That’s why you should read it, says Simon Chater.
Widely revered but little read, Dante’s Divine Comedy turned 700 years old in 2021. I celebrated this anniversary by writing some Tasting Notes to introduce the poem to new readers.
Shakespeare fans say God came to earth twice: the first time as Jesus, to show us how we ought to behave; the second as the bard, to show us who we are. I’d posit that He came a third time, as Dante, to show us what we can become.
Dante’s visit was actually the second in the sequence, as he arrived a good three centuries before Shakespeare started writing. Born in Florence in 1265, he died in Ravenna in 1321, shortly after putting the finishing touches to what is arguably the greatest poem ever written. He called it simply a Comedy, but it soon became known as the Divine Comedy, because his early readers agreed with his own description of it as “the sacred poem to which both heaven and earth have set their hand”. In other words, they saw the poem as not just brilliantly imagined but also divinely inspired – a revelation.
Can we, should we, still see it that way today? I think so! Indeed, in our age of scepticism the Comedy has even more to tell us than it did when most of its readers were devout Christians.
How can that be? Why read a poem whose model of the universe – with the earth at its centre! – is scientifically wrong, whose philosophy and theology are derivative and dogmatic, whose characters concerned themselves with issues whose significance is largely lost to us today?
In answer I can only cite my own experience when I first read the poem over 50 years ago, in my early 20s. I had found the Anglican Christian tradition I was raised in to be mildly comforting but not very convincing. Here, in contrast, was something that gripped me, right from its start, “in a dark wood where the right way was lost”, all the way to its end, in a flash of intuitive knowledge that marks our destination as human beings, our place in the mind of God. The Divine Comedy changed my life by making me realize that spiritual knowledge is something real and that this reality is of a different order and works by different rules to those of our everyday world. In short, it introduced me to mysticism.
I don’t believe Dante would suffer a crisis of faith, or indeed any serious doubts, if confronted with the findings of modern science. The point is worth making because atheists say that God is dead, killed by science. But they are using the wrong set of tools, those of empiricism, to investigate spiritual reality which, as I have said, works by different rules. In this different order of reality, imagination is a better guide to the truth than observation and deduction. That’s because imagination reaches out for revelation, seeks to draw revelation down, as its essential partner in the creative act. Science has in any case moved away from the deterministic materialism of the nineteenth century towards a relativistic (or perhaps I should say relational) understanding of the universe, one in which we discover, in amazement, that reality is layered and that what we see, in the layers below and above ours, radically contradicts what we see in our world. Modern physics introduces us to paradoxical notions that Dante and other great mystics would have felt completely at home with. In a recent book, White Holes, the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli quotes the Comedy extensively to illustrate the mental journey he undertakes, the paradoxes he encounters along the way and the feelings of awe those paradoxes induce. His white holes are the locus of infinite creativity, just like Dante’s Empyrean, the dwelling place of the divine essence.
Modern science, then, does not refute the vision of mystics such as Dante, but confirms and complements that vision. That makes the sacred poem required reading for anyone in search of life’s meaning.
Dante has been my treasured companion throughout my adult life and I’ve now read his poem five times. On each occasion it’s been a different experience! That’s because, although it is formally organized and tightly structured, the poem is very plastic – that is, it is susceptible to multiple interpretations. Dante is everyman, at once specific and universal, so you can, indeed should, bring your own experiences to his poem and allow them to shape your engagement with it. In this way the text will start to work within you. As you move through his poem, Dante will expand your mind, pushing it in new directions. And as you move through life, your interpretation of his words will deepen and broaden.
The poem is intensely interactive, teeming with human characters and stories. Just as the poet interacts with the souls he meets, so too we as readers must interrogate his text. Our reading should give rise to a constant questioning of motives, of accounts, of issues.
Like other great mystics, Dante has much to say about politics. He rails against the evils of his time, especially corruption in the Church and the degeneration of public affairs in Florence. Do we agree with his criticisms? Or is he just personally upset and taking revenge through his poetry? What modern parallels can we draw? (I’ve drawn plenty, but admittedly these will soon date. If they don’t work for you, feel free to substitute your own: political issues change, but the principles underlying human behaviour don’t.)
Some of what Dante tells us may distress us. Why are the neutrals punished when they themselves did no wrong? What is a civilised, kind homosexual doing among the damned? Why is the prophet Mohammed in hell (a judgement that would surely have earned Dante a fatwa if he had made it today)? People find such things difficult to take – and that’s putting it mildly!
Yet readers will also find plenty to astonish and delight them. Whenever he finds words that seem to draw near to the truth, Dante says that he “feels his joy expand”. Ours will too, if we empathise with him. His vision of the human soul is that, born of a joyful Creator, it “willingly turns to that which gives it joy”. And because all joy is ultimately divine in both origin and expression, whatever else it thinks it is doing, the soul is in fact seeking God, the source of all good. Once freed from earthly shackles, it rises naturally towards its place in the divine essence, just as fire rises.
Similarly, the desire for knowledge that leads us to this end is “the natural thirst that is never satisfied”. Dante’s emphasis on spirituality as something that comes, or should come, naturally makes him the most humane and compassionate of mystic poets. He is also the world’s greatest love poet, finding words for Beatrice, his beloved, that “have never been used of a woman before”. He shows us how love can evolve from youthful eroticism to a mature, compassionate love, caritas. And he tells us that, whatever its dangers, the pursuit of beauty is an essential part of the spiritual quest.
