The Divine Comedy is a long-form poem by Dante Alighieri, which tells the story of a journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Although it is strongly influenced by the poetic epics of the Illiad and the Odyssey by Homer, and particularly the Aeneid by Virgil, its structure is significantly different from anything that had been written before. The basic story details Dante getting lost in a dark forest, and as an act of divine grace to correct his life, embarking on a tour of the afterworld. We are introduced to his benefactor, Beatrice, who may be an allusion to a woman he loved and wrote poetry about, as well as a symbol of wisdom. She sets him under the care of Virgil, who as a wise pagan is confined to Limbo. Virgil is given permission to escort him through all the levels of Hell and Purgatory. In Paradise, he is reunited with Beatrice as his escort.
Notably, the persons devoured by Satan in the frozen center of Dante's Hell are the worst betrayers in history: Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Christ, is in one of Satan's three mouths, while Brutus and Cassius, the betrayers of Julius Caesar, are in Satan's other two mouths.
The poem is in three main parts, or cantiche:
Each of these is divided into a number of cantos (or canti) as indicated; there are 100 cantos in total. Each canto is around 130-150 lines long. Some consider Inferno I to be a prolog to the work as a whole, which gives 33 cantos in each part plus the prolog.
The entire work is written in terza rime, a rhyme scheme where lines, each of eleven syllables, are in groups of three (terzine). The first and last lines of each terzina rhyme with each other, while the second rhymes with the first and last lines of the next terzina. For example, the first three terzine of each canto have the rhyme scheme ABA, BCB, CDC. Each canto ends with a single line, which rhymes with the second line of the final terzina, ie ... WXW, XYX, YZY, Z.
Translations of the Divine Comedy into English almost always conserve the divisions between cantos. However, some are in prose rather than verse, and those that are in verse may use a different rhyme scheme and meter, or none at all. These choices depend on the objectives of the translation: those intended for study will normally use prose in order to convey meaning as accurately as possible, while those aimed at the general reader may use verse and opt to sacrifice some precision in favor of producing an enjoyable, stand-alone text that works in its own right.
It should be noted that the Divine Comedy is not a 'comedy' in the modern sense of the word, although parts of it are certainly comic (see below). It is unclear why Dante referred to his work as a Commedia, though, since it does not follow the same pattern as any previous work, it is hard to suggest what else he could have called it.
The word 'Divine' was never used by Dante himself to describe the work, and was simply applied later because of the subject matter.
The dark forest
At the start of the poem, Dante is lost in a dark forest. He tries to get back to 'the straight path', but is prevented by three savage beasts: a lion, a wolf and a leopard. As he begins to despair, he meets the ghost of Virgil, who explains that he has been sent by Beatrice to guide Dante to safety. However, his predicament is so dire that the only way out leads through Hell.
For a more detailed treatment, see Dante's Inferno.
Virgil and Dante begin their journey through the gate of Hell, across the river Acheron and down into Limbo and the lower circles. In each place, Dante questions the souls dwelling there, called ‘shades’ due to their lack of a body. All the shades will be resurrected and given new bodies, and continue in their deserved location. The people he meets are mostly taken from classical history and mythology, the Bible, and more recent Florentine and Italian history.
As well as the sinners who are punished there, Hell is inhabited by various monsters and demons. Some punishments are carried out by demons, especially in the eighth circle, and each circle is also home to a monster from classical mythology who guards it, while also being punished there for its own sins. For example, the circle of gluttony is guarded by the ravenous three-headed dog Cerberus.
At the bottom of the ninth circle of Hell, at the center of the frozen lake Cocytus, Dante and Virgil behold Satan. They then make their way out by climbing down Satan's body to a tunnel that leads from the Earth's center to the southern hemisphere, where Purgatory is located.
For a more detailed treatment, see Dante's Purgatorio.
Purgatory is depicted as an incredibly high mountain on an island in the world's southern hemisphere. The mountain is encircled by seven ledges, known as cornices, where each of the Seven Deadly Sins is cleansed. As Dante goes up the mountain, his own sins are also cleansed to prepare him for his journey into Heaven. As they travel through Purgatory, Virgil and Dante again meet many historical figures as well as Dante's contemporaries. There are many references to Florence and other cities in Italy, and he uses the various levels of Purgatory to malign his political foes, and corrupt Church leaders. Classical figures are mainly absent, as their lack of Christian faith prevents them from entering.
At the top of Mount Purgatory is the Garden of Eden, commonly referred to in this context as the Earthly Paradise. Here, Dante is reunited with Beatrice amid an elaborate pageant. She rebukes him for his sins and readies him for their journey through Heaven, while Virgil departs.
For a more detailed treatment, see Dante's Paradiso.
Dante and Beatrice leave the Earthly Paradise and ascend into Heaven, which is located in what we would now call outer space. Heaven has nine spheres, one for each of the planets known at the time, plus the sun, moon and stars. In each sphere, Dante is shown a different group of the souls of the virtuous, who appear as bright lights, often moving in harmony with each other to form patterns such as a cross or an eagle. Paradiso contains less action than the other two cantiche, and is home to many long expositions on philosophical, theological and historical matters. However, some of the poetry scales heights not seen before, as the poet struggles to describe the indescribable.
