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Rescuing Dante from His

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Papers by Dr William Johnston and Philip Harvey as part of a joint presentation on Dante's Comedy at the Institute for Spiritual Studies, on Thursday 27th March 2014.

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The most useable English translation (in unrhymed verse) is that of Jean and Robert Hollander, published in three volumes in paperback as Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso (New York: Anchor Books, 2000-2006). The volumes include the Italian text, an outline of each canto, two indexes, and bibliography. The Hollanders' full text is also available together with Robert Hollander's notes and a search engine on the website Hollander's notes, running over a thousand pages, digest more than seventy previous commentaries written in Italian, Latin, and English since 1322. Hollander stands in the lineage of the American interpreters, Charles C. Grandgent (1862-1939) and Charles S. Singleton (1909-1985). All three assert Dante's pursuit of truthfulness and play down any notion that the poet devised an "allegory"to veil the truth. As Singleton put it, "The fiction of the Comedy is that it is not a fiction." Dante wished us to believe every word of what he wrote.

The best one-volume introduction is by Barbara Reynolds (1914- ), an associate of Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957). See Reynolds, Dante: The Poet, The Political Thinker, The Man (London: Tauris, 2006). Reynolds published this summation of her life's work when she was 92 years old!

Where to start reading in the Comedy

Will Johnston's Proposed Sequence:
Purgatorio 27-33, Paradiso 1-2, 11-12, 15-16, Inferno 5, 10, 15, 16, 33, 1-2.

A Brief Journey Through Dante's Comedy

A Talk by Will Johnston on 27 March 2014

I. Why Dante Today?

I am going to start by reading a passage from the fourth canto of the middle part, the Purgatorio. This is a passage which few readers notice, and I would like to think that I may be the first lecturer on Dante who ever began with these lines. I have chosen the most improbable opening that I can: I quote

"As soon as he [Virgil] had said these words a voice close by called out: 'Perhaps you'll feel the need to sit before then.'" [Purg. 4; 98-99] Twenty lines later this character Belacqua speaks again: "When I reached him he barely raised his head to say: 'Have you marked how the sun drives his car past your left shoulder?'" [4: 118-120] When Dante asked him why he just sits there, he replies, "Brother, what's the good of going up? The angel of the God who sits at the gateway would not let me pass into the torments." [4: 127-129]

That's all I am going to quote. Does anyone have any idea why I have read such an inconspicuous passage? No, I thought not. Yet you have all heard how a 20th-century author responded to this very passage. Believe it or not, this indolent man leaning against a rock in the road is the inspiration for...what famous work of literature of the 1950s?

All of you have heard of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1952/1955). Earlier he wrote a short story called, "Belacqua and the Lobster." Out of that Samuel Beckett derived his famous play. How many have seen the play? And here's my question: how many are aware that Beckett derived the concept of endless waiting from this minor character in Dante? Isn't that a surprise? Who would have thought that Waiting for Godot of all works of literature has its roots in Dante? The source is a character at the end of canto 4 of the Purgatorio named Belacqua, and his only distinguishing trait is that he has none. He must wait in Ante-Purgatory because he spent his whole life on earth just waiting, and he never committed to anything. He was too lethargic ever to repent. In fact, he is best described as a would-be drop out from life, and it is this nondescript personage whom Beckett spotted and which led to the famous play.

Why have I begun with Belacqua, one of the most inconspicuous and least likeable characters of the hundred odd speakers in the Comedy? Because although no one else ever noticed Belacqua, Samuel Beckett did, and out of that noticing emerged a life's work. Dante's poem affects readers like that: often a completely inconspicous detail turns out to exert unheard of significance. I will give other examples of this contagion during the course of the evening. That is why I like working on Dante. He never ceases to surprise, and the more I learn the faster come the suprises. He is inexhaustible.

The American historian Norman O. Cantor praised the Middle Ages because its people had to reinvent the framework of life from the ground up. They invented new languages, new literatures, and new architecture. The medieval process of re-imagining culminated with Dante. He re-imagined the Afterworld from the ground up, and into it he put several dozen of the great re-imaginers wo had preceded him. His poem re-imagines the re-imaginers. That is the gist of his originality.


In talking about six characters in the Inferno I will show how Alfred Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning adapted both characters and the genre of the dramatic monologue from Dante. One answer to the question "Why Dante today?" is that modern poetry owes so much to him. Philip will take up that theme.

