1. The Poem
Boccaccio relates that Dante began it in Latin hexameters, but changed to Italian to reach a broader audience. Perhaps the ardor of his feelings affected his choice; it seemed easier to be passionate in Italian than in a Latin so long associated with classic urbanity and restraint. In youth he had restricted Italian to the poetry of love; but now that his theme was the highest philosophy of human redemption through love he wondered dared he speak in the “vulgar” tongue. At some uncertain time he had begun—and then had left unfinished—a Latin essay De vulgari eloquentia (On Vernacular Eloquence), aspiring to win the learned to wider literary use of the vernacular; he had praised the compact majesty of Latin, but had expressed the hope that through the poetry of Frederick’sRegnoand the stil nuovo of the Lombard and Tuscan trovatori an Italian language might rise above its dialects ‘to be (as the Convivio put it) “full of the: sweetest and most exquisite beauty.”30 Even Dante’s pride could hardly dream that his epic would not only make Italian a language fit for any enterprise of letters, but would raise it to such dolce bellezza as the world’s literature has seldom known.
Never was a poem more painstakingly planned. A weakness for triads—as reflecting the Trinity—molded its form: there were to be three “canticles,” each of thirty-three cantos, to correspond with the years of Christ’s earthly life; an extra canto in the first canticle would make a neat round hundred; each canto was to be written in groups of three lines; and the second line of each group was to rhyme with the first and third of the next. Nothing could be more artificial; yet all art is artifice, though at its best concealed; and the terza rima or triple rhyme binds each stanza with its successor, and weaves them all into a continued song (canto), which in the original flows trippingly on the tongue, but in translation limps and halts on borrowed feet. Dante in advance condemned all translations of Dante: “Nothing that hath the harmony of musical connection can be transferred from its own tongue to another without shattering all its sweetness and harmony.”31*
As number dictated the form, so allegory planned the tale. In his dedicatory epistle to Can Grande,32 Dante explained the symbolism of his canticles. We might suspect this interpretation to be the afterthought of a poet who longed to be a philosopher; but the addiction of the Middle Ages to symbolism, the allegorical sculptures of the cathedrals, the allegorical frescoes of Giotto, Gaddi, and Raphael, and Dante’s allegorical sublimations in the Vita muova and the Convivio suggest that the poet really had in mind the outlines of the scheme that he described in perhaps imaginary detail. The poem, he says, belongs to the genus philosophy, and its concern is morality. Like a theologian interpreting the Bible, he assigns three meanings to his words: the literal, the allegorical, and the mystical.
The subject of this work according to the letter … is the state of souls after death…. But if the work be taken allegorically its subject is Man, in so far as by merit or demerit… he is exposed to the rewards or punishments of justice…. The aim of the whole and the part is to remove those living in this life from a state of misery, and to guide them to a state of happiness.
Otherwise expressed, the Inferno is man passing through sin, suffering, and despair; the Purgatorio is his cleansing through faith; the Paradiso is his redemption through divine revelation and unselfish love. Virgil, who guides Dante through hell and purgatory, stands for knowledge, reason, wisdom, which can lead us to the portals of happiness; only faith and love (Beatrice) can lead us in. In the epic of Dante’s life his exile was his hell, his studies and his writings were his purgation, his hope and love were his redemption and his only bliss. It is perhaps because Dante takes his symbolism most seriously in the Paradiso that this canticle is the hardest to enjoy; for the Beatrice who was a heavenly vision in the Vita nuova becomes in Dante’s vision of heaven a pompous abstraction—hardly a meet fate for such impeccable loveliness. Finally Dante explains to Can Grande why he calls his epic Commedia*—because the story passed from misery to happiness, and because “it is written in a careless and humble style, in the vulgar tongue, which even housewives speak.”33
This painful comedy, “this book on which I have grown thin through all these years,”34 was the work and solace of his exile, and was finished only three years before his death. It summarized his life, his learning, his theology, his philosophy; if it had also embodied the humor and tenderness and full-blooded sensuality of the Middle Ages it might have been “a medieval synthesis.” Into these hundred brief cantos Dante crowded the science that he had gathered from Brunetto Latini, and perhaps from Bologna; the astronomy, cosmology, geology, and chronology of an age too busy living to be learned. He accepted not only the mystic influences and fatalities of astrology, but all the cabalistic mythology that ascribed occult significance and powers to numbers and the alphabet. The number nine distinguishes Beatrice because its square root is the three made holy by the Trinity. There are nine circles in hell, nine levels in purgatory, nine spheres in paradise. By and large Dante adopts with awe and gratitude the philosophy and theology of Thomas Aquinas, but with no servile fidelity; St. Thomas would have winced at the arguments of the De monarchia, or the sight of popes in hell. Dante’s conception of God as light and love (l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle—“the love that moves the sun and the other stars”)35 is Aristotle carried down through Arabic philosophy. He knows something of al-Farabi, Avicenna, al-Ghazali, Averroës; and though he assigns Averroës to limbo, he shocks orthodoxy by placing the Averroist heretic Siger de Brabant in heaven;36moreover he puts into the mouth of Thomas words of praise for the one man who had stirred the Seraphic Doctor to theological wrath. Yet Siger seems to have denied that personal immortality on which Dante’s poem rests. History has exaggerated either the heterodoxy of Siger or the orthodoxy of Dante.
