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The Divine Comedy.

Type of work: Poem

Author: Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)

Type of plot: Christian allegory

Time of plot: The Friday before Easter, 1300

Locale: Hell, Purgatory, Paradise

First transcribed: c. 1320

Dante's greatest work, an epic poem in one hundred cantos, is divided equally after an introductory canto into sections, each thirty-three cantos in length, which see Dante and a guide respectively through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. The cosmology, angelology, and theology of the poem are based on St. Thomas Aquinas. Dante's literal journey is also an allegory of the progress of the human soul toward God and the progress of political and social mankind toward peace on earth. Characterization is drawn from ancient Roman history and from Dante's contemporary Italy, making the work a realistic picture and an intensely involved analysis of human affairs and life, even though in structure it appears to be a description of the beyond. It is, in essence, a compassionate, oral evaluation of human nature and a mystic vision of the Absolute toward which mankind strives, and it endures more through the universality of the drama and the lyric quality of the poetry than through specific doctrinal content.

Principal Characters

Dante, the exile Florentine poet, who is halted in his path of error through the grace of the Virgin, St. Lucy, and Beatrice, and is redeemed by his journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. He learns to submerge his instinctive pity for some sinners in his recognition of the justice of God, and he frees himself of the faults of wrath and misdirected love by participating in the penance for these sins in Purgatory. He is then ready to grow in understanding and love as he moves with Beatrice nearer and nearer the presence of God.

Beatrice, his beloved, who is transformed into an angel, one of Mary's handmaids. Through her intercession, her compassion, and her teaching, Dante's passion is transmuted into divine love, which brings him to a state of indescribable blessedness.

Virgil, Dante's master, the great Roman poet who guides him through Hell and Purgatory. The most favored of the noble pagans who dwells in Limbo without hope of heavenly bliss, he represents the highest achievements of human reason and classical learning.

St. Lucy, Dante's patron saint. She sends him aid and conveys him through a part of Purgatory.

Charon, traditionally the ferryman of damned souls.

Minos, the monstrous judge who dooms sinners to their allotted torments.

Paolo and Francesca, devoted lovers, murdered by Paolo's brother, who was Francesca's husband. Together even in hell, they arouse Dante's pity by their tale of growing affection.

Ciacco, a Florentine damned for gluttony, who prophesies the civil disputes which engulfed his native city after his death.

Plutus, the bloated, clucking creature who guards the entrance of the fourth circle of Hell.

Phlegyas, the boatman of the wrathful.

Filippo Argenti, another Florentine noble, damned to welter in mud for his uncontrollable temper.

Megaera, Alecto, and Tisiphone, the Furies, tower warders of the City of Dis.

Farinata Degli Uberti, leader of the Ghibelline party of Florence, condemned to rest in an indestructible sepulcher for his heresy. He remains concerned primarily for the fate of his city.

Cavalcante, a Guelph leader, the father of Dante's friend Guido. He rises from his tomb to ask about his son.

Nessus, Chiron, and Pholus, the courteous archer centaurs who guard the river of boiling blood which holds the violent against men.

Piero Delle Vigne, the loyal adviser to the Emperor Frederick, imprisoned, with others who committed suicide, in a thornbush.

Capaneus, a proud, blasphemous tyrant, one of the Seven against Thebes.

Brunetto Latini, Dante's old teacher, whom the poet treats with great respect; he laments the sin of sodomy which placed him deep in Hell.

Guido Guerra, Tegghiaio Aldobrandi, Jacopo Rusticucci, and Guglielmo Borsiere, Florentine citizens who gave in to unnatural lust.

Geryon, a beast with human face and scorpion's tail, symbolic of fraud.

Venedico Caccianemico, a Bolognese panderer.

Jason, a classical hero, damned as a seducer.

Alessio Interminei, a flatterer.

Nicholas III, one of the popes, damned to burn in a rocky cave for using the resources of the Church for worldly advancement.

Amphiaraus, Tiresias, Aruns, Manto, Eurypylus, Michael Scot, and Guido Bonatti, astrologers and diviners whose grotesquely twisted shapes reflect their distortion of divine counsel.

Malacoda, chief of the devils who torments corrupt political officials.

Ciampolo, one of his charges, who converses with Dante and Virgil while he plans to outwit the devils.

Catalano and Loderingo, jovial Bolognese friars, who wear the gilded leaden mantles decreed eternally for hypocrites.

