Dante Alighieri’s Commedia is, in the view of many, the greatest poem in the history of literature. That alone should recommend it to people of our day, except that we are in the habit of overlooking what is old. It has been 700 years since Dante’s death in September 1321. We now have automobiles, televisions and computers. We have come a long way. What could that long-dead Florentine say for us today?
A thousand things — but I will choose one. We are going somewhere, and the journey we are on is not in our choice. Sure, we can choose wrong and fail to complete it. But the destination, and the means for arrival, are not up to us. The destination is to behold God and to delight in his glory. And Christ alone is the way.
Let us look closely at the first lines of the poem:
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wilderness,
for I had wandered from the straight and true.
This is not just Dante’s way of seizing our attention. Every word counts. He does not say my life. It is our life. Dante stands for each person and for all of us together. The Italian word I’ve translated as journey is cammino, and it suggests a pilgrimage, as in the beloved Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James in Compostela. No one is merely alone on a medieval pilgrimage. Even if you set out by yourself, you will be with fellow pilgrims; you will pray together and hear Mass along the way. And if you make it home, you will bring back memories to share with those you love.
Now, Dante says that he was midway upon the journey, and again he wants to be understood precisely. The typical lifespan for man, after the flood, is “three score years and ten” or 70 (cf. Ps 90:10). This means Dante was 35 when the narrative takes place, and since he was born in 1265, his imagined journey to the hereafter occurred in 1300. That year is important to him for personal and historical reasons, but there’s more. Dante did not make up his first line from his own head. He is echoing Scripture in a powerful way — especially powerful for us now, when we seem to have lost any sense that we are going anywhere at all.
The scene is this. The good king Hezekiah fell ill, and the prophet Isaiah came to him to tell him to settle his house affairs, because he would surely die. But Hezekiah wept and prayed to God, saying, “Lord, remember, I beg you, how I have walked before you in truth and a perfect heart, and did what was good in your eyes” (Is 38:3).
The Lord heard Hezekiah’s prayer and sent Isaiah to him again to say that he would live another 15 years. As a sign, God made the shadow of the sundial go backwards 10 degrees. Then Hezekiah burst out in a song of thanksgiving, beginning, “In the middle of my days I went down to the gates of hell” (Is 38:10). And that is precisely what Dante the pilgrim is about to do. We will soon see those very gates, and the terrible final line of their inscription: “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.”
But there is even more. The poetry is Christian, and that gives the poet the means to concentrate worlds of meaning into a single line because everything in Scripture shines light on everything else; when we go to Mass or pray the Divine Office, we dwell in the light of many centuries of meditation upon the word of God.
The song of Hezekiah was important for the liturgy, as Dante expected his readers to know. We hear it in the Offce of the Dead, but more important than that, we hear it in the Tenebrae service for Holy Saturday. The words of Hezekiah are sung then as if they were spoken by Jesus: “In the middle of my days I went down to the gates of hell.” But Jesus took that realm by storm. He “led captivity captive” (Eph 4:8). Dante has set his journey — from the wilds of sin and captivity of hell to freedom, through the gift of grace — in the context of the Easter Triduum. He is about to hear, says his guide Virgil, “the groans of hopeless men,” those who have lost the good for which man was made. But on the morning of the third day, he is going to leave that cramped hole of futility, “to see, once more, the stars.”
Christ makes it possible for the lost to come home — to be with God. I have focused on the dark onset, but the poem is a Comedy, not a Tragedy. The Christian vision is comic: It begins with the fall of Adam, but it ends in glory. Thus is Dante’s poem a work of love. It is inspired by love, its energy is love, and its destination is love. Were it not for the love of the beautiful Beatrice, Dante’s beloved — and of the blessed Mother who moved her — Dante would have remained lost in sin and confusion. As we move from the dark Inferno to the sunlit slopes of Purgatory mountain to the light-filled realms of Paradise, we learn what love is, and we beg its power to enter our souls. So will Dante describe his own poetry:
I’m one who takes the pen
when Love breathes wisdom into me, and go
finding the signs for what He speaks within.
Then let us take him as our guide, who wants us to join him in the light of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
ANTHONY ESOLEN is a professor of English and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, N.H. His many publications include a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House, Modern Library).
THE VATICAN does not typically make poetry recommendations, but Dante is not a typical poet. A century after Pope Benedict XV’s encyclical about the author of the Divine Comedy, Pope Francis again urged Catholics to read, study and teach Dante’s work in a recent apostolic letter.
In Candor Lucis Aeternae (Splendor of Light Eternal), issued to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the poet’s death, Pope Francis describes Dante as “a prophet of hope and a witness to the innate yearning for the infinite present in the human heart.”
Significantly, the letter is dated March 25 — the feast of the Annunciation and the day the pilgrim-narrator of the Divine Comedy begins his journey. Pope Francis notes, “The mystery of the Incarnation, which we celebrate today, is the true heart and inspiration of the entire poem.”
The Holy Father then goes on to observe how Dante remains an extraordinary guide for the modern pilgrim:
“Dante today — if we can presume to speak for him — does not wish merely to be read, commented on, studied and analyzed. Rather, he asks to be heard and even imitated; he invites us to become his companions on the journey. Today, too, he wants to show us the route to happiness, the right path to live a fully human life, emerging from the dark forest in which we lose our bearings and the sense of our true worth. Dante’s journey and his vision of life beyond death are not just a story to be told; they are more than the account of a personal experience, however exceptional.
“If Dante tells his tale admirably, using the language of the people yet elevating it to a universal language, it is because he has an important message to convey, one meant to touch our hearts and minds, to transform and change us even now, in this present life.”
Columbia marked the 600th anniversary of Dante’s death with the cover story of its second issue, in September 1921. The following is excerpted from “Dante’s Message to Our Time,” an essay published that month by the noted Catholic author and editor Condé B. Pallen.
“Dante limns the medieval world with a breadth and depth, splendor and intensity unequaled in literature, with a sureness of touch and a vividness of delineation that make his world of six hundred years ago as alive to us as our own. The modern world turns to Dante and his age because it is in quest of reality; it is tired of mere phenomena, of which it has had its fill, and now finds that it has been feeding upon husks. It craves the substance of life and not its shadow.
“In the second place, the modern world turns to Dante because it finds him exceedingly human. Though depicting the other world, he never loses sight of this. Indeed, his other world is only the consummation of this. So closely is the natural interwoven with the supernatural that, whether in Hell, Purgatory, or Heaven, we always feel the pulse of the human heart and the throb of human passion. The literal is never lost in the abstract and reality never evaporates in the symbol. Virgil may be the symbol of Human Reason, but he is always the poet of flesh and blood, Dante’s beloved teacher and guide. Beatrice may be the symbol of Divine Wisdom, but she is always the adored and blessed lady of his affections. … Notwithstanding the exaltation and sublimity of his theme, Dante is as human as Shakespeare and as profound in his humanity.”
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