Dante World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4462

Political alignments caused Dante’s exile, but exile broadened Dante’s historical perspective and thus provided an important dimension for his verse. The attribute one most closely associates with Dante’s mature poetry is, indeed, his ability to universalize particular historical details. He is able to see all human experience in terms of...

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Political alignments caused Dante’s exile, but exile broadened Dante’s historical perspective and thus provided an important dimension for his verse. The attribute one most closely associates with Dante’s mature poetry is, indeed, his ability to universalize particular historical details. He is able to see all human experience in terms of his own, and there is little doubt that his long period of wandering and his life as an exile, begun in middle age and continued through the rest of his life, furnished the salvation metaphor central to The Divine Comedy.

From the earliest period of his life, Dante was fascinated with the possibilities of vernacular Italian as the medium for his poetry. Even in his student verse, he had moved away from classically inspired convention and what he considered its artificiality. His relationship to the classical past is something that he clearly acknowledges; it is implied by the fact that he elects to have Vergil, the prominent poet of Latin literature, lead his Pilgrim through Hell and Purgatory. It is also the writers of classical Greece and Rome who welcome the Pilgrim as one of their fraternity in the Limbo of the Poets (Inferno 4). This reception and its location in the region of the unbaptized indicate that, at the beginning of his journey, and correspondingly at the beginning of his career as a poet, Dante derived satisfaction from his relationship to the classical tradition. Correspondingly, the fact that the Pilgrim leaves Vergil behind when he enters Paradise implies more than that only the baptized can enjoy the Beatific Vision. In effect, the progress of the Pilgrim equals the progress of the Poet. The wandering exile, the man searching for meaning in his own life and in life generally, the poet who is ambitious and who seeks to surpass the poets who have influenced him—all of these are simultaneously Dante.

Still another indication that Dante would accept such a description of his life and work (which became for him synonymous) appears in his treatment of Brunetto Latini in Inferno 15. Brunetto, his former teacher, appears among the sodomites. This sensational context, seen in terms of Dante’s aesthetics, becomes, however, an argument against stultifying imitation, a verbal sodomy that feeds upon the conventions of the past and thus inhibits genuine progress. In truth, the meaning of the Brunetto canto is one of the most disputed in Dante’s poem; yet, this view of its meaning, that it provides an important key to Dante’s philosophy of composition through the criticism that it implies, does not preclude the debt that Dante felt to Brunetto as his teacher. If anything, it underscores the difference between a teacher (who privileges the value of the past and transmits it) and the superior creative artist (who uses the past but privileges innovation and originality).

One measure of Dante’s ability to make innovative change appears in the figure of Beatrice. It is likely that he based his creation upon the daughter of Folco dei Portinari, a wealthy Florentine who died in 1289. It matters relatively little whether one accepts this testimony, provided by Boccaccio. If so, however, it makes the relationship poignant and Platonic, for this Beatrice died a young bride (the wife of the banker Simone dei Bardi) at the age of twenty-four. What is important for Dante’s aesthetics is that Beatrice illustrates the remarkable way that Dante alters the conventions of courtly love as it had appeared in medieval poetry.

If one believes the tradition, Dante saw Beatrice for the first time when she was nine years of age, on May 1, 1274. His love grows, documented in La vita nuova (c. 1292; Vita Nuova, 1861; better known as The New Life), though his lady remains unnamed and never reciprocates the poet’s attentions. The unnamed persona of The New Life finds her ultimate development in the Paradiso, the final canticle of The Divine Comedy. In this context, she literally shows the Pilgrim the way to blessedness, and she figuratively allows the Poet to describe infinite love through finite language. She intercedes to secure the Pilgrim’s initial impetus toward salvation, but she simultaneously employs Vergil, whose Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553) had helped inspire the formation of the Poet, as the primary agent of that salvation.

The New Life

First published: La vita nuova, c. 1292 (English translation, 1861)

Type of work: Poetry

This collection of verse and commentary traces the progress of the poet’s love for an unnamed woman and the progress of the poet in the pursuit of his art.

The New Life is a logical precursor of The Divine Comedy; both involve the figure of Beatrice, and both show a marked concern with the aesthetics of writing verse. Both also deal with love, though at this point arises the important distinction: Though pure in both works, the love in The Divine Comedy is divine and therefore infinite. It engineers the Pilgrim’s salvation through the figure of Beatrice and guides the Poet’s progress as would a Muse. The unnamed woman of The New Life, identifiable with Beatrice, is closer, as portrayed, to the feminine persona of courtly poetry, and the love that she represents is transcendent.

