THE DIVINE COMEDY
And I, in the midst of all this circling horror,
began, “Teacher, what are these sounds I hear?
What souls are these so overwhelmed by grief?”
And he to me: “This wretched state of being
is the fate of those sad souls who lived a life
but lived it with no blame and with no praise.
They are mixed with that repulsive choir of angels
neither faithful nor unfaithful to their God,
who undecided stood but for themselves.
Heaven, to keep its beauty, cast them out,
but even Hell itself would not receive the
for fear the damned might glory over them.”
And I. “Master, what torments do they suffer
that force them to lament so bitterly?”
He answered: “I will tell you in few words:
these wretches have no hope of truly dying,
and this blind life they lead is so abject
it makes them envy every other fate.
The world will not record their having been there;
Heaven’s mercy and its justice turn from them.
Let’s not discuss them; look and pass them by…”
On this day, January 27th in 1302, Dante Alighieri was undoubtedly dejected. Yesterday he was chief magistrate and a leading citizen of Florence, but today he was fined heavily and permanently excluded from public office on trumped-up charges. Worse, in a few weeks he will be exiled entirely from the city.
Homeless and without wealth, it would seem that his life was ruined. That could have been true, but it was only then that he decided to write what has become one of literature’s greatest achievements.
The Divine Comedy, an epic 14,000 line poem is a bit of the Wizard of Oz as it tells of Dante’s tour through hell, purgatory and heaven. It is ultimately a story of love. Dante learns from the Inferno (hell) what happens to love when it has gone all wrong; Purgatorio (purgatory), what happens to imperfect people trying to repair their souls; and in Paradiso (heaven), the beauty of love perfected. The reader’s joy is traveling alongside Dante on his journey before returning to earth.
Dante discovers at the end of a long journey that he had confused the beauty of earthly Beatrice (his long-lost girlfriend) for the greater love of God.
So like us.
Love is common, but we dabble at it. It’s a cup from which we sip but rarely drink deeply – with our whole heart. When Jesus cleared the temple of swindlers by flipping over their tables, the Bible says the disciples, seeing this were reminded of the verse “the zeal of Your house consumes me.” That’s loving with your whole heart.
It’s messy, inconvenient and politically incorrect.
For zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who insult you fall on me.
Art: Illustrations to Dante’s “Divine Comedy” (1824-27)
Blake’s 102 drawings illustrating Dante’s Divine Comedy were commissioned by John Linnell, the chief patron of Blake’s final years. Although Linnell did not begin to pay for the designs until December 1825, at the rate of about 1 pound a week, Blake probably began work on the drawings by the fall of 1824. They were left at Blake’s death in 1827 in various stages of completion, ranging from pencil sketches to highly finished water colors. Most show an expressive freedom in the handling of color washes far greater than Blake’s earlier water colors. In 1826, Blake began to engrave large plates based on 7 of the designs; these were also left incomplete at his death. The water colors remained in Linnell’s collection and estate until their sale at auction in 1918. Through a scheme organized by the National Art-Collections Fund, they were dispersed among 7 participating institutions: the Ashmolean Museum, Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, the British Museum, the Fogg Art Museum, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Royal Institution of Cornwall, and the Tate Collection.
As we generally find with Blake’s illustrations to the works of other writers, he has paid close attention to the details of Dante’s poem. Yet, while faithful to the text, Blake also brings his own perspective to bear on some of Dante’s central themes, including sin, guilt, punishment, revenge, and salvation. In several designs, Blake’s pictorial imagery, particularly when associated with similar motifs in his illuminated books and their iconography, indicates a critical attitude towards Dante. This interpretation of the illustrations is buttressed by Blake’s verbal criticisms of Dante found in his c. 1800 annotations to Henry Boyd’s translation of The Inferno, his conversations with Henry Crabb Robinson in 1825, and his inscriptions on the rectos of a few of the Dante designs themselves. But harsh criticism coexists with many signs of intellectual sympathy in the illustrations.
We have recorded in the Editors’ Notes the inscriptions on the versos of the designs. None of these is attributable to Blake; some probably represent at least 2 attempts to organize the designs into their proper sequence. The arrangement of images given here accords with our understanding of the sequence of passages illustrated and varies at several junctures from Butlin’s ordering.
Literature and Liturgy: Dante Alighieri and The Divine Comedy
Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in May or June of 1265 to a family of lesser nobility. The essential facts of his early life are told in his La vita nuova (The New Life), written in about 1293. One of the most important events of this period occurred when he was nine. At that time he met Beatrice, a young girl to whom he later dedicated most of his poetry and almost all of his life. Although he barely knew her and it is unlikely that they ever exchanged more than a few words, Dante loved Beatrice for the rest of his life. He eventually entered into an arranged marriage with Gemma Donati, and they had four children.
Dante started writing poetry at an early age. After Beatrice died he turned to philosophy in an attempt to find relief from his sorrow. His interest in philosophy was reflected in his poetry. He also became active in politics and played a part in the violent political and military conflicts that engulfed Italy (seeGuelfs and Ghibellines). A leader of the White Guelfs, he rose to high office in Florence and was sent as an ambassador to the pope in Rome in 1301.
The victory of the opposing party in Florence, the Black Guelfs, resulted in the banishment of the leaders of the White Guelfs. Dante was among those forced into exile in 1302. He lived in various places in Italy until at length he settled in Ravenna, where he died on Sept. 13 or 14, 1321. A small tomb in Ravenna holds the poet’s remains.
