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  • Dante Alighieri

    May/June c.1265 - September 14, 1321
    Part 7 of 13: Divina Commedia

    Of Dante's works, that by which he is known to all the educated world, and in virtue of which he holds his place as one of the half-dozen greatest writers of all time, is of course the Commedia. (The epithet divina, it may be noted, was not given to the poem by its author, nor does it appear on a title-page until 1555, in the edition of Ludovico Dolce, printed by Giolito; though it is applied to the poet himself as early as 1512.) The poem is absolutely unique in literature; it may safely be said that at no other epoch of the world's history could such a work have been produced. Dante was steeped in all the learning, which in its way was considerable, of his time; he had read the Summa Theologica of Aquinas, the Trésor of his master Brunetto, and other encyclopaedic works available in that age; he was familiar with all that was then known of the Latin classical and postclassical authors. Further, he was a deep and original political thinker, who had himself borne a prominent part in practical politics. He was born into a generation in which almost every man of education habitually wrote verse, as indeed their predecessors had been doing for the last fifty years. Vernacular poetry had come late into Italy, and had hitherto, save for a few didactic or devotional treatises hitched into rough rhyme, been exclusively lyric in form. Amatory at first, later, chiefly in the hands of Guittone of Arezzo and Guido Cavalcanti, taking an ethical and metaphysical tone, it had never fully shaken off the Provencal influence under which it had started, and of which Dante himself shows considerable traces.

    The age also was unique, though the two great events which made the 15th century a turning-point in the world's history - the invention of printing and the discovery of the new world (to which might perhaps be added the intrusion of Islam into Europe) - were still far in the future. But the age was essentially one of great men; of free thought and free speech; of brilliant and daring action, whether for good or evil. It is easy to understand how Dante's bitterest scorn is reserved for those "sorry souls who lived without infamy and without renown, displeasing to God and to His enemies."

    The time was thus propitious for the production of a great imaginative work, and the man was ready who should produce it. It called for a prophet, and the prophet said, "Here am I." "Dante," says an acute writer, "is not, as Homer is, the father of poetry springing in the freshness and simplicity of childhood out of the arms of mother earth; he is rather, like Noah, the father of a second poetical world, to whom he pours forth his prophetic song fraught with the wisdom and the experience of the old world." Thus the Commedia, though often classed for want of a better description among epic poems, is totally different in method and construction from all other poems of that kind. Its "hero" is the narrator himself; the incidents do not modify the course of the story; the place of episodes is taken by theological or metaphysical disquisitions; the world through which the poet takes his readers is peopled, not with characters of heroic story, but with men and women known personally or by repute to him and those for whom he wrote. Its aim is not to delight, but to reprove, to rebuke, to exhort; to form men's characters by teaching them what courses of life will meet with reward, what with penalty, hereafter; "to put into verse," as the poet says, "things difficult to think." For such new matter a new vehicle was needed. We have Bembo's authority for believing that the terza rima,surpassed, if at all, only by the ancient hexameter, as a measure equally adaptable to sustained narrative, to debate, to fierce invective, to clear-cut picture and to trenchant epigram, was first employed by Dante.

