Three weeks ago, on a busy train speeding its way to Cambridge, Massachusetts, I finished the last book of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Wedged in between passengers with my backpack resting between my feet, I feverishly sped through the final line of Dante’s Paradiso, “Here force failed my high fantasy; but my desire and will were moved already – like a wheel revolving uniformly – by the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” I put the book down, tucked it safely back into my bag and thought to myself, “I don’t get it.”
Not the sentence, but much of the book itself. Dante’s Paradiso is frustratingly dense and opaque, with hundreds of lines devoted to theology and cosmology. Our hero’s various visits with famous saints and philosophers frequently lead to chapter-long diatribes about the nature of one idea, concept, or aspect of Christianity. The effect can be incredibly charming and satisfying, or equally puzzling when the modern reader cannot fully understand. In short, Paradiso, like the rest of the Comedy is very satisfying, yet immensely confusing. I hope to explain my thoughts on Dante’s Comedy, and to at least explain why I enjoy it and why I keep returning to it.
I should perhaps give a little bit of background. Dante Alighieri was born in Florence, Italy in 1265. He was a poet of considerable skill who made the mistake of dabbling in politics. After an unfortunate opposition to Pope Boniface VIII, he was exiled from Florence just as his faction was destroyed. He spent the rest of his life pining after his home of Florence and being hosted by various nobles throughout Italy. Eventually, he wrote his Comedy, christened Divine by later admirer Giovanni Boccaccio. The Comedy discusses his journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Dante died in 1321 at the age of 56 and is remembered as one of, if not the, greatest poet whoever lived.
I read the first book of Dante’s Divine Comedy when I was 19 years old. I was at a friend’s beach house and we were sitting out on the porch on a cold, rainy day in mid-July. Not having anything else to do, many of us were reading. On a whim, I decided to start reading Inferno, knowing perhaps as much about Dante as I have stated above. Later, I put down the book, having read the first canto of Purgatorio, dimly aware that my friends were likely angry at me for ignoring them for the past six hours. I wouldn’t read the next book in the Comedy for two more years.
There is a reason that Inferno is read more often than the other two books, not least of all because it has a much, much, more badass name. At its heart, Inferno satisfies some dark fascination for most readers. The idea of hell is abstract, an eternity of suffering for the sins which you inflicted upon the world, and your god, during your life. But Dante makes this suffering concrete, explicit. He not only posits that hell exists, but that it is a physical place where one can go, as Dante visits Hell as a mortal being. The torments of sinners for their various crimes are born out in a gruesome, but logical fashion wherein punishments are designed specifically for the crime. Schismatics are rent apart with swords for dividing the people of the world, for example. It is revolting, but engaging for the same reasons that videos of decapitations can get thousands of views on the internet. You want to look away, but you want to look more.
The subsequent book, Purgatorio, is similar to the first in many ways. It is still Dante’s tortured journey towards salvation and he encounters some milder, but still grisly punishments. The one that always stands out to me is the punishment of the envious, whose eyes are sewn shut with thick wire so that they cannot covet the goods of others. Like the first it is an adventure of sorts, with Dante slowly making his way up the mountain of Purgatory, watching sinners be cleansed of their sins. It is a significantly more pleasant experience for the reader and for Dante himself. The figures encountered in Purgatory occasionally bemoan their current status, but are always relieved to be heading closer and closer to their god. Perhaps for this reason, it does not enjoy the same attention that Inferno does. I honestly did not appreciate it the first time that I read it, and it was not until my second reading that I understood its particular appeal.
The final book in the sequence, Paradiso is even less well appreciated. To be honest, while taking a class in college called “The Epic Tradition: From Homer to Dante,” my instructor did not even have us read it. The drama of the previous books is largely lost, as Dante makes his way from planet to planet systematically making his way towards god. There are lovely moments, but it loses a great deal of the classic construction of an epic as Dante dives into theological discourse. I decided to tackle the Comedy again because the first book had captivated me, and I wanted to understand Dante’s work as a whole.
One of the first things that delighted me about Dante is that he, like myself, he enjoys a good reference. The Hell that Dante visits is littered with famous figures from Classical mythology and history. He encounters monsters like the harpies, and the Minotaur, and must find ways to escape their clutches. Dante meets the great Greek philosophers and poets, and witnesses the fates of legendary figures like Achilles. His journey is intended to mirror the great underworld adventures of the great epic heroes Odysseus and Aeneas. In fact, Dante’s guide through the afterlife is none other than Virgil, the poet of the Aeneid. Virgil becomes a master and father figure to Dante and their relationship is one of the most endearing aspects of the entire Comedy.
