Dante Alighieri

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Other than his The Divine Comedy, Dante left a volume of works in poetic and prose forms. Around 1292, his La vita nuova (c. 1292; Vita Nuova, 1861; better known as The New Life, 1867), a collection of love lyrics linked by prose commentaries that tell the history of Dante’s love for Beatrice, was published. Il convivio (c. 1307; The Banquet, 1903) was intended to be a commentary on fourteen of Dante’s canzoni; the philosophical work was left unfinished. A theoretical work on the common language, De vulgari eloquentia (c. 1306; English translation, 1890) is a treatise on philology. De monarchia (c. 1313; English translation, 1890) is a treatise on monarchy and its relation to the church. Thirteen surviving letters written in Latin and poetic essays exchanged with Giovanni del Virgilio are contained in Epistolae (c. 1300-1321; English translation, 1902) and Eclogae (1319; Eclogues, 1902). A Latin dissertation on natural philosophy, Quaestio de aqua et terra (1320; English translation, 1902) is the text of a lecture Dante gave in Verona at the invitation of Cangrande della Scala.


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Dante is the most famous Italian author and perhaps the most widely read of all medieval writers. His works are the foundation for all Italian literature, and his stature was instrumental in establishing the Florentine dialect as the basis for the modern Italian language. The Divine Comedy has been translated into virtually all languages, and it has been the source of inspiration for famous and diverse authors such as William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes, T. S. Eliot, Albert Camus, and William Faulkner. This monumental work is recognized as a compendium of all medieval learning; it is an erudite and masterful presentation of the philosophical, theological, astronomical, lyrical, and cultural ideas of the times, while on a narrative level it weaves together myriad fascinating tales. Throughout Italy and the entire civilized world there are schools, cultural organizations, benevolent societies, literary journals, medals of achievement, and even city streets and other landmarks named in his honor. Dante’s The Divine Comedy is a classic and a magnificent tribute to the human spirit.

Other Literary Forms

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Dante’s prose works are not usually taken as major literary achievements in themselves, although they provide many useful sidelights and clarifications to a reader of The Divine Comedy. Dante titled the work Commedia. It was Giovanni Boccaccio, forty years after Dante’s death, who called the work La divina commedia, the name by which it is commonly known. Il convivio (c. 1307; The Banquet, 1887) was probably written between 1304 and 1307. An unfinished work of some seventy thousand words in Italian prose, it is a commentary on three canzones or odes in which the poet proposes a theory of allegory for moral readings of his poetic compositions, so that it will be clear that virtue, not passion, is the topic. A digressive apologia, The Banquet is a mine of information about medieval literary culture. De vulgari eloquentia (c. 1306; English translation, 1890), a Latin prose work of nearly twelve thousand words, was probably composed in the period from 1304 to 1306. It is believed to be the first study ever written about vernacular language and poetic style and contains fascinating conjectures about the origin of language, Romance linguistics, verse forms, metrics, and poetic sounds. De monarchia (c. 1313; On World Government , 1957) is a Latin prose work of nearly eighteen thousand words, probably written in 1312 and 1313; it is a series of arguments for world rule unified under the Holy Roman Empire. Dante’s explanations of his ideas about the separate but complementary functions of church and state are particularly valuable. Only a few of Dante’s letters survive, but several of...

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them contain seminal passages of Dantean thought.

Many of Dante’s lyrics are probably lost forever, but if the eighty or so miscellaneous ones attributed to him are a fair sampling of his efforts, he put his finest in The New Life. Many of these smaller poems show only average craftsmanship and are interesting because they reveal a poet who actively participated in his society. Some of the sonnets are exchanges of opinions with friends; six are part of an invective, a contest both socially and intellectually (which was common then), between Dante and Forese Donati. There are love poems to various ladies, some of them real individuals, others clearly allegorical. The lyrics show a very human poet, playful and experimental, heated by anger and love, embittered by exile.