Recent studies have stressed Oriental, and especially Islamic, sources for Dante’s ideas:37 a Persian legend of Arda Viraf’s ascension to heaven; the descriptions of hell in the Koran; the story of Mohammed’s trip to heaven; the tour of heaven and hell in Abu-l-Ala al-Ma’arri’s Risalat al-Ghufran; the Futuhat of Ibn Arabi…. In the Risalat al-Ma’arri pictures Iblis (Satan) bound and tortured in hell, and Christian and other “infidel” poets suffering there; at the gate of paradise the narrator is met by a houri or beautiful maiden, who has been appointed his guide.38 In the Futuhat Ibn Arabi (who wrote love poems with pious allegorical interpretations) drew precise diagrams of the hereafter, described hell and heaven as exactly beneath and above Jerusalem, divided hell and heaven into nine levels, and pictured the circle of the Mystic Rose, and choirs of angels surrounding the Divine Light—all as in The Divine Comedy.39 So far as we know, none of these Arabic writings had by Dante’s time been translated into any language that he could read.
Apocalyptic literature describing tours or visions of heaven or hell abounded in Judaism and Christianity, not to speak of the sixth book of Virgil’s Aeneid. An Irish legend told how St. Patrick had visited purgatory and hell, and had seen there tunics and sepulchers of fire, sinners hanging head downward, or devoured by serpents, or covered with ice.40 In twelfth-century England a priest-trouvère, Adam de Ros, recounted in a substantial poem St. Paul’s tour of hell under the guidance of the archangel Michael; made Michael expound the gradation of punishments for different degrees of sin; and showed Paul trembling like Dante before these horrors.41 Joachim of Flora had told of his own descent into hell and ascent into heaven. There were hundreds of such visions and tales. With all this damning evidence it was hardly necessary for Dante to cross linguistic barriers into Islam in order to find models for his Inferno. Like any artist he fused existing material, transformed it from chaos to order, and set it on fire with his passionate imagination and his burning sincerity. He took the elements of his work wherever he could find them—in Thomas and the troubadours, in Peter Damian’s fiery sermons on the pains of hell, in his brooding over Beatrice living and Beatrice dead, in his conflicts with politicians and popes; in the scraps of science that crossed his path; in the Christian theology of the Fall, the Incarnation, sin and grace, and the Last Judgment; in the Plotinian-Augus-tinian conception of the graduated ascent of the soul to union with God; in Thomas’ emphasis on the Beatific Vision as the final and only satisfying goal of man; and out of these he made the poem in which all the terror, hope, and pilgrimage of the medieval spirit found voice, symbol, and form.
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
Che la diritta via era smarrita.
“Midway on the road of our life I found myself in a dark wood, whose direct way was blurred” and lost.42 Wandering in this darkness, Dante meets Virgil, his “master and guide, from whom alone I took the beautiful style that has brought me honor.”43 Virgil tells him that the only safe exit from the wood is through hell and purgatory; but if Dante will accompany him through these, he will conduct him to the portals of paradise, “where a worthier than I must lead thee”; indeed, he adds, it is at Beatrice’ command that he has come to the poet’s aid.
They pass through an opening in the earth’s surface to the gates of hell, inscribed with these bitter words:
Per me si va nella città dolente,
Per me si va nell’ eterno dolore,
Per me si va tra la perduta gente.
Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore;
Fecemi la divina potestate,
La somma sapienza e il primo amore.
Dinanzi a me non fur cose create,
Se non eterne, ed io eterno duro:
Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’ entrate!44
“Through me one enters the sorrowful city; through me one enters into eternal pain; through me one enters among the lostrace. Justice moved my high Maker; divine power made me, supreme wisdom, and primeval love. Before me were no things created except eternal ones; and I endure eternally. All hope abandon, ye who enter here!”
