top of page

Western Literature 102: A Pilgrim’s Redemption

Foreword

The Western Literature series serves as a vital resource for English Language and Literature students aiming to deepen their understanding of Western literatures diverse and dynamic aspects. With a comprehensive exploration of literary works, this series offers a profound insight into the evolution and complexities of Western literary traditions. Beginning with Series 101, delving into the ancient literature from its origin in the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Aeneid of Virgil, which marks a critical juncture in the transition from earlier works to the concept of modernisation. By analysing the genre’s transformation, Western Literature 102 provides readers with a rich appreciation for Medieval literature. Through six captivating chapters, readers embark on an enlightening journey through the world of heroes, poets, and rebels, unravelling the intricacies of this mesmerising era and its profound impact on Western literature.


The 102 series is divided into six articles:

  1. Western Literature 102: A Pilgrim’s Redemption

  2. Western Literature 102: Chivalric Trials, Blood and Honour

  3. Western Literature 102: Silent Stories Unveiled


Western Literature 102: A Pilgrim’s Redemption

In this article, the reader embarks on an exploration of Dante Alighieri's magnum opus: The Divine Comedy. As one of the most renowned works in the history of literature, this epic poem guides readers on a transformative odyssey through the realms of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, with Dante himself serving as the central character. Delving into the depths of sin, the purifying fires of Purgatory, and the radiant spheres of Paradise, The Divine Comedy offers a profound reflection on the human condition and the nature of the divine. This article not only delves into the themes and motifs that permeate the poem, but also unravels the historical and political backdrop that shaped Dante's masterwork. By unravelling the intricacies of this timeless piece, the reader gains insight into the rich tapestry of Dante's literary genius and the enduring legacy of his profound exploration of the spiritual and earthly realms.

Figure 1: Dante and the Three Kingdoms (Di Michelino, 1465)

Dante Alighieri's Life

Dante Alighieri, an eminent Italian poet and philosopher, occupies a prominent place in the annals of literary history. Widely recognised as one of the greatest literary figures, his life and works are inextricably linked to the political, religious and cultural milieu of 13th and 14th-century Italian scenario. Born in Florence in 1265, Dante's upbringing and literary output bear the imprints of the prevailing political rivalries, religious fervour and cultural developments that characterised his era. Florence, a bustling city-state renowned for its intellectual and artistic vibrancy, provided the backdrop against which Dante's formative years unfolded. The city's fractious political landscape, divided primarily between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, shaped his worldview and his own political allegiances. As a member of the Guelph faction, which championed the authority of the Pope over the Holy Roman Emperor, the poet’s perspective on power and governance was influenced by the tumultuous political climate of his time. Dante's intellectual development was nourished by a rigorous education in the liberal arts, exposing him to the works of classical philosophers, including Aristotle and Cicero. These formative encounters with the intellectual heritage of ancient Greece and Rome informed the writer’s literary and philosophical pursuits, leaving an indelible mark on his creative output. Furthermore, Dante's engagement with theological and moral themes mirrored the religious intensity that permeated medieval Europe (Bellomo, 2012).


Dante's political engagement ultimately culminated in his forced exile from Florence in 1302, owing to the ascendancy of the opposing faction. This significant turning point in his life propelled him into a period of nomadic existence, characterised by constant travel and patronage-seeking in various Italian courts. Despite the physical distance from his beloved Florence, the poet’s emotional attachment to his hometown remained unwavering. The depths of his longing and the pangs of separation permeate his poetic compositions, infusing them with a profound sense of nostalgia and poignant loss. This profound emotional undercurrent underscores the enduring impact of the writer’s exile, which not only shaped the trajectory of his personal life but also imbued his literary output with a poignant exploration of themes such as displacement, yearning, and the complex dynamics of political and personal allegiances (Sambugar & Salà, 2004).

