Western Literature & The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri


The World of Dante: The Divine Comedy, Inferno


The Middle Ages were the continuation of the formation and development of three fundamental diverse cultures; Germanic culture, Christianity, and Islam. However, two main civilizations maintained their dominance, particularly in Europe: Greece and Rome. The integration of cultural aspects had a massive effect on the medieval people's living standards, social norms, cultural values, and artistic vision. Based on this, in any case, the meaning of medieval civilization symbolizes the cultural epicentre of complication. Specifically, in the field of art, vernacular literature, in other words, “literature not written in Latin or koine Greek” (Wikipedia contributors. (2021, August 7). Vernacular literature.) evolved as a whole in this cultural integration from different European countries. On the other side of the coin, in Europe, Latin was the language of instruction that lie between Virgil and Dante. Without these two key figures, who are concerned as the masters of the ancient and medieval literary languages, it would be arduous to acquire a comprehension of medieval literature and Latin background. Dante Alighieri profoundly influenced the history of literary evolution by utilizing the Italian vernacular to write his poems rather than in Latin. The Divine Comedy, which is written in the 14th century and considered one of the most crucial epic poems in western literature, describes Dante’s divine journey guided by Virgil, the great poet of Roman Antiquity. That is to say, the epic's impactful spiritual depictions, symbolism, and cultural integration that reflect on the self are pioneers in a clearer examination of the historical process in the field of western literature.


(Credit: Dante and Virgil in Hell, Painting of Dante's Divine Comedy, Inferno.)


First and foremost, Dante Alighieri was an Italian poet, prose writer, literary theorist, ethical philosopher, and political figure who was born in 1265, Florence and died in 1321, Ravenna. He is well known for the epic poem “La Commedia”, which was subsequently renamed “La Divina Commedia”, in other words in English, “The Divine Comedy”. The Divine Comedy, termed a comedy by its writer and so recognized by subsequent eras in acknowledgment of both its subject matter and its success, is unquestionably one of the world's great works of literature. It is structured with the elegance and harmony of vast intellectual doctrines and immense Gothic cathedrals of the period, yet it provides exceptional attention to every detail. Besides, the poem emphasizes the main doctrines of medieval Christianity with unequivocal passion and dogmatism, while remaining constantly attentive to the sympathies of the human soul. Concerning this, it can be claimed that the poem deeply expresses its devotion to the culture of medieval Christendom worldwide. Along with it, it embraces classical world achievements and spreads its enthusiasm even to Islamic philosophy. The Creator's connection with His creations, as well as the ultimate fate of the human soul, are reflected in both good humour and dismal irony. Such that, the German writer Goethe described it as "repulsive and often disgusting," but it also has moments of transcendent beauty that have seldom been matched and never exceeded. Over all else, it demonstrated that an excellent work of literary art, comparable to the important achievements of antiquity, can be written in the vernacular, giving the declaration of independence that enabled the different national traditions of post-medieval literature. That is, The Divine Comedy is indeed the cornerstone piece for the European literary imagination.


In the meantime, however, political tensions had drastically changed Dante's life due to the fact that the Florentine political class was split into two functions: The Guelphs and the Ghibellines. The Guelphs, mainly members of the urban aristocracy and craftsmen, maintained Florentine independence and opposed Holy Roman Empire claims to authority over the city by enlisting the military force of the papacy. The Ghibellines were descended from the ancient feudal aristocracy and regarded the empire as a way to further their interests. Briefly, the Guelphs come from affluent merchant families, whilst the Ghibellines seemed to originate from members of society whose wealth was based on agricultural estates. After a series of brutal conflicts, in the end, the Florentine Guelphs, of which Dante was a member, were victorious. Around 1300, the Guelphs split into two groups: The Blacks and the Whites. Dante was a member of the Whites.