Hell is a subterranean funnel, reaching down to the center of the earth. Dante conceives it with a powerful, almost a sadistic, imagination: dark and frightening abysses between gigantic murky rocks; steaming, stinking marshes, torrents, lakes, and streams; storms of rain, snow, hail, and brands of fire; howlirig winds and petrifying cold; tortured bodies, grimacing faces, blood-stilling shrieks and groans. Nearest the top of this infernal funnel are those who were neither good nor bad, and those who were neutral; ignoble irritations punish them; they are bitten by wasps and hornets, gnawed by worms, consumed with envy and remorse. The never neutral Dante scorns them, and makes Virgil say:
Misericordia e giustizia gli sdegna:
Non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa—45
“Mercy and justice despise them. We do not speak of them, but look and pass on.” The tourists come to the subterranean river Acheron, and are ferried over by old Charon, serving here since Homer’s days. On the farther shore Dante finds himself in limbo, the first circle of hell, where stay the virtuous but unbaptized, including Virgil and all good heathen, and all good Jews except a few Old Testament heroes whom Christ, visiting limbo, released to heaven. Their only suffering is that they eternally desire a better fate, and know that they will never receive it. There in limbo, honored by all its denizens, are great pagan poets—Homer, Horace, Ovid, Lucan; they welcome Virgil, and make Dante the sixth of their tribe. Looking still higher, says Dante,
Vidi il Maestro di color che sanno
Seder tra filosofica famiglia—
“I saw the master of those who know, seated amid the philosophic family”—i.e., Aristotle, surrounded by Socrates, Plato, Democritus, Diogenes, Heraclitus, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Thales, Zeno, Cicero, Seneca, Euclid, Ptolemy, Hippocrates, Galen, Avicenna, and Averroës “who made the great commentary.”46 Obviously, if Dante had had his way, all this noble company, including the Saracen infidels, would have graced paradise.
Virgil now leads him down into the second circle, where carnal sinners are ceaselessly tossed about by furious winds; here Dante sees Paris, Helen, Dido, Semiramis, Cleopatra, Tristan, and Paolo and Francesca. To end a family feud between the Polentas, lords of Ravenna, and the Malatestas, lords of Rimini, the lovely Francesca da Polenta was to wed the brave but deformed Gianciotto Malatesta. The rest of the story is uncertain; a favored version makes Paolo, the handsome brother of Gianciotto, pretend to be the suitor; to him Francesca pledged herself; but on the wedding day she found herself reluctantly marrying Gianciotto. Soon afterward she enjoyed for a moment Paolo’s love; in that moment Gianciotto caught and slew them (c. 1265). Swaying in the wind as a fleshless wraith beside the ghost of her disembodied lover, Francesca da Rimini tells Dante her story:
Nessun maggior dolore
Che ricordarsi del tempo felice
Nella miseria. …
Noi leggevamo un giorno per diletto
Di Lancelotto, come l’amor lo strinse:
Soli eravamo e senza alcun sospetto.
Per più fiate gli occhi ci sospinse
Quella lettura, e scolorocci il viso:
Ma solo un punto fu quel che ci vinse.
Quando leggemmo il disiato riso
Esser baciato da cotante amante,
Questi, che mai da me non fia diviso,
La bocea mi baciò tutto tremante.
Galeotto fu il libro e chi lo scrisse:
Quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante.
No greater grief than to remember days
Of joy when misery is at hand…. One day
For our delight we read of Lancelot,
How him love thralled. Alone we were, and no
Suspicion near us. Ofttimes by that reading
Our eyes were drawn together, and the hue
Fled from our altered cheek. But at one point
Alone we fell. When of that smile we read,
The wishéd smile, so rapturously kissed
By one so deep in love, then he, who ne’er
From me shall separate, at once my lips
All trembling kissed. The book and writer both
Were love’s purveyors. In its leaves that day
We read no more.47
Dante faints with pity at this tale. He wakes to find himself in the third circle of hell, where those who were guilty of gluttony lie in mire under a continuous storm of snow, hail, and dirty water, while Cerberus barks over them and rends them piecemeal with threefold jaws. Virgil and Dante descend into the fourth circle, where Plutus is stationed; here the prodigal and the avaricious meet in conflict, rolling great weights against each other in a Sisyphean war. The poets follow the murky boiling river Styx down into the fifth circle; here those who sinned by wrath are covered with filth, and smite and tear themselves; and those who were sinfully slothful are submerged in the stagnant water of the Stygian lake, whose muddy surface bubbles with their gasps. The wanderers are conveyed across the lake by Phlegyas, and reach in the sixth circle the city of Dis or Lucifer, where heretics are roasted in flaming sepulchers. They descend into the seventh circle; there, under the presidency of the Minotaur, those who committed crimes of violence are perpetually near to drowning in a roaring river of blood; centaurs shoot them with arrows when their heads emerge. In one compartment of this circle are the suicides, including Piero delle Vigne; in another those who committed violence against God or nature or art stand with bare feet on hot sands, while flakes of fire fall upon their heads. Among the sodomites Dante meets his old teacher, Brunetto Latini—a tasteless doom for a guide, philosopher, and friend.
