(Poetry Criticism)

Dante 1265–1321

(Full name Dante Alighieri) Italian poet, prose writer, and philosopher.

Regarded as one of the finest poets that Italy has ever produced, Dante is also celebrated as a major influence in Western culture. His masterpiece, La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy) is universally known as one of the great poems of world literature. Divided into three sections—Inferno, Purgatorio, and ParadisoThe Divine Comedy presents an encyclopedic overview of the mores, attitudes, beliefs, philosophies, as pirations, and material aspects of the medieval world. More than a summa of medieval life, however, Dante's poem is a superb work of fiction with poignant dramatic episodes and unforgettable characters. Dante's verse collection entitled Vita Nuova (The New Life), though not of the stature of The Divine Comedy, is well known for its exaltation of Beatrice, an idealized figure who inspired love poetry imbued with a fervent religious undertone.

Biographical Information

Dante was born in Florence in 1265. Little is known about his early education, but scholars surmise that he received formal instruction in grammar, language, and philosophy at one of the Franciscan schools in the city. At the age of nine he purportedly glimpsed Beatrice, a girl eight years old, and that encounter was to affect his life dramatically. Struck by her beauty, he fell in love. Nine years later he saw her again, and when she greeted him, his love was confirmed. (Whether Beatrice really existed and whether her factual existence matters have been topics of some debate; she is generally identified as Beatrice Portinari.) During his teens, Dante demonstrated a keen interest in literature and undertook an apprenticeship with Brunetto Latini, a celebrated poet and prose writer of vernacular Italian, who expanded Dante's knowledge of literature and rhetoric. Associating with a circle of respected Florentine poets, Dante befriended Guido Cavalcanti, and the poet helped Dante refine his literary skills. In 1283 Dante inherited a modest family fortune from his parents, both of whom died during his childhood but took care to pre-arrange his marriage to Gemma Donati in 1285. In 1287 Dante enrolled in the University of Bologna, but by 1289 he enlisted in the Florentine army and took part in the Battle of Campaidino. The death of Beatrice Portinari in 1290 proved to be a turning point in Dante's life, ultimately inspiring his Christian devotion and poetry, most notably as the ideal lady who leads him to redemption in The Divine Comedy. Stricken with grief,

he committed himself to the study of philosophical works of Boethius, Cicero, and Aristotle, and earnestly wrote poetry, establishing his own poetic voice in innovative canzoni, or lyrical poems. Dante also became increasingly active in perilous Florentine politics, aligning himself with the White Guelfs. The Black Guelfs, supported by papal forces, staged a coup in 1301 and established themselves as absolute rulers. Prominent Whites, including Dante, were stripped of their possessions and banished from the city. Dante never returned, spending his remaining years in Verona and later in Ravenna, where he died in 1321.

Major Works

Written in commemoration of Beatrice's death, The New Life reflects Dante's first effort to depict her as an abstract model of love and beauty. In this collection of early canzoni, Dante uses a refreshing and innovative approach, or stil nuovo, in love poetry that equates the love experience with a divine and mystical spiritual revelation. Il Convivo (The Banquet), is another collection of canzoni, accompanied by extensive prose commentary, that further develops the poet's use of the stil nuovo. An unfinished Latin tract, De Vulgari Eloquentia (Eloquence in the Vernacular Tongue) is a theoretical discussion of the origin of Italian dialects and literary language and examines how they relate to the composition of vernacular poetry; and De Monarchia (On Monarchy), a Latin treatise, presents the poet's Christian political philosophy. The Divine Comedy describes Dante's imagined journey through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise. The Inferno, the most popular and widely studied section of The Divine Comedy, recounts Dante's experiences in Hell with the Roman poet Vergil, his mentor and protector. Constructed as a huge funnel with nine descending circular ledges, Dante's Hell features a vast, meticulously organized torture chamber in which sinners, carefully classified according to the nature of their sins, suffer hideous punishment, often depicted with ghoulish attention to detail. Those who recognize and repudiate their sins are given the opportunity to attain Paradise through the arduous process of purification, which continues in the Purgatorio. A shift from human reason to divine revelation takes place in Purgatory, a place where penitents awaiting the final journey to Paradise continually reaffirm their faith and atone for the sins they committed on earth. A mood of brotherly love, modesty, and longing for God prevails in Purgatory. Although in Hell Vergil, a symbol of human reason, helps Dante understand sin, in Purgatory the poet needs a more powerful guide who represents faith: Beatrice. Finally, the Paradiso manifests the process of spiritual regeneration and purification required to meet God, who rewards the poet with perfect knowledge.