Caiphas, the high priest who had Christ condemned. He lies naked in the path of the heavily laden hypocrites.

Vanni Fucci, a bestial, wrathful thief, the damned spirit most arrogant against God.

Agnello, Francisco, Cianfa, Buoso, and Puccio, malicious thieves and oppressors, who are metamorphosed from men to serpents, then from serpents to men, before the eyes of the poet.

Ulysses and Diomed, Greek heroes transformed into tongues of flame as types of the evil counselor. Ulysses retains the splendid passion for knowledge which led him beyond the limits set for men.

Guido de Montefeltro, another of the evil counselors, who became involved in the fraud and sacrilege of Pope Boniface.

Mahomet, Piero da Medicina, and Bertran de Born, sowers of schism and discord, whose bodies are cleft and mutilated.

Capocchio and Griffolino, alchemists afflicted with leprosy.

Gianni Schicchi and Myrrha, sinners who disguised themselves because of lust and greed, fittingly transformed into swine.

Master Adam, a counterfeiter.

Sinon and Potiphar's Wife, damned for malicious lying and treachery.

Nimrod, Antaeus, and Briareus, giants who rebelled against God.

Camincion de'Pazzi, Count Ugolino, Fra Alberigo, Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius, traitors to family, country, and their masters. They dwell forever in ice, hard and cold as their own hearts.

Cato, the aged Roman sage who was, for the Middle Ages, a symbol of pagan virtue. He meets Dante and Virgil at the base of Mount Purgatory and sends them on their way upward.

Casella, a Florentine composer who charms his hearers with a song as they enter Purgatory.

Manfred, a Ghibelline leader, Belacqua, La Pia, Cassero, and Buonconte da Montefeltro, souls who must wait many years at the foot of Mount Purgatory because they delayed their repentance until the time of their death.

Sordello, the Mantuan poet, who reverently greets Virgil and accompanies him and his companion for part of their journey.

Nino Visconti and Conrad Malaspina, men too preoccupied with their political life to repent early.

Omberto Aldobrandesco, Oderisi, and Provenzan Salvani, sinners who walk twisted and bent over in penance for their pride in ancestry, artistry, and power.

Sapia, one of the envious, a woman who rejoiced at the defeat of her townspeople.

Guido del Duca, another doing penance for envy. He laments the dissensions which tear apart the Italian states.

Marco Lombardo, Dante's companion through the smoky way trodden by the wrathful.

Pope Adrian, one of those being purged of avarice.

Hugh Capet, the founder of the French ruling dynasty, which he castigates for its crimes and brutality. He atones for his own ambition and greed.

Statius, the author of the "Thebaid." One of Virgil's disciples, he has just completed his penance for prodigality. He tells Dante and Virgil of the liberation of the truly repentant soul.

Forese Donati, Dante's friend, and Bonagiunta, Florentines guilty of gluttony.

Guido Guinicelli and Arnaut, love poets who submit to the flames which purify them of lust.

Matilda, a heavenly lady who meets Dante in the earthly paradise at the top of Mount Purgatory and takes him to Beatrice.

Piccarda, a Florentine nun, a fragile, almost transparent spirit who dwells in the moon's sphere, the outermost circle of heaven, since her faith wavered, making her incapable of receiving greater bliss than this.

Justinian, the great Roman Emperor and law-giver, one of the champions of the Christian faith.

Charles Martel, the heir to Charles II, King of Naples, whose early death precipitated strife and injustice.

Cunizza, Sordello's mistress, the sister of an Italian tyrant.

Falco, a troubadour who was, after his conversion, made a bishop.

Rahab, the harlot who aided Joshua to enter Jerusalem, another of the many whose human passions were transformed into love of God.

Thomas Aquinas, the Scholastic philosopher. He tells Dante of St. Francis when he comes to the sphere of the sun, the home of those who have reached heaven through their knowledge of God.

St. Bonaventura, his companion, who praises St. Dominic.

Cacciagiuda, Dante's great-great-grandfather, placed in the sphere of Mars as a warrior for the Church.

Peter Damian, a hermit, an inhabitant of the sphere of Saturn, the place allotted to spirits blessed for their temperance and contemplative life.

St. Peter, St. James, and St. John, representatives, for Dante, of the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love. The three great disciples examine the poet to assure his understanding of these three qualities.

