The Divine Comedy Paradiso, Dante Alighieri - Essay

Dante Alighieri


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Paradiso Dante Alighieri

The following entry presents criticism of the Paradiso (c.1318-21), the third cantica of Dante's Commedia (1306-21; The Divine Comedy). For coverage of Dante's other works, see CMLC, Volumes 3, 18, and 39.

The third and concluding part of Dante's Divine Comedy, the Paradiso, has been extolled as one of the most magnificent achievements in world literature. The first cantica of the Divine Comedy, the Inferno, describes the torments of hell, while the second, the Purgatorio, delineates the painful travails souls undergo in purgatory. In both of these works, the poet describes fantastic realms in highly visual terms. In the Paradiso, however, Dante relies on suggestion rather than concrete description to present the reader with a vision of Paradise. As Marguerite Mills Chiarenza has observed, the foundation of Dante's poem is intellectual vision, which contradicts the traditional concept of poetry as an art that relies on images and symbols. “Intellectual vision,” Mills Chiarenza writes, “is by its nature incongruent with poetry, for it is the denial of that of which poetry is made. … Therefore, I would like to … suggest that the basic position of the poet in the Paradiso is revealed by his struggle to express a vision which is imageless from the start.” Dante's poem, which opens with the idea of God's glory shining throughout the universe, closes with the poet's ecstatic vision of God—a vision, as far as Dante is concerned, as indescribable as it is true.

Textual History

Scholars agree that the Paradiso was written after the death of Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII (c. 1275-1313), whom Dante venerated as the God-given king destined to unify Italy and conduct a reign of justice and peace—a terrestrial Paradise. In the view of some commentators, Henry's death, which spelled the end of Dante's hopes for Italy's political future, may have moved the poet to translate his worldly vision into a poetic dream of celestial perfection. There is evidence to suggest that Dante started writing his poem in 1318 and the general consensus among scholars is that the Paradiso was completed in 1321, the year of Dante's death. The period between 1318 and 1321 was an extremely difficult time for Dante, as Ravenna (the city to which he was exiled by his political enemies in Florence) and Venice were preparing for war. During 1321 Dante was in fact part of an attempt, which was ultimately unsuccessful, to establish a Ravennese embassy in Florence. Returning to Ravenna through the marshes of Cimacchio, Dante contracted malaria and died on September 14, 1321.

Plot and Major Characters

A journey through the realms of Paradise culminating in a vision of God, Dante's poem also portrays the individual's struggle to attain spiritual illumination. The protagonist is the poet himself, who describes his voyage as a pilgrimage. While the intellectual and philosophical foundation of this pilgrimage is quite orthodox from the point of view of medieval Christianity, Dante, in radical departure from theological and biblical tradition, introduces the figure of Beatrice, his guide to the heavens. Neither angel nor saint, Beatrice, who may have been a historical figure, represents a force that may be viewed as divine, despite the obvious heretical implications of such a claim.

Major Themes

In the Paradiso Beatrice represents the dazzling incarnation of faith, wisdom, justice, beauty, and love—a tangible connection to the ineffable mystery of God. While Beatrice is an expression of the deepest level of the poem, which is spiritual, the reader also finds, as a negative reflection of Paradise, Dante's meticulous disquisitions on the sorry state of Florence and Italy. These passages emphasize what Dante viewed as the sin, evil, and political corruption that ruled the world around him. The poet himself, in his famous letter to his patron Can Grande della Scala, explained that the Divine Comedy depicts “the state of souls after death” and had four levels of meaning: literal, allegorical, moral, and mystical (or anagogical, after the Greek term anagoge, which can be translated as “upward movement”). “The three allegorical meanings, in the Comedy,” John Saly has written, “reveal to us first the state of human society and the way to the realization of the Kingdom of God on earth, secondly the progress of the individual soul in this life from sin to purification and to the life of grace and, finally, a series of inner states through which a human being passes from complete isolation to unity with all that is.”