Critical Reception

Although Dante's Divine Comedy caused an immediate sensation during his life, his fame waned during the Italian Renaissance, only to be revived in the nineteenth and, especially, twentieth centuries. Many scholars have examined the structural unity of the poem, discussing the interrelationship between medieval symbolism and allegory within the different parts of the poem and exploring Dante's narrative strategy. Others have marvelled at the seemingly inexhaustible formal and semantic richness of Dante's poetic text. With its various enigmatic layers of philological and philosophical complexities, The Divine Comedy has received scrutiny by critics, literary theorists, linguists, and philosophers, who have cherished the immortal work precisely because it translates the harsh truth about the human condition into poetry of timeless beauty. The New Life has long basked in the reflected glory of The Divine Comedy. Criticism has almost invariably been positive, although an occasional scholar has taken exception to its sensibility, finding in it an overwrought imagination and sensitivity unbecoming a great poet. Many commentators have proposed that Beatrice is a symbol, although of what there is no consensus. The story of Dante's love for her is often taken as allegory, particularly by critics reading the book in the light of his later works.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Vita Nuova [New Life] c.1292

Convivio [The Banquet] (poetry with commentary) c.1304

Divina Commedia [Divine Comedy] c.1307-21

Other Major Works

De Vulgari Eloquentia [Eloquence in the Vernacular Tongue] (unfinished prose) c. 1304

De Monarchia [On the Monarchy] (prose) c.1309

Epistolae [Letters] (letters) c.1313

Domenico Vittorini (essay date 1958)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dante's Concept of Love," in High Points in the History of Italian Literature, David McKay Company, Inc., 1958, pp. 53-67.

[The following essay looks at love in its various forms in Vita Nuova, Convivio, and the Divina Commedia.]

The aim of this essay is to study Dante's love concept as revealed in the Vita Nuova (New Life), the Convivio (The Banquet), and the Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy).

We shall be guided by what Dante tells us in each of his three works, and we shall not allow ourselves to be influenced by any preconceived conclusions concerning his love concept. It is a simple matter to reduce a man...

(The entire section is 4757 words.)

Allen Tate (essay date 1959)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Symbolic Imagination: The Mirrors of Dante," in Collected Essays, Alan Swallow, 1959, pp. 408-31.

[In the excerpt that follows, Tate explores reflected light as an image in the Comedy.]

It is right even if it is not quite proper to observe at the beginning of a discourse on Dante, that no writer has held in mind at one time the whole of The Divine Comedy : not even Dante, perhaps least of all Dante himself. If Dante and his Dantisti have not been equal to the view of the whole, a view shorter than theirs must be expected of the amateur who, as a writer of verses, vainly seeks absolution from the mortal sin of using poets for what he can get out of...

(The entire section is 6208 words.)

Renato Poggioli (essay date 1965)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Paolo and Francesca," in Dante: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965, pp. 61-77.

[The following excerpt discusses the Paolo and Francesca episode in the Inferno. Poggioli's essay originally appeared in a longer form in the June 1957 issue of PMLA.]

… Francesca tells her story as if she were reminiscing aloud. One day, Paolo and she were reading together, for their own entertainment, the romance of Lancelot du Lac, and particularly that section of the romance describing how the protagonist was overpowered by his passion for the fair Guinevere. Francesca alludes to all this very succinctly, through the single phrase: "how love...

(The entire section is 7395 words.)

Thomas Goddard Bergin (essay date 1969)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hell: Topography and Demography," in Diversity of Dante, Rutgers University Press, 1969, pp. 47-64.

[In the following essay, the Inferno is esteemed—more so than the other two books of the Commedia—as an example of "sublime " storytelling and dramatic description of personality and scene.]

Over the centuries scholars, experts, and merely humble readers of the Comedy have asked the question: why did Dante write his great work? To celebrate Beatrice and establish his reputation, as may be said of the Vita nuova? To give himself a standing among intellectuals, as is, in part at least, the avowed intent of the Convivio? To...

(The entire section is 6503 words.)

