The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

(Since my blogging pal, Cleo at Classical Carousel, is reading Dante, I thought it might be a good time to transfer over my post from the old blog on the Divine Comedy.)

Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which Dante himself, travels through hell, purgatory, and heaven is possibly one of the most important works of literature ever created and one of the richest to read. It is an allegory that consists of three parts: The Inferno, The Purgatorio, and The Paradiso, each of which can be read separately, but adds up to a single spiritual journey in which Dante discusses the politics of his day, the theological concerns of his time, and his own spiritual rebirth. It is a work that requires multiple readings, as all of its levels and subtextual layers can never be penetrated in a single read, or a second read, or a third read for that matter. The importance of The Divine Comedy is inestimable.

As literature it is an allegory rich in symbolism. Virgil, the Roman poet known for his epic The Aeneid and representing Human Reason, leads Dante in his journey through hell and purgatory, only to be replaced by Beatrice, the woman whose beauty consumed Dante with a passion and appeared in his earlier love poetry, now representing Divine Revelation. The symbolism here suggests that Human Reason can only take us so far in our journey; eventually it must be replaced by faith. Along the way through the different levels, Virgil attempts his best to answer any questions Dante has about the tortured souls of hell and the contrite souls of purgatory, fulfilling his role as Human Reason. When Beatrice appears, unlike Virgil who has to be asked the question, she is able to foresee all of Dante’s questions before he even asks them and answers his philosophical questions about the nature of heaven and the universe, fulfilling her symbolic role as Divine Revelation. With each sphere of heaven they ascend, Beatrice grows more and more beautiful, more and more radiant, playing on Dante’s earlier obsession with her beauty in his poetry to suggest that her physical beauty that he once valued so much was nothing in comparison to the beauty of her soul, which continually grows more radiant the deeper into heaven they go. The symbolism is always geared to show the spiritual world is superior to the material one.

Each torture in hell is symbolic for the crime committed. For example, the lustful are trapped in a never-ending whirlwind that buffets them about back and forth, symbolizing the lack of control of their desires and emotions that swing back and forth. They lacked moderation in life and allowed their physical desires to control them, therefore they valued the physical world over the spiritual one, and they are controlled by the physical forces (the whirlwind). Two characters we meet in this circle of hell is Paolo and Francesca. Francesca was married to Paolo’s brother and explains the two had an affair with each other after reading a work of medieval literature known as The Rhyme of Lancelot, which tells of an affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. Her husband discovers them in bed and then murders them in a fit of rage. It was meant to be a work warning about the consequences of affairs; Lancelot and Guinevere dalliance leads to political turmoil and the eventual downfall of Camelot. Francesca, however, uses this work as a manual for stimulation rather than as literature with moral value. She completely misses the moral point of the story, perverting it for a different use. Even in the real world, she failed to improve her soul and instead focused on her physical desires. She blames the story for causing her to betray her husband and commit adultery, but never takes responsibility for her own actions. This refusal to take responsibility for their own actions continues throughout the different circles of hell. Dante suggests all the souls in hell are there because they refuse to repent, their values are skewed; none of them will even admit or believes that they did anything wrong. These souls want nothing to do with God and his offer of grace.

It is very easy to forget that Dante is not just there to observe. The poem begins with him lost in the woods (symbolizing his own spiritual confusion). He approaches a hill where a bright light is shining (symbolizing God), but his way is blocked by three monstrous animals, a leopard (symbolizing Malice and Fraud), a lion (symbolizing violence and ambition), and a she-wolf (symbolizing incontinence). The three animals blocking his way cause him deep despair, but then Virgil shows up to guide him on this journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven after being sent by Beatrice. All of this is a personal and spiritual journey for Dante. It is not just a matter of passively watching others in hell, purgatory, and heaven for others edification, but Dante must learn a lesson here as well.

In response to Francesca’s story in the circle for the lustful, Dante ends up fainting. He also seems sympathetic towards the two lovers in comparison to his reactions to the other occupants of hell. The reason he is so sympathetic is because the love poetry of his earlier career is implicated in these sins. He can relate to them and their feelings of lust. Dante is not innocent; he is taking this journey as an extreme corrective measure to put him back on the right path. Later in the poem when Beatrice arrives, she castigates him for wasting his life and intellect on unholy activities and useless philosophies. The reason he asks so many questions in hell, purgatory, and heaven is because he is supposed to be learning from these experiences so he can correct his own life.

The work is intensely political, while also transcending mere political affiliations. The work revels in the political landscape of the late Middle Ages, especially the political landscape of Italy, making footnotes essential to any good translation. In the various realms, we find famous literary characters like Achilles and Dido, we have famous historical figures like the Emperor Justinian in heaven, and we have many contemporaries of Dante’s parents (Italians who lived the generation before Dante). One problem constantly explored is the way the church is intertwined in state affairs; throughout Dante’s journey, we see the negative consequences of church officials interfering with politics. Many corrupt church officials are in hell. Multiple characters go on long rants that money and political power has led to the corruption of the Catholic Church. One of Dante’s main targets was the current Pope, Pope Boniface VIII whose meddling is responsible for the inter-city civil wars ravaging Italy. At the heart of these wars is the conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, two political parties vying for control of the various city-states of Italy, as well as warring between each of the city-states. Dante is exiled from Florence by the White Guelphs for belonging to the wrong political party. It would have been easy for Dante to write a tendentious poem attacking only his political enemies, but what we find as we travel along the three realms is that both Guelphs and Ghibellines end up in hell, purgatory, and heaven based on their merit (not their party affiliation). This makes for a work that has a number of layers (political, religious, literary) and can be appreciated in a number of different ways (historically or aesthetically).

