Radiant Dante

STEPHEN SPARROW

The list of serious writers and thinkers who have marvelled over Dante reads like a 'Who's Who' of the literary world and then there are the many others, who have studied Dante and found themselves drawn ever so gently to know Jesus Christ. Not for nothing has The Divine Comedy been called the fifth Gospel, and for those prepared to make the effort, it is both readable and easy to understand.

Dante Alighieri
(1265-1321)


There is more than a little truth in Mark Twain's comment that a classic is "something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read," but I'm sure even Twain wouldn't have wanted his remark to apply to "The Divine Comedy" by Italian poet Dante Alighieri. Classic it certainly is, being now nearly seven hundred years old and often described as one of the world's great poems, if not the greatest; and all over the world are Dante societies, Dante study groups and university courses devoted to the study of Dante and his famous poem. The list of serious writers and thinkers who have marvelled over Dante reads like a 'Who's Who' of the literary world and then there are the many others, who since the end of the 19th century have studied Dante and found themselves drawn ever so gently to know Jesus Christ. Not for nothing has The Divine Comedy been called the fifth Gospel, and for those prepared to make the effort, it is both readable and easy to understand.

Dante was born in Florence in 1265 where he lived until he was thirty-six. He died in Ravenna in 1321, shortly after completing Paradiso, the third and final canticle of The Divine Comedy. Those last twenty years he lived in exile because of his commitment and courage in defending truth and honour, and speaking out against public corruption and immorality. Naturally his combative style made enemies who in turn trumped up charges of fraud involving public money. The authorities confiscated all of Dante's not inconsiderable wealth and property and he had no option but to flee his beloved birthplace. In those days an accusation of fraud was sufficient to have someone burnt at the stake, especially if he had run afoul of the Pope, which Dante had. Later, in his Divine Comedy, Dante was to portray Pope Boniface VIII as his personal enemy. In medieval times Popes wielded enormous power and often lost the plot and forgot they were leading a divine institution charged with the salvation of souls. So if some irritating citizen got in the way, he could expect no mercy.

The 13th and 14th centuries were probably the high point of Christendom. Most of Europe was Catholic; the Holy Roman Empire had risen out of the remains of the Roman Empire and Church and State were united in a strong bond, which meant that each saw heresy as a threat to civil order. The Protestant Reformation was still two centuries away and Islam, using brute force, controlled much of Spain, Eastern Europe and all of the Holy Land and North Africa. Wars between European kingdoms were fairly frequent but compared to the 20th century's blood-soaked conflicts they were like bar room scuffles. Communications were creakingly slow and most people were illiterate, but there was a steady and growing demand for good poetry, especially poetry that conveyed a bite; 'protest literature' if you like and that is where The Divine Comedy comes in.

The story of Dante's journey through the afterlife, guided first by Virgil and then Beatrice, spells out the reality of both Hell and Heaven. The Divine Comedy is an incredible mix of visions, dreams, theology and prophecy. I'd bet (almost) anything that it was a strong influence on J. R. R. Tolkien when he wrote his Lord of The Rings trilogy.

But mention Dante in today's pop culture and if you get a reaction at all it's likely to be a snigger about The Inferno, as if that was all Dante wrote. Such a reaction testifies to the common and almost ghoulish fascination people have with evil and punishment and the confusion that stirs them all together in the same pot with witchcraft, the occult, black magic, God and sin. You can test this out yourself: Just look at your local cinema guide in the paper; people cannot leave the supernatural alone. The materialism and hedonism of our age leave a spiritual vacuum that must be filled (See Matthew 12: 43-45). And this contemplation of dark things is often the condition of people who actively shy away from holiness, scared that holiness might somehow make them miserable, when in fact the opposite is the case. Authentic holiness is all about wholeness, which in turn is about the balance of sensible things in our lives. Without that balance, joy and happiness become inaccessible. As Dante and countless others have affirmed, contemplating goodness and beauty is the surest way to approach truth; and Dante portrayed this brilliantly in the opening three lines of his great poem.

Half way along the road we have to go,
I found myself obscured in a great forest,
Bewildered, and I knew I had lost the way.

The forest is error, Dante's error, the error of everyone; and Dante looks around seeking an escape route, but wherever he looks, some wild animal blocks the way. A leopard represents sensuality; a lion is pride and a she- wolf materialistic ambition. Dante is frantic until he sees the shadowy figure of the ancient Latin poet Virgil standing at the edge of the forest. Virgil offers to be Dante's guide but only if he agrees to travel along the path of philosophical wisdom and reason. Error can only be dealt with when it has been identified along with its causes and agents. Dante and Virgil commence their journey in Hell and as they enter, Dante reads a sign above the gate proclaiming: No Room for Hope When You Enter This Place. Virgil urges Dante to look but to keep moving. One of the first things Dante sees is a wildly flapping flag.

Behind it came a huge torrent of people;
So many that I never should have thought
Death had been able to undo so many.

Inferno III

Among them he recognises Pope Celestine V, a member of that "miserable and useless gang of those who please neither God nor His enemies."

That calamitous crowd, who never were alive,
Were naked, and their skins blown with bites
Of swarms of wasps and hornets following them.

Their faces ran with blood from these attacks
And, mixed with tears, it streamed down to their feet,
Where filthy creeping creatures swallowed it.