Figure 2: Portrait of Dante (Botticelli, 1495)

Dante's early poetic endeavours were shaped by the conventions of courtly love and troubadour poetry, reflecting the literary trends of his time. However, it was his magnum opus, The Divine Comedy, that propelled him to literary immortality. The poem follows the protagonist, Dante himself, on a profound journey through the realms of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, guided initially by the ancient Roman poet Virgil and later by Beatrice, his idealised love. With a masterful blend of vivid and imaginative descriptions, Dante delves into the profound nature of sin, redemption, and the complexities of the human condition. Beyond its theological and philosophical dimensions, The Divine Comedy also serves as a potent vehicle for political and social commentary. He skilfully employs his allegorical journey through the afterlife to critique the pervasive corruption and abuses of power that he witnessed in his contemporary society. Historical and contemporary figures are depicted, often unflatteringly, as symbolic representations of moral and ethical failings. Through his poetic lens, the poet confronts the sins of his age and offers a scathing indictment of societal decay, providing a lens through which readers can reflect upon their own time and place (Genesini, 2022).


Dante Alighieri passed away in Ravenna, Italy, in 1321, leaving behind a prodigious literary legacy that continues to captivate readers across generations. His writings, characterised by their timeless themes, intricate symbolism and lyrical beauty, have stood the test of time. His influence on Western literature, language, and thought is profound and enduring, solidifying his position as a literary luminary. His most celebrated opus, The Divine Comedy, holds a central position in Western literature and stands as a cornerstone of Italian literary tradition (Bellomo, 2012).

Figure 3: Dante and Beatrice (Holiday, 1883)

La Divina Commedia or The Divine Comedy

The Divine Comedy stands as a masterpiece of literature that delves into profound themes of sin, redemption and the afterlife. This epic poem takes readers on an allegorical journey through the realms of Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio) and Paradise (Paradiso), experienced by the protagonist, Dante himself. At its essence, The Divine Comedy presents a moral and spiritual exploration of the human condition, grappling with the consequences of sin and the potential for redemption. It offers a deeply theological perspective on the afterlife, where these thematic threads are intricately interwoven, constructing a compelling narrative that reflects Dante's comprehension of the divine order and his personal beliefs (Sambugar & Salà, 2007).


In the first part of The Divine Comedy, the Inferno, Dante embarks on a harrowing descent through the nine circles of Hell, offering readers a detailed account of the punishments inflicted upon sinners. Each circle represents a specific sin creating a meticulously structured hierarchy that encompasses a wide range of transgressions: from sins of lust and greed in the early circles to sins of violence and fraud in the deeper levels. Dante's descriptions of the suffering and torment endured by the damned are vivid and evocative, painting a visceral picture of the consequences of sinful actions and the eternal nature of damnation. However, the Inferno goes beyond being a mere catalogue of punishments. It serves as a thought-provoking exploration of divine justice. Throughout his journey, Dante encounters both historical and contemporary figures, providing him with a platform to comment on the prevalent political, social, and religious corruption of his time. By intertwining real and fictional characters, Dante critiques the abuse of power, hypocrisy, and moral decay that he believes contribute to the downfall of individuals and their ultimate damnation. These encounters not only add depth and complexity to the narrative but also enable Dante to reflect on the consequences of human actions and the moral state of society, as argued by Inglese (2006) and Ledda (2016).

Figure 4: Chart of Hell (Botticelli, 1480-90)

Moreover, their work suggest that, in addition to its exploration of sin and divine justice, the Inferno serves as a powerful catalyst for social and political commentary. Dante's depiction of the various circles of Hell and the punishments endured by sinners becomes a metaphorical lens through which he scrutinises the moral fabric of his era. By exposing the vices and failings of individuals, institutions and society at large, Dante prompts readers to reflect on their own ethical choices and societal responsibilities. Through the Inferno, the poet presents readers with a visceral and thought-provoking portrayal of the consequences of sin. The poem prompts contemplation on the nature of divine justice, while also providing a platform for social and political commentary. Its intricate narrative structure, vivid descriptions, and multifaceted themes invite readers to grapple with questions of morality, accountability, and the complexities of the human condition (Inglese, 2006; Ledda, 2016).


Inferno III, vv. 1-9, writing on Hell's door

"Per me si va ne la città dolente,

Through me the way is to the city dolent;

per me si va ne l’etterno dolore,

Through me the way is to eternal dole;

per me si va tra la perduta gente.

