Dante Alighieri completed the Divine Comedy just before he died, in September 1321. Seven hundred years later, the poem remains demanding, exhilarating, and even audacious in its claims about human experience. Discovering as much, however, depends on two factors. First, on whether we can avoid taking the Divine Comedy for granted, as a well-studied classic and an overly familiar source of shorthand explanations for intense trials and punishments and sufferings. Second, on whether we can resist treating it like a 21st-century ideological-literary litmus test. The temptation, in both cases, is great, not least because the poem is a foundational, even structural source for Western culture and world literature.
No one would have expected as much in 1302, when Dante—a poet and political player of modest profile in Florence—was sentenced in absentia to death at the stake after ending up on the wrong side of the city-state’s internecine civil conflicts. He spent the remainder of his life in exile, staying with sympathetic nobles while seeking support from church and political leaders to return home. This never happened; he was buried in Ravenna, where he spent his final years and completed the Divine Comedy. In composing the work, Dante brought together classical and biblical sources with medieval theology, science, mathematics, and geography; he worked in papal, ecclesial, monarchical, and national biographies and histories from throughout Europe; he drew on the situations of then-contemporary individuals from both his private and family life, and from the cultural and political registers of Florence. Choosing a democratic vernacular Italian over scholarly Latin, he wrote 100 cantos of roughly 150 lines each. Together, these comprise an openly autobiographical account of a lost man’s journey into Hell, then Purgatory, then Heaven, encountering along the way people and presences meant to warn, encourage, and console.
The poem features hundreds of characters, many not explicitly named; it’s written in a complex rhyme scheme known as terza rima; it discloses its meanings through anagogy and allegory, astronomy and geometry, and also via the narrative underpinnings of Christian Holy Week and Virgil’s Aeneid. Regardless of how little or how much you know about its complex array of materials, the Divine Comedy invites you in from the start:
Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.
Ah, how hard it is to tell
the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh—
the very thought of it renews my fear!
It is so bitter death is hardly more so.
But to set forth the good I found
I will recount the other things I saw.
To fulfill this promise, Dante climbs down a sinner- and demon-crowded inverted mountain in the company of his guide and literary exemplar, Virgil. They traverse nine circles in which dwellers are confined according to different kinds and degrees of sin: from the indifferent to the lustful and gluttonous, down to the angry, the violent, the deceivers, and the betrayers. These anti-exemplars culminate in Satan, confined in hell’s frozen deep. There, sobbing silently, his three faces forever consume the bodies of Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. This is Dante’s fierce and fecund vision of what it means to be eternally separated from God: you receive punishments in just and fit relation to the sins you committed and refused to repent for when you could.
Inferno has always been the most popular and frequently adapted part of the poem. This is its own dark commentary on human fascinations and sensibilities. But Dante was as artistically ambitious as he was religiously convicted: he was committed to showing us more than only hell. Clambering along the devil’s frozen haunches until he once more sees the stars, the poet ascends to the calm terraces of Mount Purgatory. These are full of forgiven sinners going through repentant trials to make amends for past wrongs: the proud bend low, carrying heavy boulders; the gluttonous hunger and thirst amidst fragrant fruit trees and clear waters; Dante himself, seeing Beatrice for the first time since she died at a young age, is denied a joyful reunion. Instead, he has to endure a harsh lecture from the subject and object of his lifelong devotion. Beatrice details all the ways he has failed to live a good life, requiring her to seek heavenly remit to send Virgil to guide him out of despair before taking over, herself (pre-Christian pagans can only get so far, however helpful and virtuous).
Beatrice’s mission has the highest possible stakes: she wants to show Dante what could go ultimately wrong, or ultimately right, depending on how he spends the rest of his earthly days. To that latter purpose, she takes him from Purgatory to bright and starry paradise. Here, Dante passes from sphere to sphere, each as complexly and specifically designed and populated as its their lower counterparts, but in this case featuring the saved, seeing and being seen by God. At the exhilarating close of the poem, all division and movement are resolved—in idea, image, and rhyme—in the mystical harmony of the Holy Trinity, both complete unto itself and open to the loving, beloved souls of heaven.
Étienne Gilson, the preeminent medievalist of the 20th century, observed that a full education in the humanities meant you could understand the Divine Comedy, fully. Likewise, T. S. Eliot celebrated Dante as a poet of supreme universality because of his seamless integration of the sacred and secular, and his vitalizing mastery of the whole of Europe’s cultural life. These days, such commendations and defenses come across, ironically, as outmoded, factional, even self-defeating. Indeed, unless you can confine your response to the Divine Comedy to simpatico religious belief, artistic appreciation, academic interest, or Great Books apologetics, by 2021 Dante is a problem.
Among other far-from-woke decisions, he represents the Prophet Muhammad not as the founder of a world religion but as a bringer of schism to Christianity, and therefore eternally hacked apart, from chin to anus. He describes burning, punished “sodomites” elsewhere in hell and, worse still, burning, repentant “sodomites” in Purgatorio. But before we cancel him for being ultra-Catholic, Eurocentric, Islamophobic, homophobic, and a proponent of metaphysical conversion therapy, let’s not forget: Dante has always been a problem.
He was presumptuous if not arrogant, including himself early in Inferno alongside Virgil, Homer, and select other major classical poets, who invite him to complete their circle of literary greatness. He was openly vindictive, sending his Florentine political foes and their family members to hell. He was partial and self-aggrandizing: he meets his earliest ancestor, the crusader knight Cacciaguida, in heaven, and devotes more space to Cacciaguida’s account of their family’s deep nobility and bravery than to any other character’s life story in the poem. Already exiled, he courted controversy and condemnation if not excommunication, sending several popes to hell for what he deemed their corrupting and destructive effects on the Church, including the still-living Boniface VIII—whom Dante held partly responsible for his exile—an attack that was shocking in its time and, were it to happen in contemporary terms, would generate controversy even now.
Such manifold, even vertiginous audacity, whenever reading Dante, can get in the way of allowing ourselves to be read by the poem itself. That is an imaginative, intellectual, and moral stretching far more demanding than either congratulating or cancelling him. And were we to subject ourselves to Dante’s vision—well beyond identifying with him, or his guides, or various sinners and would-be saints—the most difficult reckoning happens in the Divine Comedy’s final section. Inferno offers endless situations that, alas, too easily make sense if we look around us; Purgatorio is technically the most exclusively Catholic part of the poem, but almost anyone can understand wanting to put in time and effort to get to a better place. Whereas we’re as confused as Dante at Piccarda, the first soul he finds in Paradiso. She’s happy to be where she is, forever—even if it’s the lowest sphere in Heaven. This is where God has placed her, and, she explains, “the power of love subdues our will / so that we long for only what we have and thirst for nothing else.” Believer, agnostic, or atheist; Dante lover or Dante hater or Dante ignorant: can you imagine being delighted with who and where you already are, and what you already have gained and been given, with no prospect of anything else?
Hell no: we are all in the middle of the journey of our lives. But in its audacious fulness, after 700 years, can the Divine Comedy inspire and even challenge us to hope that this journey, and its many longings, may end so unbelievably well? Heavens yes.
Passages quoted from the Divine Comedy are taken from Robert and Jean Hollander’s translations (2000–2007).
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.