Dante Alighieri, one of the greatest poets of the Middle Ages,
was born in Florence, Italy on June 5, 1265. He was born to a
middle-class Florentine family. At an early age he began to write
and became fascinated with lyrics. During his adolescence, Dante fell
love with a beautiful girl named Beatrice Portinari. He saw her only
twice but she provided much inspiration for his literary masterpieces.
Her death at a young age left him grief-stricken. His first book, La
Vita Nuova, was written about her. Sometime before 1294, Dante married
Gemma Donati. They had four children.
Dante was active in the political and military life of Florence.
He entered the army as a youth and held several important positions in
the Florence government during the 1290's. During his life, Florence
divided politically between Guelphs and Ghibellines. The Guelphs
supported the church and liked to keep things as they were, unlike the
Ghibellines. The Ghibellines were mostly supporters of the German
emperor and at the time Dante was born, were relieved of their power.
When this change took place, the Guelphs for whom Dante's family was
associated took power. Although born into a Guelph family, Dante
more neutral later in life realizing that the church was corrupt,
believing it should only be involved in spiritual affairs.
At the turn of the century, Dante rose from city councilman to
ambassador of Florence. His career ended in 1301 when the Black Guelph
and their French allies seized control of the city. They took Dante's
possessions and sentenced him to be permanently banished from Florence,
threatening the death penalty upon him if he returned.
Dante spent most of his time in exile writing new pieces of
literature. It is believed that around 1307 he interrupts his
work, Convivio, a reflection of his love poetry philosophy of the Roman
tradition, to begin The Comedy (later known as The Divine Comedy). He
writes a book called De Vulgari Eloquentia explaining his idea to
a number of Italian dialects to create a new national language. In
he writes De Monarchia presenting Dante's case for a one-ruler world
Among his works, his reputation rests on his last work, The
Divine Comedy. He began writing it somewhere between 1307-1314 and
finished it only a short while before his death in 1321, while in
In this work, Dante introduces his invention of the terza rima, or
three-line stanza as well as himself as a character.
The Inferno is the first of three parts of Dante's epic poem,
Divine Comedy, which depicts an imaginary journey through Hell,
Purgatory, and Paradise. Dante is the hero, who loses his way in the
"dark woods" and journeys to nine regions arranged around the wall of a
huge funnel in nine concentric circles representing Hell. He is led by
the ghost of Virgil, the Roman poet, who has come to rescue Dante from
the dark forest and lead him through the realms of the afterlife. The
first circle they enter is Limbo, which consists of heathen and the
unbaptized, who led decent lives. The second through the fifth circles
are for the lustful, gluttonous, prodigal, and wrathful. The sixth
circle is where heretics are punished. The seventh circle is devoted
the punishment of violence. The eighth is devoted to those guilty of
fraud and the ninth for those who betrayed others. In the last
Satan remains imprisoned in a frozen lake.
The journey is difficult and full of revelations, disappointment
and questions, but they persevere. The end of their journey leads
and Virgil to the bottom of Hell. Lucifer is seen in all his ugliness
and they are drawn towards Heaven. They emerge to the surface, rising
above the ugliness of sin and journey towards their goal as they catch
sight of the stars shining in the heavens. Their journey begins on
Friday and they emerge from Hell on the day of Resurrection, Easter
Sunday on the underside of the world, in the hemisphere of water at the
foot of Mount Purgatory.
Dante's vision expresses his personal experience, through images
to convey his interpretation of the nature of human existence. He
in the first person so the reader can identify and deeply understand
truths he wished to share about the meaning of life and man's
relationship with the Creator.
Dante is remembered as a great thinker and one of the most
learned writers of all time. Many scholars consider his epic poem The
Divine Comedy consisting of Inferno, Paradiso, and Purgatorio, among
finest works of all literature. Critics have praised it not only as
magnificent poetry, but also for its wisdom and scholarly learning.
Dante was a man who lived, who saw political and artistic
success, and who was in love. He was also a man who was defeated, who
felt danger and the humiliation of exile, and who was no stranger to
cruelty and treachery possible in people. Dante felt he was a victim
a grave injustice. He also suffered serious self-doubts, natural for a
man in exile. His works reflect his experiences and attempts to answer
some of life's difficult questions.
In 1968, Allen Tate, a conservative thinker and a convert to
wrote "The Unilateral Imagination; or, I too Dislike it", in his Essays
of Four Decades. This critique was established from a lecture given by
Tate in 1955 based on his works.
