Dante Alighieri (12651321). The Divine Comedy. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
MUCH of the life of Dante Alighieri is obscure, and the known facts are surrounded by a haze of legend and conjecture. He was born in Florence in 1265, of a family noble but not wealthy. His early education is a matter of inference, but we know that he learned the art of writing verse from the poets of France and Provence, and that after he reached manhood he devoted much time to study and became profoundly learned. As a young man he saw military service and shared in the recreations of his contemporaries; and he married some time before he was thirty-two. In Dantes day politics in Florence were exciting and dangerous; and after a few years of participation in public affairs he was condemned to death by his political enemies in 1302. He saved himself by exile, and never returned to his native town. The rest of his life was mainly spent wandering about the north of Italy, in Verona, Bologna, Pisa, Lucca, and finally Ravenna, where he died in 1321. During the years of his exile he found generous patrons in men like the heads of the Scala family in Verona and Guido Novello da Polenta in Ravenna; and at Bologna and elsewhere he was welcomed as a teacher.
In the early part of the century in which Dante was born, the literary language of Tuscany was still Latin, and not the least of his services to his country was his influence in finally establishing the dignity of Italian as a medium for great literature. He himself used Latin in at least three works: his lecture De Aqua et Terra; his De Monarchâ, in which he expounded his Political theory of the relation of the Empire and the Papacy; and his unfinished De Vulgari Eloquentia, containing his defense of the use of Italian. More important, however, were his two great works in the vernacular, the Vita Nuova, a series of poems with prose commentary, on his love for Beatrice, and the Divina Commedia.
The Beatrice, real or ideal, who plays so important a part in the poetry of Dante, is stated by Boccaccio to have been the daughter of Folco Portinari, a rich Florentine, and wife of the banker Simone dei Bardi. With this actual person Dantes acquaintance seems to have been of the slightest; but, after the fashion of the chivalric lovers of the day, he took her as the object of his ideal devotion. She became for him, especially after her death in 1290, the center of a mystical devotion of extraordinary intensity, and appears in his masterpiece as the personification of heavenly enlightenment.
The Divine Comedy was entitled by Dante himself merely Commedia, meaning a poetic composition in a style intermediate between the sustained nobility of tragedy, and the popular tone of elegy. The word had no dramatic implication at that time, though it did involve a happy ending. The poem is the narrative of a journey down through Hell, up the mountain of Purgatory, and through the revolving heavens into the presence of God. In this aspect it belongs to the two familiar medieval literary types of the Journey and the Vision. It is also an allegory, representing under the symbolism of the stages and experiences of the journey, the history of a human soul, painfully struggling from sin through purification to the Beatific Vision. Other schemes of interpretation have been worked out and were probably intended, for Dante granted the medieval demand for a threefold and even fourfold signification in this type of writing.
But the Divine Comedy belongs to still other literary forms than those mentioned. Professor Grandgent has pointed out that it is also an encyclopedia, a poem in praise of Woman, and an autobiography. It contains much of what Dante knew of theology and philosophy, of astronomy and cosmography, and fragments of a number of other branches of learning, so that its encyclopedia character is obvious. In making it a monument to Beatrice, he surpassed infinitely all the poetry devoted to the praise of women in an age when the deification of women was the commonplace of poetry. And finally he made it an autobiographynot a narrative of the external events of his life, but of the agony of his soul.
Thus, in an altogether unique way, Dante summarizes the literature, the philosophy, the science, and the religion of the Middle Ages. Through the intensity of his capacity for experience, the splendor of his power of expression, and the depth of his spiritual and philosophic insight, he at once sums up and transcends a whole era of human history.