The Divine Comedy represents the mature Dante’s solution to the poet’s task annunciated in The New Life. Its three canticles (the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso) display a nearly limitless wealth of references to historical particulars of the late Middle Ages and to Dante’s life. Even so, its allegorical form allows these to function as symbols. The Pilgrim’s journey through Hell to Heaven thus becomes an emblem of all human experience and a recognition of life’s circularity. The “Comedy” of its title is, therefore, the situation of life and the accumulation of experience that attends it.
Correspondingly, however, chronological placement of the narrative from Good Friday through Easter Sunday, 1300, particularizes the experience even as it implies the death and rebirth that attends a critical stage of any person’s life. The poet tells his readers in the first line of the Inferno that he is midway through life, and indeed Dante would have been thirty-five years of age in 1300. Though he maintains present tense throughout the poem, he is, however, actually writing in the years that follow the events that he describes. This extraordinary method allows the Poet to place what amounts to prophetic utterance in the mouth of the Pilgrim. Dante thus maintains and further develops the thesis of The New Life, that the progress of the Pilgrim corresponds directly to the progress of the Poet. The literal journey that the Pilgrim undertakes toward the Beatific Vision succeeds only insofar as the Poet can transcend the finite barriers that signification imposes upon language.
If one understands the task of the poem in these terms, the exponential symbolism of The Divine Comedy becomes inescapably clear. Like every human being, Dante carries the intellectual burden of what has formed him. At midlife, this includes the historical influences of his time and the artistic influences of what he has read. His task is to use these to direct his life’s journey and, if he is able, to transcend them. His inspiration for doing this is the same feminine persona that appears in The New Life, though in The Divine Comedy Dante specifically identifies her as Beatrice. Her name implies the grace that she represents, and it is noteworthy that she intercedes with St. Lucy, patroness of the blind, and with the Blessed Virgin Mary to set the Pilgrim on the course toward Paradise. Beatrice thus represents efficient grace, Lucy illuminating grace, and Mary prevenient grace. Collectively, they oppose the three visions of sin (Leopard, Lion, and She-wolf) that obstruct the Pilgrim’s path.
The women logically employ the Roman poet Vergil as the Pilgrim’s guide through Hell and Purgatory. Vergil represents the achievement of pre-Christian antiquity. His poem the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553) is the logical forerunner of the poem that Dante hopes to write. Dante, if successful in his journey as Pilgrim and Poet, will synthesize the epic of classical antiquity with the allegory of biblical literature. Understandably, the Pilgrim protests to Vergil that he is neither Aeneas nor St. Paul. This protestation reflects the Poet’s awareness of the daunting artistic task of fusing pre-Christian and Christian thought as much as it does the Pilgrim’s awareness of the long distance between Hell and Heaven. In reality, they are one and the same journey, and Dante undertakes both tasks simultaneously in The Divine Comedy. Appropriately, Vergil can guide the Pilgrim only through Hell and in the ascent of Mount Purgatory. Past that point the pre-Christian past cannot venture. St. Bernard and ultimately Beatrice will guide the Pilgrim through Heaven; yet Vergil (and the pre-Christian wisdom that he represents) offers enough direction to ensure that the Pilgrim reaches Heaven’s threshold.
The sinners whom the Pilgrim beholds as he descends through the circles of Hell correspond generically to the three specters that had haunted him in the wood before Vergil’s arrival. The sins of the Leopard are serious but unpremeditated. Paolo da Malatesta and Francesca, the adulterous lovers of Inferno 5, are good representatives of this grouping. For political reasons and as an alliance of families, Francesca was married to the deformed Gianciotto, son of Malatesta da Verrucchio and ruler of Rimini, but she fell in love with Gianciotto’s handsome younger brother Paolo. Gianciotto caught Paolo and Francesca in adultery and murdered them both. Dante bases his depiction of their affair upon these historical personages; Francesca was aunt to Guido Novello di Polenta, Dante’s friend and host at Ravenna during his years of exile. Even so, he makes the immediate cause of their adultery their reading of a book, the tale of Guinevere and Lancelot. Guinevere, too, had married a man older than she, King Arthur of Camelot; like Francesca, she fell in love with a handsome younger man. Lancelot thus corresponds to Paolo, Guinevere to Francesca, and Arthur to Gianciotto. Dante thus describes seduction by language, calling the book that Paolo and...
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