Last month I gave a talk on Dante’s Divine Comedy to a surprisingly enthusiastic group of people at the library in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I say surprising because I hadn’t expected the interest in Dante’s work to be so intense. Needless to say I was delighted by both the large turnout and the close attention given to the poem. During my introduction and reading from The Inferno, several hands shot up and I had to field a barrage of questions. Aside from the historical and literary information, there were queries about the relevancy of the work to the modern mind, and a small sub-discussion flared up. A day later, I received several emails about this issue of the meaning of the poem for contemporary readers, and I began to give it more serious thought.
T. S. Eliot, who quoted from The Inferno at the beginning of his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” wrote “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them. There is no third.” It seems that both Dante and Shakespeare have managed to encompass humankind in all our variegated types.
Dante’s work is teeming with politics, history, theology, mythology, and philosophy. No other epic poem has equaled it for breadth of learning. One of the questions I have been exploring for many years is how The Divine Comedy blends both the medieval and the modern worldviews. Without question the work is rooted in Christian theology. Yet it depicts the psychology and emotional life of its narrator with penetrating insight. Allegorical in approach, romantic in style, visionary in scope, passionate, profound, and staggeringly erudite, the poem has inspired poets and visual artists such as Sandro Botticelli, William Blake, Gustave Doré, and Salvador Dali for generations.
The 20th-century Italian poet Eugenio Montale, a Noble Prize laureate, has written that Dante’s voice may now be heard by modern readers in a new way. My own view is that The Divine Comedy is highly relevant to our times, but the question for me is exactly how is it relevant?
The classical Greek dramatists most likely did not believe literally in the myths which they used as the basis for their plays. Although Dante was raised as a Catholic in 13th century Florence, he didn’t need to embrace the letter of Christian theology when it came to using the medieval teachings about Hell as a framework for his great story of the epic journey of a man’s soul in search of truth and redemption. Just as 300 years later, Michelangelo could transform the Biblical stories of the apostles and the Last Judgment into the most magnificent work of Western religious art without necessarily being a devout Christian.
Dante could not have avoided the teachings of the church since the Catholic Church had such a profoundly pervasive influence on the thinking of his day. But like most great writers, Dante incorporated this belief system into his poem and made it into art. John Milton did something similar in the 1660’s with his great poem, Paradise Lost, as well as William Blake roughly a century later. Dante used the Roman Catholic system of Hell-Purgatory-Heaven to tell his story of an individual who is guided by Virgil, representing reason, and Beatrice, representative of divine love, towards a realization of the path he must take in life in order to achieve redemption.
So my most recent conclusion to this question of relevance is simply that The Divine Comedy has a universal theme and tells the archetypal story of the human journey from a state of innocence and purity, through a fall and corruption, a realization of this fall, and a struggle to find the path back to God through redemption. And it is universal, the type of story which continues to be told in every culture throughout the world.
Causes Anthony Maulucci Supports
Greenpeace, Amnesty Inernational, American Cancer Society, Red Cross, Save the Children