The Divine Comedy: the greatest single work of Western literature
Dante Alighieri, a figure in his own work, has lost his way in middle age and is alone and frightened in the darkness
The Divine Comedy is an epic poem written by Dante Alighieri between 1308 and his death in 1321. Photograph: Prisma/UIG via Getty Images.
As every Italian schoolchild knows, The Divine Comedy opens in a supernatural ‘dark forest’ just before sunrise on Good Friday, 1300. Dante Alighieri, a figure in his own work, has lost his way in middle age and is alone and frightened in the darkness. At the request of a woman called Beatrice, the ghost of the Roman poet Virgil is about to show him Hell.
‘Midway in the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark forest,
for the right path was lost’.
Begun in the first decade of the 14th century, Dante’s poem is, for many, the greatest single work of Western literature. It gathers together an extraordinary range of literary styles: lyric, satiric, biblical, as well as some memorable invective. The poem’s bold intermixture of realities, from the sublime to the vile, is part of what makes it so modern. Much of The Divine Comedy is composed in the Italian vernacular which Dante regarded as the true and richly storied expression of the Italian people. Dante’s decision to write in his own Tuscan idiom was a moment of extraordinary significance in the history of Western civilisation. His rejection of Latin preceded Geoffrey Chaucer’s by 80 years, and ensured that Tuscan would become Italy’s literary language and, eventually, its national language.
The Divine Comedy is divided into three books of equal length: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso. Each book is made up of 33 rhymed sections called cantos, with an additional introductory canto for the Inferno. One hundred cantos in all. The poem is called a “comedy” in the medieval-Aristotelian sense that it leads from misery to a state of happiness. Dante’s salvation is “comic” in that it culminates in joy. In the course of the poem Dante is seen to fathom the nine concentric circles of hell, before his ascent to the summit of Mount Purgatory takes him to the revelation of God in Paradise.
The theme of despair ascending through hope towards salvation is Catholic. In medieval Catholic orthodoxy, Purgatory was an in-between state where imperfect souls were cleansed by fire in preparation for their entry into heaven. Dante’s journey from the supernatural “dark forest” to heaven by way of Purgatory lasts just one week, in a poem that took more than 20 years to complete.
Unsurprisingly the Inferno is the most widely translated book after the Bible. It remains the most original and audacious treatment of the afterlife in Western literature. Victor Hugo went so far as to claim that the human eye was not made to look at the light of Dante’s Paradise: “when the poem becomes happy, it becomes boring”. For Hugo, as for many readers after him, the Inferno was the really “interesting” canticle, where a recognisable human drama of guilty love, transgression and punishment is depicted. It seems that the siren call of damnation calls to us in a way that Dante’s emotional rescue and atonement do not. (In the US television series Mad Men the charmingly mendacious adulterer Don Draper is seen reading a copy of the Inferno while on a beach in Miami.)
Today the Inferno is present in a surprising array of popular books and media, from the Lemony Snicket series for children to Japanese anime films and the Doom video games, with their murky lore referring to “nine circles” and the ‘Doomslayer’ (or ‘Hell Walker’). Dan Brown’s Inferno, the fastest-selling novel of 2013, was a bibliographic thriller whose sleuth-hero Robert Langdon is lost in a labyrinth of Dantean symbols and codes. Of course, where Dante’s Inferno is awful in the sense of inspiring awe, it could be argued that Brown’s is merely awful. (“A powerfully built woman effortlessly unstraddled her BMW motorcycle…”)
James Joyce, for his part, proclaimed an undying admiration for The Divine Comedy: “I love my Dante as much as the Bible,” he said, adding: “He is my spiritual food, the rest is ballast.” All life is contained in the poem, for Dante’s was an all-encompassing imagination, that interwove classical philosophy with Catholic doctrine and contemporary politics. Honoré de Balzac in his Comédie Humaine (1842-53) consciously sought to emulate the great human variety and detail of Dante’s poem. Another dantista, the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, never left his Moscow flat during the Stalin oppressions without a paperback Dante in the event of his arrest. The darker woes to be found in Dante – the long nights of darkness and dismay – were familiar to Mandelstam as they were to Oscar Wilde and other writers unjustly persecuted and imprisoned.
In 1882, in a foretaste of his own arrest 14 years later, Wilde was invited to inspect a Nebraskan penitentiary during his lecture tour of America. To his surprise he found a copy there of The Divine Comedy illustrated by Doré. ‘Oh dear, who would have thought of finding Dante here?’ Perhaps the governors hoped to edify the inmates. To Helena Sickert, sister of the painter Walter Sickert, Wilde wrote: ‘Strange and beautiful it seemed to me that the sorrow of a single Florentine in exile should, hundreds of years afterwards, lighten the sorrow of some common prisoner in a modern gaol.’ Wilde would remember to ask for a copy of Dante when in prison himself on a charge of ‘gross indecency’, even though The Divine Comedy accounts homosexuality an offence almost too grievous to be atoned for.
Samuel Beckett kept a copy of The Divine Comedy by his bedside as he lay dying in a Paris hospice in 1989. Oxygen canisters stood nearby for his emphysema but, immersed in Dante, he appeared to be ‘having fun’, remembered the poet Derek Mahon (who visited him a month before he died at the age of 83). The ninth monologue of Beckett’s 1954 Texts for Nothing offers a literal translation of the four concluding words of the ‘Inferno’: ‘and see the stars again’ (a riveder le stelle). They are spoken by a tramp-like waif as he contemplates death.
‘There’s a way out there, there’s a way out somewhere, the rest
would come, the other words, sooner or later, and the power to
get there, and the way to get there, and pass out, and see the
beauties of the skies, and see the stars again.’
On his resurgence from the death-like impasse of Hell Dante Alighieri too will “see the stars again”.
Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Journey Without End by Ian Thomson is published by Head of Zeus, at £18.99.