Già volgeva il mio disio e ’l velle,
sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,
l’amor che move ’l sole e l’altre stelle.
Now my will and my desire were turned,
like a wheel in perfect motion,
by the love that moves the sun and the other stars.
These breathtaking lines conclude Dante’s Divine Comedy, a 14,000-line epic written in 1321 on the state of the soul after death. T. S. Eliot called such poetry the most beautiful ever written—and yet so few of us have ever read it. Since the poem appeared, and especially in modern times, those readers intrepid enough to take on Dante have tended to focus on the first leg of his journey, through the burning fires of Inferno.
As I prepare opening notes for Dante’s Inferno, I am reading again about the medieval world view and how our idea of the human being has evolved. Dante offers a wonderful road into these deep and dense queries as his Divine Comedy is his attempt to construct an intellectual universe based on the visions of his faith. Several interested participants have wondered how the study of the Inferno might be approached if one is not formally religious. I am finding, as I did in the previous Paris-based study of this work, that the pilgrim’s exploration of his moral and spiritual universe—and the fantastic images that result—provide the reader a map for their own inquiry.
Dante fought the Church—his banishment from his beloved Florence was in part a result of his criticism of Pope Boniface and the political party he supported. His creation of the realms of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise were his attempt to bring his intellect and faith in alignment; a struggle that humans have been inspired by since Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. Although I will provide background on the historical moment of Dante’s Florentine world and the political and ecclesiastical struggles that tore at his home, these are background to the very human pursuit: to understand the human soul. Although Dante’s terms are Christian, I do not think this desire is limited to the Christian realm. As always, the Salon conversation is enriched with a variety of perspectives, those who hold a formal faith as well as those who hold a formal questioning, along with those, (and I would place myself in this category) whose inquiry is loose and fluid and lifelong. We have so few spaces to share diverse views in religious ideas or spiritual traditions; I propose the study of a great work that engages a vigorous questioning of a formal belief offers that space.
From Inferno, we move towards the mountain of Purgatory. . .
As Dante explains in the opening lines of the canticle, Purgatory is the place in which “the human spirit purges himself, and climbing to Heaven makes himself worthy.” Dante’s Purgatory consists of an island mountain, the only piece of land in the southern hemisphere. Divided into three sections, Antepurgatory, Purgatory proper, and the Earthly Paradise, the lower slopes are reserved for souls whose penance was delayed. The upper part of the mountain consists of seven terraces, each of which corresponds to one of the seven capital sins. Atop the mountain Dante locates, Eden, the Earthly Paradise, the place where the pilgrim is reunited with Beatrice, the woman who inspired the poem. (from The World of Dante: http://www.worldofdante.org/purgatory1.html)
Then on to Paradise. . .
In each translation and writing about the Divine Commedia that I have consulted, the unanimous conclusion is that Paradise is the most difficult—the least likely to be read—the most likely to be started and not finished. We are warned by Dante himself, in the longest address to the reader, that if we have followed thus far in our little boat we should turn back now while we can still see the shores, lest in “losing me, you would be lost yourselves. . .” (l.5, Canto 2). How can we turn back now? I recognize the going will be tough and this might not be the most enjoyable Salon read- but I have not known any of us to shrink from challenge.
Dante has these challenges of ineffability as he attempts both to describe Paradise and his journey—the experience is beyond memory, the visions beyond human words. Here he uses the examples of the human need to put feet and hands on God, to give the Angels wings—we cannot conceive of what he has seen because we are still in our human state. Thus Dante himself must change—transhumanize—(Canto I, l. 70) to manage the journey, and we must shuffle along as best we can in our mortal skins to understand what Dante is offering.
“O you, who in some pretty boat,
Eager to listen, have been following
Behind my ship, that singing sails along
Turn back to look again upon your own shores;
Tempt not the deep, lest unawares,
In losing me, you yourselves might be lost.
The sea I sail has never yet been passed;
Minerva breathes, and pilots me Apollo,
And Muses nine point out to me the Bears.
You other few who have neck uplifted
Betimes to the bread of angels upon
Which one lives and does not grow sated,
Well may you launch your vessel
Upon the deep sea.”
― Dante Alighieri, Paradiso
- Three six-meeting studies, one on each book of the Divine Comedy
- Recommended editions:
- Inferno by Dante Aligheri, translated by Mark Musa; Penguin Classics; ISBN-13: 978-0142437223
- Purgatorio by Dante Aligheri, translated by Robin Kirkpatrick; Penguin Classics; ISBN-13: 978-0140448962
- Paradiso by Dante Aligheri, translated by Mark Musa; Penguin Classics edition; ISBN-13: 978-0140444438
How to Read Dante in the 21st Century
“Dante requires what Nietzsche called “slow reading”—attentive, profound, patient reading—because Francesca’s sparse, seemingly innocent-sounding words speak volumes about the kind of sinner she is. In the first place, she’s not “speaking” to Dante in a natural voice; she’s alluding to poetry. And it’s a very famous poem, Al cor gentil rempaira sempre amore, “Love always returns to the gentle heart,” a gorgeous medieval lyric by Guido Guinizelli, one of Dante’s poetic mentors in the Sweet New Style, a movement in the late 1200s that nurtured Dante’s emerging artistic sensibilities. Francesca, by citing the poem and the Sweet New Style, is saying: it wasn’t my fault, blame it on love. Despite her prettiness, her sweetness, and her eloquence, she is like every other sinner in hell: it’s never their fault, always someone else’s. They never confess their guilt, the one thing necessary for redemption from sin. With one deft allusion, one lyrical dance amid the ferocious winds in the Circle of the Lustful, Dante delivers a magnificent psychological portrait of Francesca’s path to damnation.”
If you would like to request this study or have any questions about it, please contact us.