O Christians, arrogant, exhausted, wretched,
Whose intellects are sick and cannot see,
Who place your confidence in backward steps,
Do you not know that we are worms and born
To form the angelic butterfly that soars,
Without defenses, to confront His judgment?
Why does your mind presume to flight when you
Are still like the imperfect grub, the worm
Before it has attained its final form?
From The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri Canto X, lines 121-129
This week our focus shift from prayer, which is our singular communion with God, to our spiritual life which is a companioned journey. As Malcolm Guite writes in The Word in the Wilderness, the finest allegory of the companioned journey is found in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. The work has so permeated literature and theology that much of what he wrote about the afterlife is though by many to come from the Bible. T.S. Eliot said “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them. There is no third.”
Malcolm Guite writes:
It is essential to grasp that the poem is an allegory. That is to say while outwardly about the supposed fate of various souls in the afterlife, it is really about who we are now, what we can still make of ourselves, and how to travel on our own pilgrim road. Dante’s three realms of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, are really maps of our own souls, souls that bear God’s image. He shows how the best in us can become darkened and destructive, but also how it can be purged and redeemed, and finally how our capacity for joy and wonder, for growing in light and love, will expand and deepen as we draw closer to the source of all light and love in the heart of God. In some ways the heart of Dante’s message is embodied in the very shape and structure of his journey through the three realms, which can be summarized very simply: Hell is a series of descending vicious circles, spiraling down into the self-obsession of the ego turned in on itself, So Dante’s Satan is frozen at its icy centre, eternally consuming others but giving nothing. However if we have courage to go past him then we pass the centre of the earth’s gravity, the world turns upside down and we climb again. Purgatory is a holy mountain, the positive shape that can be made of the negative pit of Hell. Here, though we have not escaped suffering, we can allow it to help and not hinder us: we spiral upwards, assisted by the prayers and companionship of the whole church. Finally we return to Eden, remade and integrated as complete human beings and from there we are drawn, with ever-expanding consciousness, into the heart of things. Heaven itself, by a kind of upward gravitation of Love. For Dante the whole journey comes as a climax of Lent, taking place over the course of Good Friday and Easter!
The Divine Comedy portrays Dante’s vision of heaven and hell. What is yours?
D I G D E E P E R
Dante Alighieri and The Divine Comedy
Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), Italian poet and philosopher. Little is known of his early life except that he was born in Florence, lost his parents before he was 18, was betrothed at the age of 12 and married in 1293. In 1274 he first met his Beatrice (prob. Bice Portinari, the daughter of a Florentine citizen and wife of Simone dei Bardi), and he became her poet nine years later. Her death in 1290 led to a crisis, resolved by writing the Vita nuova (prob. in 1292, possibly later) in which he promised her a poem ‘such as had been written for no lady before’, a promise fulfilled in the *Divina Commedia. He then turned to the study of philosophy, prob. under the *Dominicans at Florence, and wrote a series of allegorical Canzoni or odes on the Lady Philosophy and literal ones on Courtesy, Nobility, Liberality, and Justice. In 1294 he entered politics but, having supported the opponents of Pope *Boniface VIII, he was exiled from Florence in 1301 and travelled widely in Italy. He returned to the study of philosophy and wrote the incomplete De Vulgari Eloquentia in Latin and began the Convivio (Banquet), which was designed to comment freely on his earlier philosophical Canzoni. In the course of the fourth book he became aware of the significance of the Roman Empire; the appearance of the Emp. Henry VII in Italy at the same time (1310) converted Dante into an ardent supporter of the Emperor, for whom he wrote in Latin the treatise De Monarchia (1312–14?). This work, which was condemned as heretical (*Averroist) in 1329, argued the need for a universal monarchy to achieve the temporal happiness of mankind and the independence of the Empire from the Pope and the Church, which should abandon all temporal authority and possessions and concentrate on happiness in the world to come. Dante’s political prospects were shattered by the death of Henry VII in 1313, and in 1315 his native city of Florence renewed its sentence against him. He spent some years at *Verona and from c. 1316 lived at *Ravenna, where he died. The last period of his life was devoted to the completion of the Divina Commedia (q.v.), which established him as one of the few poets who belong to all times and all nations.
