The Divine Comedy Essays and Criticism
by Dante Alighieri

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The Pilgrim's Journey through Hell

(Epics for Students)

Dante's Divine Comedy is a poetical paradox, a brilliant failure. How can one of the great works of Western literature—one of the most innovative, profound and, in many ways, unsurpassed poems of the Middle Ages—be a failure? Put simply, neither Dante nor any poet before or after him was capable of accomplishing this impossible task—to use the imperfect medium of language to represent convincingly and accurately his journey to Paradise and, even more problematic, to write God, to represent the unrepresentable. Dante himself was aware of the impossibility of his undertaking, of course, and this drove him even harder, pushed him to lead his reader to that final, stunning vision of God. Most astonishingly, he very nearly succeeded.

As the Pilgrim travels toward God, the poet's task becomes increasingly difficult. The closer Dante moved his Pilgrim to his goal, the more regularly his language failed him, until he had to admit that his descriptive "wings were not sufficient for that," that his "power failed lofty phantasy" (Paradise 33, ll. 139, 142). In order to leave his reader with the essence of the moment when his "mind was smitten by a flash wherein its wish [to know the mind of God] came to it" (Paradise 33, ll. 141-42), Dante had to rely upon metaphor. This kind of figurative language is perhaps the most potent tool for image-making and asserts that A=B, that, for example, poem=journey. We know that Dante's poem is not a literal journey, but it is a figurative one, a metaphorical one. Seeing it in this way allows the reader to cross from A and B, to consider for him or herself how and why this poetic pilgrimage is relevant to the road of life we all travel.

Dante's poem is fundamentally didactic, that is, instructive. In order to accommodate our low-level understanding of the poem's theological, philosophical and historical components, it guides its armchair pilgrims carefully through a plethora of unfamiliar images and mystical paradoxes. Dante managed this by constructing his world's three spaces in a logical order that is still unprecedented. As the Pilgrim experiences Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, he really re-experiences events Dante the poet claims to have had in this life. Thus, the reader follows the Pilgrim through spaces that present the poet's memories. As Frances A. Yates writes in his classic study, The Art of Memory,

If one thinks of the poem as based on the orders of places in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, and as a cosmic order of places in which spheres of Hell are the spheres of Heaven in reverse, it begins to appear as a summa [a full collection] of similitudes and exempla, ranged in order and set out upon the universe. (p 95)

Taken together, then, Dante's remembrances, presented as striking poetic images, produce the world of the Divine Comedy and thus reproduce his supposed journey to Heaven.

The Pilgrim receives these images via his sight, which functions on three levels, the ocular or physical, the spiritual, and the intellectual. These levels derive from the writings of St. Augustine (354-430), which were a major influence on Dante's thought, and which correspond to stages of understanding and to cantiche, or what we might call books, of the Divine Comedy: ocular in Inferno, spiritual in Purgatory and intellectual in Paradise. The lowest level, the ocular, includes sensual experiences of things terrestrial and celestial. It therefore corresponds to the physical nature of Inferno and its closing view of "the beautiful things that heaven bears" (34, ll. 137-38). Level two, spiritual vision, and Purgatory mesh in the same way. In this second canticle, the Pilgrim's spiritual vision makes possible the encounters with the angels and the dreams he has. Finally, the Pilgrim's visions of the Earthly Paradise, Christ, and God in Paradise conform to Augustine's description of the third and highest level of vision, the intellectual.

The Pilgrim and reader take in images, store them in their memories, convert them to knowledge—to...

(The entire section is 8,132 words.)