At the edge of the eighth circle a horrible monster appears, who bears the poets down into the pit of usurers. In the upper gulfs of this circle an ingenious diversity of unending pains falls upon seducers, flatterers, and simoniacs. The latter are fixed head downward in holes; only their legs protrude, and flames lick their feet caressingly. Among the simoniacs is Pope Nicholas III (1277–80), whose evil deeds, along with those of other popes, are bitterly denounced; and by a bold fancy Dante pictures Nicholas as mistaking him for Boniface VIII (d. 1303), whose arrival in hell is expected at any hour.48 Soon, Nicholas predicts, Clement V (d. 1314) will also come. In the fourth gulf of the eighth circle are those who presumed to foretell the future; their heads are fixed face backward on their necks. From a bridge—“Malebolge” —over the fifth gulf they look down upon public peculators, who swim forever in a lake of boiling pitch. Hypocrites pass continually around the sixth gulf, wearing gilded cloaks of lead. Along the only pathway in that gulf lies Caiaphas, prostrate and crucified, so that all who pass must tread upon his flesh. In the seventh gulf robbers are tormented by venomous snakes; Dante recognizes here several Florentines. From an arch over the eighth gulf he sees flames consuming and reconsuming evil counselors; here is the wily Odysseus. In the ninth gulf scandalmongers and schismatics are torn limb from limb; here is Mohammed, described with appalling ferocity:
As one I marked, torn from the chin throughout,
Down to the hinder passage; ‘twixt the legs
Dangling his entrails hung; the midriff lay
Open to view; and wretched ventricle
That turns the englutted aliment to dross.
Whilst eagerly I fixed on him my gaze,
He eyed me, with his hands laid his breast bare,
And cried: “Now mark how I do rip me; lo!
And is Mohammed mangled. Before me
Walks Ali weeping; from the chin his face
Cleft to the forelock; and the others all,
Whom here thou seest, while they live, did sow
Scandal and schism, and therefore thus are rent.
A friend is here behind, who with his sword
Hacks us thus cruelly, slivering again
Each of this ream when we have compassed round
The dismal way; for first our gashes close
Ere we repass him.”49
In the tenth gulf of the eighth circle lie forgers, counterfeiters, and alchemists, moaning with varied ailments; a stench of sweat and pus fills the air, and the groans of the sufferers make a terrifying roar.
At last the poets reach the ninth and lowest circle of hell, which, strange to relate, is a vast well of ice. Here traitors are buried in the ice to their chins; tears of pain freeze into a “crystalline visor” over their faces. Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, who betrayed Pisa, is here eternally bound to Archbishop Ruggieri, who imprisoned him with his sons and grandsons and allowed them all to starve to death. Now Ugolino’s head lies upon the Archbishop’s, which it chews forever. At nadir, the center of the earth and the very bottom of the narrowing funnel of hell, the giant Lucifer lies buried to the waist in ice, flapping enormous wings from his shoulders, weeping icy tears of blood from the three faces that divide his head, and chewing a traitor in each of three jaws—Brutus, Cassius, and Judas.
Half the terrors of the medieval soul are gathered into this gory chronicle. As one reads its awful pages the gruesome horror mounts, until at last the cumulative effect is oppressive and overwhelming. Not all the sins and crimes of man from nebula to nebula could match the sadistic fury of this divine revenge. Dante’s conception of hell is the crowning indecency of medieval theology. Classic antiquity had thought of a Hades or Avernus that received all the human dead into a subterranean and indiscriminate darkness; but it had not pictured that Tartarus as a place of torture. Centuries of barbarism, insecurity, and war had to intervene before man could defile his God with attributes of undying vengeance and inexhaustible cruelty.
With relief we learn at the end that Virgil and Dante have passed through the center of the earth, have inverted the direction of their heads and feet, and are moving upward toward the antipodes. With the time-disdaining swiftness of a dream the two poets traverse in two days the diameter of the earth. They emerge in the southern hemisphere on Easter morning, drink in the light of day, and stand at the foot of the terraced mountain which is purgatory.