The poems of The New Life, though arranged as chronological narrative, were not written as a cycle; indeed, many date from Dante’s youth. The first, for example, is an extraordinary dream poem originally sent for comment to Guido Cavalcanti. Guido was older than Dante and a proud, disdainful Florentine Guelf. He was quick to seize on the sonnet’s strong psychological implications. Love appears as a feudal lord. In his arms he holds a sleeping woman, who is naked except for a blood-red cloak thrown about her. In his hand he holds the poet’s heart. Love then awakens the woman, convinces her to eat the poet’s heart, then departs with her, and the dream ends. Though written considerably earlier than The New Life, this sonnet sets the psychological tone for the entire work. Without knowing, the lady has consumed the poet’s heart and, by extension, his soul and his life; the poet’s own love is the means by which she has done this.

Poems, however, constitute only one part of The New Life. Accompanying them are two kinds of commentary. The first is prose narrative that illuminates the verse that follows it. The second, which immediately follows and appears whenever the poet deems necessary, is a commentary on the poem’s prosody itself. For example, the commentary on the dream poem notes that it is divided into two parts, that it initiates a response and resolves it, and that it was controversial when Dante had first circulated it, but that it ultimately won for him a special friend and mentor (Cavalcanti), who, however, remains unnamed.

This second variety of commentary breaks the narrative of the prose commentaries that introduce and link the verse; nevertheless, the commentaries on prosody indicate that the process through which Dante created The New Life is just as important to him as the work itself. Admittedly, Dante handles his concern with aesthetics less gracefully in this work than in The Divine Comedy; still, the privileged place that he implicitly assigns to prosody by including technical commentaries indicates his clear thesis that a poet grows artistically in direct proportion to the poem as it is written.

Even at the point when Beatrice dies, the logical climax and the place where one might expect some particularly personal element to appear, Dante refuses to allow it. Instead, he introduces a quotation from the lamentations of the book of Jeremiah to suggest the depth of his grief, notes that he cannot provide details about her death, and in the following section precisely calculates by the Arabic method the hour, day, and month on which she died. The result is that the reader dwells upon the mystical nature of the experience. The poet first encounters the woman as she begins her ninth year, and she dies on the ninth day of the ninth month. Thus, although one can calculate that the unnamed love dies on June 8, 1290 (by the Roman calendar), the affair becomes universalized, even stylized, in a way that implies a symmetry in the stages of life.

The depersonalization of the poet’s style underscores the poet’s thesis: to fix upon those moments that mark the beginnings of a new life. To provide every detail would limit the experience to only those persons immediately concerned. Leaving such details unwritten makes memory, that of the reader, as well as of the poet, essential to a reading of the work. The New Life thus marks an important stage in the poet’s development as a poet. It logically precedes The Divine Comedy insofar as it lacks the latter poem’s highly personal references; yet it resembles this work as a journal of universalized human experience.

The New Life provides additional linkages that unify its discontinuous narrative. Besides the numerology that frames the poet’s encounters with the Beatrice figure, the three meetings themselves occur at times that mark stages of the poet’s own life. The first, discussed above, is the childhood meeting that occurs at the end of the poet’s ninth year and the beginning of the Beatrice figure’s ninth year. This point marks the poet’s boyhood; he realizes that the encounter is meaningful, for it affects his vital, animal, and natural spirits. Yet this tumult is sexless; what has taken place is a fundamental alteration in the poet’s perceptions and a basic development in his personality.

The second encounter takes place nine years later in the ninth hour of the day. Now the poet sees the Beatrice figure, who actually greets him. The physical dimension adds to the nature of the experience. Again, the poet has reached a new stage in his life. He retires to his room and experiences the dream noted above. The personification of Love, his declaration Ego dominus tuus (I am your master), the naked Beatrice figure clothed only with a crimson cloth, and her eating of the poet’s heart all add to the sexual innuendo. That the woman is the same one who greeted the poet is clear. She is both la donna de la salute (the lady of the greeting) and the lady of the poet’s salvation. The poet inquires of many trovatori (troubadours), somewhat naïvely, the meaning of the dream, and this juncture introduces his primo amico (first friend), the otherwise unnamed Cavalcanti. Again, the poet realizes that he has reached a new stage in life but senses even more that the physical dimension has lessened the spirituality of his love. The overwhelming emotion is regret, not lust, and the screen-love device, the poet’s substitution of another woman for his true love, represents his attempt to preserve the purity of the original experience. Appropriately, it is the Love persona himself who counsels the poet to adopt this ruse, and it succeeds so well that the poet acquires the reputation of a roué. When Beatrice next passes him, she withholds her greeting. The greeting in this context assumes the dimension of a benefaction, akin to the creative inspiration that a Muse might furnish. That it is withheld signals a nadir of the poet’s creative activity, just as it indicates another stage in the poet’s life.

