Dante Alighieri, one of the greatest poets of the Middle Ages, was born in Florence, Italy on June 5, 1265. He was born to a middle-class Florentine family. At an early age he began to write poetry and became fascinated with lyrics. During his adolescence, Dante fell in love with a beautiful girl named Beatrice Portinari. He saw her only twice but she provided much inspiration for his literary masterpieces. Her death at a young age left him grief-stricken. His first book, La Vita Nuova, was written about her. Sometime before 1294, Dante married Gemma Donati. They had four children.
Dante was active in the political and military life of Florence. He entered the army as a youth and held several important positions in the Florence government during the 1290’s. During his life, Florence was divided politically between Guelphs and Ghibellines. The Guelphs supported the church and liked to keep things as they were, unlike the Ghibellines. The Ghibellines were mostly supporters of the German emperor and at the time Dante was born, were relieved of their power. When this change took place, the Guelphs for whom Dante’s family was associated took power. Although born into a Guelph family, Dante became more neutral later in life realizing that the church was corrupt, believing it should only be involved in spiritual affairs.
At the turn of the century, Dante rose from city councilman to ambassador of Florence. His career ended in 1301 when the Black Guelph and their French allies seized control of the city. They took Dante’s possessions and sentenced him to be permanently banished from Florence, threatening the death penalty upon him if he returned.
Dante spent most of his time in exile writing new pieces of literature. It is believed that around 1307 he interrupts his unfinished work, Convivio, a reflection of his love poetry philosophy of the Roman tradition, to begin The Comedy (later known as The Divine Comedy). He writes a book called De Vulgari Eloquentia explaining his idea to combine a number of Italian dialects to create a new national language. In 1310 he writes De Monarchia presenting Dante’s case for a one-ruler world order.
Among his works, his reputation rests on his last work, The Divine Comedy. He began writing it somewhere between 1307-1314 and finished it only a short while before his death in 1321, while in exile. In this work, Dante introduces his invention of the terza rima, or three-line stanza as well as himself as a character.
The Inferno is the first of three parts of Dante’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy, which depicts an imaginary journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Dante is the hero, who loses his way in the “dark woods” and journeys to nine regions arranged around the wall of a huge funnel in nine concentric circles representing Hell. He is led by the ghost of Virgil, the Roman poet, who has come to rescue Dante from the dark forest and lead him through the realms of the afterlife. The first circle they enter is Limbo, which consists of heathen and the unbaptized, who led decent lives. The second through the fifth circles are for the lustful, gluttonous, prodigal, and wrathful. The sixth circle is where heretics are punished. The seventh circle is devoted to the punishment of violence. The eighth is devoted to those guilty of fraud and the ninth for those who betrayed others. In the last section, Satan remains imprisoned in a frozen lake.
The journey is difficult and full of revelations, disappointment and questions, but they persevere. The end of their journey leads Dante and Virgil to the bottom of Hell. Lucifer is seen in all his ugliness and they are drawn towards Heaven. They emerge to the surface, rising above the ugliness of sin and journey towards their goal as they catch sight of the stars shining in the heavens. Their journey begins on Good Friday and they emerge from Hell on the day of Resurrection, Easter Sunday on the underside of the world, in the hemisphere of water at the foot of Mount Purgatory.
Dante’s vision expresses his personal experience, through images to convey his interpretation of the nature of human existence. He writes in the first person so the reader can identify and deeply understand the truths he wished to share about the meaning of life and man’s relationship with the Creator.
Dante is remembered as a great thinker and one of the most learned writers of all time. Many scholars consider his epic poem The Divine Comedyconsisting of Inferno, Paradiso, and Purgatorio, among the finest works of all literature. Critics have praised it not only as magnificent poetry, but also for its wisdom and scholarly learning. Dante was a man who lived, who saw political and artistic success, and who was in love. He was also a man who was defeated, who felt danger and the humiliation of exile, and who was no stranger to the cruelty and treachery possible in people. Dante felt he was a victim of a grave injustice. He also suffered serious self-doubts, natural for a man in exile. His works reflect his experiences and attempts to answer some of life’s difficult questions. In 1968, Allen Tate, a conservative thinker and a convert to Catholicism, wrote “The Unilateral Imagination; or, I too Dislike it”, in his Essays of Four Decades. This critique was established from a lecture given by Tate in 1955 based on his works.
An example of Dante’s ability to tell so much in one single word was expressed by Tate when he cited the word “ombre” which translates “shades,” to remind us of the continuity of the Christian Hell and Virgil’s pagan Hades. “Shades” are referred to as three-dimensional bodies, able to feel pain as if they were alive in solid ice and immobile, yet to have the intensity of fire. If Dante had tried to touch one of them, his hand would have met no physical resistance since the shades would melt into the air.
