Why read Dante's Divine Comedy

2021-03-10 @Literature

Few epics have pleased me to the extent of Dante’s Divine Comedy in the structural arrangement. For when I think of aesthetic as appertaining to writing, usually the elements of rhetoric, imagery, symbolism or allegory better cater to the function. And this medieval poem by no means lacks those; therein too it shows abundance and possibly even overabundance.

Structural aesthetic I’d traditionally derive from something like a work of fine art. And yet, and yet …

Numbers play a paramount role within this poem. The three sections, Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso total 100 Cantos. Each respectively divides into 34, 33 and 33 each. The first canto of Inferno serves more as an introduction.

Each Canto, in contrast to most epic poems, only slightly varies in length. They appear almost universally consistent, making even the most confounding sections rarely a burden.

The original Medieval-Italian poem is written in tercets (three line stanzas rhyming ABA), a further showcase of the number three. I, however, read the Spanish poetic-prose translation, hence unable to appreciate this additional detail.

Each of the three realms geographically divides into ten sections (the numbers three and ten seem the more prevalent).

Inferno divides into Limbo and nine circles in roughly increasing degree of horror. Purgatorio divides into ten sections/rings: two vestibular, seven in the ascent up Mount Purgatory, then the earthly paradise at the top. Paradiso divides into ten celestial spheres.

These numbers make constant occurrence, though a modern reader might find the concept a bit forced. To me, though, it simply enhances the aesthetic.

Then the structure further exhibits a charming visual symmetry with roots in the Aristotelian and later Ptolemaic cosmologies characteristic of the Medieval credence.

The circles of hell descend towards the Earth’s core in gradually decreasing circumference, until we encounter the rather intriguing incarnation of Satan way at the center.

As we ascend Mount Purgatory, circular rings of similarly decreasing size encase each level until the earthly paradise at the peak.

The ten spheres of Paradise follow the medieval framework: Earth dead center surrounded by the ten concentric spheres of expanding circumference. Until we reach the sphere of fixed stars, the first seven constitute the moon and the planets, each independently rotating across it’s designated trajectory.

Astrology, overall, factors heavily in not only this poem but almost any Medieval work I’ve laid hands on. Alas, it’s not my fort√©.

That demonstrates the structure at a high level. But then the structural aesthetic intertwines with the visual, wherein the two each other reinforce.

The geometries of Inferno/Purgatorio/Paradiso do not merely project dry euclidean shapes: the descent down those circles of Hell manifests all manner of terrestrial phenomena: rivers, elements, rocks, mounds, forestry, ice, etc, all beautifully joined and evocative to the imaginative sense.

The ascent up Mount Purgatory, likewise, evokes stunning imagery, obstacles, detours and intangibles.

Visually, I glorified in these first two of the three sections of Divine Comedy. The physical journey reflects a kind of an adventure you might even associate with Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Rings (or a similar fantasy epic of continuous movement across geographic wonders).

So well structured did I find this numerical and visual unity, that, whenever I undertake a second read, I almost anticipate the ability to recollect the journey from memory.

Furthermore, upon initial acquaintance, you can read and reread segments in any order. With emphasis on theological and philosophical doctrines, the notion of a plot or narrative doesn’t here figure to the same extent of progression and ‘spoilers’ as you might find in other literature. Each segment is independently educational and gratifying. I adore literature of this caliber!

I need add that Paradiso left me more ambivalent. In contrast to the geographically stimulating nether regions, Dante appealed entirely to his abstract imagination in describing the heavenly spheres: an exhibition of lights, colours and divinities. Yet the poet little provided for my visually inclined mind to cling to.

Throughout the numerical/structural/visual extravaganza that weaves this theologically-allegorical epic, Dante, also the poem’s protagonist, guided by Virgil, endlessly engages historical, mythological and religious figures, embarking upon heaps of moral, political and theological topics, some familiar to me, yet many quiet foreign: some easier to capture with occasional supplementary notes, others more challenging, and some scarcely accessible without deeper historical familiarity.

Therefore I least enjoyed the third section. Not only did I find the conversations difficult to follow, but felt less stimulated by the abstract visual element. You see the dichotomy.

But that individual matter aside, the overall impression still retains profound beauty. What more?

Symbols appear at every step from the first canto, as Dante faces the panther, the lion and the wolf in the wood where he finds himself utterly lost.

Every crescent may contain symbolic or allegorical context. Or both; often at numerous levels.

Now I’ll say that you need not seek to interpret every such detail: pick and choose what you will, for again, the journey doesn’t too heavily burden you with dependencies, insofar that if you miss this you’ll not appreciate that.

It’s interesting how within the Inferno coexist historical, biblical and pagan characters, although the nature is pervasive across medieval literature. Pluto, Minos, the Giants inhabit those fiery regions. Somewhere appears Helen of Troy. In the Wood lurk the Harpies. And so on.

Overall, I found fascinating the amount of detail Dante showcases in this first part of the poem.

The detail, however, is universally abundant. It’s only a matter of what you choose to more appreciate.

I actually enjoyed the Purgatorio experience as much as the preceding Inferno. While lacking that ghastlier aspect that my intellectual curiosity craved to entertain, Purgatorio felt like the more soothing of the three parts and thus placed me in the more meditative mood.

Music also began to reverberate from Purgatory and continuing into Paradise, as we encounter groups singing/chanting a series of Biblical hymns/psalms/litanies.

I’m not too academically acquainted with this element. It does, however, set the proper ambiance, something that, for instance, all the poetry and song to embellish the Lord of the Rings likewise seeks to evoke, yet what a young reader likely fails to appreciate.

Ultimate verdict? The aesthetic structure, the allegory, symbolism, evocative imagery, rich historical and theological framework, myth, medieval cosmology, a visual and philosophical sense of adventure, inspiring (and confounding) interactions: these elements make the work one of the more beautiful reading experiences.

Questions, comments? Connect.