Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) is a poet who is well known for his depictions of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. But while this may be true, not many people have bothered to read all three of his epic poems which tells the tale of himself at the age of thirty five: “Midway upon the journey of our life/I found myself within a forest dark” – (Inferno: Canto 1) journeying through the depths of Hell with his Pagan poet guide, Virgil – the author of the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid.
This book is a great introduction into what Dante was attempting to do with these three epic poems, why he made the choices he did. But also an introduction into him as a person (although very little is known of him, which makes it incredibly difficult to talk about him unless through his writing), and also his lesser read texts. Such as the Vita nova (New life), Convivio (Banquet), Monarchia (Monarchy), and the De vulgari eloquentia (The usual eloquence).
This short introduction is split into seven chapters which discuss different parts of Dante’s writing and life. Chapter one is a general Introduction, a brief sketch of style and influence. Chapter two is titled Autobiography and is a small essay on what we know of his life and deeds. His exile, his hopes for Italy and his foreseeing of the renaissance.
Chapter three is titled Truth and is about the depictions and where they stem from within his texts. For example that Hell was seen as directly under Jerusalem. That earth was half Land and half ocean. And at the tip of Earth was a great mountain called Purgatory where sinners came to purge their sin (hence the name: Purge-a-tory: Purgatory.) and to prepare themselves for Heaven. Next comes the nine spheres of the heavens, each containing a planet up to VII which contains the Zodiacs and the fixed stars. Next is IX which is the protective crystalline shell, and then X, which is the Empyrean and Paradise.
Next is the chapter on writing. His attempts to show that Italian was up to the standards of Latin. That he could rival Virgil and his epic poem. Dante did what John Milton did for English: created its first real epic and validating the language as a Romantic and intellectual language which can be used just as the ancients like Homer and Virgil did with their own native tongue. Dante was living in a time which questioned anything not written in Latin. He wanted to prove Italian could be just as effective. He also written the one hundred Cantos in the Terza rima style (ABA BCB CDC etc.), which is studied at length within this chapter to such an extent that it makes any would-be writer attempt the style just to see how difficult it is.
Chapter five is about humanity and how it is depicted within his three texts. For example in Inferno Dante ventures through Hell with the damned Pagan Virgil (Virgil is not saved because he was born without knowledge of Christ and served the wrong Gods. Although he is exalted as a ‘good Pagan’, and for that has the grace to guide Dante, and not be punished in Hell). He meets sinners being punished in a way that suggests how they lived. Those who lived in passion are attacked by a storm and raining fire – like that of passion’s storm, blowing the victim around like a rag-doll in life. These people in Hell are doomed to eternally relive their life and never escape the doom that they sowed for themselves. While those in Purgatory have repented (sometimes in their last breath, or shed a single tear just before death) and now must purge themselves of their corrupted nature in order to perfect themselves for God and Paradise. While of course Paradise is the home of those saved and accepted. Where they warble the praises of God and Christ in happiness and joy.
The next chapter is about the politics which Dante lived in. Italy in his time was a place of instability, while Italy itself was rich in trade and banking it was constantly swapping leadership between dictators. Principalities and rulers of cities changed every few years (and in some cases just weeks or months). This unrest led Dante to formulate romantic ideas of the future where someone would come in and unite it all. He envisioned Henry VII of Luxemburg (the holy Roman emperor) as the one who would do this, but that, like most of Dante’s future plans: was based on his optimism for Italy and man – and failed to come to fruition.
The last chapter of the book is on God and how Dante fails to picture his realm, and finishes his final canto in Paradiso trying to explain God and his final event, while at the same time stating he cannot do it justice. He explains, as is typical of Christians: that God is hard to grasp because we are human, and not at the pinnacle to understand such greatness yet.
Of course this work is short and about a poet which thousands of pages can (and have been) written about. But for a short introduction it is extremely extensive and worth the one hundred plus pages of reading, if not the rereading of them just to take in the amount of knowledge that is given to you over such a small amount of pages.