Through me the way among the people lost.

Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore:

Justice incited my sublime Creator;

fecemi la divina podestate,

Created me divine Omnipotence,

la somma sapienza e ’l primo amore.

The highest Wisdom and the primal Love.

Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create

Before me there were no created things,

se non etterne, e io etterno duro.

Only eterne, and I eternal last.

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate".

All hope abandon, ye who enter in !”

Figure 5: The Infernal door and the terrible “Inscription” (Zuccari, 1570-93)

The subsequent stage of Dante's journey unfolds in the Purgatorio, where the protagonist ascends Mount Purgatory, a stratified mountain divided into seven terraces, each corresponding to one of the seven deadly sins. In this realm, sinners undergo a process of purgation and purification to cleanse themselves and achieve salvation. The Purgatorio presents a contrasting tone to the Inferno, as it offers a sense of hope and the potential for redemption through acts of repentance, self-reflection, and spiritual advancement. This portion of the poem emphasises the significance of personal responsibility in the pursuit of moral improvement and underscores the transformative potency of divine grace. Within the Purgatorio, Dante portrays a vivid tableau of individuals striving to shed their sins and ascend towards the heavenly realm. The sinners are depicted engaging in various penitential activities, such as fasting, prayer, and acts of contrition, as they confront and confront their past wrongdoings. Through these arduous efforts, they gradually shed their sinful nature and progress towards a state of purity and readiness for eternal salvation, as discussed by Inglese (2006) and Ledda (2016).


Furthermore, their analyses propose that Purgatorio highlights the notion that individuals bear the responsibility for their own moral development and the necessity of actively engaging in the process of repentance and self-examination. It underscores the idea that genuine transformation requires not only divine intervention but also a sincere commitment to self-improvement. The realm of Purgatory stands as a testament to the redemptive power of human agency and the transformative potential inherent in the pursuit of virtue. Moreover, Purgatorio serves as a reflection on the complex interplay between divine grace and human effort. While the sinners in Purgatory rely on divine assistance and grace to aid them in their journey towards redemption, their own willingness to engage in self-reflection and spiritual growth is also crucial. Dante highlights the synergistic relationship between divine intervention and individual striving, illustrating that true salvation emerges from a harmonious partnership between human agency and divine benevolence (Inglese, 2006; Ledda, 2016).


Purgatorio I, vv. 1-6

Per correr miglior acque alza le vele

To run o’er better waters hoists its sail

omai la navicella del mio ingegno,

The little vessel of my genius now,

che lascia dietro a sé mar sì crudele;

That leaves behind itself a sea so cruel;

e canterò di quel secondo regno

And of that second kingdom will I sing

dove l’umano spirito si purga

Wherein the human spirit doth purge itself,

e di salire al ciel diventa degno.

And to ascend to heaven becometh worthy.

Figure 6: Structure of Purgatory (n.d.)

The culmination of Dante's epic journey occurs in the Paradiso, where the protagonist attains the sublime state of being united with God in Paradise. This final part of the poem delves into profound themes of divine love, beauty and the celestial order. It presents a visionary depiction of the afterlife that evokes both wonder and difficulty in its complete apprehension. Dante's progression through the heavenly spheres corresponds to his growing comprehension of the divine scheme and the hierarchical arrangement of the universe. His encounter with the celestial realms showcases his heightened spiritual and intellectual awareness. As he ascends through the spheres, guided by the luminous figure of Beatrice, his celestial muse, Dante gains deeper insights into the divine nature and the harmonious structure of creation. Each sphere represents a different aspect of the celestial hierarchy, populated by angelic beings and radiant souls who embody various virtues. Inglese (2006) and Ledda (2016) contend that through his interactions with these ethereal beings, Dante grasps a more profound understanding of the divine order and the intricacies of divine love.


