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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Critical Overview

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Dante's poem, and particularly its allegorical qualities, provoked commentary almost from the moment of its completion. Indeed Dante himself was perhaps its first critic. In a letter he wrote to his patron, Can Grande della Scala, the man to whom he dedicated the Paradise, Dante suggested that his poem should be read on four levels. The first level is the literal one. On this level, the poem is about a physical journey toward God taken by the poet himself. The other three levels are allegorical, abstractly symbolic, and very complex. From the beginning of its public life, commentators have extracted and studied these abstract allegorical meanings of Dante's epic, to dig deeper meanings out of its literal level just as they did with Holy Scripture. As Ricardo Quinones notes in Dante Alighieri, 1979, there were twelve commentaries written on the Divine Comedy from Dante's death in 1321 to 1400. Dante, a political exile, was praised in the year of his death by his fellow Florentine, Giovanni Villani, who included a biography and praises of Dante in his chronicle of Florence. Dante's sons Jacopo and Pietro were the first to write commentaries on the Divine Comedy, and their work, like that of other early commentators', is vital to our understanding of the socio-cultural references that pervade the work. (Many of these commentaries are now online and accessible through the Dartmouth Dante Project.)

The Florentine poet Boccaccio (1313-75) was the first real keeper of the flame, though. He wrote the first life of Dante and gave the first university lectures on the Divine Comedy in Florence during the academic year 1373-74. His correspondence with the poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-74) is particularly revealing, because it provides us with a glimpse of the beginnings of a poetical rivalry with Dante that was to continue for years and because the correspondences reveal that Petrarch felt rather envious of his contemporary's popularity. It was not until 1481, though, that Dante's name was fully restored in his native Florence. That year the city produced a major edition of Dante's poem in which Cristoforo Landino referred to him as "divino poeta," the divine poet. This adjective, as Quinones reports, was used in the 1555 Venetian edition of the work and applied to the title. From then on, the poem that Dante called his Commedia became known as his La Divina Commedia, the Divine Comedy.

Nonetheless, as Werner Friederich in Dante's Fame Abroad, 1950, points out, such veneration was not sustained in Western Europe through the nineteenth century. Although Dante has been a major force of inspiration in English letters since Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1345-1400), in countries where the Enlightenment took stronger hold, like France his reception was less favorable. The predominance of rational thought there and a reliance on grammatical and rhetorical studies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries meant that Dante's poem fell from favor. German readers and critics valued him more during this time for his antipapal stance than as a poet, and in Spain after the fifteenth century, Friederich writes that he was "completely neglected." Dante does not seem to have made much of an impact in the United States during this time, although Thomas Jefferson was interested in his poetry. There was also the occasional article on Dante in American magazines. Interest in the United States really did not begin in earnest, though, until the nineteenth century with writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82) and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82). The latter's magnificent translation of the Divine Comedy, published in 1867, is still read today.

In the nineteenth century, with the rise of Romanticism things changed rather dramatically for Dante's epic. The literary-critical focus shifted from grammar and rhetoric to dramatic, historical and national concerns. Romantic critics tended to focus on the poem's drama, on the way Dante characterized the inhabitants of the three regions, and to ignore the poem's allegorical and theological aspects. Dante's Inferno was the inspiration for a number of compassionate character studies. Francesco DeSanctis' famous essay on Francesca da Rimini, whom Dante placed in hell for adultery (Inferno 5), is a classic of the genre. For critics like DeSanctis, the value in the poem—particularly Inferno—derives from the pleasure the reader gets from its dramatic characterizations. This led to critical sympathizing with figures like Francesca and the belief that Dante, too, must have felt this way. Although not surprising, given the Romantics' emphasis on feeling and emotion in their own poetry, such readings of this medieval text are misguided. Using Francesca as an example, we can see that critics like DeSanctis were seduced by her poetic monologue, just as Dante's Pilgrim is. The latter faints out of sympathy with Francesca's plight because he misreads her lust for the adulterous Paolo as love.

In the early twentieth century, Benedetto Croce reacted to such Romantic readings by separating the poem's structure from its theology. Nonetheless, as Marguerite Mills Chiarenza says in The Divine Comedy: Tracing God's Art, 1989, Croce found Dante at his best when he was intuitive. This meant rather ironically that Croce legitimized the Romantics' focus on compassion and drama. After all, Croce argued, allegory is artificial and doctrinal—anything but intuitive—and a work that relies upon such artifice is not poetry. Although such assertions meant that Croce's theories were hard for many to accept, he did influence a large following.

Since Croce, two American Dante scholars greatly impacted readers in this country: Charles Singleton and John Freccero. Singleton's facing-page edition of the poem is the standard edition for American critics and offers a wealth of scholarship and interpretation. Singleton argued for what we might call an organic or holistic reading of The Divine Comedy, and Freccero has gone even farther in this direction. According to this way of thinking, we cannot separate allegory from politics, poetic structure from theology and philosophy. We must read the poem as an allegory of creation, as Dante's attempt to mimic God's work in verse. Hence, Singleton and Freccero see and promote the importance of St. Augustine's (354-430) thought in understanding Dante's world and work. The saint's autobiographical Confessions stands as one of Dante's conversion models? For Freccero, seeing how Augustine turned his own conversion to Christianity and journey to God into literature, and recognizing that journey's impact on Dante, takes readers a long way toward a deeper understanding of Dante's poem. Like Singleton, Freccero sees the poem as knowable. He thinks of it as an organic whole that readers can understand fully if they work at it.

Singleton, and Freccero after him, have revolutionized Dante studies, particularly in the United States. Their work and totalizing vision have legions of followers.

A growing number of younger scholars, like Teolinda Barolini and John Kleiner, are more skeptical of the poem's perfection. They point out what they see as cracks in its structural and allegorical armor and have produced insightful new readings of it. It seems likely that seven hundred years of study and commentary have not yet exhausted all the possible approaches to the poem.

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Essays and Criticism