I found The Inferno to be the strongest and most interesting of three parts. It relies the most on visual spectacle; in a sense, it is the most visually dramatic and entertaining. The Purgatorio is also very visual, relying on episodes in the Bible and history via the art forms of the time to serve as corrective measures for repentance and purification. The Paradiso is the hardest of the three to approach and I struggled to stay interested. Unlike the earlier two parts, The Paradiso cantos generally consist of a description of its denizens appearing as a radiant light, then having an erudite discussion with Dante about some aspect of faith, in particular a resident often attempts to answer some stickier points of the philosophy of religion, such as the relationship between free will and fate (or omnipotence). Often then the Paradiso offers great insight into the philosophical religious questions of Scholasticism, the real meaty intellectual questions of his day, but can feel overly complicated and abstruse, requiring a deep knowledge of theology, medieval philosophy, and Scholasticism to fully appreciate and understand it. One problem is some of these questions in a less religious age like our own seem tedious and unimportant. Even people who have some religious belief will probably find these philosophical debates on the fine points of various faith issues boring and irritating. On the other hand, the shifts from the physicality of hell and purgatory fits the allegorical mode perfectly. Hell is the most physical because the occupants have lost sight of the spiritual and focused their energies on the material world, while heaven is the least physical in its imagery and its narrative focus is dedicated to intellectual discussions of faith because there the physical world no longer matters and its priorities is the spiritual, the true self, which is represented symbolically in these discussions.


7 thoughts on “The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

    • Are you staying in order with TWEM?

      It is political, but it also is theological, philosophical, etc. It is a great way to learn about the politics of the time, but the work can be tricky if a reader doesn’t know at least a little background about the differences between a Guelph and a Ghibelline. That’s why a good footnoted edition is invaluable.

      On another note, I read the Ciardi translation, which I really like, but he does take a ton of liberties (like completely changing lines for the sake of poetry, but keeping the essential meaning). There are more literal translations that you might want to try. When I re-read this work sometime in the future I’m probably going to try one of the more literal translations.

  1. Thank you so much for this! I’m going to read it over about 5 times to absorb it all. The Dante MOOCs course I’m taking is a little odd, so I’m not actually getting much of the background or looking too much at Dante’s intent but more applying the poem to ourselves to answer the question, “Who Am I?” We’re talking alot about ‘the other’ and ‘identity’ and ‘contemplative’ …… very artsy and obscure but I’m sure I’m getting something out of it! :-Z

    As for translations, from my expert Italian professor (my friend, not the professor I have now), she loves Ciardi for the “flavour” of Dante ….. he makes her laugh and she says he’s even more Italian than the Italians. For more literal translations, she recommends Mandelbaum and then Esolen, but thinks Musa doesn’t flow very nicely. I’m reading Mandelbaum now and for the course I’m supposed to be reading Hollander but I do not like this translation. I’ve found a couple of places where I think their translation is awful and otherwise, it’s not very beautiful. I’d also like to read Sayers translation one day but, sadly, she is supposed to sacrifice too much content for form. That said, my friend is highly particular.

  2. You mentioned that you think the Inferno is more powerful than Purgatorio and Paradiso, and it started me wondering why we tend to like aspects of art that are more shocking or terrible. When I read Paradise Lost with a group this year, Satan was considered the more powerful and admirable character. Whenever we read certain old classic children’s books in my book group, people are often disgusted with characters who are too perfect or who always do the right thing or are “too nice”. So it started me wondering ….. why do we seem to value things, or at least be attracted to things, that are awful or evil or bad? When did positive virtues become negative? I don’t think this “quirk” pertains only to our modern society but it certainly seems to be more prevalent in it. In any case, I’m just musing, but it’s food for thought, isn’t it?

    P.S. I think Dante would have liked Paradiso best! 😉

    • It is interesting food for thought. In terms of literature, I suspect it comes back to two qualities: 1) lack of verisimilitude 2) Lack of drama.

      Characters that are too perfect or who always do the right thing aren’t realistic. In real life, even people who mostly do the right thing, don’t always do the right thing. I’ve never met a human being who was perfect. Flawed, imperfect characters are interesting characters.

      With the Inferno it is the visceral factor. It is like reading a powerful tragedy where we feel sorry for the characters or at least interested and drawn to their tales and how they got there, but the Paridiso is more like reading an abstruse philosophy text book. It is like reading the last few books of Augustine’s Confessions.

  3. I read “Linden Hill” by Gloria Naylor while in college and it’s slightly modeled after certain sections of The Divine Comedy. Since then I’ve planned to read The Divine Comedy but have yet to. It’s collecting dust on my bookshelf.

    But I do like the discussion here, especially the question Cleo presented above. Since I haven’t read the poem, I may be a bit off but I wondered (especially after reading the last sentence of your post) if Hell is easier to imagine, and flawed characters easier to relate to, because when in Hell, and when flawed, you desire something and we can all relate to desires that becomes needs that lead to suffering. Heaven and total perfection is the opposite so it’s hard and nearly impossible to relate to them, which is why we are turned off by perfect characters and consign Heaven to faith/something intangible. We can only trust that Heaven is real because we can’t imagine such a place/existence.

    • I think you’re right that the characters of hell are probably more relatable. I do, however, think it is less the perfect characters and more the difficult philosophy and theology that makes up the bulk of paradise section that makes it so difficult. Different groups probably find different parts compelling though.

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