An example of Dante's ability to tell so much in one single word
was expressed by Tate when he cited the word "ombre" which translates
"shades," to remind us of the continuity of the Christian Hell and
Virgil's pagan Hades. "Shades" are referred to as three-dimensional
bodies, able to feel pain as if they were alive in solid ice and
immobile, yet to have the intensity of fire. If Dante had tried to
one of them, his hand would have met no physical resistance since the
shades would melt into the air.
Tate stands in awe of Dante's abilities to express such a large
concept or picture in so few words. He says, "I believe we all wish we
had been able not only to write better poems, but poems that say much
more than we have been able to say, while at the same time seeming to
In 1953, Jacques Maritain, a French philosopher, theologian, educator,
and essayist, wrote "The Three Epiphanies of Creative Intuition", in
book, Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry. He wrote about how Dante's
Divine Comedy is at the same time poetry of the song, poetry of the
theater, and poetry of the tale. They are the three epiphanies of
intuition. Maritain believes that the essence of the song appears
everywhere in the Divine Comedy, but more so in Paradiso, while drama
appears everywhere, especially in Purgatorio, and novel is found
everywhere, but especially in the Inferno. (386-387)
Maritain observes that Dante combines feelings, distinct images,
and a continuous and complex narrative of a world of an adventure and
destiny in the Inferno. He feels that the entire poem clearly shows,
that through love, Dante knew his characters, understood their
and knew his characters desires. These traits and Dante's ability to
express his dream caused Maritain to believe that Dante had the eye of
Ezra Pound, an American poet and critic, believes that one hears far
much about Dante's Hell, and far too little about the Purgatorio, and
Paradiso. Pound wrote an essay called "Dante" in his book, The Spirit
Romance written in 1952. He explains how Hell is the state of man who
has lost the good of his intelligence, a state of man dominated by his
Pound believes that Dante's Inferno should be approached with a
"sense of irony." His use of simile is carried throughout the Inferno
and enhances the effect and meaning of his experience in Hell. While
is natural for man to think of Hell as a place, Pound understands it as
condition of man's mental state in life, continued after death. The
tendency to see objects and qualities only in one dimension limiting
drawing the reader away from the true meaning of Dante's journey.
sees the Inferno as a satire on man's aimless turmoil and restlessness
that continues to the root of Hell where it finds its end at the gate
Purgatory. Dante is represented as truth, intelligence, and love, and
Pound generates a positive portrayal of Dante's work.
Tate, Maritain, and Pound give insightful and pertinent
observations of the Inferno, however, one major aspect, which was
overlooked in their critiques, was the theological truths Dante
on his imaginary journey through Hell. The reality of God, the
love and man's choice is evidenced throughout the Inferno. On this
spiritual pilgrimage, Dante has lost his way and tries to get back on
right path to gain salvation, but many temptations are faced along the
way. Dante uses allegory in his story to depict these temptations or
sin. In the dark wood he encounters a leopard, lion, and a she-wolf.
The leopard stands for lust, the lion for pride, and the she-wolf for
greed. He takes the reader through the murky, disgusting depths of
using very graphic, grotesque language and imagery.
The poet communicates his vision well and his truth comes alive
as the reader follows his spiritual search of personal salvation.
Because he is the main character, Dante speaks in the first person and
interprets his experience as he views sin in all its ugliness. He
that life is a pilgrimage of the soul on its way to God, but has lost
way. The way is frighteningly real as he enters Hell and on his way he
encounters many who have chosen greed or lust and turned from God.
realizes he must face evil (Satan) and rise toward the stars to the
promise that is found in Heaven. The stars stand as a symbol of divine
order and hope.
Dante's relationship with God is evident in his writing, which
portrays the experience of a deeply committed Christian. During the
he wrote, in the Middle Ages, this religious commitment was widely
accepted and encouraged. It is this spiritual truth: that those who
insist on denying God's will and die unrepentant are eternally damned
unless they repent and walk in the ways of the Lord, which makes
Inferno a religious and morally challenging experience.
Barbi, Michele. Life of Dante. Ed. Paul Ruggiers, Berkley-L.A.:
University of California, Press, 1954.
Curtius, Ernst Robert. "Dante." European Literature and the Latin
Ages. New York: Pantheon Books, 1953 348-379.
Maritain, Jacques. "The Three Epiphanies of Creative Institution."
Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry. New York: Pantheon Books, 1953
Pinsky, Robert. The Inferno of Dante. New York: Harper Collins, 1994.
Pound, Ezra. "Dante." The Spirit of Romance. Norfolk: New
Tate, Allen. "The Unilateral Imagination; or, I, too, Dislike It."
Essays of Four Decades. Denver: The Swallow Press Inc., 1968 447-461.
Vittorini, Domenico. The Age of Dante, Syracuse: Syracuse University