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Dante is among the greatest and most influential figures in the long history of Western literature, and no brief summary can do justice to the scope of his achievements. Perhaps his most enduring legacy has been the astonishing supply of signs and symbols for describing and evaluating inner experience which succeeding generations of readers have found in The Divine Comedy. Dante was ultimately a mystic in his approach to God, but he wrote with systematic clarity about every spiritual event, stopping only at the point where language and reason had to be abandoned. Probably the most learned, articulate voice in the Christian West since Saint Augustine, Dante created a powerful mindscape able to reflect every movement of the soul. He did this without subjectivism and narcissism. Dante’s vision is both a mirror of the self and a window onto the outside world, the cosmos, and the divine. His inward journey is recounted with great intensity and variety, but with no surprises, for that inner world is no more ambiguous or mysterious than the outer world, and Dante did not confront either world in a metaphysical void. His vision is not a hallucinatory refuge, but a site where the interconnectedness of all things can be rationally presented and the consequent need for spiritual discipline and social duty can be argued.

Dante responded to two primary imaginative impulses. One drove him to put all of his experiences into an ordered relationship: eros, history, politics, faith. Behind these ideal forms and schematizations lies a genuine love of the created world in all its density. Dante insists that experience be known as actual and metaphorical, and that virtue be attained through historical processes. The other impulse moved him continually beyond each part of his creation, always ascending, so that each epiphany becomes a curtain to be drawn back to reveal a higher one. One reads Dante with an awareness of the elaborations of each part and the upward movement of the whole.

Dante was the most important voice in the vernacular love lyric before William Shakespeare. Dante’s mastery of lyric form and meter was unparalleled, and he used the intellectually demanding conventions of dolce stil nuovo (sweet new style) with simplicity and ease. Had he taken Holy Orders, he could have given the world a pastoral voice worthy of John Donne or George Herbert. Dante’s vocational decision was singular and uncompromising. He decided to be a citizen and a philosophical poet. The pains of citizenship fired the creator in him, so that he ultimately became the grandsire of Italian literature and indeed of much of Western literature written since his time. Dante excelled in the poetry of direct statement, in making thought melodic. He found ways to energize moral knowledge, so that it could both persuade and delight. He never wrote to be obscure or ambiguous, but it is important to remember that he was addressing keen, well-educated medieval minds. His mastery of narrative technique and symbolic detail encourages some readers to evaluate his art for its own sake, but Dante always wrote to make the reader look beyond his words to the vision that they served.

Discussion Topics

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Consider The New Life of Dante as an innovative way of perceiving and presenting a life.

To what extent is The New Life a review of Dante’s own life?

Why is life to the medieval Dante a comedy? Why is tragedy impossible?

What are limitations to Vergil’s role as a guide to a Christian pilgrim?

How do the punishments of sinners in The Divine Comedy differ from those that might be considered conventionally Christian?

What are the ingredients of Dante’s success in managing a rarity in medieval poetry: the blending of personal and universal truths?

Conveying Paradise in literature is an extraordinarily difficult feat. How does Dante solve the problem, and how effective is his solution?


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Auerbach, Erich. Dante: Poet of the Secular World. Translated by Ralph Manheim. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961. Auerbach applies his mimetic theory to The Divine Comedy to illustrate how the poet used the circumstances of his own life to shape a poetic fiction which holds universal reality for its readers. Auerbach’s work continues to have a profound influence on contemporary Dante studies.

Barbi, Michele. Life of Dante. Translated and edited by Paul G. Ruggiers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960. The definitive biography of Dante. Divided into three parts: the life, minor works, and The Divine Comedy. Contains a lengthy and thorough bibliography of English works on Dante and English translations of his works. Although somewhat dated, this book is a very interesting resource.

Barolini, Teodolinda. Dante’s Poets. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984. An extensive study of the poets that appear in The Divine Comedy and their influence on Dante’s thought and literary style. The first chapter examines references to Dante’s own early poetic works, while the second analyzes major figures such as Guido Cavalcanti, Guittone d’Arezzo, and Bertran de Born. The final chapter deals with the influence of the epic poets such as Vergil and Statius and Dante’s resolution of classical thought with medieval philosophy.

Bergin, Thomas. Dante. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965. Perhaps the best concise study of Dante and his times available in English. Sets the foundation for an understanding of Dante’s works, with an introduction to the social and intellectual life in Europe and Florence during the Middle Ages, and then proceeds to discuss Dante’s early formation. Analyzes all the major works and concludes with an extensive discussion of The Divine Comedy. Includes a bibliography, notes, and an index of names.