Inferno III

Such scenes are typical of Dante's imaginative journey as Virgil guides him down into the depths of Hell. They see the torments and punishments of blasphemers and heresiarchs; seducers, paramours, flatterers and simonists; hypocrites, thieves, and evil counsellors; schismatics, (among them Mohammed) and forgers and traitors and of course Lucifer himself and his helpers.

Then Hell is behind them and the pair enters Purgatory full of late repenters, the avaricious, the slothful, the lustful and the gluttons; all being scrubbed up until such time as they are fit to enter Heaven. Although in agony, their faces shine with hope and Dante hears the sound of hymns being sung. Near the end of the Purgatorio, Virgil hands Dante into the care of his new guide, Beatrice. Beatrice Portinari was someone Dante knew in real life. Medieval custom favoured arranged marriages and Dante's family betrothed him at the age of twelve, but at about the same time he became smitten with Beatrice. Eventually, Dante and Beatrice entered into their respective arranged marriages, but Beatrice was to die five years later, aged twenty-four. Dante never forgot her. For him she embodied all goodness and innocence and he graced his great poem with her virtue, making Beatrice his guide through Heaven. There Dante's mood understandably changes as he describes the peace and joy of the place. He meets saints Bernard, Francis, Benedict and Augustine; he meets Jesus Christ transfigured and Our Lady enthroned. Bernard explains that.

Within the length and breadth of this kingdom
There is no such thing as a place left to chance,
Anymore than there is sadness or thirst or hunger.

For whatever you see has been established
By eternal law, so that everything fits
As closely as the ring does to the finger.

— Paradiso XXXII

And so to the end when Dante, overwhelmed by all this beauty and order and harmony, utters the poem's famous last four lines.

At this point high imagination failed;
But already my desire and my will
Were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,
By the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

The Angels descending the Heavenly Ladder
by Gustave Doré

But we cannot leave The Divine Comedy without touching on a few of the many other gems sprinkled through it. From time to time curiosity gets the better of Dante, and Virgil or Beatrice has to fill him in on points of doctrine or theology. The first thirty lines of Canto XI in Purgatorio are devoted to an explanation of the Our Father as it is recited by a passing group of those still undergoing purgation. Moving to Canto XVI we find an astonishing description of free will. In Paradiso, Canto VII, is as eloquent a rationale for Christ's redemption as can be found anywhere:

For not accepting a rein upon his will
For his own good, that man who was not born,
Condemning himself, condemned his whole issue.

Either that God alone, by his gentleness,
Should have absolved man, or that man himself
Should have made satisfaction for his fault.

Within his own limits man could never
Give satisfaction, for he could never go as low
In the obedience of humility

As he had aspired in disobedience;
And it is for this reason that man was
Precluded from giving satisfaction himself.

Paradiso Canto VII

Further on in the same Canto is a hint that Dante was ahead of Charles Darwin on the subject of creation and evolution by nearly 600 years:

The soul of every animal and plant
Is drawn from its compounded potency

Paradiso Canto VII

Actually, they were all beaten to that punch by the first five verses of the Gospel of St. John. Yet, it is amazing how Darwin's followers who embraced Atheism, became so fascinated with scientific detail that they failed to realise that Atheism is also a faith, albeit a negative one; and yet those two simple lines of Dante's encompass all natural science. But fame is a fickle thing and Dante may even have been talking of himself when he wrote in Purgatorio, Canto XI:

Earthly fame is nothing but a breath of wind,
Which first blows one way and then blows another,
And brings a fresh name from each direction.

Purgatorio Canto XI

Truth, however, is not fickle and Dante's witness to it in the poetry of The Divine Comedy verges on the sublime. It contains no flowery language or superfluous words or, for that matter, any mealy-mouthed relativism. Its radiant common sense looms larger with each reading. But, get yourself a modern version. The quotes used here are taken from C. H. Sisson's translation issued in paperback by Oxford University Press. Now don't just sit there, if you have yet to read The Divine Comedy, go and get it and make a start.


Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri, 1265-1321, Italian poet, author of The Divine Comedy. A Florentine patrician, he fought on the side of the Guelphs but later supported the imperial party. In 1290, after the death of his exalted Beatrice (Beatrice Portinari, 1266-90), he plunged into the study of philosophy and Provençal poetry. Politically active in Florence from 1295, he was banished in 1302 and became a citizen of all Italy, dying in Ravenna.

The Divine Comedy, a vernacular poem in 100 cantos (more than 14,000 lines), was composed in exile. It is the tale of the poet's journey through Hell and Purgatory (guided by Vergil) and through Heaven (guided by Beatrice, to whom the poem is a memorial.) Written in a complex pentameter form, terza rima, it is a magnificent synthesis of the medieval outlook, picturing a changeless universe ordered by God. Through it Dante established Tuscan as the literary language of Italy and gave rise to a vast literature. His works also include La vita nuova (c.1292), a collection of prose and lyrics celebrating Beatrice and ideal love; treatises on language and politics; eclogues; and epistles.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Stephen Sparrow. "Radiant Dante." Catholic Educator's Resource Center (April 10, 2004).

THE AUTHOR

Stephen Sparrow writes from New Zealand. He is semi-retired and reads (and writes) for enjoyment, with a particular interest in the work of Catholic authors Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy and Sigrid Undset. His secondary school education was undertaken by Society of Mary priests at St. Bedes College and after leaving school in 1960 he joined a family wood working business retiring from it in 2001. He is married with five adult children.

Copyright © 2004 Stephen Sparrow


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