The conception of purgatory is by comparison humane: man may by effort and pain, by hope and vision, cleanse himself of sin and selfishness, and mount step by step to understanding, love, and bliss. So Dante pictures purgatory as a mountainous cone divided into nine levels: an antepurgatory, seven terraces—one for the purgation of each of the Deadly Sins—and, at the summit, the Earthly Paradise. From each level the sinner moves with diminishing pain to a higher level; and at each ascent an angel chants one of the Beatitudes. In the lower stages there are stern punishments for sins shriven and forgiven but not yet atoned for with sufficient penalty; nevertheless, as against hell’s bitter consciousness that suffering will never end, there is here the strengthening certainty that after finite punishment will come an eternity of happiness. A softer mood and a brightening light pervade these cantos, and reveal a Dante learning mildness from his pagan guide.
Virgil, with daubs of dew, washes from Dante’s face the sweat and grime of hell. The sea surrounding the mountain shimmers under the rising sun, as the sin-darkened soul trembles with joy at the coming of divine grace. Here on the first level, in accord with Thomas’ hope that some good heathen might be saved, Dante encounters Cato of Utica, the stern stiff Stoic who, rather than suffer Caesar’s mercy, killed himself. Here, too, is Manfred, Frederick’s son, who fought a pope but loved poetry. Virgil hurries Dante onward with oft quoted lines:
Lascia dir le genti;
Sta come torre ferma che non crolla
Giammai la cima per soffiar de’ venti—
“Let the people talk; stand like a firm tower, which never shakes its top for all the blowing of the winds.”50 Virgil is not at home in purgatory; he cannot answer Dante’s questions as readily as in his wonted hell; he feels his lack, and shows at times an irritated wistfulness. He is comforted when they meet Sordello; the poet sons of Mantua fall into each other’s arms, united by the Italian’s affection for the city of his youth. Thereupon Dante breaks out into a bitter apostrophe to his country, summarizing his essay on the need of monarchy:
Ah, slavish Italy! thou inn of grief!
Vessel without a pilot in loud storm!
Lady no longer of fair provinces,
But brothel-house impure! This gentle spirit,
Even from the pleasant sound of his dear land
Was prompt to greet a fellow citizen
With such glad cheer; while now thy living ones
In thee abide not without war; and one
Malicious gnaws another; ay, of those
Whom the same wall and the same moat contain.
Seek, wretched one, around thy seacoasts wide,
Then homeward to thy bosom turn, and mark
If any part of thee sweet peace enjoy.
What boots it that for thee Justinian [Roman law revived]
The bridle mend if empty be the saddle [without a king]? …
Ah, people, that devoted still should be
And in the saddle let thy Caesar sit,
If well thou markedst that which God commands!51
And as if to point his fondness for kings that can hold a steady rein, he tells how Sordello guides them, at the base of the purgatorial mount, to a lovely sunny valley, flower-strewn and fragrant, where dwell the Emperor Rudolf, King Ottokar of Bohemia, Peter III of Aragon, Henry II of England, Philip III of France.
Conducted by Lucia (symbolizing the light of God’s grace), Dante and Virgil are admitted by an angel to the first terrace of purgatory. Here the proud are punished by carrying on their bent backs each a massive stone; while reliefs on wall and pavement picture famous deeds of humility, and the dire results of pride. On the second terrace the envious, clad in sackcloth, have their eyes repeatedly sewn up with iron threads. On the third terrace anger, on the fourth sloth, on the fifth avarice, endure their appropriate penalties. Here Pope Hadrian V, once covetous of wealth, does penance peacefully, calm in the surety of ultimate salvation. In one of the many delightful episodes that brighten the Purgatorio, the Roman poet Statius appears, and greets the travelers with such joy as seldom moves a poet meeting another poet on the earth. Together the three mount to the sixth terrace, where the sin of gluttony is cleansed; trees dangle sweet-smelling fruit before the penitents, but withdraw them when hands reach out to grasp, while voices in the air recount historic feats of temperance. On the seventh and last terrace are those who sinned by incontinence, but were shriven before death; they are gently singed and purified by flames. Dante has a poet’s sympathy for sins of the flesh, above all when committed by persons of artistic temperament, and therefore especially sensitive, imaginative, and precipitous. Here is Guido Guinizelli; Dante hails him as pater in litteris, and thanks him for “sweet songs which, as long as our language lasts, will make us love the very ink that traced them.”52
An angel guides them through fire, by the last ascent, into the Earthly Paradise. Here Virgil bids him farewell:
No farther reaches. I with skill and art
Thus far have drawn thee. Now thy pleasure take
For guide…. Lo! the sun that darts
His beam upon thy forehead, lo! the herb, The arborets and flowers, which of itself
This land pours forth profuse. Till those bright eyes [of Beatrice]
With gladness come, which, weeping, made me haste
To succor thee, thou mayst or seat thee down,
Or wander where thou wilt. Expect no more
Sanction of warning voice or sign from me.
