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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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