Adam, the prototype of fallen man, who is, through Christ, given the greatest redemption; he is the companion of the three apostles and sits enthroned at the left hand of the Virgin.

St. Bernard, Dante's guide during the last stage of his journey, when he comes before the throne of the Queen of Heaven.

The Story

Dante found himself lost in a dark and frightening wood, and as he was trying to regain his path, he came to a mountain which he decided to climb in order to get his bearings. Strange beasts blocked his way, however, and he was forced back to the plain. As he was bemoaning his fate, the poet Virgil approached Dante and offered to conduct him through Hell, Purgatory, and blissful Paradise.

When they arrived at the gates of Hell, Virgil explained that here were confined those who had lived their lives without regard for good or evil. At the River Acheron, where they found Charon, the ferryman, Dante was seized with terror and fell into a trance. Aroused by a loud clap of thunder, he followed his guide through Limbo, the first circle of Hell. The spirits confined there, he learned, were those who, although they had lived a virtuous life, had not been baptized.

At the entrance to the second circle of Hell, Dante met Minos, the Infernal Judge, who warned him to take heed how he entered the lower regions. Dante was overcome by pity as he witnessed the terrible punishment which the spirits were undergoing. They had been guilty of carnal sin, and for punishment they were whirled around without cessation in the air. The third circle housed those who had been guilty of the sin of gluttony. They were forced to lie deep in the mud, under a constant fall of snow and hail and stagnant water. Above them stood Cerberus, a cruel monster, barking at the helpless creatures and tearing at their flesh. In the next circle, Dante witnesses the punishment of the prodigal and the avaricious, and realized the vanity of fortune.

He and Virgil continued on their journey until they reached the Stygian Lake, in which the wrathful and gloomy were suffering. At Virgil's signal, a ferryman transported them across the lake to the city of Dis. They were denied admittance, however, and the gates were closed against them by the fallen angels who guard the city. Dante and Virgil gained admittance into the city only after an angel had interceded for them. There Dante discovered that tombs burning with a blistering heat housed the souls of heretics. Dante spoke to two of these tormented spirits and learned that all the souls in Hell, who knew nothing of the present, can remember the past, and dimly foresee the future.

The entrance to the seventh circle was guarded by the Minotaur, and only after Virgil had pacified him could the two travelers pass down the steep crags to the base of the mountain. There they discerned a river of blood in which those who had committed violence in their lifetimes were confined. On the other side of the river they learned that those who had committed suicide were doomed to inhabit the trunks of trees. Beyond the river they came to a desert in which were confined those who had sinned against God, or Art, or Nature. A stream flowed near the desert and the two poets followed it until the water plunged into an abyss. In order that they might descend to the eighth circle, Virgil summoned Geryon, a frightful monster, who conducted them below. There they saw the tortured souls of seducers, flatters, diviners, and barterers. Continuing along their way, they witnessed the punishment accorded hypocrites and robbers. In the ninth gulf were confined scandalmongers and spreaders of false doctrine. Among the writhing figures they saw Mahomet. Still farther along, the two discovered the horrible disease-ridden bodies of forgers, counterfeiters, alchemists, and all those who deceived under false pretenses.

They were summoned to the next circle by the soul of a trumpet. In it were confined all traitors. A ring of giants surrounded the circle, one of whom lifted both Dante and Virgil and deposited them in the bottom of the circle. There Dante conversed with many of the spirits and learned the nature of their particular crimes.

After this visit to the lowest depths of Hell, Dante and Virgil emerged from the foul air to the pure atmosphere which surrounded the island of Purgatory. In a little while, they saw a boat conducted by an angel, in which were souls being brought to Purgatory. Dante recognized a friend among them. The two poets reached the foot of a mountain, where passing spirits showed them the easiest path to climb its slope. On their way up the path they encountered many spirits who explained that they were kept in Ante-Purgatory because they had delayed their repentance too long. They pleaded with Dante to ask their families to pray for their souls when he once again returned to earth. Soon Dante and Virgil came to the gate of Purgatory, which was guarded by an angel. The two poets ascended a winding path and saw men, bent under the weight of heavy stones, who were expiating the sin of pride. They examined the heavily carved cornices, which they passed, and found them covered with inscriptions urging humility and righteousness. At the second cornice were the souls of those who had been guilty of envy. They wore sackcloth and their eyelids were sewed with iron thread. Around them were the voices of angels singing of great examples of humility and the futility of envy. An angel invited the poets to visit the third cornice, where those who had been guilty of anger underwent repentance. Dante was astonished at the examples of patience which he witnessed there. At the fourth cornice he witnessed the purging of the sin of indifference or gloominess. He discussed with Virgil the nature of love. The Latin poet stated that there were two kinds of love, natural love, which was always right, and love of the soul, which might be misdirected. At the fifth cornice, avarice was purged. On their way to the next cornice, the two were overtaken by Statius, whose spirit had been cleansed and who was on his way to Paradise. He accompanied them to the next place of purging, where the sin of gluttony was repented, while voices sang of the glory of temperance. The last cornice was the place for purging by fire of the sin of incontinence. Here the sinners were heard to recite innumerable examples of praiseworthy chastity.

