Dante Alighieri’s long poem, The Divine Comedy, is perhaps the greatest book of the Middle Ages and one of the greatest books of all time. Dante himself can be called the greatest of all writers in Italian, being the first to write a great book in the Italian language rather than Latin. He inspired Petrarch, Bocaccio, and hundreds more. The Divine Comedy is a synthesis of the medieval worldview, in which he adopted the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas with additional insights from Aristotle and Arabic philosophy.
Dante was born in 1265 in Florence, Italy, to aristocratic but poor parents. His mother died when he was a toddler and his father when he was a teenager. Growing up, he especially loved Virgil’s poetry. At nine years old, he fell in love with another nine year old, Beatrice, who was destined to become the lifelong object of his poetry. He began writing sonnets about her, filled with passion and imagination. But Dante never married Beatrice, who eventually married a banker and died at the young age of 24. Dante himself married and had several children, but he never wrote poetry about his wife.
As an adult, Dante began to involve himself in Florentine politics on the side of the “Whites,” and when the “Blacks” won, he went into exile for 19 long years. Seeing the constant wars among the Italian city-states, he began to long for order, security, and peace under a revived Holy Roman Empire. He dreamed of a world government that would provide security and peace across all lands. Because of his politics, he was eventually forced to flee to a monastery, where he wrote most of The Divine Comedy. He finished the poem in 1318 in Verona, three years before he died.
The Divine Comedy is a difficult poem to read and frankly doesn’t have many readers today. Nevertheless, it is masterful in its conciseness, precision, and intensity. It heavily relies on the flow and beauty of the Italian language, which is why Dante never wanted it to be translated. It is a very highly structured poem, with exactly three canticles of 33 cantos each, plus one on the front end to make an even hundred. The first canticle, Inferno, describes the nine circles of hell, the second canticle, Purgatorio, describes the nine levels of purgatory, and the third canticle, Paradiso, describes the nine spheres of heaven. The poem is highly imaginative and contains wonderful descriptions of nature. Dante was also not afraid to satirise or criticise contemporaries, even the pope himself. The poem deals with philosophy and morality and is highly allegorical. It is called a comedy because the general flow is from human misery in sin to human happiness in the presence of God. I look forward to reading parts of Dante’s poem with Sophia and Noah next week.
- Jeff Coleman