12th December 2016

Divine Comdey


Dante Alighieri (c. 1315)If it weren’t for a schoolboy’s crush, we might be deprived of one of the greatest works of Western literature. Dante dedicated his Divine Comedy to a mysterious woman named Beatrice, who hardly knew he existed. Still, that passion led to a remarkable work of religious fantasy by the most eminent Italian writer in history.Dante Alighieri was born in 1265 to a noble family in Florence and educated under the supervision of the Dominican and Franciscan orders. As a young man, he was made one of the priors (chief magistrates) of the Florentine republic and entered into the political struggles that divided Florence into several hostile factions. While absent on a diplomatic mission in 1302, he was exiled from Florence. Some thirteen years afterward, he was invited to return to his native city if he would submit to certain humiliating conditions. Dante refused. He spent the rest of his life in exile in various Italian cities, including Verona, Padua, and Bologna, and died in Ravenna in 1321.Dante’s first significant work was La Vita Nuova, written between 1292 and 1295. Composed partly in blank verse and partly in prose, the book tells of Dante’s love for a lady named Beatrice and promises to treat the subject more worthily later. Dante fulfilled this promise in the Divine Comedy, a three-book poem begun early in his exile and completed shortly before his death. Beatrice Portinari, the object of the poet’s idealized love, hardly knew Dante at all. He had met her only briefly when he was nine years old and once again at age eighteen.Dante’s work De Monarchia was declared heretical by the church. This work, written in exile about 1312, is a political treatise in which Dante defends the emperor’s supremacy in temporal matters over the authority of the church. Dante put forward the idea of a single world government that would secure universal peace, thus promoting the full realization of humanity’s intellectual and cultural potential.Dante Alighieri begins his epic poem the Divine Comedy as a traveler in a dark woods at Easter in 1300. In the first book, entitled the Inferno, he is led by the Roman poet Virgil down into the various stages of hell. Along the way he encounters various figures from history (many of whom were leaders in the church) who are being punished in various ways, depending upon the nature of their sins. In the Purgatorio, Virgil continues to lead Dante up a mountain rising from the ocean shore. Dante eventually reaches a point high above earth, the “earthly paradise.” The Paradiso then takes up the story, and Virgil is replaced by the idealized woman Beatrice, who leads him by the loving power of her glancing eye through the revolving ten heavens and into the presence of God. Dante writes of this sight as a glimpse of the “Beatific Vision.” The Inferno may be considered the prologue of the Divine Comedy, the Purgatorio its development, and, as the final vision of Dante’s experience, the Paradiso forms the poem’s conclusion and resolution.Dante originally titled his work Commedia, indicating the pleasing end of the poem. It was only later that its admirers expanded the title to the Divine Comedy because of the poem’s lofty subject. Dante’s purpose in writing the Commedia was “to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and lead them to the state of happiness.”This epic poem is composed in terzarima, a rhyme scheme of aba/bcb/cdc/ and so on. Its 14,233 lines contain eleven syllables each (a hendecasyllable), and the lines are organized into 100 cantos of 142 lines. Each canto is divided into three cantica of 33 lines each. One canto serves as a prologue to the entire work. Dante wrote in vernacular Italian, a transitional language between Latin and modern Italian.Inspired by the poetry of the Bible, and following the tradition of medieval allegorical poetry, Dante modeled the Commedia on Virgil’s Aeneid. Superficially, the Commedia belongs to the medieval literary types of the journey and the vision. In a deeper sense, the symbolism of the journey’s stages and Dante’s experiences along the way make the Commedia an allegory of the history of a human soul. The poem is also an encyclopedia of Dante’s knowledge of theology, philosophy, astronomy, cosmology, and other areas of learning. Contemporaneous poetry was often written in praise of women. But Dante eclipsed all such poetry by making the Commedia a monument to Beatrice, a symbolic figure developed from a person Dante first saw when a child and later loved as the ideal of womanhood. With all this, the Commedia is also an autobiography, not of outward events, but of the struggles of Dante’s inner life.In Dante’s allegorical world, the sages of pagan antiquity have their eternal dwelling in Limbo. When passing this place, Virgil introduces Dante to Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan. They receive him with honor as “a sixth among such intelligences.” In this way Dante boldly predicts the judgment of future generations: The Commedia sums up an entire era of human history–the Middle Ages. While doing so, it outstrips that era’s literature, philosophy, science, religion, and language and is itself the rebirth of European poetry. For these reasons, it is only appropriate that Dante’s Commedia be labeled “divine.”

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