    The action of the Commedia opens in the early morning of the Thursday before Easter, in the year 1300. The poet finds himself lost in a forest, escaping from which he has his way barred by a wolf, a lion and a leopard. All this, like the rest of the poem, is highly symbolical. This branch of the subject is too vast to be entered on at any length here; but so far as this passage is concerned it may be said that it seems to indicate that at this period of his life, about the age of thirty-five, Dante went through some experience akin to what is now called "conversion." Having led up till then the ordinary life of a cultivated Florentine of good family; taking his part in public affairs, military and civil, as an hereditary member of the predominant Guelph party; dallying in prose which with all its beauty and passion is full of the conceits familiar to the 13th century, and in verse which save for the excellence of its execution differs in no way from that of his predecessors, with the memory of his lost love; studying more seriously, perhaps, than most of his associates; possibly travelling a little, - gradually or suddenly he became convinced that all was not well with him, and that not by leading, however blamelessly, the "active" life could he save his soul. The strong vein of mysticism, found in so many of the deepest thinkers of that age, and conspicuous in Dante's mind, no doubt played its part. His efforts to free himself from the "forest" of worldly cares were impeded by the temptations of the world - cupidity (including ambition), the pride of life and the lusts of the flesh, symbolized by the three beasts. But a helper is at hand. Virgil appears and explains that he has a commission from three ladies on high to guide him. The ladies are the Blessed Virgin, St Lucy (whom for some reason never yet explained Dante seems to have regarded as in a special sense his protector) and Beatrice. In Virgil we are apparently intended to see the symbol of what Dante calls philosophy, what we should rather call natural religion; Beatrice standing for theology, or rather revealed religion. Under Virgil's escort Dante is led through the two lower realms of the next world, Hell and Purgatory; meeting on the way with many persons illustrious or notorious in recent or remoter times, as well as many well enough known then in Tuscany and the neighbouring states; but who, without the immortality, often unenviable, that the poet has conferred on them, would long ago have been forgotten. Popes, kings, emperors, poets and warriors, Florentine citizens of all degrees, are there found; some doomed to hopeless punishment, others expiating their offences in milder torments, and looking forward to deliverance in due time. It is remarkable to notice how rarely, if ever, Dante allows political sympathy or antagonism to influence him in his distribution of judgment. Hell is conceived as a vast conical hollow, reaching to the centre of the earth. It has three great divisions, corresponding to Aristotle's three classes of vices, incontinence, brutishness and malice. The first are outside the walls of the city of Dis; the second, among whom are included unbelievers, tyrants, suicides, unnatural offenders, usurers, are within; the first apparently on the same level as those without, the rest separated from them by a steep descent of broken rocks. (It should be said that many Dante scholars hold that Aristotle's "brutishness" has no place in Dante's scheme; but the symmetry of the arrangement, the special reference made to that division, and certain expressions used elsewhere by Dante, seem to make it probable that he would here, as in most other cases, have followed his master in philosophy.) The sinners by malice, which includes all forms of fraud or treachery, are divided from the last by a yet more formidable barrier. They lie at the bottom of a pit, the depth of which is not stated, with vertical sides, and accessible only by supernatural means; a monster named Geryon bearing the poets down on his back. The torments here are of a more terrible, often of a loathsome character. Ignominy is added to pain, and the nature of Dante's demeanour towards the sinners changes from pity to hatred. At the very bottom of the pit is Lucifer, immovably fixed in ice; climbing down his limbs they reach the centre of the earth, whence a cranny conducts them back to the surface, at the foot of the purgatorial mountain, which they reach as Easter Day is dawning. Before the actual Purgatory is attained they have to climb for the latter half of the day and rest at night. The occupants of this outer region are those who have delayed repentance till death was upon them. They include many of the most famous men of the last thirty years. In the morning the gate is opened, and Purgatory proper is entered. This is divided into seven terraces, corresponding to the seven deadly sins, which encircle the mountain and have to be reached by a series of steep climbs, compared by Dante in one instance to the path from Florence to Samminiato. The penalties are not degrading, but rather tests of patience or endurance; and in several cases Dante has to bear a share in them as he passes. On the summit is the Earthly Paradise. Here Beatrice appears, in a mystical pageant; Virgil departs, leaving Dante in her charge. By her he is led through the various spheres of which, according to both the astronomy and the theology of the time, Heaven is composed, to the supreme Heaven, or Empyrean, the seat of the Godhead. For one moment there is granted him the intuitive vision of the Deity, and the comprehension of all mysteries, which is the ultimate goal of mystical theology; his will is wholly blended with that of God, and the poem ends.

    Part 8: Convito, Vita Nuova & Canzoniere


    In this biography:
    Part 1: Introduction
    Part 2: Political Life, Part 1
    Part 3: Political Life, Part 2
    Part 4: Dante's Ghibellinism
    Part 5: Wanderings
    Part 6: Old Age and Death
    Part 7: Divina Commedia
    Part 8: Convito, Vita Nuova & Canzoniere
    Part 9: De Monarchia & De Vulgari Eloquentia
    Part 10: Eclogues, De Aqua et Terra & Letters
    Part 11: Authorities, Editions & Commentaries
    Part 12: Translations, Other Aids & Bibliography
    Part 13: Related Articles, Sites, etc.


    This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

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    Divina Commedia