Dante called his Italian poem a “comedy” because it begins on a low or unhappy note (with the Pilgrim lost in the dark wood of sin) and ends on a high or happy note (with his contemplation of the Godhead).
An editor added “divine” to the title long after Dante’s death, but the epithet has remained because of the work’s lofty subject matter and the esteem in which readers hold the poem.
The author’s stated purpose in composing the 14,233-line epic was to show the “status of souls after death.” He wrote in the vernacular, rather than Latin, so that his work would be accessible not only to scholars but also to a wide reading public.
Through Hell Dante is accompanied by Virgil, symbol of Reason and Poetry and whose AENEID (book 6) was a model for the Dantean voyage to the underworld. As the two poets descend through the circles of Hell, Dante recognizes, in the gruesome but apt punishments assigned to sinners, sin’s ultimate consequences. On Purgatory’s isle, the two ascend a mountain where repentant sinners are purged of their sinful dispositions. At the mountaintop, Beatrice, symbol of Revelation, replaces Virgil as Dante’s guide. She accompanies the Pilgrim through Paradise, home of the blessed, until St. Bernard, representing Contemplation, introduces the beatific vision.
Dronke, Peter. Dante and Medieval Latin Traditions. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Succinctly demonstrates in The Divine Comedy Dante’s debt to medieval Latin conventions. Marshals impressive evidence to argue that Dante did not write the expository part of the “Epistle to Cangrande,” which constitutes the cornerstone of Charles Singleton’s allegorical interpretation of Dante’s masterpiece.
Freccero, John. Dante: The Poetics of Conversion. Edited by Rachel Jacoff. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. A collection of seventeen essays by a leading critic of Dante. Demonstrating the centrality of Augustine’s thought for Dante, Freccero builds on the writings of Charles Singleton while refining many Singletonian ideas.
Jacoff, Rachel, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Dante. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Fifteen essays by distinguished scholars that provide essential background to and critical evaluations of Dante’s life and work. Includes key studies by historians and literary scholars.
Singleton, Charles Southward. Dante Studies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1954 and 1958. 2 vols. Often regarded as the most influential studies published by an American Dante scholar, these classic writings interpret Dante’s poem using a fourfold allegorical model. Though dated, Singleton’s approach remains a point of departure for much American Dante scholarship.
Sowell, Madison U., ed. Dante and Ovid: Essays in Intertextuality. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1991. Addresses the crucial question of how the Christian poet Dante made use of the classical poet’s texts. The essays highlight and offer perspicacious commentary on the Ovidian presence throughout Dante’s masterpiece.