Critical Reception

Dante's contemporaries were aware of his greatness, and commentators of the time recognized the Paradiso not only as a sublime poem but also as an encyclopedic synthesis of science, astrology, mysticism, theology, and mythology. The most famous Renaissance champion of Dante's work was Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75), writer and humanist, who was the first to offer public lectures on the Divine Comedy. In the fifteenth century, as Saly observes, thinkers related Dante's description of the soul's ascent toward God to the Neoplatonic conception of a union with God, an idea which, according to scholars, can also be found in the medieval mystical traditions that inspired Dante. According to Saly, the Neoplatonists, who “gathered around Lorenzo de'Medici in what came to be known as the Medici circle, recognized in Dante a kindred spirit.” For example, the Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) regarded his Theologia Platonica, (1482), an attempted synthesis of Christianity and Neoplatonism, as a philosophical equivalent of the Paradiso. Later studies focused on the mystical and philosophical aspects of Dante's poem. In the early twentieth century, this approach is exemplified by the work of Edmund G. Gardner. In 1929, Erich Auerbach published a seminal study of the historical and political context of the Paradiso. Complementing the work of such scholarly writers as Etienne Gilson, who described the vast range of sources of Dante's inspiration, T. S. Eliot focused, in an eloquent and compelling fashion, on Dante's poetic genius, defining the Paradiso as a work in which the immense power of great poetry overshadows any strictly thematic or historical considerations. Later in the twentieth century, scholars such as Barbara Reynolds and Rachel Jacoff have offered perspectives on the text that contribute to the widely held view that Dante's great poem is, like its subject, a source of endless interpretation.

Principal Works

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Vita nuova (prose and poetry) c. 1292

Convivio (prose) 1304-07

De vulgari eloquentia (treatise) 1304-07

*Commedia (poetry) 1306-21

De monarchia (treatise) c. 1313

Prose antiche di Dante, Petrarcha, et Boccaccio, etc. (letters) 1547

The Inferno of Dante Alighieri (translated by Henry Francis Cary) 1805

Vita Nuova (translated by Theodore Martin) 1862

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) 1865-67

The Paradise of Dante Alighieri (translated by Arthur John Butler) 1885

Inferno (translated by Thomas G. Bergin) 1948

The Comedy of Dante Alighieri the Florentine (translated by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds) 1949-62

Inferno (translated by Dorothy L. Sayers) 1950

The Inferno (translated by John Ciardi) 1954

The Purgatorio (translated by John Ciardi) 1961

Vita Nuova: Poems of Youth (translated by Barbara Reynolds) 1969

The Divine Comedy (translated by Charles S. Singleton) 1970

Paradiso (translated by John Ciardi) 1970

Dante's Purgatory (translated by Mark Musa) 1981

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. 3 vols. (translated by Allen Mandelbaum) 1981

Vita Nuova (translated by Mark Musa) 1992

Vita Nuova (translated by Dino S. Cervigni and Edward Vasta) 1995

The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (translated by Robert M. Durling) 1996

The Divine Comedy: Hell, Purgatory, Heaven (translated by Peter Dale) 1997

Divine Comedy: Selected Cantos= La divina comedia: canti selecti; A Dual Language Book (translated and edited by Stanley Appelbaum) 2000

Divine Comedy (translated by John Ciardi) 2003

Edmund G. Gardner (essay date 1913)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Gardner, Edmund G. “The Science of Love.” In Dante and the Mystics, pp. 298-323. Reprint. 1913. New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1968.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1913, Gardner examines mystical symbolism and concepts in the Paradiso in the context of medieval Catholic theological writings.]


“Man,” writes Aquinas, “has three kinds of knowledge of divine things. The first of these is according as man, by the natural light of reason, ascends through creatures into the knowledge of God; the second is in so far as the divine truth, exceeding human understanding, descends to us by way of revelation,...

(The entire section is 7219 words.)

T. S. Eliot (essay date 1932)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Eliot, T. S. “Dante.” In Selected Essays, pp. 199-237. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1950.

[In this excerpt from an essay originally published in 1932, Eliot praises the Paradiso as a masterpiece by the greatest poet in the Western tradition.]

The Paradiso is not monotonous. It is as various as any poem. And take the Comedy as a whole, you can compare it to nothing but the entire dramatic work of Shakespeare. The comparison of the Vita Nuova with the Sonnets is another, and interesting, occupation. Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third.

We should...

(The entire section is 1350 words.)

Irma Brandeis (essay date 1960)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Brandeis, Irma. “The Ladder of Vision.” In The Ladder of Vision: A Study of Dante's Comedy, pp. 185-227. Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday, 1962.

[In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1960, Brandeis describes the Paradiso as “the supreme test of Dante's poetic power,” since this work presented the formidable challenge of conveying transcendent experience using worldly language and conventional poetic devices.]

The third canticle [of The Divine Comedy] is the supreme test of Dante's poetic power, since here he faces the virtually impossible task of making the concrete world of images suggest an experience which is...

(The entire section is 5612 words.)

Barbara Reynolds (essay date 1962)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Reynolds, Barbara. Introduction to The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, the Florentine, Cantica III, Paradise (Il Paradiso), translated by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds, pp. 13-52. London: Penguin Books, 1962.

[In the following essay, Reynolds describes the Paradiso as a work of timeless aesthetic and intellectual validity.]