Tate stands in awe of Dante’s abilities to express such a large concept or picture in so few words. He says, “I believe we all wish we had been able not only to write better poems, but poems that say much more than we have been able to say, while at the same time seeming to say less.”(452) In 1953, Jacques Maritain, a French philosopher, theologian, educator, and essayist, wrote “The Three Epiphanies of Creative Intuition”, in his book, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry. He wrote about how Dante’s Divine Comedy is at the same time poetry of the song, poetry of the theater, and poetry of the tale. They are the three epiphanies of poetic intuition. Maritain believes that the essence of the song appears everywhere in the Divine Comedy, but more so in Paradiso, while drama appears everywhere, especially in Purgatorio, and novel is found everywhere, but especially in the Inferno. (386-387) Maritain observes that Dante combines feelings, distinct images, and a continuous and complex narrative of a world of an adventure and destiny in the Inferno. He feels that the entire poem clearly shows, that through love, Dante knew his characters, understood their suffering, and knew his characters desires. These traits and Dante’s ability to express his dream caused Maritain to believe that Dante had the eye of a genuine novelist.
Ezra Pound, an American poet and critic, believes that one hears far too much about Dante’s Hell, and far too little about the Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Pound wrote an essay called “Dante” in his book, The Spirit of Romance written in 1952. He explains how Hell is the state of man who has lost the good of his intelligence, a state of man dominated by his passions. (129) Pound believes that Dante’s Inferno should be approached with a “sense of irony.” His use of simile is carried throughout the Inferno and enhances the effect and meaning of his experience in Hell. While it is natural for man to think of Hell as a place, Pound understands it as a condition of man’s mental state in life, continued after death. The tendency to see objects and qualities only in one dimension limiting and drawing the reader away from the true meaning of Dante’s journey. Pound sees the Inferno as a satire on man’s aimless turmoil and restlessness that continues to the root of Hell where it finds its end at the gate of Purgatory. Dante is represented as truth, intelligence, and love, and Pound generates a positive portrayal of Dante’s work.
Tate, Maritain, and Pound give insightful and pertinent observations of the Inferno, however, one major aspect, which was overlooked in their critiques, was the theological truths Dante uncovered on his imaginary journey through Hell. The reality of God, the Creator’s love and man’s choice is evidenced throughout the Inferno. On this spiritual pilgrimage, Dante has lost his way and tries to get back on the right path to gain salvation, but many temptations are faced along the way. Dante uses allegory in his story to depict these temptations or sin. In the dark wood he encounters a leopard, lion, and a she-wolf. The leopard stands for lust, the lion for pride, and the she-wolf for greed. He takes the reader through the murky, disgusting depths of Hell using very graphic, grotesque language and imagery.
The poet communicates his vision well and his truth comes alive as the reader follows his spiritual search of personal salvation. Because he is the main character, Dante speaks in the first person and interprets his experience as he views sin in all its ugliness. He knows that life is a pilgrimage of the soul on its way to God, but has lost his way. The way is frighteningly real as he enters Hell and on his way he encounters many who have chosen greed or lust and turned from God. Dante realizes he must face evil (Satan) and rise toward the stars to the promise that is found in Heaven. The stars stand as a symbol of divine order and hope.
Dante’s relationship with God is evident in his writing, which portrays the experience of a deeply committed Christian. During the time he wrote, in the Middle Ages, this religious commitment was widely accepted and encouraged. It is this spiritual truth: that those who insist on denying God’s will and die unrepentant are eternally damned unless they repent and walk in the ways of the Lord, which makes Dante’s Inferno a religious and morally challenging experience.
Works Cited Barbi, Michele. Life of Dante. Ed. Paul Ruggiers, Berkley-L.A.: University of California, Press, 1954.
Curtius, Ernst Robert. “Dante.” European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. New York: Pantheon Books, 1953 348-379.
Maritain, Jacques. “The Three Epiphanies of Creative Institution.” Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry. New York: Pantheon Books, 1953 354-405.
Pinsky, Robert. The Inferno of Dante. New York: Harper Collins, 1994. Pound, Ezra. “Dante.” The Spirit of Romance. Norfolk: New Directions, 1968 118-165.
Tate, Allen. “The Unilateral Imagination; or, I, too, Dislike It.” Essays of Four Decades. Denver: The Swallow Press Inc., 1968 447-461. Vittorini, Domenico. The Age of Dante, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1957.
Images by Giovanni Stradano