Additionally, their studies suggest that Paradiso challenges the limits of human comprehension, as Dante grapples with the ineffability of heavenly experiences and attempts to convey the divine mysteries through his poetic language. The celestial realms he describes are suffused with an overwhelming sense of beauty, light, and transcendence, reflecting the profound joy and ecstasy inherent in the direct presence of God. Through vivid imagery, celestial music, and intricate metaphysical concepts, Dante strives to convey the ineffable qualities of the divine realm, inviting readers to contemplate the boundless nature of God's love and the infinite possibilities of the heavenly spheres. Moreover, the Paradiso serves as a culmination of the overarching themes of the Divine Comedy, unifying the narrative journey of the protagonist and the underlying theological and philosophical explorations. It emphasises the ultimate purpose of human existence and the potential for spiritual transcendence. The Paradiso offers a profound vision of the divine, where the human soul finds its ultimate fulfillment and attains unity with the divine essence (Inglese, 2006; Ledda, 2016).


Paradiso XXXIII, vv. 1-9

«Vergine Madre, figlia del tuo figlio,

“Thou Virgin Mother, daughter of thy Son

umile e alta più che creatura,

Humble and high beyond all other creature,

termine fisso d’etterno consiglio,

The limit fixed of the eternal counsel,

tu se’ colei che l’umana natura

Thou art the one who such nobility

nobilitasti sì, che ‘l suo fattore

To human nature gave, that its Creator

non disdegnò di farsi sua fattura.

Did not disdain to make himself its creature.

Nel ventre tuo si raccese l’amore,

Within thy womb rekindled was the love,

per lo cui caldo ne l’etterna pace

By heat of which in the eternal peace

così è germinato questo fiore.

After such wise this flower has germinated.

Figure 7: A diagram of Dante’s idea of Paradiso (Caetani, 1855)

Dante's Importance

Dante Alighieri, along with his monumental work The Divine Comedy, occupies a position of great significance in the realm of literature and has exerted a profound influence on subsequent European literary traditions and cultural developments.


Ledda (2016) explains that one of Dante's notable contributions was his pioneering decision to write The Divine Comedy in the Italian vernacular, rather than Latin, which had been the dominant language for literary works at the time. This ground-breaking choice played a crucial role in establishing Italian as a literary language and contributed to the development of national identity and cultural unity in Italy. Furthermore, Dante's innovative narrative structure in The Divine Comedy, featuring an allegorical journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, introduced a revolutionary storytelling technique. The three-part structure, coupled with vivid imagery, poetic language, and compelling characters, created an immersive and engaging literary experience. Dante's influence on narrative structure can be observed in later works, such as Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and John Milton's Paradise Lost, demonstrating the lasting impact of his innovative approach to storytelling (Ledda, 2016).

Figure 8: Galileo Galilei's copy of the first Giolito edition of Divine Comedy (1555)

The poem delves into universal themes of sin, redemption, love, and the human condition, offering profound insights into the complexities of human emotions, struggles, and aspirations. This portrayal contributed to the development of a humanistic perspective in literature, emphasising personal responsibility, moral choices, and the significance of free will. Dante's work resonated deeply with later Renaissance thinkers and writers, who embraced his humanistic approach and incorporated it into their own works. Furthermore, Dante's theological and philosophical exploration in The Divine Comedy left a lasting impact on religious and philosophical thought. His intricate depiction of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, along with his exploration of Christian theology and Aristotelian philosophy, stimulated debates and discussions among scholars and theologians. Dante's work became a source of inspiration and reference for subsequent religious thinkers. Additionally, Dante's nuanced exploration of the divine order and the afterlife contributed to the development and evolution of Christian thought, shaping the way subsequent generations approached and understood religious and philosophical concepts (Ledda, 2016).


Dante Alighieri's reputation as a literary genius began to soar during his own lifetime, and his enduring impact on European literature and culture is evident through the multitude of adaptations, translations, and commentaries that have emerged in the centuries since his passing. His innovative and masterful use of language, along with his vivid and evocative imagery, continues to resonate and captivate readers across generations. The exploration of complex and timeless themes in his works, particularly in The Divine Comedy, remains a source of inspiration and contemplation. Dante's profound influence is acknowledged by countless writers, artists, and thinkers who have paid homage to his genius and incorporated elements of his style and themes into their own works. Notable figures such as Petrarch, Boccaccio, Milton, William Blake, T.S. Eliot, and Jorge Luis Borges have explicitly recognised and celebrated Dante's profound influence, further solidifying his position as a literary giant whose impact extends far beyond his own time (Ledda, 2016).