An angel now directed the two poets and Statius to a path which would lead them to Paradise. Virgil told Dante that he might wander through Paradise at his will until he found his love, Beatrice. As he was strolling through a forest, Dante came to a stream; on the other bank stood a beautiful woman. She explained to him that the stream was called Lethe and helped him to cross it. Then Beatrice descended from heaven and reproached him for his unfaithfulness to her during her life, but the virgins in the heavenly fields interceded with her on his behalf. Convinced of his sincere repentance and remorse, she agreed to accompany him through the heavens.

On the moon Dante found those who had made vows of chastity and determined to follow the religious life, but who were forced to break their vows. Beatrice led him to the planet Mercury, the second heaven, and from there to Venus, the third heaven, where Dante conversed with many spirits and learned of their virtues. On the sun, the fourth heaven, they were surrounded by a group of spirits, among them Thomas Aquinas. He named each of the spirits in turn and discussed their individual virtues. A second circle of blessed spirits surrounded the first, and Dante learned from each how he had achieved blessedness.

Then Beatrice and Dante came to Mars, the fifth heaven, where he saw the cherished souls of those who had been martyred. Dante recognized many renowned warriors and crusaders among them.

On Jupiter, the sixth heaven, Dante saw the souls of those who had administered justice faithfully in the world. The seventh heaven was on Saturn, where Dante found the souls of those who had spent their lives in meditation and religious retirement. From there Beatrice and her lover passed to the eighth heaven, the region of the fixed stars. Dante looked back over all the distance which extended between the earth and this apex of Paradise and was dazzled and awed by what he saw. As they stood there, they saw the triumphal hosts approaching, with Christ leading, followed by Mary.

Dante was questioned by the saints. Saint Peter examined his opinions concerning faith; Saint James, concerning hope, and Saint John, concerning charity. Adam then approached and told the poet of the first man's creation, of his life in Paradise, and of his fall and what had caused it. Saint Peter bitterly lamented the avarice which his apostolic successors displayed, and all the sainted host agreed with him.

Beatrice then conducted Dante to the ninth heaven, where he was permitted to view the divine essence and to listen to the chorus of angels. She then led him to the Empyrean, from the heights of which, and with the aid of her vision, he was able to witness the triumphs of the angels and of the souls of the blessed. So dazzled and overcome was he by this vision that it was some time before he realized Beatrice had left him. At his side stood and old man whom he recognized as Saint Bernard, who told him Beatrice had returned to her throne. He then told Dante that if he wished to discover still more of the heavenly vision, he must join with him in a prayer to Mary. Dante received the grace to contemplate the glory of God, and to glimpse, for a moment, the greatest of mysteries, the Trinity and man's union with the divine.

Critical Evaluation

Dante was born into an aristocratic Florentine family. Unusually well educated even for his time and place, he was knowledgeable in science and philosophy and was an active man of letters as well as an artist. He lived in politically tumultuous times and was active in politics and government. All of his knowledge, his experience, and his skill were brought to bear in his writings. During an absence from Florence in 1302, he was sentenced to exile for opposing the government then in power; he was never allowed to return to his beloved Florence. In exile, Dante wrote The Divine Comedy. He died in Ravenna.

This masterpiece was written in Italian, but Dante also wrote in Latin, the language of scholarship at that time. His Latin treatise De Vulgari Eloquentia (On the Vulgar Tongue)--a compelling defense of the use of the written vernacular, instead of Latin--argued in conventional Latin the superiority of unconventional written Italian as a medium of expression. His other major Latin treatise was De Monarchia (About Monarchy), a political essay. He also used Latin for some very important letters and for a few poems. But Dante's choice was his native Italian. His earliest major work--La Vita Nuova (The New Life), a mystical-spiritual autobiography, combining prose and poetry--was written in Italian. So, too, was Il Convivio (The Banquet), a scholarly and philosophical treatise. And he wrote a number of lyric poems in Italian as well. Standing above all as a tribute to the eloquence of written Italian is The Divine Comedy.

