The Journey Through the Afterlife
In 1929, over six hundred years after Dante Alighieri’s death, the great English Modernist poet T.S. Eliot proclaimed, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third.”
Sandro Botticelli. Portrait of Dante, 1495.
Surely Dante, living his final years as an exile in Ravenna, Italy, could not have imagined such global praise, having written the majority of his works in a mixed-Tuscany vernacular that was quite different from the scholarly Latin commonly used in his time; or, that the terza rima, the three-line rhyme scheme he invented for his most famous work, would continue to inspire and evolve into the 20th century.
Let us go then, as we embark down the rings of history in our quest towards the Western literary paradise that all began in the sacred visions of love and hellish imaginations of Dante.
Gustave Doré. Illustration for Paradiso (of The Divine Comedy), 1868.
Dante is best known for his three-part narrative poem The Divine Comedy (c. 1321), a lengthy epic compiled of 100 cantos that follows his journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Paradise (Paradiso). The poem contrasts with Classical epics, taking place in contemporary times to represent Dante’s own struggles after his exile from Florence. However, it can still be read more comprehensively as an allegory for the individual’s journey to enlightenment. Dante’s poetic mastery not only elevated the language of the common Italian people but also challenged the hegemony of Latin and Greek by democratizing the linguistic potential of colloquial speech.
Sandro Botticelli. The Map of Hell, c. 1480-1490.
Inferno is perhaps the most memorable of the three parts, considering the brutal imagery, haunting depiction of Hell, and damning punishments received by the historical persons Dante encounters. Modern-day Italian politicians are transformed into universal figures, becoming nearly as symbolic as the mythological characters they are placed side by side with. Dante follows his poetic muse Virgil—a nod to traditional logic and Classical influence—through the rings of the underworld and into Purgatorio, where Dante begins his moral cleansing before his ascent into Heaven.
The latter two parts have a greater theological bent as human reason and suffering are complemented with spiritual illumination, represented by Virgil’s departure near the end of Purgatorio and the coming of his new guide in Paradiso: Beatrice, Dante’s life-long love.
Dante first met Beatrice when they were just kids, and he was immediately struck by love at first sight. Although he admired her from afar throughout his life, he never dared to reveal his true feelings. Beatrice remained the greatest single influence on Dante’s work.
Overall, The Divine Comedy is a grandiose journey of Christian ascension filled with allusions and cameos from across history, written in complex poetic style and form.
Henry Holiday. Dante and Beatrice, 1883.
While the idealized Beatrice doesn’t appear until later in the Comedy, her influence is apparent even in his earliest works, particularly La Vita Nuova (1295). Written as a prosimetrum (a mixture of prose and verse), Dante relinquishes the limitations of individual, courtly love in order to depict love as a sacred, virtuous endeavor. Taking inspiration from the Provençal troubadours and mixing it with current Christian ethics, Dante reimagined the romantic tropes through a mystical lens, developing a personalized, spiritual representation of love.
Convivio (c. 1304-07) bridges La Vita Nuova and The Divine Comedy both thematically and stylistically. Written across four books, this unfinished project of prose and verse is perhaps his most autobiographical and learned as he confesses his ever-growing love for philosophy. Similarly written in the vernacular, this encyclopedic text responds to his canzoni (a Renaissance-era song form) to showcase Dante’s vast knowledge of ethics, metaphysics, politics, and an array of other topics, defining him as a truly Modern man in pursuit of the greatest happiness.
It has been more than 700 years since Dante’s passing, yet his philosophical musings and layered writings still defy the possibilities of language. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine the projection of Western literature without his inventive forms, appreciation of the colloquial, and representations of human behavior, struggle, and love.
“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” —Dante Alighieri
“Do not be afraid; our fate cannot be taken from us; it is a gift.” —Dante Alighieri
“The path to paradise begins in hell.” —Dante Alighieri
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