Free of thine own arbitrament to choose,
Discreet, judicious … I invest thee then
With crown and miter, sovereign o’er thyself.53
Virgil and Statius now behind instead of before him, Dante wanders through the woods and fields, and along the streams, of the Earthly Paradise, breathing the pleasant odor of its pure air, hearing from the trees the songs of “feathered choristers” chanting prime. A lady culling flowers stops her singing to explain to him why this fair country is deserted: it was once the Garden of Eden, but man’s disobedience exiled him and mankind from its innocent delights. To this forfeited Paradise Beatrice descends from heaven, clothed in such blinding radiance that Dante can only feel her presence but not see it.
Albeit my eyes discerned her not, there moved
A hidden virtue from her, at whose touch
The power of ancient love was strong within me.54
He turns to address his poet guide, but Virgil has returned to the limbo from which the summons of Beatrice had drawn him. Dante weeps, but Beatrice bids him mourn rather the sins of lust with which, after her death, he tarnished her image in his soul; indeed, she tells him, that dark wood, from which through Virgil she has rescued him, was the life of incontinence wherein, at the mid-point of his years, he had found himself lost, with the right road dimmed. Dante falls to the ground in shame, and confesses his sins. Celestial virgins come and intercede with the offended Beatrice, and beg her to reveal to him her second and spiritual beauty. Not that she has forgotten the first:
Never didst thou spy,
In art or nature, aught so passing sweet
As were the limbs that in their beauteous frame
Enclosed me, and are scattered now in dust.55
She relents, and shows her new celestial beauty; but the virgins warn Dante not to gaze upon her directly, but only to look at her feet. Beatrice leads him and Statius (who has completed, after twelve centuries, his term in purgatory) to a fountain from which issue two streams—Lethe (Forget-fulness) and Eunoë (Good Understanding). Dante drinks of Eunoë and is cleansed, and, now regenerate, is “made apt for mounting to the stars.”56
It is not true that the Inferno is the only interesting part of The Divine Comedy. There are many arid didactic passages in the Purgatorio, and always a ballast of theology; but in this canticle the poem, freed from the horrors of damnation, mounts step by step in beauty and tenderness, cheers the ascent with nature’s loveliness regained, and faces bravely the task of making the disembodied Beatrice beautiful. Through her again, as in his youth, Dante enters paradise.
Dante’s theology made his task harder. Had he allowed himself to picture paradise in Persian or Mohammedan style as a garden of physical as well as spiritual delights, his sensuous nature would have found abundant imagery. But how can that “constitutional materialist,” the human intellect, conceive a heaven of purely spiritual bliss? Moreover, Dante’s philosophical development forbade him to represent God, or the angels and saints of heaven, in anthropomorphic terms; rather he visions them as forms and points of light; and the resultant abstractions lose in a luminous void the life and warmth of sinful flesh. But Catholic doctrine professed the resurrection of the body; and Dante, while struggling to be spiritual, endows some denizens of heaven with corporeal features and human speech. It is pleasant to learn that even in heaven Beatrice has beautiful feet.
His plan of paradise is worked out with impressive consistency, brilliant imagination, and bold detail. Following Ptolemaic astronomy, he thinks of the heavens as an expanding series of nine hollow crystal spheres revolving about the earth; these spheres are the “many mansions” of the “Father’s house.” In each sphere a planet and a multitude of stars are set like gems in a diadem. As they move, these celestial bodies, all endowed in gradation with divine intelligence, sing the joy of their blessedness and the praise of their Creator, and bathe the heavens in the music of the spheres. The stars, says Dante, are the saints of heaven, the souls of the saved; and according to the merits that they earned in life, so differently high is their station above the earth, so loftier is their happiness, so nearer are they to that empyrean which is above all the spheres, and holds the throne of God.
As if drawn by the light that radiates from Beatrice, Dante rises from the Earthly Paradise to the first circle of the heavens, which is that of the moon. There are the souls of those who by no fault of their own were forced to violate their religious vows. One such, Piccarda Donati, explains to Dante that though they are in the lowest circle of the heavens, and enjoy a degree of bliss less than that of the spirits above them, they are freed by the Divine Wisdom from all envy, longing, or discontent. For the essence of happiness lies in the joyful acceptance of the Divine Will: la sua volúntate è nostra pace —“His will is our peace.”57 This is the basic line of The Divine Comedy.