Sorrow is the predominant emotion at this point, and the Love figure reappears to counsel that the poet abandon his screen-love ruse. The Love figure, who speaks only in Latin, declares that he is the center of a circle at which all points of the circumference are equidistant. In other words, the poet, though he recognizes the transcendence of love, cannot know love’s eternity. That, in essence, is the creative problem with which Dante as a poet must grapple; indeed, it is one that he manages to surmount only in The Divine Comedy.

Fate increasingly informs the pattern of life after this experience. At a wedding reception, the poet suddenly senses the presence of Beatrice. He attempts to distract himself by looking at the paintings that adorn the walls of the house, then raises his eyes only to discover Beatrice herself. Again, he swoons and observes that at this point he has moved to that stage of life beyond which it is impossible to return to what had been. Death and the poet’s awareness of his mortality intrude when a young woman dies, when Beatrice’s father dies, and when the poet himself falls seriously ill. In the ninth day of his illness, the poet reflects on the inadequacy of life and its brevity. Again a dream intrudes, this time a nightmare, in which disheveled women in mourning first warn the poet of his mortality, then declare him dead. Beatrice is among them, and in the same dream a friend appears to tell the poet that Beatrice herself has died. The landscape clouds over, and the natural world appears fundamentally changed, much as it had at the death of Christ. Even so, the poet now witnesses his beloved’s assumption into heaven. The poet recognizes the beatitude that attends death, and he himself wishes to die.

This vision foreshadows the actual death of Beatrice. The poet sees her death as a divine judgment that the world had been unworthy of one so perfect. Following the death of Beatrice, a young woman pities the poet in his mourning. He accepts her pity and thereby recognizes the mortal, as well as the transcendent, power of love. His sorrow thus passes beyond mortal bounds and arrives at the Empyrean, the largest sphere of First Cause, in which Beatrice herself dwells for all time.

The Divine Comedy

First published: La divina commedia, c. 1320 (English translation, 1802)

Type of work: Poetry

Through the medium of secular allegory, Dante simultaneously individualizes, universalizes, and describes symbolically the circularity of life’s journey.

The Divine Comedy represents the mature Dante’s solution to the poet’s task annunciated in The New Life. Its three canticles (the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso) display a nearly limitless wealth of references to historical particulars of the late Middle Ages and to Dante’s life. Even so, its allegorical form allows these to function as symbols. The Pilgrim’s journey through Hell to Heaven thus becomes an emblem of all human experience and a recognition of life’s circularity. The “Comedy” of its title is, therefore, the situation of life and the accumulation of experience that attends it.

Correspondingly, however, chronological placement of the narrative from Good Friday through Easter Sunday, 1300, particularizes the experience even as it implies the death and rebirth that attends a critical stage of any person’s life. The poet tells his readers in the first line of the Inferno that he is midway through life, and indeed Dante would have been thirty-five years of age in 1300. Though he maintains present tense throughout the poem, he is, however, actually writing in the years that follow the events that he describes. This extraordinary method allows the Poet to place what amounts to prophetic utterance in the mouth of the Pilgrim. Dante thus maintains and further develops the thesis of The New Life, that the progress of the Pilgrim corresponds directly to the progress of the Poet. The literal journey that the Pilgrim undertakes toward the Beatific Vision succeeds only insofar as the Poet can transcend the finite barriers that signification imposes upon language.

If one understands the task of the poem in these terms, the exponential symbolism of The Divine Comedy becomes inescapably clear. Like every human being, Dante carries the intellectual burden of what has formed him. At midlife, this includes the historical influences of his time and the artistic influences of what he has read. His task is to use these to direct his life’s journey and, if he is able, to transcend them. His inspiration for doing this is the same feminine persona that appears in The New Life, though in The Divine Comedy Dante specifically identifies her as Beatrice. Her name implies the grace that she represents, and it is noteworthy that she intercedes with St. Lucy, patroness of the blind, and with the Blessed Virgin Mary to set the Pilgrim on the course toward Paradise. Beatrice thus represents efficient grace, Lucy illuminating grace, and Mary prevenient grace. Collectively, they oppose the three visions of sin (Leopard, Lion, and She-wolf) that obstruct the Pilgrim’s path.

