Dante, a serious rival to Shakespeare as the world’s greatest literary genius, was born in Florence, Italy 750 years ago. Italy properly celebrated the birthday of its national poet (indeed he who virtually invented the modern Italian language) on May 4, and Pope Francis has encouraged Dante to be read as a “prophet of hope” and spiritual guide. And so he should be. Just as he has for three-quarters of a millennium.
Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” written at the beginning of the 14th century during Dante’s permanent exile from Florence, is at once the crowning literary achievement of the Middle Ages as well as the announcing angel of the Renaissance. Every true epic poem offers a totalizing vision of its age—its philosophy, science, theology, and history are all distilled to dramatize how humanity, the world, and the divine struggle together.
In Dante’s epic allegorical dream vision of a journey through the afterlife that devotes equal sections to hell (“Inferno”), purgatory (“Purgatorio”), and Heaven (“Paradiso”) one sees all that was thought and felt by Saints Augustine and Aquinas but never so well expressed. Thus Dante is the utmost medieval philosopher, theologian, and poet. On the other hand, his magnum opus also ushers in a new age: Dante’s Christian appropriation of pagan learning proves to be a model for all Christian humanists of the incipient Renaissance era, and his unflinching satire of moral corruption in the Church (albeit from squarely within the Church) anticipates many Protestant voices that will emerge during the Reformation.
Beyond his immediate historical context Dante, like Shakespeare, has proven to be for all time. Even in our own secular and non-poetical age. Dante’s reimagining of the heroic and the self has inspired artists, poets, and novelists all across Europe and America for the past 200 years—Romantics, Victorians, Modernists and existentialists. Dante’s sustained irony and dizzying super-structure of poetic design continues to enthrall postmodernists of every stripe. The thralldom and inspiration that I speak of has manifested itself in novels, paintings, sculptures, opera, and endless translations by every poet determined to prove his craft.
Dante’s sustained and universal appeal primarily derives from the fact that he is a poet of desire. Desire of all kinds: for pleasure, for love, for learning, for solitude, for respect, for whatever. The problem is our desires can be excessive, deficient, or entirely misplaced. But everybody wants something. Dante shows us canto-by-canto in his interviews with the damned sinners in Hell, the repentant sinners in Purgatory, and the blessed saints in Heaven how every human soul gets what they want. C.S. Lewis was neither the first nor the last to notice that hell’s gates in the “Inferno” have no locks; indeed, the damned rush to enter their places of torment. It is what they want; they will have nothing else.
Moreover the initial ache, the restlessness of Dante the pilgrim right away reveals that he is everyman, the human soul, and that he stands for us. He finds himself lost in dark wood confounded by fear, mistrust, confusion, and weakness of will, with only the sure knowledge that he must climb out of the shadow of death if he is ever to see the sunrise over the mountain. Who has not felt this way can at least admit that they will feel this way at some point in their lives. The fun begins when Dante (the soul) realizes that the way up proves impossible. At that hopeless realization, the ghost of Virgil (the great Roman poet) comes to him and offers to guide him through the only way. To go climb up, the soul must first descend into hell itself. And so the journey of the soul begins.
So Dante the pilgrim narrator starts in the Dark Wood of Error, descends into hell on Good Friday in the year 1300, ascends the mountain of repentance, and soars through the stars to the throne of God in Heaven on Easter Sunday. His initial guide, Virgil, then represents reason or our native wits by which we make our way through the world, while Beatrice—the soul’s guide through the love that moves the sun and the stars—stands for the gracious knowledge of God as He reveals Himself to us. His three-day quest for salvation is clearly intended as a parable of our own journey through life. Wendell Berry’s narrator in his greatest work of fiction “Jayber Crow” realizes that Dante is the most reliable guide on the dark way of love—it is just that our messy lives do not necessarily follow the straight and narrow path.
Maybe that is why so many teachers and beginning readers of Dante dwell too much in “Inferno.” Because here we can recognize that petty world more easily. But Dante will show us through to mercy in the end if we read on.