Form and Structure
A careful look into the structure of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy reveals a rigorously conceived epic poem whose form grows from a careful symmetry. The combined cantos of the three cantiche—33, 33, and 33, plus Inferno’s opening canto as a prologue—add up to 100. This tripartite formula—multiples of three with an up-rounding one—trickles down into other structural details. Each cantica contains nine primary zones and a tenth, crowning feature. In Inferno, the nine zones are the nine circles, and the crowning feature is bottom-dwelling Satan. There is also the terza rima, the chain-rhyming tercets that thread the epic together. Each canto caps off its accumulation of tercets with a final, single line that rounds up to a multiple of ten.
The numerical integrity of the Divine Comedy is perhaps a reflection of the medieval concept of the Music of the Spheres, which posited that the heavenly bodies operate by an elegant calculus. Conducting this music, this “love that moves the sun and the others stars,” as Dante puts it, is an intelligent primum mobile, or prime mover, a maestro borrowed from the metaphysics of Aristotle.
It is likely that Dante used these numerical structures to aid in the process of composition. The multiple tiers of formal constraint—the hendecasyllabic lines, the propulsive tercets, the measured cantos, the trilogical epic—helped Dante face the enormous difficulties posed by such a project. Dante’s terza rima, a scheme he invented specifically for the Divine Comedy, would have been a particular boon to him in the throes of composition. Because each fresh tercet contains the seed of the next stanza, the poet is rarely at a loss for the next line. After aba goes bcb. Next, there inevitably falls another c line, because the seed of c has already been sowed, and so on.
A final critical feature of the epic’s form is Dante’s use of the Italian vernacular tongue. To today’s readers encountering an English translation, this feature may not leap from the page. But to Dante’s contemporaries, epics were expected to be in Latin. Dante’s Italian epic would have been shocking but ultimately influential and freeing. The marble cadences of Latin were replaced by those of Dante’s quicksilver Italian, Latinate yet liquid.
Dante’s allusive breadth in TheDivine Comedy circumscribes the two dominant strains of European culture. He harnesses the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman worlds as if they were the twin steeds pulling the Comedy’s chariot. If this metaphor were extended, the chariot would continually arc to one side, because in Dante’s imagination, the Christian tradition—its myths, values, and practices—was the stronger of the two forces.
The poem’s fundamental dynamic, its aim of upward transcendence, is a distinctly Christian one. Thus, the basic plot of the epic progresses through the three realms of the afterlife, as recognized by the Catholic Church of Dante’s time: hell, purgatory, and heaven. In Dante’s Inferno, the upward Christian arc of the overall epic is initially reversed by Dante’s katabasis, a descent into the underworld that mimics those of classical heroes such as Ulysses, Aeneas, and Orpheus. In another classical touch, Dante’s guide is the Roman poet Virgil, who penned The Aeneid. In these ways, Inferno is perhaps the least Christian of the the three cantiche.
The figures with which Dante populates each realm constitute the bulk of his allusions. Dante’s hell blends Catholic and classical characters. Minos and the Minotaur, Epicurus and Ulysses rub shoulders with Pope Nicholas III and Friar Alberigo. The bottom of hell houses a distillation of this blend: Brutus, Cassius,...
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and Judas Iscariot trapped in the mouths of Satan. Of these four figures, two are from Roman history, the other two from the Bible.
In Dante’s moral scheme, Christian characters are granted a higher place than their classical counterparts. The reason is doctrinal: pre-Christians were all considered pagans, and therefore, they could not attain the same spiritual status as Christians. In Inferno, the pagan characters are scattered throughout hell, and the most righteous pagans pass eternity in Limbo, just outside hell’s gates. Righteous as they are, they were not baptized. Therefore, they must languish in Limbo with the souls of deceased infants, who are similarly faultless yet unbaptized. Dante bends this rule in Paradiso by placing classical non-Christians such as Cato and Trajan in heaven.
The third field of Dante’s allusions is Florence and its surroundings at the turn of the fourteenth century. A great number of the characters who populate Dante’s hell are from his time and place. Florence fills hell with politicians, soldiers, religious leaders, and star-crossed lovers. Of course, it is not that Florence circa 1300 is an exceptionally sinful place. Rather, Florence circa 1300 represents Dante’s slice of lived life. The conceit of hell allows Dante to understand the local events he witnessed in terms of eternal damnation.
It is also worth noting that Dante’s Florence was riven by political rivalries. The struggle between the Ghibellines and Guelphs led to Dante’s exile. Thus, Inferno contains countless allusions to the details of that conflict. The poem serves as a means for Dante to expurgate his opinions and feelings on the matter.
Dante’s Divine Comedy is a classic example of an allegory, a narrative that employs a system of symbols to represent an aspect of reality, or even reality itself. Dante’s epic is an allegory for the Christian afterlife. The poem is an allegory, rather than a depiction, because the poem is an imaginative approximation of hell, purgatory, and heaven. Even Dante himself would acknowledge that he did not actually visit those places.