La Commedia--as it was first titled; Divina was added later--is an incredibly complex work. It is divided into three sections, or canticles, the Inferno (Hell), the Purgatorio (Purgatory), and the Paradiso (Heaven). The entire work is composed of 100 cantos, apportioned into segments of 34 (Inferno), 33 (Purgatorio), and 33 (Paradiso). The rhyme scheme is called terza rima--aba bab cbc dcd--an interlocking pattern which produces a very closely knit poem. This structure is neither arbitrary nor a mere intellectual exercise.

Number symbolism plays an important part in The Divine Comedy. As an essentially Christian poem, it relies heavily on mystical associations with numbers. Inasmuch as the poem deals with Christian religious concepts, it is not difficult to discern the relationship between one poem in three canticles and one God in Three Persons. So, too, terza rima becomes significant. But then more complex intricacies come into play. The unity or oneness of God is diffused on a metric basis: one is divided into one hundred cantos, for example. And two becomes the duality of nature: corporeal and spiritual, active and contemplative, Church and State, Old Testament and New, and so on. Three signifies Father, Son, Holy Ghost; Power, Wisdom, Love; Faith, Hope, Charity; and other combinations. Four--as in seasons, elements, humors, directions, cardinal virtues--combines with three to make a mystical seven: days of creation, days of the week (length of Dante's journey), seven virtues and seven vices (reflected in the seven levels of Purgatory), planets, and many more. Moreover, multiples of three--three times three equals nine--create further permutations: choirs of angels, circles of Hell, and the like. And adding the mystical unity of one to the product nine makes ten, the metric permutation of one discussed above.

These complex relationships of number symbolism were deliberately contrived by Dante and other medieval writers. Dante himself explained, in Il Convivio, his view of the four levels of interpretation of a literary work and by doing so legitimized such explanations of number symbolism. He proposed that a text be read literally, allegorically, morally, and anagogically. The literal reading attended to the story itself. The allegorical reading uncovered hidden meanings in the story. The moral reading related to matters of human behavior. And the anagogical reading, accessible to only the most sophisticated, pertained to the absolute and universal truths contained in a work. Hence, The Divine Comedy can be appreciated on each of these four levels of interpretation.

As a literal story, it has the fascination of autobiographical elements as well as the features of high adventure. The protagonist Dante, led by Vergil, undertakes a journey to learn about himself, the world, and the relations between the two. In the course of his journey, he explores other worlds in order to place his own world in proper perspective. As his journey progresses, he learns.

As an allegorical story, The Divine Comedy traces the enlightenment of Dante's soul. It also delineates social, political, cultural, and scientific parables. By integrating all of these aspects into an intricately interwoven pattern, the poem becomes an allegory for the real and spiritual world order.

As a moral story, the work has perhaps its greatest impact as a cautionary tale to warn the reader about the consequences of various categories of behavior. In the process, it helps the reader to understand sin (Hell), penance (Purgatory), and salvation (Heaven). Thus, The Divine Comedy becomes a vehicle for teaching moral behavior.

As an anagogical story, the poem offers a mystical vision of God's grand design for the entire universe. The complex interdependency of all things--including the web of interrelationships stemming from number symbolism--is, in this view, all part of the Divine Plan, which humankind can grasp only partially and dimly. For God remains ineffable to the finite capacities of human beings, and His will can never be fully apprehended by humans, whose vision has been impaired by sin. The anagogical aspects of The Divine Comedy are therefore aids for the most spiritually enlightened to approach Eternal Truth.

To be sure, no brief explanation can do justice to the majesty of this monumental achievement in the history of Western poetry. The very encyclopedic nature of its scope makes The Divine Comedy a key to the study of medieval civilization. As such, it cannot be easily or properly fragmented into neat categories for discussion, and the reader must advance on tiptoe, as it were. Background in history and theology are strongly recommended. But, above all, the reader must recognize that no sweeping generalization will adequately account for the complexity of ideas or the intricacy of structure in The Divine Comedy.
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Publication:Masterpieces of World Literature
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Date:Jan 1, 1989
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