Viewed as a whole, The Divine Comedy is a poem of such grandeur that it defies any simple classification. While being related to the great epic journeys of Homer and Vergil, it is like many medieval works relating journeys beyond the limits of this world for the edification and instruction of a sinner. It surpasses those spiritual journeys in that it ranges over the entire culture of the Middle Ages. Simultaneously it is a work of doctrine, science, philosophy, theology, vision, autobiography, praise of women, and allegory. In fact, The Divine Comedy is an encyclopedic compendium of practically all medieval learning. Some have called it the single most significant document inherited from the Middle Ages.
Dante called it a “comedy” both because of its happy ending and its style, which lies between that of the tragedy and that of the elegy. He chose to write it in the Italian of Florence, incorporating into it many Latinisms. From the all-pervading misery, adversity, avariciousness, and corruption surrounding him, he wished to show the path to goodness, the salvation of the human soul guided both by reason and divine grace. Dante intended the work to be read on four levels: the literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. Structurally, he wrote the poem in hendecasyllabic lines (eleven syllables) which are grouped in threes to make interlocking tercets; this form is called terza rima (aba, bcb, cdc, and so on). The tercets are grouped together into conceptual units or strophes of approximately 150 lines each and called “cantos.” The entire poem has one hundred cantos consisting of an introductory canto and three principal divisions or canticles of thirty-three cantos each: the Inferno (Hell), the Purgatorio (Purgatory), and the Paradiso (Paradise). Each of these divisions corresponds to Dante’s conception of cosmology.
Dante’s cosmology is essentially that of ancient Ptolemic astronomy. The earth has Jerusalem at its center and is the fixed center of the universe. Hell is shaped like a vast funnel, a cone-shaped pit beginning near the earth’s surface and extending to its center. The sides of the funnel form a series of diminishing concentric rounds in which various types of impenitents receive their punishment; the severity of punishment increases with each level of the descent. This abyss was created by the fall of Lucifer, and it is he who is punished at earth’s center, that point farthest removed from God. In the Southern Hemisphere and on the opposite side of the earth from Jerusalem, there is a conical-shaped mountain presumably formed by the ground displaced by Satan’s fall. This is the Mount of Purgatory where souls find themselves on seven ledges carved into the mountain. The ledges correspond to the seven capital sins: pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust. Added to the ante-Purgatory at the base and the garden of earthly paradise at the summit, they form nine divisions on the mount. Paradise is composed of the nine heavenly spheres which revolve ever more rapidly and in ever wider orbits around earth. Crowning all creation is the Empyrean, where God is surrounded by the spirits of the triumphant blessed.
For good or for ill, readers have tended to single out individual portions of The Divine Comedy and to view them as brief fictional narratives. Such selecting is not new. Because of the interesting nature and dramatic intensity of certain episodes, they seem particularly worthy of special, critical reading; individual readers tend to identify with and to select certain episodes from the rest. Among those episodes most frequently chosen for explication are those of Francesca (Inferno, canto 5), Brunetto Latini (Inf. 15), Farinata and Cavalcante (Inf. 10), Piero delle Vigne (Inf. 13), Vanni Fucci (Inf. 24), Ulysses (Inf. 26), and Satan (Inf. 34). To these one might also add Cato of Utica (Purgatorio 1) and La Pia (Purg. 5). The Inferno contains most of the frequently cited episodes; of these, the stories of Francesca, Ulysses, and Ugolino offer especially interesting examples of Dante’s narrative art and technique. They will be examined here because of their high drama, which approaches tragedy, and their striking similarities.
Dante’s real Hell begins only in the second circle, where the lustful are forever borne about on the warm winds of tempest. It is there that Francesca da Rimini tells Dante her sadly tragic tale. As if thinking aloud, she tells of how she and her brother-in-law, Paolo, were reading together the romance of Lancelot. They were particularly drawn to that part describing how Lancelot was overpowered by his violent passion for Guinevere. Francesca and Paolo were alone, never fearing their weakness. “We were reading one day for delight of Lancelot, how love seized him: We were alone and unsuspecting.” The immediate characteristics of this narrative are concision, speed, directness, and energy. She continues by saying that the story made them lift their eyes several times and blush. It was the climax of the story that conquered them; when Lancelot kissed his lady, Paolo kissed Francesca. The romance, she says, and its author were both panderers. That day they read no further. During the narration of this tale Paolo weeps, and out of pity Dante “swooned as if in death and dropped like a dead body.”
Whereas Lancelot’s kiss had fallen on his lady’s “smile” (riso), Paolo’s fell on his beloved’s “mouth” (bocca) and hence is delineated a transformation of the spiritual into the physiological, a descent from idealized courtly love to realistic physical love, from the romanticism of an imagined “ideal” to the realism of the salatia amoris. Courtly love is replaced by eros, lust, and adultery, and that replacement is clear in the two words riso and bocca. While reading a tale of the ideology of courtly love, Francesca and Paolo were seduced and forgot the ugliness of sin and its inevitable consequence. That Dante swoons on hearing this tale must be seen to represent more than an act of compassion. On one level, his physical fall represents their fall. On a more complex level, he must have identified himself with the seductive nature of courtly love, for he began his literary career as a poet of the dolce stil nuovo (sweet new style) and sang the praises of courtly love.
Most modern readers would probably agree that...
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