By structuring the epic poem as a trio of allegories, Dante gives himself poetic license to explore his central theme: the relationship between the mortal and the immortal. From Dante’s Catholic view, mortal life is but a short prelude before an endless afterlife whose character is determined by the quality of one’s mortal actions. For Dante, the stakes could not be higher. The question that inevitably follows is a moral one: what should one do in order to honor heaven and earn a place in its highest echelons?
As a poet, Dante answers the question of morality slowly, employing examples and, in the case of Inferno, negation. Indeed, Inferno represents a catalogue of human failure and wickedness. The stories of the damned serve as examples of what not to do. Dante pairs the mortal actions of the damned with their eternal fates. This series of correspondences—sins and their consequences—is where Dante’s allegory is most chilling. The lustful are forever swept by stormy winds, heretics burn for eternity, flatterers are steeped in feces, and traitors freeze in a lake of ice. Even for readers who cannot literally accept Dante’s vision, his allegory is deeply unsettling.
Dante’s movement through the epic mirrors that of Jesus Christ at the end of his mortal life. Christ’s final days are divided into the three stages of death, resurrection, and transcendence. In an allegory of those three stages, Dante undergoes a descent into hell, an ascent up the mountain of purgatory, and finally a transcendent saunter through heaven. The timelines of Dante’s and Christ’s parallel narratives align. Dante enters hell on Good Friday, the day of Jesus’s crucifixion; he leaves hell and enters purgatory on Easter Sunday, the day of Jesus’s resurrection; and he completes his journey through paradise on Ascension Thursday, the day Jesus ascended to heaven.
A reader encountering The Inferno without any prior knowledge of the relationship between the Greek and Roman cultures can easily be confused by Dante’s design of Hell. In the upper circles of Hell Dante has placed characters whose sins included lust, wrath, and violence; in the lower, more evil circles are sinners who lied, deceived, and committed treason. To modern-day readers, this categorization of evils may seem backwards, but Dante’s Hell is consistent with Roman thought.
The Romans adopted almost their entire civilization from the Greeks, except their notion of sin. The Greeks felt that a violent act against another human being was the worst form of evil. A good example is the Trojan Horse in Homer’s The Iliad. The Greeks exalted the resourcefulness and inventiveness of the Trojan Horse. The Roman idiom hated the Trojan Horse for its deceitfulness. The Romans held deceit and treason as the worst of all evils and felt physical violence was not as harsh. This belief could stem from the fact that the Roman Empire was so strong that it had nothing to fear from physical violence but was always defeated by treason and treachery.
Dante believed in the Roman idea of evil, so his structure of Hell is consistent. There are lesser examples of Dante’s affection for Roman culture, such as his spelling “Odysseus” with its Latin form, “Ulysses.” Although it may not fit contemporary views of evil, Dante’s Hell is consistent with the Roman ideas of sin.
The Renaissance or the rebirth of learning, began in Italy in the fourteenth century and influenced all of Western civilization. Wealthy families in Italy, such as the Medicis of Florence, were patrons of the arts and sciences. Trade flourished and prosperity thrived throughout much of the country.
In contrast to these positive occurrences, all was not well in Italy during the Renaissance. Rulers of the independent Italian states often fought with each other to establish a large political unit. The Guelph Political party (which favored local authority) and the Ghibelline Political party (which favored imperial authority) were two such rival factions; the two had been at war periodically since the thirteenth century.
Dante’s birth in 1265 came at a time when the Guelph party, favoring local authority, was in control of Florence. Dante turned away from his Guelph heritage to embrace the imperial philosophy of the Ghibellines. His change in politics is best summed up in his treatise De Monarchia, in which Dante states his belief in the separation of church and state. The Ghibellines, however, were pushed from power by the Guelphs during Dante’s adulthood and confined to northern Tuscany.
The Guelph Political party eventually divided into two groups: the Whites (led by the Cerchi family) and the Blacks (led by the Donati family and later aided by Pope Boniface VIII). Dante became a member of the Whites and served as an ambassador to talk with the Pope in Rome about conditions in Florence. While Dante was out of town, the Blacks took over Florence. The Blacks sentenced Dante to banishment from the city; his punishment for return would be death. His wanderings gave him time to write and to study the Scriptures. This banishment also gave Dante his perspective on the corruption of the fourteenth century papacy, a view that he would clearly describe in The Inferno.
In the year 1310, Henry VII became Holy Roman Emperor; Dante believed that this German prince would bring peace. But Henry VII died in 1313 and his Italian campaign collapsed. Dante became disillusioned and left the political life; he ceased work on other materials he had begun and concentrated on The Divine Comedy.