The Divine Comedy by Dante
Background: Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) is considered one of the masters of Western literature, along with Shakespeare and Goethe. He was born in Florence and must have had an extensive education, since his writing exhibits familiarity with much of the learning of the day. He was involved in the political life of Florence, active in the “white” faction of the Guelph party; with the victory of the Black Guelphs, he was condemned to death (1302) and had to live in exile the rest of his life. He lived subsequently in Verona, Bologna, Casentino, Pisa, and Ravenna, where he died. His first major literary work was La Vita Nuova, which was in the style of the Provençal troubadours and which depicts the poet’s love for Beatrice, her death, and the poet’s resolve to compose work that would be a worthy monument to her memory. In addition he wrote in Latin De Vulgari Eloquentia (1304-5), which is a treatise defending the vernacular use of Italian.
Dante’s masterpiece is the Divine Comedy, probably begun around 1307 and completed shortly before his death. He called it simply “The Comedy” (La commedia) because it ended happily with the vision of heaven. It began to be called “divine” during the 16th century. The poem is written in terza rima (third rhyme), a 3-line stanza rhyming aba, bcb, cdc, etc. in the original Italian. The poem is composed of 100 cantos or songs, divided into three parts, “Hell,” “Purgatory,” and “Heaven,” depicting a ten-day “journey” beginning on Good Friday and ending the Sunday after Easter. In each of these realms the poet meets mythological, historical, and living figures who represent faults or virtues. He is guided on his journey by the Latin poet, Vergil, who represents reason, and by Beatrice, who represents love and the divine will. The work provides a summary of the political, scientific, and theological thought of Dante’s time. It may be read on several levels of meaning, such as the literal, allegorical, moral, and mystical, to use the medieval hermeneutic. In addition to its artistic and linguistic beauty, the work’s multiplicity of meanings adds to its stature. The “journey” Dante depicts may be understood, for example, as an allegory of the purification of one’s soul and of the achievement of inner peace through the guidance of reason and love. The work begins with a recognition of Dante’s being “lost” and ends with his finding the “goal” of his striving, a vision of the overflowing goodness that is the heart of the Christian “Trinity.”
The selections for our readings include the first canto of “Hell” or the “Inferno” and the last canto of “Heaven” or “Paradiso” — in other words, the very “beginning” of Dante’s poetic journey and the culminating vision depicting its “end.”
What does the reference to “half our life’s way” (l. 1) suggest? What does the “forest” represent? Notice that it is “shadowed,” “dense,” and “difficult” (ll. 2-4). Even thought the memory of it is nearly as bitter as death, Dante wants to recall this. Why?
How did Dante come to enter the dark wood? (l. 12) After he spends a fearful night in the wood, somewhat calmed by recognizing a familiar celestial object, he tries to go back, but is blocked by a leopard (l. 32). With the coming of the rising sun (notice line 40; keep it in mind as you read the last line of the poem), he has new hope; but that is dashed when he sees a lion (l. 45). Finally he spots a she-wolf, and gives up hope of ever finding his way out of the woods (l. 49). Notice that Dante has to retreat to lower ground (l. 61). If this depicts a stage in a journey, what has happened to Dante? What do you think the animals represent? Why does he have to go “down”?
Notice how he meets Vergil (l. 62) and desperately asks for help. How does Dante address him (ll. 79-90) once he realizes who he is? Who do you think the “Greyhound” (l. 101) refers to? Why does Vergil guide Dante through “an eternal place” (l. 114) and what is it? What do you think of Dante’s depicting his hero, Vergil, as imprisoned (l. 124-6) in hell?
The last canto of Dante’s journey depicts the culminating vision of “paradise” — the Triune God of Christianity. It begins with a prayer addressed to Mary (ll. 1-39) by Bernard of Claivaux, who is now guiding Dante through this final stage of his journey. How does Mary help (l. 43) the poet? When Dante says he “lifts his longing to its ardent limit” (l. 48) is he echoing anything we have seen earlier this semester? What had to happen to his sight (l. 52) in order for him to look where Mary showed him?
Notice how Dante speaks of lack of language and memory because of the excess of what he now sees (ll. 55-7). What is he getting at here? Does this reflect anything we saw earlier in our readings? What is Dante asking for when he addresses the Highest Light (ll. 67-75)? Once his vision “reached” the Infinite Goodness with the aid of grace (ll. 81-90), what does Dante say he saw? Does this reflect anything we have read earlier? Why does he say that once you see that Light it is impossible (l. 102) to set that light aside?
Notice how Dante again emphasizes the limitations (ll. 106-8) of language even as he goes on to describe further his “divine vision.” To what do the images of the circles (ll. 115-20) refer? To what does the circle painted with our “effigy” (l. 131) refer?
Does Dante finally “really see” what he wants to? That is, is his journey successful? What lines in the conclusion support your understanding of the outcome of his journey?
Does any of this relate to Bonaventure’s depiction of the journey? Explain.