Malcolm Guite is poet-priest and Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge, but he often travels round Great Britain, and to North America, to give lectures, concerts and poetry readings. For more details of these and other engagements go to his Events Page.
For every day from Shrove Tuesday to Easter Day, the bestselling poet Malcolm Guite chooses a favourite poem from across the Christian spiritual and English literary traditions and offers incisive seasonal reflections on it.
The Divine Comedy was the first great poem written in Italian, the language of the ordinary person, rather than Latin, the language of the priest and scholar. It gave an aura of dignity to the Italian language and opened the door for others to write serious literary works in their native tongue. Dante’s epic poem was an immediate sensation among his contemporaries, and has remained a classic down to our time. In the twentieth century alone there were more than fifty different translations of Inferno into English!
The poem works effectively on a number of levels. First and foremost, The Divine Comedy is a creative work of poetic genius and intricate structure. Dante shows great imagination in ordering the afterlife around the seven deadly sins and the virtues that are their positive counterparts. Mirroring the medieval fascination with numbers, and especially with the number three (symbolizing the Trinity), he structures of the entire work around it.
There are three major parts: Inferno (hell), Purgatorio (purgatory), and Paradiso (heaven). Each contains thirty-three cantos (Inferno has an additional introductory canto). Each stanza in each of the cantos also reflects the trinitarian fascination with the number three, as there are three lines in each one, a rhyme scheme we now call “terza rima.” (Chaucer borrowed this same technique for The Canterbury Tales.) Nine, which is of course the result of multiplying three with itself, is also an important number: the number of circles of hell through which Dante passes on his descent through that dark kingdom and the number of spheres in paradise. Seven, the traditional number of perfection, is used for the seven stages through which he passes on his ascent of the great mountain of purgatory, seeing sinners being cleansed of the seven deadly sins (pride, envy, anger, sloth, covetousness, gluttony, and lust).
But there is much more here than numerological symbolism, for Dante’s work, though about the divine realm, is also thoroughly human, filled with both compassion and indignation. Throughout his poetic journey Dante crafts scenes of humor, horror, pathos, and transcendent vision. Even those who cannot accept Dante’s theology can revel in this adventure of the human soul in search of ultimate reality.
Terry Glaspey, from 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know. Terry is a writer, an editor, a creative mentor, and someone who finds various forms of art—painting, films, novels, poetry, and music—to be some of the places where he most deeply connects with God. He has written over a dozen books, including 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: Fascinating Stories Behind Great Art, Music, Literature, and Film, Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis, The Prayers of Jane Austen, 25 Keys to Life-Changing Prayer, Bible Basics for Everyone, and others.
John Mark Reynolds
The best advice I can give is to read quickly the first time. You will know you’re missing more than you’re gaining, but get what you can and then read the selection again. This time, look up some of the unfamiliar people and works. Third time, try reading the lines aloud and let the sound move you. Focus on a single line you want to understand the fourth time through, and read until you understand.
The Comedy is an entire Christian worldview. It isn’t the only possible Christian worldview, because no human book could contain that whole, but it’s a very good one. It combines the best science, theology, poetry, politics, and psychology from the age in which it was written. That means parts of it are wrong, but even where wrong, it stimulated in others the thinking that produced modernity.
John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.
How does one begin to praise the greatness of Dante’s Divine Comedy? It is as wildly various as the flora and fauna that sport across the capitals of an illuminated manuscript.
It is as theologically ordered and precise, in its own way, as the Summa Theologica of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Dante’s leading light in matters of the intellect, the virtues, the church, and the nature of God.
It is as delightful as a romance with Lancelot and Guenevere, as terrifying as the apocalypse of John, and as wondrous as the seraphic vision that came to Saint Francis and marked him with the marks of Christ.