In 1301, Dante was on a diplomatic mission for the city, and the following year he was sentenced to exile on the condition that he never returns to Florence. During his exile, he wrote “The Divine Comedy”. In the most literary sense, the exile process is fundamental to The Divine Comedy, which depicts the journey of a lost traveler back to his ultimate homeland, Heaven. According to that, it can be claimed that Dante’s Divine Comedy is not only religious and prophetic but also a political epic poem.


(Credit: Dante in Verona, by Antonio Cotti)


The Divine Comedy has the unity of divinity as three canticles, which are the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. While each of the two has thirty-three cantos; Inferno contains thirty-four cantos because of the prologue part. Prologue embraces the poem as a whole. In other words, it gives a summary of the poem to readers. With the help of this, readers can be informed about the content and literary perception superficially. When it comes to the whole canticles, the threefold pattern, as well as the verse form, serve to incorporate the Trinity inside the framework of the poem. The verse form that Dante utilized is called “terza rima”, which is a type of rhyme in Italian origin according to the scheme, aba bcb cdc. Moreover, each canticle ends with the word “stelle”, which means star, since Dante provides the signs of the Creator’s providential oversight. Lastly, in Inferno, the lost spirits are divided into three various subgroups and occupied nine circles.


In addition to the structure of the poem, literary perception and the concept of divinity are masterfully crafted. The poetry is structured in an ethical structure. According to Dante, and medieval logic, broadly, every human being's inherent propensity is love, a movement toward something outside of oneself. Love of God is the most natural inclination, and sins exist when love is focused on improper objects. With respect to this, love is depicted in hell in three ways: Incontinence, brutality, and deception. Purgatory, on the other hand, is represented in three ways as misdirected, defective, and excessive. Furthermore, in Paradise, the blessed are classified into three parts: Those whose vision is restricted by imperfect love, those who have attained the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, fortitude, fairness, and temperance, and those whose love is closest to perfection.

(Credit: La Mappa dell’Inferno by Sandro Boticelli)


Finally, another structuring factor that determines the overall form of the poem is the plot. To explain, the narrative of The Divine Comedy is straightforward: Dante is mysteriously granted the ability to conduct a journey that takes him to the souls of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise in order. He is guided by two characters: Virgil, who takes him through the Inferno and Purgatorio, and Beatrice, who brings him to Paradiso. Clearly, Dante distinguishes between Virgil's pre-Christian worldview and his own solid Christianity. Therefore, Dante alters it by commencing his journey with a visit to the Underworld. He accomplishes this because the spiritual pattern of his poem is Christian rather than classical: Dante's journey to Hell signifies the spiritual action of dying to the world. Because he is the guide of the afterlife, Virgil is the epic's heart. Throughout the epic, Dante blends divinity with a human connection. To explain, seeing Virgil and considering him to be his guide is a type of revelation understanding the nature of ultimate truth, not literally, but metaphorically. Although Virgil is an influential person on the journey to knowledge and enlightenment, he only encounters Dante on the boundaries of Inferno and Purgatorio because He (God) forbids him from breaching His rules rebelliously. Additionally, the feminine character referenced in the words alludes to the Paradiso. In this way, the prologue foreshadows the rest of the story. Beatrice is the name of the female figure, whom Dante adores. It is thought that Beatrice is another of Dante's guides since attaining Heaven needs more than intelligence, for in God's eyes; loving servants of God, such as the Virgin Mary, Saintess Lucia, and Beatrice resulted in the formation of a sacred rose.


(Credit: Dante and Beatrice by Ary Scheffer)


''I shall go back, leaving you in her care,

Because that Emperor dwelling on high will not let me lead any to His city,

Since I in life rebelled against His law.''


This article deals with the world of Dante from the point of The Divine Comedy, prologue part. Taking everything into an account, the most obvious conclusion to be drawn is that The Divine Comedy is deeply engaged with spiritual growth. Reading The Divine Comedy is a spiritual act with severe moral repercussions. Among all of this epic poem's triumphs, maybe its greatest lasting achievement is its ability to offer the reader a nearly infinite feeling of the profundity that literature can offer, and from Dante’s vision, the profundity and meaningfulness only come from God.




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