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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 inlove 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
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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
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
Comedy consisting 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
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
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.
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-
Pinsky, Robert. The Inferno of Dante. New York: Harper Collins, 1994.
Pound, Ezra. "Dante." The Spirit of Romance. Norfolk: New Directions,
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,