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Form and Structure

A careful look into the structure of the 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 3 with an up-rounding 1—trickles down into other structural details. Each cantica contains 9 primary zones and a tenth, crowning feature. In Inferno, the 9 zones are the 9 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 10.

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 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 the Divine 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...

(The entire section is 1,869 words.)