The women logically employ the Roman poet Vergil as the Pilgrim’s guide through Hell and Purgatory. Vergil represents the achievement of pre-Christian antiquity. His poem the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553) is the logical forerunner of the poem that Dante hopes to write. Dante, if successful in his journey as Pilgrim and Poet, will synthesize the epic of classical antiquity with the allegory of biblical literature. Understandably, the Pilgrim protests to Vergil that he is neither Aeneas nor St. Paul. This protestation reflects the Poet’s awareness of the daunting artistic task of fusing pre-Christian and Christian thought as much as it does the Pilgrim’s awareness of the long distance between Hell and Heaven. In reality, they are one and the same journey, and Dante undertakes both tasks simultaneously in The Divine Comedy. Appropriately, Vergil can guide the Pilgrim only through Hell and in the ascent of Mount Purgatory. Past that point the pre-Christian past cannot venture. St. Bernard and ultimately Beatrice will guide the Pilgrim through Heaven; yet Vergil (and the pre-Christian wisdom that he represents) offers enough direction to ensure that the Pilgrim reaches Heaven’s threshold.

The sinners whom the Pilgrim beholds as he descends through the circles of Hell correspond generically to the three specters that had haunted him in the wood before Vergil’s arrival. The sins of the Leopard are serious but unpremeditated. Paolo da Malatesta and Francesca, the adulterous lovers of Inferno 5, are good representatives of this grouping. For political reasons and as an alliance of families, Francesca was married to the deformed Gianciotto, son of Malatesta da Verrucchio and ruler of Rimini, but she fell in love with Gianciotto’s handsome younger brother Paolo. Gianciotto caught Paolo and Francesca in adultery and murdered them both. Dante bases his depiction of their affair upon these historical personages; Francesca was aunt to Guido Novello di Polenta, Dante’s friend and host at Ravenna during his years of exile. Even so, he makes the immediate cause of their adultery their reading of a book, the tale of Guinevere and Lancelot. Guinevere, too, had married a man older than she, King Arthur of Camelot; like Francesca, she fell in love with a handsome younger man. Lancelot thus corresponds to Paolo, Guinevere to Francesca, and Arthur to Gianciotto. Dante thus describes seduction by language, calling the book that Paolo and Francesca read a panderer. Its language has seductive charms but was wrongly directed. Paolo and Francesca burn intertwined in a single flame in punishment for their sin, but their punishment effectively extends their passion into eternity.

The Brunetto Latini episode of Inferno 15, the soothsayers’ canto of Inferno 20, as well as many of the other encounters that the Pilgrim has with sinners stress wrong use of language. Brunetto’s was wrong because it pridefully paid too great a debt to the past and did not seek transcendence. When Dante’s Vergil recounts a version of the founding of his native Mantua, which differs from that which the Roman poet had provided in his own Aeneid 10.101, then makes the Pilgrim promise to believe only that which he has now spoken, Dante questions in another way the timeless signification of words with reference only to the natural order. He also implies that there is nothing inherently mantic about a poem, not even Vergil’s Aeneid, and makes Vergil himself articulate the thought.

The topography of Dante’s Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven violates the conventional Christian conception of these states because of his use of the gyre to describe each. As the Pilgrim descends Hell’s circles, the sinners appear more bound to their sin. Paolo and Francesca burn in perpetual consummation of their passion at Hell’s top, but at its frozen core Vanni Fucci curses God, and Judas Iscariot stands frozen beside Satan. The topographical arrangement implies degrees of offense, yet all sinners in Hell have mortally offended God. Gyre imagery continues as the Pilgrim and Vergil ascend Mount Purgatory. Though its gyres are more discrete than those of Hell, the chaos of sin rules within each of its precincts, mitigated only to the degree that the sinners trust in the divine mercy that will allow them to reach Heaven.

