Places: The Divine Comedy

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First transcribed: La divina commedia, c. 1320 (English translation, 1802)

Type of work: Poetry

Type of plot: Allegory

Time of work: The Friday before Easter, 1300

Places DiscussedHell

Hell. Divine Comedy, TheDante begins his journey in the grim nether regions. “Abandon hope all ye who enter in,” is inscribed on the gates of Hell. With Vergil, the most noble of pagans, as his guide, Dante enters the concentric circles of Hell, where sinners are mired eternally in the crimes that have brought them there. Each punishment cruelly fits the sin. Sowers of discord are eternally rent asunder by demons; violent souls steep forever in streams of blood. There are degrees of punishment in Hell. On the outer regions of Hell, swept perpetually by a whirlwind, Dante finds the tragic adulterous lovers from his own time, Paolo and Francesco. The depths of Hell are reserved for the most heinous of sinners, those who betrayed their masters. Here Dante finds Judas and Brutus, frozen in the Devil’s mouth.

The Divine Comedy provides not only a poetic summa of the literature, philosophy, and religion of the Middle Ages, but a medieval Christian interpretation of all human history. Borrowing freely from Ptolemaic cosmology and the speculations of Church leaders, Dante also found the epic poets, particularly Homer and Vergil, enlightening when it came to describing the realm of the dead. Only here could Dante freely mingle fictional personalities from earlier literature with semilegendary characters from epics and real figures from the Italian city states. Only within this locale, constructed from his borrowings and own dreams and visions, could he hope to succeed in his acknowledged goals: to compose a Christian epic celebrating Italian civilization; and to honor Beatrice, the woman he had loved from childhood.

Purgatory

Purgatory. The pangs of purgatory are mitigated by hope. All souls here will eventually be released. Some of these penitent shades discourse on the transience of human fame and the vanity of human wishes. Others answer Dante’s questions about free will and the influence of the stars upon earthly lives. Amazingly, even in this place, despite the urgency of purgation, the affairs of the Italian city states remain pressing, and several of these penitents have political discourse with the visiting poets. Dante uses the unique setting not only to exercise his satiric vision but to air some of his own political opinions.

Paradise

Paradise. Final destination in Dante’s journey–heaven, a place of perfect happiness, populated by saints, that calls on Dante to employ all of his powers to make interesting. In Paradise, Vergil is no longer Dante’s guide, having had the misfortune to be born shortly before the redeeming advent of Christ. Beatrice now takes his place. Paradise thus becomes the only setting in which Dante could truly have absorbed the great lesson of Christian neo-Platonism. On earth he had worshiped this woman from childhood, and she had inspired his art, even after her death. To see her again in Paradise had been his abiding hope. Yet as he progresses through the Heavens–meeting apostles, doctors of the Church, the Virgin Mary herself–Beatrice’s own presence slowly fades and at last Dante is able to perceive the ultimate reality toward which Beatrice’s image has always beckoned. He is to contemplate the radiance of Divinity and to submerge himself in the most ecstatic of mysteries, the Triune God and the God-Man.

Sources for Further StudyBemrose, Stephen. A New Life of Dante. Exeter, England: University of Exeter Press, 2000. Biography that includes a discussion following the plot of The Divine Comedy and differentiating between the real-life Dante and the character.Cogan, Mark. The Design in the Wax: The Structure of the Divine Comedy and Its Meaning. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999. Argues that a complex system of interrelated values of sin, redemption, and blessedness is embedded in the work’s structure.Dronke, Peter. Dante and Medieval Latin Traditions. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Succinctly demonstrates in The Divine Comedy Dante’s debt to medieval Latin conventions. Marshals impressive evidence to argue that Dante did not write the expository part of the “Epistle to Cangrande,” which constitutes the cornerstone of Charles Singleton’s allegorical interpretation of Dante’s masterpiece.Freccero, John. Dante: The Poetics of Conversion. Edited by Rachel Jacoff. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. A collection of seventeen essays by a leading critic of Dante. Demonstrating the centrality of Augustine’s thought for Dante, Freccero builds on the writings of Charles Singleton while refining many Singletonian ideas.Hollander, Robert. Dante: A Life in Works. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Uses a thematic approach to The Divine Comedy by focusing on main characters; also thorough discussion of allegory.Jacoff, Rachel, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Dante. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Fifteen essays by distinguished scholars that provide essential background to and critical evaluations of Dante’s life and work. Includes key studies by historians and literary scholars.Singleton, Charles Southward. Dante Studies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1954 and 1958. 2 vols. Often regarded as the most influential studies published by an American Dante scholar, these classic writings interpret Dante’s poem using a fourfold allegorical model. Though dated, Singleton’s approach remains a point of departure for much American Dante scholarship.Sowell, Madison U., ed. Dante and Ovid: Essays in Intertextuality. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1991. Addresses the crucial question of how the Christian poet Dante made use of the classical poet’s texts. The essays highlight and offer perspicacious commentary on the Ovidian presence throughout Dante’s masterpiece.
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