As Dante nears the edge of Heaven and approaches God's throne, he finally concedes defeat and admits that he cannot fully describe his vision of God, instead submitting to the divine will. The poem ends at this point, and it is implied that Dante then returns to Earth to begin the task of recounting his marvellous journey, the result of which is the Divine Comedy itself.
One of the main differences between the Divine Comedy and the classical epics that partly inspired it is its varied style. At different times it is serious and comic, lyrical and plain, allegorical and personal. Some examples are:
- Comic: Dante and Virgil's encounter with the demons in the eighth circle in cantos XXI and XXII of the Inferno is played as pure farce, with the mischievous demons tricking Virgil and undermining his attempts to remain dignified.
- Serious: The Emperor Justinian's indictment of the Florentines' betrayal of the Roman Empire's legacy in Paradiso, canto VII is a heartfelt statement regarding the political scene of the time.
- Lyrical: Francesca dei Rimini's account of her infidelity and murder in Inferno, canto V is a famously powerful treatment of the power of love.
- Plain: Paradiso is home to numerous expositions on complex theological points such as free will and original sin.
- Allegorical: In the Earthly Paradise in Purgatorio, canto XXIX, Dante is shown a marvellous procession, in which each element symbolises part of the Christian church. For example, 24 old men represent the Old Testament and a griffon represents Jesus.
- Personal: Dante's first meeting with Beatrice in Purgatorio, canto XXX is where the poet's own feelings are laid bare, as he is rebuked for his real-life transgressions and his infidelity to Beatrice's memory.
The Divine Comedy is notable for its use of simile. Throughout the work, Dante casts his net wide to find comparisons for the unearthly sights he describes, drawing from history, nature, meteorology, biology and physics, amongst many sources. In the most typical examples, the simile is introduced first, and then the sight which is compared to it is described; common forms are "Quale ... tale ..." and "Come ... cosí ...". In many cases, similes are long and elaborate; for example, near the start of Inferno XXI, nine lines are devoted to describing the boiling pitch used by Venetian shipbuilders, which is then used as a simile for the tar in which the souls of barraters meet their fate.
In writing the Divine Comedy, Dante drew on a wide range of sources:
- A primary source for theological matters is the Bible. Dante makes frequent allusions both to specific verses from both the Old and New Testaments, and to the philosophy of St Paul and others.
- Next in importance after the Bible are the philosophical works of Aquinas and Aristotle. The organization of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory is based on Aquinas' categorization of sin, and both are also invoked in regards to particular points of doctrine. Other thinkers such as Plato are also drawn on.
- Many elements, particularly in the Inferno, are taken from Greek mythology. These include the mythical beasts that appear, and the rivers of Hades. The main source for these would have been Roman poets such as Virgil.
- Dante appears to have had a keen interest in science, as he often draws parallels with scientific discoveries that would have been quite new at the time in order to describe events and places, or to explain points of philosophy.
The modern reader should note that even the texts of well-known writers were nowhere near as readily available in Dante's day as they are today. Much of what he had read would have been in the form of commentaries, incomplete transcripts or collections of quotations, which accounts for certain gaps in his knowledge (for example, Odysseus' long speech makes no reference to the actual events of the Odyssey). Nevertheless, the Comedy as a whole is a major achievement in synthesizing Christian and classical thought into a meticulous and coherent vision of what the afterlife might look like, with even small details rooted firmly in sources such as those listed above.
Having said all the above, it should also be made clear that the poet's own imaginative and philosophical talents played an important role: the Divine Comedy is much more than a mere assimilation of the work of others, and on several points Dante is unafraid to differ from the prevailing views of the time.
Seven hundred years after it was written, the Divine Comedy remains the best-known work in the Italian language. Moreover, it was very influential in the development of that language: at the time it was written, it was far more common to write in Latin than the vernacular, a situation which was changed by the Comedy's success. As a result, Dante's Tuscan dialect eventually became established as the standard form of Italian, forming the basis of the language as it is spoken today.
Outside Italy, the Divine Comedy has been almost as influential. In particular, popular conceptions of Hell are often shaped by the Inferno (for example, with gruesome punishments designed to fit each type of sin), and the word 'Dantesque' has come to describe grotesquely violent scenes. Many writers have been directly influenced by the work, and the Inferno in particular; one example is T.S. Eliot, whose poem The Waste Land takes the Inferno as its main inspiration.
In a more general sense, Dante's daring originality has been a great influence on all forms of writing, in ways that are not always noticeable to the modern reader because they are now so commonplace. When the Divine Comedy was written, it was unthinkable to combine highbrow and lowbrow writing in the same work; to use the vernacular for such a grand task; and to put the author himself in such a prominent role in an imaginative work. All of these are now common in literature, showing the debt that successive generations of writers owe to Dante, and to the Divine Comedy in particular.
- The Divine Comedy, By Dante Alighieri, Translated by Charles Singleton, Bollingen Series 80, Vol 1: Inferno. Copyright 1970 by Princeton University Press.
- The Divine Comedy, By Dante Alighieri, Translated by Charles Singleton, Bollingen Series 80, Vol 2: Purgatorio. Copyright 1973 by Princeton University Press.
- The Divine Comedy, By Dante Alighieri, Translated by Charles Singleton, Bollingen Series 80, Vol. 3: Paradiso. Copyright 1975 by Princeton University Press.
- Dante's Inferno Test - A surprisingly in-depth exploration of Dante's philosophy as applied to modern life.