Dante’s Mount Purgatory consequently has three major regions through which the Pilgrim and Vergil ascend: ante-Purgatory, occupied by those who failed to use the grace that divine mercy had provided them in life; lower Purgatory, the region for the proud, envious, and wrathful; and upper Purgatory, reserved for the slothful, covetous, gluttonous, and lustful. At its summit is an earthly paradise corresponding to Eden, as well as to the Elysium of Aeneid 6. Logically, Vergil cannot venture beyond this stage both because of his status as pre-Christian and because of his achievement as a poet. As Purgatory implies the reconstitution of a soul, its mountain requires an ascent that corresponds to the descent through Hell. The process that it imposes upon its sinners is purificatory rather then penal, and so it is appropriate that all of its souls at some period, whether on arrival or after preliminary cleansing in ante-Purgatory, must pass through Peter’s Gate. After the sinners have demonstrated their desire for Heaven by ascending the three steps of penitence (confession, contrition, and satisfaction), an angel inscribes seven P’s upon their foreheads (peccata) for the seven capital sins (pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth). These vanish singly as the soul ascends each cornice. Once again, signification emerges as a dominant aspect of Dante’s allegory. Inscribing the P’s enforces the souls’ awareness of the sin that had existed hidden in life. The Pilgrim grows in his appreciation of the unspoken word as the Poet grows in his ability to express the ineffable in words whose signification is conventionally finite.

It is in Purgatorio 30 that the Pilgrim, awakened in the Edenic paradise by the approach of Beatrice, realizes that Vergil is no longer with him. The fears of the Pilgrim at this apparent abandonment by his guide correspond to those of the Poet, who realizes that from this point the artistic task is his alone. This realization creates impressive tension between the status of the journey, whose successful outcome would appear assured, and the task of the Poet, whose task of reconciling heavily weighted allegorical language with the limitless signification of the infinite necessary to describe the nature of Heaven grows more challenging.

The poetry of Paradiso does assume a more mystical character, which enlists the full imaginative powers of the reader. In a way impossible in either the Inferno or the Purgatorio, the reader becomes a participant in the transforming experience that Heaven imposes. The gyres recur, though as circles of the blessed grouped around the Beatific Vision. Even among those saved, the capacity to appreciate the infinite varies directly with their distance from the Vision itself. The Poet thus asks the reader to accept a paradox, which once granted, allows finite language’s reconciliation with the Logos itself. It is Dante’s most extraordinary achievement of all, and it is the key to an appreciation that is worthy of the Paradiso.

Beatrice now assumes an active role in the direction of the Pilgrim. They rise from the earth into the heavenly Empyrean, the abode of God, within which revolves the Primum Mobile, the swiftest and outermost of the heavens. The light of the sun, the music of the spheres, and the gaze of Beatrice, all representing spiritual illumination and enlightenment, increasingly fill the cantos of the Paradiso and replace the doubt, darkness, and periodic faintings of the Pilgrim on his passage through Hell and Purgatory.

Much emphasis rests upon the degrees of happiness that the blessed of Heaven experience. Piccarda dei Donati and the Empress Constance both reside in a lesser sphere of bliss; both had been forced to leave the spiritual life that they would have preferred and enter into forced marriages. Even so, Piccarda and Constance experience a full measure of happiness. In another paradox, they know the infinite bliss of Heaven to the full measure of their ability to comprehend it. Their joy is no less than that of the souls that are closer to the Beatific Vision, even though they reside within a considerably lower sphere.

In the Ptolemaic cosmos, which informs The Divine Comedy, all the planets (including for Dante the Sun and Moon) orbit the earth upon a series of transparent concentric spheres. These celestial spheres provide the external order that characterizes Heaven. They guide the seven heavenly bodies that circle the earth: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Beyond the planets is the Sphere of Fixed Stars, and still further is the Primum Mobile. Beyond all nine spheres lies the Empyrean, Dante’s unmoved, eternal, boundless region in which the Logos and the saints reside. This conception of Heaven is another means by which the Poet allows his poem to move beyond limited signification and approach the unchanging infinity of First Cause.

Central to portrayal of the Primum Mobile is the symbol of the Celestial Rose. It is a circle of white light within which is a golden center of God’s glory. White petals rise in a thousand tiers, and upon these sit the blessed: saints of the old law at one side, saints of the new on the other; little children arranged immediately around the golden center; virtuous women in one descending portion, saintly men in another opposite location. Beams of divine glory, comparable to sunbeams but carried by angels, bear divine love to the created world, not of necessity but from divine graciousness.

As the Pilgrim nears the Beatific Vision, he comprehends all the contradictions that had filled his life’s journey. He compares himself to the geometer, who knows it is theoretically possible to square the circle, yet he recognizes the limitations that language imposes upon any attempt to describe accurately what he sees. The image of divinity seems self-sufficient, self-defined, simultaneously that of the Pilgrim and of all humanity. The single word that allows the Poet to describe it is “love,” the boundless ability that is assuredly human but that also moves the sun and stars.

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