Essays and Criticism
The Pilgrim's Journey through Hell
Dante's Divine Comedy is a poetical paradox, a brilliant failure. How can one of the great works of Western literature—one of the most innovative, profound and, in many ways, unsurpassed poems of the Middle Ages—be a failure? Put simply, neither Dante nor any poet before or after him was capable of accomplishing this impossible task—to use the imperfect medium of language to represent convincingly and accurately his journey to Paradise and, even more problematic, to write God, to represent the unrepresentable. Dante himself was aware of the impossibility of his undertaking, of course, and this drove him even harder, pushed him to lead his reader to that final, stunning vision of God. Most astonishingly, he very nearly succeeded.
As the Pilgrim travels toward God, the poet's task becomes increasingly difficult. The closer Dante moved his Pilgrim to his goal, the more regularly his language failed him, until he had to admit that his descriptive "wings were not sufficient for that," that his "power failed lofty phantasy" (Paradise 33, ll. 139, 142). In order to leave his reader with the essence of the moment when his "mind was smitten by a flash wherein its wish [to know the mind of God] came to it" (Paradise 33, ll. 141-42), Dante had to rely upon metaphor. This kind of figurative language is perhaps the most potent tool for image-making and asserts that A=B, that, for example,...
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The Relation of Speech to Sin in the Inferno
In the De vulgari eloquentia Dante reveals the high importance he attaches to human speech—it is the gift which distinguishes man from other creatures. Angels, with direct intuition, and animals, with natural instinct, have no use for it. Only man needs words to reveal his thoughts to others because only man has perceptions which differ from his fellow's and which, taken together, may add up to wisdom. By nature a social animal, man must draw on this wisdom in order to live in society. To have a workable government, he must be able to communicate effectively, hence speech is his most important tool.
Speech is a gift of God, like life itself, bestowed on man so that he can share in the joy of existence and the pleasure of expressing that joy. Although, as Dante points out, God knew what Adam would say, He wanted him to know the happiness of saying it. But because speech is the outward expression of man's reason, it is vulnerable to the same weaknesses of human nature—it is corruptible, always changing. As language moves further and further from its divine source, branching into various tongues and dialects, communication among men becomes increasingly difficult. This opens the way to war among nations, to strife within cities and families.
The connection between speech and sin is of ancient tradition. The confusion of tongues was visited on man at the tower of Babel as divine...
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An Introduction to Dante: The Divine Comedy
The ideal way of reading The Divine Comedy would be to start at the first line and go straight through to the end, surrendering to the vigour of the storytelling and the swift movement of the verse, and not bothering about any historical allusions or theological explanations which do not occur in the text itself. That is how Dante himself tackles his subject. His opening words plunge us abruptly into the middle of a situation:
Midway this way of life we're bound upon
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.
From that moment the pace of the narrative never slackens. Down the twenty-four great circles of Hell we go, through the world and out again under the Southern stars; up the two terraces and the seven cornices of Mount Purgatory, high over the sea, high over the clouds to the Earthly Paradise at its summit; up again, whirled from sphere to sphere of the singing Heavens, beyond the planets, beyond the stars, beyond the Primum Mobile, into the Empyrean, there to behold God as He is - the ultimate, the ineffable, yet, in a manner beyond all understanding, "marked with our image" - until, in that final ecstasy,
Power failed high fantasy here, yet, swift to move
Even as a wheel moves equal, free from...
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