Though there are difficult bits, the beauty and economy of Dante’s writing make it supremely enjoyable to read, every bit as good as Shakespeare. So much feels fresh minted, utterly original. You can feel him creating the Italian language. Similes and metaphors abound: just his descriptions of birds could fill a book.
Great poetry, like great music or great sex, can give us a direct taste of the divine. In these dark times, Dante’s message is one of hope. His universe is, despite appearances, a benign place, at one with a loving God. Dante called his poem a Comedy because it has a happy ending.
Ultimately, Dante’s hell, purgatory and paradise aren’t places so much as states of mind. As well as depicting the next life, they are allegories of this life. Dante writes, as Beatrice tells him he must, “for the good of the world, which lives badly.” He hopes that those who come after him will better understand God’s glory.
I certainly did. And I hope you will too. May your life be changed and enriched by your reading, as mine has been.
Using the notes and a bibliography
A word about how the notes are structured. The first three discuss very short excerpts and form a kind of hors d’oeuvre that will, I hope, whet your appetite for more. They also dot about the Comedy, giving you a taste of purgatory and paradise in addition to hell.
Why have I taken this approach? The conventional view of Dante’s poem is that, while the pity and fear of Inferno make for compelling reading, Purgatorio and Paradiso, with their hefty doses of standard-issue Christian dogma, are much heavier going. Damnation, after all, is so much more interesting than salvation! I wanted to demonstrate, early in the series, that this opinion is mistaken. Purgatorio and Paradiso are also works of genius, just as convincing as Inferno and containing, in addition, passages of exquisite beauty. It is in these two realms that the process of change in the reader, begun in Inferno, starts to accelerate as we approach the final destination, union with the divine essence.
After the first three notes, you can continue your exploration by reading ten further notes on each of the three realms. These look at specific episodes and themes in more detail.
Another thing that tends to happen to first-time readers is that they get stuck in the Inferno (just like the sinners themselves!) and never make it out into Purgatorio and Paradiso. The lower reaches of hell are indeed claustrophobic, suffocatingly so. It becomes very hard to believe in the existence of the “bright world” above, very hard to keep going. My advice is to read lightly through these cantos – keep moving and don’t get bogged down. I promise you it’s worth persevering!
Getting to know the Comedy is like discovering a great piece of music. On a first reading, specific phrases and themes start to appeal, but much remains obscure. With each subsequent reading, more and more will come into focus. The structure of the whole and the relationships between its parts – the way themes are woven together – start to become apparent.
So don’t content yourself with a single reading: come back for more!
Tools for the task
We need to understand Dante’s world if we are to enjoy reading the Comedy. A good edition, preferably with parallel text and commentary, is essential. I recommend the one by John D. Sinclair, on whom I draw heavily for my own explanations; see Tasting Note 1 for more about this edition.
You can also seek enlightenment in the many books and articles that have been written about the Comedy, its author, and the world he lived in. Here’s a bibliography of titles that I have found especially enjoyable and informative:
• Anderson, W. 1980. Dante the Maker. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London. A detailed biography, strong on Dante’s creative process.
• Barbero, A. 2021. Dante. English translation, Profile Books, London. An excellent modern biography, painstakingly researched.
• Barbi, M. 1933. Life of Dante. English translation, Cambridge University Press, London. A scholarly yet concise introduction to the poet and his works. A bit dated.
• Bemrose, S. 2000. A New Life of Dante. University of Exeter Press. A lively and intelligent biography for the non-specialist reader.
• Brandeis, I (ed.). 1961. Discussions of the Divine Comedy. D.C Heath, Boston. Critical essays and articles by various authors, including Voltaire, Goethe and Eliot.
• Frecccero, J. 1965. Dante: A Collection of Critical Essays. Includes ‘The mind in love’, by Dr Kenelm Foster.
• Heers, F. 1963. The Mediaeval World: Europe 100-1350. English translation, George Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London. Good on the politics and institutions that shaped Dante’s world.
• Lewis, C.S. 1964. The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge University Press. An enchanting tour of the mediaeval world model. It may have been wrong, but it was certainly beautiful.
• Shaw, P. 2015. Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity. Liveright Publishing, New York. A great companion, exploring the poem thematically (friendships, power, life, love, time, numbers, words).
• Thomson, I. 2018. Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Journey Without End. Head of Zeus, London. Another superb companion to the journey, full of fun. Excellent on influences, ranging widely from Boccacio to Beckett (films and video games also included).
• Vernon, M. 2021. Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Guide for the Spiritual Journey. Angelica Press, New York. A stimulating and perceptive reading of the Comedy’s subtext, tracing the expansion of the mind and heart that Dante can induce. This is a new book and I wish I had read it before I began my notes!
• Vossler, K. 1929. Mediaeval Culture: An Introduction to Dante and his Times, Vols 1 and 2. Translation. Frederick Ungar Publishing, New York. Exhaustive! But superb on the classical and Christian cultures that influenced Dante.
• Williams, C. 1943. The Figure of Beatrice: A Study in Dante. Faber and Faber, London. A Romantic view, a tad overblown by today’s standards. But this is a classic!
• Wilson, A.N. 2011. Dante in Love. Atlantic Books, London. An imaginative tour of the poet’s emotional life.