, Purgatory was arranged in terraces. However, the inhabitants here could, through confession, repentance, patience, and the prayers of the living, move on to higher realms after a time of proper purification. In the first terrace (pride), the occupants bowed down under huge stones which they carried on their backs, while reciting The Lord's Prayer, a fitting penance for haughty souls. Each terrace in turn was designed to purge its dead souls of one particular deadly sin.
The travelers finally moved beyond the seventh terrace. An angel directed them to pass through a huge wall of flames; on the other side they would find Beatrice. Dante did not hesitate. Emerging from the flames, he saw a mountain. At its summit, Virgil bade Dante farewell, for this was as far as Human Reason would allow a non-Christian to go.
Dante noticed a beautiful garden nearby, and began to explore it. A young woman appeared to inform him that this was the Garden of Eden - and there, across a river, awaited Beatrice. But the woman called out to Dante, demanding that, before entering the stream, he stop to acknowledge remorse for his sins and confess them. Hearing her, Dante was so overcome with remorse that he fainted and had to be carried across Lethe, the river of forgetfulness of past sins.
On the other side of the river, accompanied now at last by the beautiful Beatrice, Dante discovered that Paradise was divided into various spheres orbiting the earth. Each of the first seven (the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) represented a particular virtue, and those who in life had exhibited this virtue became its inhabitants. Ascending through the spheres, Dante encountered various famous saints, martyrs, and crusaders, in addition to many of the just, the chaste and the meditative. One soul he greeted was Cacciaguida, his own great great grandfather, who had served as a crusader in the previous century. This ancestor addressed him: "O my own blood! O grace of God poured forth above measure! ... " and then went on to reminisce on the earlier glory and splendor of Florence, and to lament its present fallen state.
Dante next followed Beatrice past the Fixed Stars, where many of the Apostles dwelt. These men, in turn, questioned the poet, examining his opinions. Dante offered complicated treatises on the duality of Christ (that he is both human and divine) and earthly versus godly love, and explained then modern scientific theories to account, among other things, for moonspots.
At last Dante was conducted to the ninth heaven (outerspace), where he received grace, and was permitted to gaze upon divinity and hear the angels' chorus. Beatrice then departed the reverent admirer, who witnessed the entrance of the triumphal Christ, followed by Mary.
Then, in union with the divine, Dante was left alone to behold the glory of God on his throne. "O how scant is speech and how feeble to my conception," he gasped in a final, striking, poetic description of breathless awe.
"The Divine Comedy" is an epic poem brimming with information and eloquent literary devices. (The word "comedy" is used here in its classical sense - to denote a story which begins in suspense and ends well.) The lengthy work combines Dante's vast knowledge of classical Latin writers (Virgil, Ovid, Cicero, Seneca ... ) and Greek philosophers (Plato and Aristotle) with his readings from the religious and theological classics of Catholicism (Augustine, Thomas Acquinas ... ).
Some awareness of medieval symbolism and imagery can greatly enrich the modern reader's understanding and enjoyment of Dante's personal, visionary odyssey through the realms of the dead. For example, the significance of certain numbers figures importantly in both the structure of the work and the geography of tile netherworld. Tile number three symbolizes the trinity; the "perfect" number, ten, was obtained by multiplying three times three, and adding one (which represented the unity of God). Furthermore, Dante's work is divided into three canticles (the Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise) and each canticle is then divided into thirty-three cantos. These, added to the book's general introductory canto, make for a grand total of one hundred, or, the square of ten. The poem's rhyme scheme, which Dante invented, is known as "terza rima" (third rhyme), where rhymed lines are grouped in interlocking sets of three (aba, bcb, cdc, etc.)
In addition to this obsession with numbers, the reader should also fathom the notion of ancient courtly love. Most poetry of Dante's age was written in praise of a woman whom the poet had chosen as an ideal, but with whom he was not intimate nor even necessarily personally acquainted; a pure love, an unattainable inspiration. Dante had met Beatrice Portinari at least twice, but had no intention of developing a relationship with her. She was married, as was he. "If it pleases God," Dante had written in the third person, "he will write of Beatrice, that which has never yet been said of mortal woman." This, in fact, Dante does in The Divine Comedy, placing his lady in the highest realms of Paradise.
Almost as much as he loved Beatrice, Dante loved Italy; and one of his greatest beliefs was the equal importance of the Church and the State. He became disgusted with the corruption of the Church by politics during his lifetime. In fact, it was while he was in political exile from Florence that he wrote this masterpiece, its complete title being "The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Florentine by Citizenship, Not by Morals."
Dante also believed in matching writing style with the material being treated. Thus, in Hell, the language is faced with common, sometimes revolting phrasing. Then, in Paradise the speech turns much more ethereal and lofty. (Curiously, Hell was and remains - the most popular of the three books.)
By using common expressions and the language of his native Tuscan dialect rather than the traditional Church Latin, Dante created a revolutionary work. His comedy, rich as it was in multilayered medieval allegory, set fire to the then radically modern idea that literature - works meant primarily to be read rather than retold or enacted could be made both accessible and popular. So highly regarded was this comedy that it earned the eventual title of "Divine."