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“The Divine Comedy” is an epic poem brimming

with information and eloquent literary devices. (The word “comedy” is used

here in its classical sense – to denote a story which begins in suspense

and ends well.) The lengthy work combines Dante’s vast knowledge of classical

Latin writers (Virgil, Ovid, Cicero, Seneca … ) and Greek philosophers

(Plato and Aristotle) with his readings from the religious and theological

classics of Catholicism (Augustine, Thomas Acquinas … ).

Some awareness of medieval symbolism and

imagery can greatly enrich the modern reader’s understanding and enjoyment

of Dante’s personal, visionary odyssey through the realms of the dead.

For example, the significance of certain numbers figures importantly in

both the structure of the work and the geography of tile netherworld. Tile

number three symbolizes the trinity; the “perfect” number, ten, was obtained

by multiplying three times three, and adding one (which represented the

unity of God). Furthermore, Dante’s work is divided into three canticles

(the Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise) and each canticle is then divided

into thirty-three cantos. These, added to the book’s general introductory

canto, make for a grand total of one hundred, or, the square of ten. The

poem’s rhyme scheme, which Dante invented, is known as “terza rima” (third

rhyme), where rhymed lines are grouped in interlocking sets of three (aba,

bcb, cdc, etc.)

In addition to this obsession with numbers,

the reader should also fathom the notion of ancient courtly love. Most

poetry of Dante’s age was written in praise of a woman whom the poet had

chosen as an ideal, but with whom he was not intimate nor even necessarily

personally acquainted; a pure love, an unattainable inspiration. Dante

had met Beatrice Portinari at least twice, but had no intention of developing

a relationship with her. She was married, as was he. “If it pleases God,”

Dante had written in the third person, “he will write of Beatrice, that

which has never yet been said of mortal woman.” This, in fact, Dante does

in The Divine Comedy, placing his lady in the highest realms of Paradise.

Almost as much as he loved Beatrice, Dante

loved Italy; and one of his greatest beliefs was the equal importance of

the Church and the State. He became disgusted with the corruption of the

Church by politics during his lifetime. In fact, it was while he was in

political exile from Florence that he wrote this masterpiece, its complete

title being “The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Florentine by Citizenship,

Not by Morals.”

Dante also believed in matching writing

style with the material being treated. Thus, in Hell, the language is faced

with common, sometimes revolting phrasing. Then, in Paradise the speech

turns much more ethereal and lofty. (Curiously, Hell was and remains -

the most popular of the three books.)

By using common expressions and the language

of his native Tuscan dialect rather than the traditional Church Latin,

Dante created a revolutionary work. His comedy, rich as it was in multilayered

medieval allegory, set fire to the then radically modern idea that literature

- works meant primarily to be read rather than retold or enacted could

be made both accessible and popular. So highly regarded was this comedy

that it earned the eventual title of “Divine.”

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