Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia) by Dante Alighieri, a poem completed in 1320, is one of the more influential pieces of classical literature. Originally called Comedy, the 14th century epic poem is broken up into three distinct sections—Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso—and follows Dante’s journey through the three Christian realms of the dead: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven.
The poem begins with Dante’s personal struggles; he’s sinning and losing his way. He’s rescued by the Roman poet, Virgil, who leads Dante into Hell. As the pair journey through Hell, Dante describes what he’s seeing and the different punishments that inflicted upon people for their sins.
After Hell, Virgil takes Dante through Purgatory. While still focusing on people’s sins, Purgatory is more focused on the motives behind the actions than simply the actions themselves. Love is also quite an important part of this section, such as loving too much or too little which leads to one of the deadly sins.
For the final journey, Dante has another guide. As a Pagan, Virgil was unable to enter Heaven, so a woman called Beatrice was Dante’s guide instead. Beatrice was a woman of some import to Dante and was a regular focus or inspiration to his work. They met each other when they were just children and subsequently parted ways and moved on with their lives. Dante still kept Beatrice in his heart and continued to have a great deal of affection towards her. Beatrice leads Dante through the different areas of Heaven until he reaches the pinnacle and sees God in such a way that he can’t even express it.
There are a lot of good elements to this poem. For a start, it was definitely ahead of its time; being a religious poem that is very pro-religion it had an awful lot of scientific information in it. This was during a period in history when science and religion really didn’t mix, yet Dante described different time-zones, a spherical Earth, the way that wind is formed and more in the poem. It’s also an incredibly multi-layered piece of work. While on the surface it looks like a man’s journey to find God again, it’s also a commentary on history and literature of the time. Dante paid great attention to the structure of the poem, as well as mathematics. The references to three and nine are numerous throughout, with each of the three areas having nine spheres or levels inside of them.
Divine Comedy has had an amazing influence on most aspects of culture to this day; in particular, Inferno. The phrase “Abandon hope all ye who enter here” comes from Inferno—it’s an inscription at the entrance to Hell. While the other two parts of the poem, Purgatorio and Paradiso, still hold importance to culture today, when referencing the poem it’s not uncommon to refer to it as Dante’s Inferno, as his journey through Hell is the most well-known. An example is that Dante gave us the nine circles of Hell, something that is now quite commonly used.
Throughout the centuries Divine Comedy has been largely considered a masterpiece by many writers and academics.
“Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third.”
With such high praise and such a significant influence on modern culture, is the poem worth reading? If you enjoy very classical literature, probably. It’s quite hard to get through simply because of the language used. Having said that, I’m a massive fan of Medieval Christian imagery so there are elements that I really enjoyed, especially as Dante gets deeper into Hell. While I can appreciate the quality of the work—which is very high—it’s not something that I’d find myself reading again, but I am very glad I have read it.
© 2018 David Chitty
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David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.