Subject to a celestial magnetism that draws all things to God, Dante rises with Beatrice to the second heaven, which is the sphere dominated by the planet Mercury. Here are those who on earth were absorbed in practical activity to good ends, but were more intent on worldly honor than on serving God. Justinian appears, and phrases in royal lines the historic functions of the Roman Empire and Roman law; through him Dante strikes another blow for one world under one law and king. Beatrice leads the poet to the third heaven, the circle of Venus, where the Provençal bard Folque foretells the tragedy of Boniface VIII. In the fourth heaven, whose orb is the sun, Dante finds the Christian philosophers—Boethius, Isidore of Seville, Bede, Peter Lombard, Gratian, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventura, and Siger de Brabant. In a gracious exchange Thomas the Dominican relates to Dante the life of St. Francis, and Bonaventura the Franciscan tells him the story of St. Dominic. Thomas, always a man and mind of some expanse, clogs the narrative with discourses on theological subtleties; and Dante is so anxious to be a philosopher that for several cantos he ceases to be a poet.
Beatrice leads him to the fifth heaven, that of Mars, where are the souls of warriors who died fighting for the true faith—Joshua, Judas Maccabaeus, Charlemagne, even Robert Guiscard, ravager of Rome. They are arranged as thousands of stars in the form of a dazzling cross and the figure of the Crucified; and every star in the luminous emblem joins in a celestial harmony. Ascending to the sixth heaven, that of Jupiter, Dante finds those who on earth administered justice equitably; here are David, Hezekiah, Constantine, Trajan—another pagan breaking into heaven. These living stars are arranged in the form of an eagle; they speak with one voice, discoursing to Dante on theology, and celebrating the praise of just kings.
Mounting what Beatrice figuratively calls the “stairway of the eternal palace,” the poet and his guide reach the seventh heaven of delight, the planet Saturn and its attendant stars. At every ascent the beauty of Beatrice takes on new brilliance, as if enhanced by the rising splendor of each higher sphere. She dares not smile upon her lover, lest he be consumed to ashes in her radiance. This is the circle of monks who lived in piety and fidelity to their vows. Peter Damian is among them; Dante asks him how to reconcile man’s freedom with God’s foresight and consequent predestination; Peter replies that even the most enlightened souls in heaven, under God, cannot answer his question. St. Benedict appears, and mourns the corruption of his monks.
Now the poet floats upward from the circles of the planets to the eighth heaven, the zone of the fixed stars. From the constellation Gemini he looks down and sees the infinitesimal earth, “so pitiful of semblance that it moved my smiles.” A moment of homesickness, even for that miserable planet, might have moved him then; but a glance from Beatrice tells him that this heaven of light and love, and not that scene of sin and strife, is his proper home.
Canto XXIII opens with one of Dante’s characteristic similes:
Even as the bird, who midst the leafy bower
Has in her nest sat darkly through the night
With her sweet brood, impatient to descry
Their wishéd looks, and to bring home their food,
In the fond quest unconscious of her toil;
She, of the time prevenient, on the spray
That overhangs their couch, with wakeful gaze
Expects the sun, nor ever, till the dawn,
Removeth from the east her eager ken—
So Beatrice fixes her eyes in one direction expectantly. Suddenly the heavens there shine with startling splendor. “Behold,” cries Beatrice, “the triumphant hosts of Christ!”—souls new won for paradise. Dante looks, but sees only a light so full and strong that he is blinded, and cannot tell what passes by. Beatrice bids him open his eyes; now, she says, he can endure her full radiance. She smiles upon him, and it is, he swears, an experience that can never be canceled from his memory. “Why doth my face enamor thee?” she asks, and bids him rather look at Christ and Mary and the apostles. He tries to make them out, but sees merely “legions of splendors, on whom burning rays shed lightnings from above”; while to his ears comes the music of the Regina coeli, sung by heavenly hosts.
Christ and Mary ascend, but the apostles remain behind, and Beatrice asks them to speak to Dante. Peter questions him about his faith, is pleased with his replies, and agrees with him that as long as Boniface is Pope the Apostolic See is vacant or defiled.58 There is no mercy in Dante for Boniface.
The apostles vanish upward, and Dante mounts at last, with “her who hath imparadised my soul,” into the ninth and highest heaven. Here in the empyrean there are no stars, only pure light, and the spiritual, incorporeal, uncaused, motionless source of all souls, bodies, causes, motions, light, and life-God. The poet struggles now to achieve the Beatific Vision; but all he sees is a point of light about which revolve nine circles of pure Intelligences—seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels, and angels; through these, His agents and emissaries, the Almighty governs the world. But though Dante cannot perceive the Divine Essence, he beholds all the hosts of heaven forming themselves into a luminous rose, a marvel of shimmering lights and diverse hues expanding leaf by leaf into a gigantic flower.