Throughout Dante’s progression to Purgatory and Paradise, the figures from the past will continue to appear to give him their advice. These references are enjoyable because they provide a touchstone for Dante’s experience, as well as examples of the vices that he is attempting to demonstrate. He ties his work into the great works of the ancients that he loved so much. Dante’s beautiful description of Odysseus’ fate after the events of the Odyssey would later serve as the inspiration for Tennyson’s great poem Ulysses. In heaven, it is explained to Dante that he has been shown the fates of those figures that he would recognize, specifically because this will make his lessons clear to him. He is, in turn, doing the same thing for us.
The Comedy is remarkably biographical, with figures from Dante’s own life appearing throughout the three books. He uses these figures to acknowledge his own successes, weaknesses, and failures. He castigates his enemies and pays homage to his friends. At one point he encounters the previous pope, buried upside down in the ground for his crime of simony, who mistakes him for his enemy Pope Boniface VIII. Any number of these people from Dante’s life appear, even close personal friends who have since passed away. Most readers will never know who these people are, and only by delving further into Dante’s life and history can we discover his meaning. (I strongly recommend the book Dante in Love by A. N. Wilson, should you be interested in this.)
The inclusion of heroes from the epic tradition and men and women whom Dante knew in life serves to make the Comedy a more human, personal story. It is not simply about the punishments that one can suffer in the afterlife or the reward of Heaven. Dante peoples his great work with characters with their own stories and their own perspectives. Their vignettes are often tragic, such as the doomed lovers in the first circle of hell, but are sometimes a means of redeeming those who have been done wrong by history.
For example, Dante places the great Greek hero Odysseus in an eternal flame for his deception with the Trojan Horse. Despite this, the brilliant Greek is given the opportunity to showcase his incredible intellect by telling the story of his demise, attempting to sail around the world even in old age. It is this story that would one day be the inspiration for Tennyson’s poem Ulysses. He exalts Odysseus, a figure who was perceived to be dishonest and untrustworthy due to the Romans’ distaste for him and their effect on culture.
Dante also includes a touching reunion with one of his former teachers, Brunetto Latini, who is damned to run over blistering sands due to his sin of sodomy. Despite his abysmal fate, Dante writes a happier end for him then most, noting that “he turned and seemed like one of those who race across the fields to win the green cloth at Verona; of those runners, he appeared to be the winner, not the loser.” While the world, and perhaps even his god, may condemn Latini for what they believe is a sin, Dante cannot help but demonstrate his friend’s excellence.
Perhaps more than anything else, what drew me to the Comedy was the story of Dante Alighieri and Beatrice Portinari. As a child, Dante Alighieri saw a beautiful young girl at a May Day party and became enamored with her. The pair met only twice in their lives but Dante’s love for her, or his idea of her, would influence all of his writing. His first great poem was about a dream, fairly explicit in nature, which he had about Beatrice. Later, after Beatrice’s death at the young age of 24, Dante would write about how another woman had taken his attention in his Vita Nuova. Finally, Beatrice appears in the Comedy, as the savior of Dante’s soul, asking Virgil to guide him through Hell and Purgatory. In the last book she takes over his role and guides Dante through Paradise.
Dante makes it clear throughout the Comedy that the most important thing in the world, in his eyes, is love. He often describes himself as a poet who is concerned with appreciating love, and it is central to his conception of the universe. The sins and failings that he rails against throughout Hell and Purgatory are simply examples of misplaced love. Where the sinners should have focused their love upon god and their fellow man, they instead adore false idols such as worldly goods. Virgil has several beautiful speeches about how love and faith are intertwined, and it is Beatrice’s love for Dante that ultimately redeems him.
My appreciation for Dante’s love for Beatrice can be summed up quite nicely in my favorite painting, Dante and Beatrice by Arij Scheffer. The painting is a depiction of a scene from the Comedy where Dante writes, “And, of a sudden, meseemed that day was added / unto day, as though he who hath the power, / had adorned heaven with a second sun. Beatrice was standing with her eyes all fixed / upon the eternal wheels, and I fixed my sight / removed from there above, on her.” Dante has the unique opportunity to view paradise, to take in the will of God writ large. Yet he cannot take his eyes off of the woman that he loves, the woman that he lost. The painting demonstrates this beautifully, with the light radiating out of Beatrice, and Dante, as ever, in her shadow.