It has been said1 that the joys of Heaven would be for most of us, in our present condition, an acquired taste. In a sense, Dante's Paradise is a story about the acquisition of that taste. The Dante who has been down to the uttermost depths of Hell and has climbed the Mount of Purgatory, to behold on its summit...

(The entire section is 12905 words.)

Marguerite Mills Chiarenza (essay date 1972)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Mills Chiarenza, Marguerite. “The Imageless Vision and Dante's Paradiso. In Dante, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 83-95. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1972, Mills Chiarenza explains how Dante's exquisite poetic imagery mysteriously leads the reader to an imageless vision of spiritual realms.]

In interpreting St. Paul's claim to have been rapt to the third heaven, St. Augustine developed a theory of knowledge which influenced the entire Middle Ages. For St. Augustine the problem was to define the third heaven and this involved discovering what was meant by the other two as well. He concluded that the three...

(The entire section is 6280 words.)

M. B. Crowe (essay date 1981)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Crowe, M. B. “Paradiso X: Siger of Brabant.” In Dante Soundings: Eight Literary and Historical Essays, edited by David Nolan, pp. 146-62. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1981.

[In the following essay, Crowe provides intellectual and philosophical context for the Paradiso, suggesting that Siger of Brabant, a controversial thinker whose ideas St. Thomas Aquinas vigorously disputed, is the “philosopher” to whom the poet often refers.]

Who is the philosopher in the Paradiso? Is it, perhaps, Dante himself? To say so would demand an investigation far beyond the scope of this paper; for it would mean a study of Dante's philosophical opinions...

(The entire section is 6797 words.)

Allen Mandelbaum (essay date 1982)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Mandelbaum, Allen. Introduction to The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Paradiso, translated by Allen Mandelbaum, pp. viii-xxi. New York: Bantam Books, 1984.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1982, Mandelbaum praises Dante's “poem of spectacle,” commenting on the poet's ability to traverse, in his mind, dizzying cosmic expanses and deep recesses of his soul.]

Paradiso is a poem of spectacle, of wheeling shapes that enter and exit, form, re-form, and dis-form; of voices that discourse out of their faceless flames; of letters and words spelled out across the heavens by living lights in flight; of flames that shape the...

(The entire section is 4221 words.)

John Saly (essay date 1989)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Saly, John. “The Eternal Now: Union with Being” and “Dante, Poet of the Future.” In Dante's Paradiso: The Flowering of the Self: An Interpretation of the Anagogical Meaning, pp. 175-99. New York: Pace University Press, 1989.

[In the following excerpt, Saly explores the third level of meaning of Paradiso, which Dante calls “anagogical” and which theologians, as Saly explains, define as mystical or spiritual.]


Dentro all' ampiezza di questo reame
casual punto non puote aver sito,
se non come tristizia, o sete, o fame;
chè per eterna legge è stabilito
quantunque vedi, sì...

(The entire section is 11145 words.)

Jaroslav Pelikan (lecture date 1989)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Pelikan, Jaroslav. “The Otherwordly World of the Paradiso.” In Eternal Feminines: Three Theological Allegories in Dante's Paradiso, pp. 11-31. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

[In the following excerpt from an essay originally delivered as a lecture in 1989, Pelikan discusses the theological foundations of the Paradiso, concluding that Dante closely followed St. Augustine's insistence on surrendering to God's will.]

As even the cursory examination of a bibliography on Dante or of a library card catalog will suggest, the third and final cantica of the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, the Paradiso, has,...

(The entire section is 6961 words.)

Rachel Jacoff (essay date 1993)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Jacoff, Rachel. “‘Shadowy Prefaces’: An Introduction to Paradiso.” In The Cambridge Companion to Dante, edited by Rachel Jacoff, pp. 208-23. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Jacoff defines the Paradiso as an admirable and powerfully suggestive attempt to stretch poetical imagination beyond the conventional limits of language.]

The God Invented and gave us vision in order that we might observe the circuits of intelligence in the heaven and profit by them for the revolutions of our own thought, which are akin to them, though ours be troubled and they are unperturbed; and that, by...

(The entire section is 8011 words.)

Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


Auerbach, Erich. “The Structure of the Comedy.” In Dante: Poet of the Secular World, translated by Ralph Manheim, pp. 101-33. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Interprets the Paradiso as an expression of Dante's passionate involvement in the political struggles of his time.

Bodkin, Maud. “The Archetype of Paradise-Hades, or of Heaven and Hell.” In Archetypal Patterns in Poetry, pp. 90-152. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Explains the psychological origin of Dante's light imagery in the Paradiso.

Botterill, Steven. “From deificari to...

(The entire section is 714 words.)