Joan M. Ferrante (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dante," in Women as Image in Medieval Literature, Columbia University Press, pp. 129-52.

[In the following essay, Ferrante explains in detail Dante's evolving notion of woman, beginning with Vita Nuova and continuing through Paradiso.]

Although he begins as a lyric poet within the same tradition, Dante moves beyond the stilnovisti in several significant ways. He turns outward beyond himself in order to understand the love he experiences, not just to acknowledge the beneficial effect of the woman, but to find a deeper significance in her existence and in his love for her. He is able to affirm secular love as the first stage of divine love: if a...

(The entire section is 8451 words.)

Teodolinda Barolina (essay date 1979)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Bertran de Born and Sordello: The Poetry of Politics in Dante's Comedy" in PMLA, Vol. 94, No. 3, May 1979, pp. 395-404.

[In the following essay, Dante's treatment of poets in his writings is perceived to serve his political themes.]

The stature Dante grants Sordello in the Comedy has long puzzled critics, since it seems greater than warranted by the achievements of this Provençal poet. Not only does the meeting with Sordello, in the sixth canto of the Purgatorio, serve as the catalyst for the stirring invective against Italy that concludes the canto, but Sordello is assigned the important task of guiding Vergil and Dante to the valley of...

(The entire section is 5273 words.)

Cecil Grayson (essay date 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dante's Theory and Practice of Poetry," in The World of Dante: Essays on Dante and His Time, Clarendon Press, 1980, pp. 146-65.

[In the following essay, Grayson contends that the Divina Commedia is a summa of poetic knowledge and technique.]

When Dante, at the age of about forty, wrote his major work of poetic theory, entitled De Vulgari Eloquentia, he was in exile from Florence, where he had established over some twenty years a leading reputation as a poet. He had begun in early youth in the style of Guittone d'Arezzo, but he soon broke away, together with certain Florentine contemporaries and under the influence of the Bolognese...

(The entire section is 6972 words.)

John Freccero (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Significance of Terza Rima," in Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1983, pp. 3-16.

[In the following essay, Dante's terza rima is seen as a model for the "synthesis of time and meaning into history."]

The perennial problem in literary interpretation is the problem of the relationship of form to content, or of poetics to thematics. In recent years, there can be little doubt that formalism has occupied our attention, both in linguistics and in criticism, with Russian formalism, American New Criticism and the formalism of the French Structuralists. The proper concern of poetics, according to Roman Jakobson, for...

(The entire section is 5287 words.)

Robert Pogue Harrison (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Comedy and Modernity: Dante's Hell," in Modern Language Notes, Vol. CII, No. 5, December, 1987, pp. 1043-58.

[In his essay, Harrison demonstrates that Guido's monologue in Inferno XXVII expresses Dante's comic world-view, in which earthly life is viewed as Hell.]

For years I have wondered what T. S. Eliot had in mind when he began "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" with two tercets from the speech of Guido da Montefeltro in Inferno XXVII. How much did he know, or how much did he intuit, about the unique status of that canto in the Divine Comedy and its appropriateness as a frame for the dramatic monologue? Even if the young poet...

(The entire section is 6081 words.)

Patrick J. Gallacher (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Conversion of Tragic Vision in Dante's Comedy," in Romanic Review, Vol. LXXX, No. 4, November, 1989, pp. 607-25.

[The following essay elucidates the process of "demonic epiphany " in Dante's Divine Comedy whereby tragic heroes recognize their sin and suffer shame on the way to achieving greatness of soul.]

An important feature of the recognition scene in tragedy is a moment of harrowing shame which Northrop Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism has called the demonic epiphany. When Oedipus and Othello fully recognize their tragic mistakes, the humiliation of exposure is perhaps the keenest aspect of their misery. Such moments are especially...

(The entire section is 6105 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Freccero, John. "Selected Bibliography." In Dante: A Collection of Critical Essays, pp. 181-82. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965.

Bibliography follows final chapter.


Abrams, Richard. "Illicit Pleasures: Dante among the Sensualists (Purgatorio XXVI)." Modern Language Notes 100, No. 1 (January 1985): 1-41.

Argues that the method of the Comedy is a sort of dance of veils, seducing the reader to aspire to the beyond.

Ahern, John. "Dante's Slyness: The Unnamed Sin of...

(The entire section is 455 words.)