Beatrice leaves her lover now, and takes her place in the rose. He sees her seated on her individual throne, and prays her still to help him; she smiles down upon him, and thereafter fixes her gaze upon the center of all light, but she sends St. Bernard to aid and comfort him. Bernard directs Dante’s eyes to the Queen of Heaven; the poet looks, but discerns only a flaming luster surrounded by thousands of angels clothed in light. Bernard tells him that if he would obtain power to see the heavenly vision more clearly he must join with him in prayer to the Mother of God. The final canto opens with Bernard’s melodious supplication:
Vergine Madre, figlia del tuo Figlio,
Umile ed alta più che creatura—
“Virgin Mother, daughter of thy Son, more humble and exalted than any creature.” Bernard begs her of her grace to enable Dante’s eyes to behold the Divine Majesty. Beatrice and many saints bend toward Mary with hands clasped in prayer. Mary looks for a moment benignly upon Dante, then turns her eyes upon the “Everlasting Light.” Now, says the poet, “my vision, becoming pure, more and more entered the ray of that high light which in itself is Truth.” What else he saw remains, he says, beyond all human speech and fantasy; but “in that abyss of radiance, clear and lofty, seemed, methought, three orbs of triple hue, combined in one.” The majestic epic ends with Dante’s gaze still fixed upon that radiance, drawn and impelled by “the Love that moves the sun and all the stars.”
The Divine Comedy is the strangest and most difficult of all poems. No other, before yielding its treasures, makes such imperious demands. Its language is the most compact and concise this side of Horace and Tacitus; it gathers into a word or phrase contents and subtleties requiring a rich background and an alert intelligence for full apprehension; even the wearisome theological, psychological, astronomical disquisitions have here a pithy precision that only a Scholastic philosopher could rival or enjoy. Dante lived so intensely in his time that his poem almost breaks under the weight of contemporary allusions unintelligible today without a litter of notes obstructing the movement of the tale.
He loved to teach, and tried to pour into one poem nearly all that he had ever learned, with the result that the living verse lies abed with dead absurdities. He weakens the charm of Beatrice by making her the voice of his political loves and hates. He stops his story to denounce a hundred cities or groups or individuals, and at times his epic founders in a sea of vituperation. He adores Italy; but Bologna is full of panders and pimps,59 Florence is the favorite product of Lucifer,60 Pistoia is a den of beasts,61 Genoa is “full of all corruption,”62 and as for Pisa, “A curse upon Pisa! May the Arno be dammed at its mouth, and drown all Pisa, man and mouse, beneath its raging waters!”63 Dante thinks that “supreme wisdom and primal love” created hell. He promises to remove the ice for a moment from the eyes of Alberigo if the latter will tell his name and story; Alberigo does, and asks fulfillment—“reach hither now thy hand, open my eyes!”—but, says Dante, “I opened them not for him; to be rude to him was courtesy.”64 If a man so bitter could win a conducted tour through paradise we shall all be saved.
His poem is none the less the greatest of medieval Christian books, and one of the greatest of all time. The slow accumulation of its intensity through a hundred cantos is an experience that no thorough reader will ever forget. It is, as Carlyle said, the sincerest of poems; there is no pretense in it, no hypocrisy or false modesty, no sycophancy or cowardice; the most powerful men of the age, even a pope who claimed all power, are attacked with a force and fervor unparalleled in poetry. Above all there is here a flight and sustainment of imagination challenging Shakespeare’s supremacy: vivid pictures of things never seen by gods or men; descriptions of nature that only an observant and sensitive spirit could achieve; and little narratives, like Francesca’s or Ugolino’s, that press great tragedies into narrow space with yet no vital matter missed. There is no humor in this man, but love was there till misfortune turned it into theology.
What Dante achieves at last is sublimity. We cannot find in his epic the Mississippi of life and action that is the Iliad, nor the gentle drowsy stream of Virgil’s verse, nor the universal understanding and forgiveness of Shakespeare; but here is grandeur, and a tortured, half-barbaric force that foreshadows Michelangelo. And because Dante loved order as well as liberty, and bound his passion and vision into form, he achieved a poem of such sculptured power that no man since has equaled it. Through the centuries that followed him Italy revered him as the liberator of her golden speech; Petrarch and Boccaccio and a hundred others were inspired by his battle and his art; and all Europe rang with the story of the proud exile who had gone to hell, and had returned, and had never smiled again.