The Divine Comedy Critical Overview
by Dante Alighieri

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Critical Overview

(Epics for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1,163 words.)