It was in Ravenna in about 1317, where he set about completing his masterpiece, La Commedia, begun a decade earlier. In essence, it is an epic poem chronicling an allegorical journey through the afterlife, divided into three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. The purpose, Dante wrote, was to convert a corrupt society to righteousness, “to remove those living in this life from a state of misery and lead them to a state of felicity.”
In Inferno, Dante is guided by the Roman poet Virgil through the nine concentric circles of hell (“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”), where they meet various sinners from history, myth, and Dante’s enemies list. Purgatory is a nine-tiered mountain where Dante must confront his own shortcomings and seek redemption (“O conscience, upright and stainless, how bitter a sting to thee is a little fault!”). Before he reaches Paradise, Virgil is replaced by Dante’s long-lost Beatrice and Bernard of Clairvaux, and together they meet Dante’s heroes as they journey through the nine concentric circles of heaven (“Like the lark that soars in the air, first singing, then silent, content with the last sweetness that satiates it, such seems to me that image, the imprint of Eternal Pleasure”). Dante finished the epic poem just before his death, and it was almost immediately recognized as brilliant. His epitaph begins: “Dante the theologian, skilled in every branch of knowledge that philosophy may cherish in her illustrious bosom.”
Obviously a bibliography of this topic must begin with the Divine Comedy, but which translation? That depends. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s is a classic. Dorothy Sayers’s has the best notes. Robert Pinsky’s (Inferno only) is probably the most accessible to a modern reader.
Vita Nuova, Dante’s combination of poetry, autobiography, and writer’s workshop, brings the author to life. Il Convivio (“The Banquet”) and De Monarchia (“On Universal Monarchy”) explore his philosophical and political ideas. These are all readily available in print and online.
On the Comedy
Robert Royal’s Dante Alighieri: Divine Comedy, Divine Spirituality (Crossroad, 1999) serves as a basic guide to the complicated poem. Kathryn Lindskoog leads readers through Dante’s Divine Comedy: Purgatory (Mercer, 1997) by retelling the story in her own words. Rodney J. Payton also aims for accessibility in A Modern Reader’s Guide to Dante’s Inferno (Lang, 1992).
Geoffrey F. Nuttall takes the Comedy as the basis for warm, almost devotional, commentary in The Faith of Dante Alighieri (SPCK, 1969). From Hell to Paradise (Washington Square, 1996), by Olof Lagercrantz, offers a breezy walk-through of the poem but questions some Christian ideas, such as a literal hell.
From here, the thicket of Dante commentaries grows much denser. Sayers’s Introductory Papers on Dante (Barnes & Noble, 1969) goes beyond the generalist notes in her translation into specialist territory. Charles Williams’s The Figure of Beatrice (Faber & Faber, 1943) yields profound insights into Dante’s thoughts on divine love, but it’s a demanding read.
In The Invention of Dante’s Commedia (Yale, 1974), John G. Demaray highlights images and ideas—especially the concept of pilgrimage—that influenced Dante’s writing. Joan Ferrante takes a different approach in her influential The Political Vision of the Divine Comedy (Princeton, 1984).
On Dante and his world
A reader can find basic—though occasionally contradicting—information on the poet in a variety of sources, including Dante and His World by Thomas Caldecot Chubb (Little, Brown & Co., 1966), Dante Alighieri, His Life and Works by Paget Toynbee (Methuen & Co., 1900), and Dante and His Time by Karl Federn (Haskell House, 1970). Hollander’s “Dante: A Party of One,” which appeared in the April 1999 issue of First Things, is also a nice introduction.
Dante becomes the subject of deeper inquiry in books like Deborah Parker’s Commentary and Ideology: Dante in the Renaissance (Duke, 1993), James Collins’s Pilgrim in Love: An Introduction to Dante and His Spirituality (Loyola, 1984), and Erich Auerbach’s important Dante, Poet of the Secular World (University of Chicago, 1961).
To get a feel for Dante’s milieu, one can start with Charles L. Mee’s well-illustrated The Horizon Book of Daily Life in Renaissance Italy (McGraw-Hill, 1975) or Margaret Oliphant’s quirky The Makers of Florence: Dante, Giotto, Savonarola and Their City (Burt, 1897). For more serious study, see A History of Early Renaissance Italy, from the Mid-thirteenth to the Mid-fifteenth Centuries (St. Martins, 1973) by Brian S. Pullan or The World of Dante (Clarendon, 1980), edited by Cecil Grayson.
A devoted reader with a large travel budget (or a vivid imagination) could follow the route proposed by Anne Holler in Florence: Four Intimate Walking Tours (Holt & Co., 1982).
Dante sites online truly form a worldwide web—one page leads to another in an interconnected universe of text and links. These are just a few possible entry points:
• Digital Dante, http://dante.ilt.columbia.edu
• Dante Alighieri on the Web, http://www.greatdante.net
• Otfried Lieberknecht’s Homepage for Dante Studies, http://members.aol.com/lieberk/welc%5Fold.html
• Dante Divine Comedy Links, http://pages.ancientsites.com/~Torrey_Philemon/calliope/dante.htm
• Renaissance Dante in Print, http://www.italnet.nd.edu/Dante/