Although the romantic in me has always been taken with this simple understanding of their relationship, what occurred to me more in my re-reading of the Comedy was the various layers. Dante famously wrote that all scripture, and his great poem, needed to be understood with four layers of meaning: historical, allegorical, moral, and analogical (referring to our ascent to the afterlife). I cannot pretend to adequately explain these four meanings, but I was struck in this reading by the allegorical interpretation of Beatrice.
Beatrice, in the Comedy, represents not only the woman whom Dante obsessed over and was inspired by, but also is a physical representation of faith. She is constantly guiding him and interceding on Dante’s behalf with higher powers for his own good. Beatrice is committed to Dante’s salvation and is the saving grace that redeems him from damnation. She is so committed to this service that she steps away in the final cantos of the book to allow St. Bernard to take over his instruction and guidance before he meets with God. Dante’s professed turn from Beatrice to some other woman is actually Dante’s newfound passion for philosophy, which he sets aside to devote himself again to his faith. This does not diminish the love that Dante felt for Beatrice, or my initial reading of the text, but it enhances Beatrice’s depiction in the Comedy.
There is a great deal that I still do not understand about the Comedy, that I suspect I might never understand. As a whole the work is intricate almost to the point of absurdity, with Dante creating his own cosmology of the universe. He constantly refers back to people and events that perhaps make sense only to him, confounding readers and scholars for all of time. In fact Dante’s son wrote a commentary on his father’s magnum opus, and admitted in it that even he did not often understand it. I wonder sometimes whether this was not precisely what Dante wanted.
Dante was aware of his reputation and of his considerable powers as a writer. He all but states that he is the greatest poet of his age, and certainly knows that he is the best Italian poet. While in Limbo, he encounters the greatest poets who ever lived: Homer, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, and of course Virgil. Dante writes, “they invited me to join their ranks, I was the sixth among such intellects.” He knew that his book would be remembered and read for ages to come, and perhaps he wished for his future audience to continue to question and interpret. Dante’s own journey is one, in many ways, of understanding.
By journeying through the afterlife and coming face-to-face with the greatest saints and most wretched sinners, Dante is gaining a more thorough understanding of his god and of his world. The character of Dante in the Comedy is constantly questioning and attempting to understand why the almighty has conceived of the universe as he has. He must have everything explained to him, and questions further still, doubting and speculating. Dante comes up short time and again, and is admonished repeatedly by his teachers Virgil and Beatrice for his lack of understanding. It is only at the end of his journey that Dante can fully explain his conception of faith to St. Peter to be allowed to see god himself.
When he finally does come to encounter the Christian god, Dante finds himself fatally unable to fully explain what he sees. He struggles to adequately capture the enormity of his subject, and must speak around it. As a poet, Dante is attempting to picture and understand his god to put him into words. In my opinion it is a beautiful, humble act on his part. Instead of capturing god as some benevolent, bearded deity, he chooses to accept his own lack of understanding.
When he describes god Dante writes of geometry, of trying to perform mathematical equations that simply don’t add up. He speaks of three circles placed within each other to represent the trinity of Catholic faith. When he does finally attempt to discern a human aspect of God he humbly states, “that is not a flight for my wings.” Dante cannot understand something as enormous as god himself and, cannot express it. His final canto reflects this. Dante resigns himself to this, and although he strives to make it clear, knows that he will ultimately come up short. He has spent his three epic works building up to this moment, and he must accept his limitations even as he struggles to overcome them.
I imagine that most people believe that read Dante is read because his audience wants to seem classy and well educated. They are probably right about this. There is an element of self-aggrandizement inherent in trying to read any “great work.” “Have you read the Divine Comedy? I have, it’s a masterpiece.” I probably read the Divine Comedy to make myself feel smarter. However, I go back to read it because I know that I am not smart enough for it. I never understood why people reread books, but every time I read the Comedy I learn a little bit more about it, and understand it a little better. I get a little closer to understanding the mind of the tortured Italian poet who turned his mind to the stars.