Fletcher, Jefferson Butler. Dante. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1965. A short but helpful introduction to Dante’s work. Does not focus on Dante’s biographical details unless relevant to the literary discussion. Shows how the reader must appreciate Dante’s work first for its poetic vitality, so as not to become lost in the intricacies of its philosophical, theological, and political details. However, Fletcher also points out that the power of Dante’s poetry and the profundity of his thought work hand in hand.

Freccero, John. Dante: The Poetics of Confession. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. This is a collection of Freccero’s major articles on Dante, a poet he sees as heir to the Augustinian tradition of confessional literature. Freccero concentrates on Dante’s ability to make his poem move beyond finite language at the same time as it reveals Dante both as Pilgrim and Poet.

Freccero, John, ed. Dante: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965. A collection of classic essays by Auerbach, Luigi Pirandello, T. S. Eliot, Bruno Nardi, Leo Spitzer, Charles S. Singleton, and others. Contains an introduction by the editor, a chronology of Dante’s life, and a short bibliography.

Gallagher, Joseph. A Modern Reader’s Guide to Dante’s “The Divine Comedy.” Liguori, Mo.: Liguori-Triumph, 2000. A canto-by-canto guide to The Divine Comedy that is especially helpful for beginning readers of the work. Provides insightful character analysis from a specifically Roman Catholic perspective, along with accessible explanations of Dante’s many obscure references. Includes a helpful outline.

Gallagher, Joseph. To Hell and Back with Dante: A Modern Reader’s Guide to “The Divine Comedy.” Liguori, Mo.: Triumph Books, 1996. An indispensable tool for any student of the work.

Hawkins, Peter S., and Rachel Jacoff, eds. The Poets’ Dante: Essays on Dante by Twentieth-Century Poets. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001. A collection of twenty-eight essays by both contemporary poets (such as Robert Pinsky and Seamus Heaney) and poets such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, along with a brief introduction by the editors. Demonstrates Dante’s ongoing influence on poetic thought.

Hollander, Robert. Dante: A Life in Works. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. An intellectual biography, drawing on the works of its subject rather than on what little is known (and has already been well covered) of Dante’s life.

Hollander, Robert. Studies in Dante. Ravenna, Italy: Longo Editore, 1980. A collection of essays from a noted scholar dealing with various aspects of Dante scholarship. The topics range from a discussion of The New Life, which traces Dante’s conception of Beatrice, to a lengthy study on the influence of contemporary poets and the doctrine of the Church Fathers, to a subtle reading of individual cantos.

Holmes, George. Dante. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. This volume in the Past Masters series provides a good introduction for the student and general reader. Contains a selected bibliography.

Iannucci, Amilcare A., ed. Dante: Contemporary Perspectives. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. Offers excellent criticism of Dante’s work from fresh points of view. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Jacoff, Rachel, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Dante. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. An excellent guide to Dante’s life, work, and thought. Especially useful for those readers of The Divine Comedy who want more information on specific allusions than most footnoted editions supply. Includes fifteen specially commissioned essays which provide both background information and critical commentary and a chronological outline of Dante’s life.

Quinones, Ricardo J. Dante Alighieri. New York: Twayne, 1998. A good introduction to the life and works of Dante. For the beginning student.

Raffa, Guy P. Divine Dialectic: Dante’s Incarnational Poetry. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000. A study of Dante’s worldview as revealed in incarnational images in his poetry.

Singleton, Charles S., ed. and trans. Dante: The Divine Comedy. 6 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973-1975. This work is the classic translation and commentary on Dante’s magnum opus. It contains full Italian text and apparatus for the scholar and a readable translation on facing pages. The separate commentary volumes allow for easy reference, and the commentary itself, though scholarly, is never esoteric.

Vossler, Karl. Mediaeval Culture: An Introduction to Dante and His Times. 2 vols. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1958. An excellent introduction to the history of the culture from which Dante’s poetry arises. Volume 1 discusses the background of the poet on religion, philosophy, ethical and political thought, and the contemporary literature of the Middle Ages. In volume 2, Dante’s work alone is analyzed. A very detailed work covering topics such as “Dante and Aristotle,” “Dante and Augustine,” “Dante’s Personality,” and “The Church in the Middle Ages.” Includes a detailed and extensive index of names and important concepts.


Critical Essays