Figure 9: Statue of Dante at the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence (Pazzi, 1865)

The Divine Comedy vs Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Both Gawain's journey in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Dante's journey in The Divine Comedy involve allegorical quests that symbolise the spiritual and moral development of the protagonists. In both narratives, the protagonists embark on transformative journeys through symbolic realms that reflect their inner struggles and quest for self-discovery. Gawain's journey can be seen as a test of his virtue and integrity, while Dante's journey represents his search for salvation and understanding of the divine order. Both narratives also feature supernatural beings who guide the protagonists through their respective journeys. Gawain encounters the mysterious Green Knight, who challenges him to a beheading game and later reveals himself as the Green Knight transformed. Similarly, Dante is guided by Virgil, the ancient Roman poet, through the realms of Hell and Purgatory. Both guides serve as mentors, providing wisdom and guidance to the protagonists as they navigate their respective challenges (Field, 1971; Bellomo, 2012).


One key difference between Gawain's and Dante's journey lies in the overall tone and purpose of their quests. Gawain's journey in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is primarily a test of his knightly virtues, centred around concepts of chivalry, honour and loyalty. His encounter with the Green Knight is a moral challenge that forces him to confront his own weaknesses and test his courage. On the other hand, Dante's approach in The Divine Comedy is an intricate exploration of sin, redemption and the afterlife. It delves into theological and philosophical themes, offering a profound spiritual and moral journey for both the protagonist and the readers. Additionally, the realms that the protagonists traverse differ significantly. Gawain's journey takes place within the earthly realm, where the events and challenges are grounded in a tangible reality. In contrast, Dante's journey encompasses the realms of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, which are metaphysical and represent different stages of the soul's journey towards divine salvation. Dante's journey has a wider range scope, encompassing the entire afterlife and addressing broader existential questions (Field, 1971; Bellomo, 2012).

Figure 10: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (14th century)

To conclude, Dante Alighieri's impact transcends literature, as his pioneering use of the Italian vernacular in The Divine Comedy revolutionised the literary landscape, elevating Italian as a language suitable for literary expression and contributing to the development of Italian national identity and cultural unity. His genius as a poet and philosopher, celebrated worldwide, stems from his profound insights into the human experience, his penetrating critiques of political and societal realities, and his poetic craftsmanship, establishing him as an enduring figure of intellectual and artistic excellence. Dante's enduring influence shapes the literary and cultural landscape, solidifying his place as one of the most significant figures in Western literature and a beacon of intellectual and artistic brilliance, ensuring the continued appreciation and study of his works for generations to come.



Bibliographical References

Alighieri D. (2012) La Divina Commedia. (Original work published 1472). Retrieved June 5, 2023, from https://divinacommedia.weebly.com/


Bellomo, S. (2012). Filologia e critica dantesca. La Scuola.


Columbia University Libraries. (n.d.) The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Digital Dante. Retrieved June 5, 2023, from https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/


Field, P.J.C. (1971). A Rereading of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight". Studies in Philology, 68(3), pp. 255-269. University of North Carolina Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4173725


Genesini, P. (2022). Letteratura italiana 123. [Lectures notes retrieved at: http://www.letteratura-italiana.com/pdf/letteratura%20italiana/01%20GENESINI%20Letteratura%20123.pdf]


Inglese, G. (2006). Dante: guida alla divina commedia. Carocci.


Ledda, G. (2016). Leggere la Commedia. Guide alle grandi opere. Il Mulino.


Sambugar, M., & Salà, G. (2004). GAOT - Generi autori opere temi (Vol. 1). La Nuova Italia


Sambugar, M. & Salà, G. (2007). Gaot +, edizione ampliata. Antologia della Divina Commedia. La Nuova Italia.

Visual Sources

Author Photo

Deborah Zaccai

Arcadia _ Logo.png

Arcadia

Arcadia, has many categories starting from Literature to Science. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can subscribe from below or click the bar and discover unique more experiences in our articles in many categories

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page