What moment in all of literature can surpass the profound anguish of an Ugolino who looks into the faces of his children, all prisoners on his account, and all, with him, about to starve to death, and who says, in a few stunning words, “I did not weep, I had so turned to stone”?
But then, what moment can surpass the wonder of Piccarda, who has become more human precisely because she has immersed herself in the divine Love? “In His will is our peace,” says she.
If we say it’s hard to find a single human moment, or a single one of the wonders of God as made manifest to man, that does not find its place in Dante’s poem, we say no more than the truth, and yet we still fail to grasp the excellence here. For it’s one thing to find these moments—to find, in the excerpt above, the grim blasphemy of sinners who wish, far more than that they had never been born, that their parents and the whole human race and the time and place of their begetting had never existed; a universal curse. Or to find the paradox that love, that sweetest of desires, had brought disaster and condemnation—as Francesca the gentle-spoken adulteress says, “Love led us to one death.”
What astonishes more than all is to find all these things ordered in an artistic, philosophical, and theological whole, so that Virgil’s encounter with Beatrice is meant to anticipate Dante’s encounter with Francesca, and then with other lovers and indeed other writers of love poetry in the Purgatory, before the pilgrim poet finally meets Beatrice herself; she in turn leads him to Paradise, where he will enjoy at the last a vision of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
Such an achievement in poetry had no precedent.
Dante could have done as Milton would do, centuries later, and adapt the meter, narrative techniques, and epic apparatus of Virgil’s Aeneid to his own language. He did not.
He could have written in the style of the romancers of his own day, like the prodigious and remarkably original Chrétien de Troyes. He did not.
The Divine Comedy is of its own kind, even as it gathers to itself all the Christian and classical learning Dante had inherited. It’s as if a man should study all the paintings of the dramatic Caravaggio and the brooding Rembrandt, and then, inspired by them, compose the Saint Matthew Passion—when, to boot, nothing of that sort had ever been composed before, and nothing quite of that sort would ever be composed again.
All of this is to insist that when we read Dante, even in the few cantos above, we bring to our reading more than the habits we have acquired in reading other poets. We must read as composers, as sculptors, as architects, as theologians.
Take, for example, the appearance of Beatrice to Virgil. We understand the necessity of the conversation. Dante the pilgrim is having second thoughts about entering hell—naturally. But instead of giving him an eminently practical reason for trusting him, as, for instance, that if Dante remains in the dark wilderness he will be lost for certain, but if he accompanies Virgil he at least has a chance, the Roman poet becomes for him and for us a courtly lover, swept into obedient service by a vision of a beautiful woman such as had no counterpart in anything he had ever written.
Now, if we conclude that this is just a fine quirk of poetic adaptation, we miss the deep humanity and theology both. Dante expects us to think—that is the object of reason—and to begin to see—that is the object of the intellect. This is, after all, the same Virgil who has just revealed to Dante that he will never enjoy the sight of God, and who has burst into an exclamation of longing and hopelessness: “Happy the man He chooses for His house!” That is the man who now tells Dante he has seen Beatrice, and, even before she gives her name, indeed before she speaks a word, “begged her for the grace of a command.” The ancient pagan is a man like all men, made to be fulfilled only by the vision of holiness itself, the vision of God.
I hope, then, dear reader, that you will not approach this poem as if it were a mere artistic artifact. Such would be to sin against any work of truly great art, but it would be all the more disordered in the case of Dante. That is because Dante himself summons us to a deeper engagement with the world of man and the being and goodness of God.
If we were present on that dread day, under the blank staring of the Mediterranean sun, when, amid those who loved Him and those who plotted His destruction, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, would we confine our thoughts to the picturesque scene, or to the eloquence of the Master? No, we would long to look upon the reality itself. The only human thing to do, the only rational thing, would be to press beyond the human, in love. We would—or at least we should—take upon ourselves the ultimate task of our poet: to seek the face of God.
Anthony Esolen, PhD, is a professor of Literature at Providence College and a senior editor of Touchstone magazine. In addition to authoring several books, he is well-known for his translations of classical works of literature, including Dante’s Divine Comedy.