illustration of a human covered in a starry sky walking from the sky and plains toward a fiery opening to hell

The Divine Comedy

by Dante Alighieri

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The Divine Comedy Summary

Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy is an epic poem divided into three parts, which describe Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, respectively.

  • In Inferno, the spirit of Roman poet Virgil leads Dante’s avatar, the Pilgrim, through the circles of Hell to witness the punishments of sinners.
  • In Purgatory, the Pilgrim meets the souls of those who have achieved salvation as they pay penance for their sins, a process they must undergo before they can ascend to Heaven.
  • In Paradise, the Pilgrim reaches Heaven. After witnessing the majesty of God in his true glory, the Pilgrim returns to Earth and writes The Divine Comedy.

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The Divine Comedy is an epic poem by Dante Alighieri in the early 14th century. It consists of three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. The poem follows Dante's journey through the afterlife, guided first by the poet Virgil and later by his beloved Beatrice.

Inferno

In Inferno, Dante is lost in a dark, "gloomy wood," symbolizing his spiritual confusion and sin. The Roman poet Virgil appears as his guide, sent by Beatrice, Dante's idealized love and spiritual guide. Together, they embark on a journey through the nine circles of Hell, each representing different sins and their corresponding punishments.

The first circle of Hell, Limbo, contains virtuous pagans and unbaptized infants. Here, Dante meets the great ancient philosophers and poets like Aristotle, Plato, Seneca, and Virgil, who dwell in a state of sadness without hope of salvation.

In the second circle, Dante encounters those who committed the sin of lust. Here, Dante meets Cleopatra, Tristan, Helen of Troy, and other "carnal sinners," who are punished by being trapped in a never-ending storm, representing the restless nature of their desires.

The third circle holds those who indulged in gluttony, condemned to lie in a putrid, freezing rain under the reign of the three-headed dog Cerberus.

...Of demon Cerberus, who thund'ring stuns

The spirits, that they for deafness wish in vain.

...For the sin

Of glutt'ny, damned vice, beneath this rain,

E'en as thou see'st, I with fatigue am worn

Nor I sole spirit in this woe: all these

Have by like crime incurr'd like punishment."

The fourth circle houses the avaricious and the prodigal, forced to push heavy weights against each other in opposite directions.

The fifth circle contains the wrathful, who fight in the River Styx and the sullen, submerged beneath its murky waters.

In the sixth circle, Dante encounters the heretics trapped in tombs and tormented by fire.

The seventh circle is divided into three rings, each for different forms of violence: violence against neighbors, against oneself, and God, Art, and Nature. Notable sinners here include Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun

These are the souls of tyrants, who were given

To blood and rapine. Here they wail aloud

Their merciless wrongs. Here Alexander dwells,

And Dionysius fell, who many a year

Of woe wrought for fair Sicily.

In the eighth circle, Dante witnesses fraudulent souls in ten separate pouches, each punished according to their deceitful actions.

The ninth and final circle is reserved for treachery, where traitors endure varying degrees of punishment. Satan resides at the center, eternally chewing on Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius.

That upper spirit,

Who hath worse punishment," so spake my guide,

"Is Judas, he that hath his head within

And plies the feet without. Of th' other two,

Whose heads are under, from the murky jaw

Who hangs, is Brutus: lo! how he doth writhe

And speaks not! Th' other Cassius, that appears

So large of limb. But night now re-ascends,

And it is time for parting. All is seen."

Purgatorio

After leaving Hell in Inferno, Dante and Virgil emerge on the shore of Purgatory, located on the opposite side of the world from Jerusalem. Purgatory consists of seven terraces, each corresponding to one of the seven deadly sins, where souls are cleansed of their sins before ascending to Paradise.

The first terrace is for the sin of pride. The penitents here carry large stones on their backs, symbolizing the weight of their prideful actions. They must learn humility by acknowledging their sins and seeking forgiveness.

The second terrace houses the envious souls who have their eyes sewn shut. This punishment reflects their failure to appreciate the blessings of others and encourages them to develop love and goodwill.

On the third terrace, the wrathful souls walk in acrid smoke, purging their anger and learning to find peace and forgiveness.

Of every planes' reft, and pall'd in clouds,

Did never spread before the sight a veil

In thickness like that fog, nor to the sense

So palpable and gross.

...Straight I heard

Voices, and each one seem'd to pray for peace,

...to the Lamb of God

That taketh sins away.

... "Are these I hear

Spirits, O master?" I exclaim'd; and he:

"Thou aim'st aright: these loose the bonds of wrath."

The fourth terrace is for the slothful. In this place, souls run tirelessly, motivated by their yearning to break free from inertia and embrace a fervent devotion to God.

The penitents of avarice and prodigality lie face down on the ground, learning to detach themselves from material possessions and recognize the value of moderation.

In the sixth terrace, the gluttonous penitents endure a perpetual state of hunger and thirst, even though they are encircled by abundant trees bearing luscious fruits. This relentless deprivation serves as a means of purging their gluttonous appetites and fostering the development of self-control and temperance.

Every spirit,

Whose song bewails his gluttony indulg'd

Too grossly, here in hunger and in thirst

Is purified. The odour, which the fruit,

And spray, that showers upon the verdure, breathe,

Inflames us with desire to feed and drink.

The final terrace addresses the sin of lust. The penitents walk through a wall of flames, burning away their impure desires and relearning the true nature of love.

After guiding Dante through the various terraces of Purgatory and witnessing his purification, Virgil bids farewell to Dante, and his role as a guide ends. Dante is now prepared to continue his journey toward heaven with a new guide, his beloved Beatrice.

Paradiso

Dante begins his journey through the celestial spheres of Paradise by entering the first heaven, the Sphere of the Moon. Here, he encounters souls who could not fulfill their religious vows and are now purified through their penance.

Next, in the Sphere of Mercury, Dante meets the ambitious souls who excelled in active life and public service and were rewarded for their righteousness and sense of duty.

This little star is furnish'd with good spirits,

Whose mortal lives were busied to that end,

That honour and renown might wait on them:

And, when desires thus err in their intention,

True love must needs ascend with slacker beam.

But it is part of our delight, to measure

Our wages with the merit; and admire

The close proportion. Hence doth heav'nly justice

Temper so evenly affection in us,

It ne'er can warp to any wrongfulness.

In the Sphere of Venus, Dante finds souls motivated by love and the pursuit of beauty, reflecting the transformative power of love in their lives.

The Sphere of the Sun holds the wise and learned souls who shine with the brilliance of knowledge and intellectual enlightenment.

In the Sphere of Mars, Dante encounters the souls of warriors and martyrs who fought for noble causes and their faith.

Moving on to the Sphere of Jupiter, Dante meets the souls of just rulers and administrators who govern with wisdom and uphold justice.

In the Sphere of Saturn, Dante encounters contemplative and withdrawn souls who dedicated their lives to spiritual pursuits and renounced worldly affairs.

In the Sphere of the Fixed Stars, Dante meets St. Peter, St. James, and St. John, who ask him about the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love.

Beyond the celestial spheres is the Primum Mobile, a place moved directly by divine love, representing the first stirring of creation.

Finally, Dante reaches the Empyrean, the highest heaven outside the planetary system, representing God's eternal dwelling place. Here, he experiences the Beatific Vision, a direct vision of God's divine presence, accompanied by the angels and the saints. Dante "sees" the Holy Trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) as three orbs.

...Of radiance, clear and lofty, seem'd methought,

Three orbs of triple hue clipt in one bound:

And, from another, one reflected seem'd,

As rainbow is from rainbow: and the third

Seem'd fire, breath'd equally from both.

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