II. Structure of the Poem

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) wrote his Comedy between about 1306 and 1321 in the Tuscan dialect of the early fourteenth century. Dante's text served to stabilize Tuscan vernacular, which writers in the sixteenth century adopted as the literary language for all Italians. The poem's 14, 233 lines pioneer a pattern of triple rhymes known as terza rima. It consists of a schema of tercets (terzine) rhymed aba bcb cdc ded. Dante called the poem a "Comedy" because the title "Tragedy" would have implied an unhappy ending, and this poem builds to a very happy ending. Given that the poet never imagined anyone calling his human-centered Comedy "divine," one should avoid that epithet, which the poet Boccaccio introduced in lectures of the 1370s and the Venetian editor Lodovico Dolce first published in the title in 1555.

The poem narrates a week-long journey to the Afterworld that the narrator supposedly made around Easter 1300. Any expositor needs to differentiates Dante the poet from the character of Dante the pilgrim which our poet created. The narrative divides into three parts or cantiche (as they are called in Purgatorio 33: 140). The three parts are named respectively Inferno (which means simply the Lower Region), Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Each of these units divides into 33 or 34 cantos, which while averaging about 140 lines each, vary between the extremes of 115 lines in Inferno 6 and 11 and 160 lines in Purgatorio 32. The Inferno contains thirty-four cantos because the first one serves as a prelude to the poem as a whole, while the other two cantiche contain thirty-three cantos, bringing the total to one hundred. Thus the poem builds its structure upward from tercets to cantos to cantiche.

Dante wrote the Comedy between about 1306 and 1321 while he was living in exile from his hometown of Florence. From 1295 to 1301 the poet had served in its city government. A change of regime, instigated by Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303) in Nov. 1301, banished Dante for good in February 1302, a sentence confirmed in 1315. The poet sojourned at various courts in Northern Italy, notably in Verona in 1305 and again from 1312 to 1317 and in Ravenna from 1317, where he finished the Purgatorio and wrote the whole of the Paradiso. He died in September 1321 after contracting malaria in the marshes south of Venice on a return trip to Ravenna. He is buried there, with a cenotaph (1829) next to Michelangelo in the Franciscan church of Santa Croce in Florence.

III. Six Characters in Search of a Purpose:
The Inferno: Two Storytellers, Two Florentines, and Two Poets

Coming after Philip's overview, I am going to talk about sin. The Comedy is a poem about first understanding the power of sin in others (the Inferno), then working through the consequences of one's own sins on the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory (Purgatorio cantos 10-27), next learning to forget one's purged sins in Post-Purgatory, and finally enjoying spiritual growth through requited love for God in the Paradiso. The poem starts with thrity-four (34) cantos that present a theory of sins.

The lesser sins in cantos 5 to 9 result from unbridled appetite, from uncontrolled impulse. Far worse are the sins of evil will, of malice (in cantos 10 to 17), and worst of all are sins of wilful breaking of trust (in cantos 18 to 34). Dante devotes fully half of the Inferno to the ten types of fraud (cantos 18 to 30) and to the four types of treachery (cantos 31 to 34).

I am going to illustrate Dante's theory of sin by skteching six (6) of the most memorable characters in the Inferno. All of them play roles that Dante also played as storyteller, Florentine, and poet. Two are Romantic storytellers, beloved of Victorian poets: 1) the adulteress Francesca and 2) the so called evil counsellor (dishonest adviser) Ulysses. Two are Florentine heroes admired by Dante: 3) the unbeliever Farinata, who saved Florence from destruution but was never thanked for it, and 4) Dante's friend and mentor, Brunetto Latini, the first friend whom our poet meets in hell. The other two are poets, the first of a dozen poets who speak in the poem. They are 5) the Sicilian courtier, Piero della Vigna, who committed suicide after being falsely arrested, and the 6) Provençal poet of war, Bertran de Born, who advised a royal prince to rebel against his father King Henry II of England and Aquitaine. All six of my characters try to justify their sin by discerning some higher purpose in their lives. They are six characters in search of a purpose.

A. Romantic Storytellers: Francesca and Ulysses

# 1 FRANCESCA da Polenta da Rimini e Ravenna (d. 1283/1284) Canto 5

Everyone has heard of Paolo and Francesca at the end of canto 5. The Lady Francesca is the first sinner who speaks to Dante (Paolo says not a word), and whirling about in a windstorm of other adulterers she tells a pitiable tale. She was engaged to a crippled older brother, Giovanni Malatesta, but fell in love with his handsome younger brother Paolo, who came to arrange the marriage and gave her the wrong impression she was marrying him, the good looking one. On her wedding day she discovered she was marrying a cripple. Eventually Paolo and she spent time together in her house reading chivalric tales of King Arthur's court and its adulterers. Then comes the famous line "We read no more that day" — a line which leaves us in doubt about just what happened next. Presumably they were kissing or soemthing more when Francesca's husband Giovanni or Gianciotto ( -1304) burst into the room in 1283/1284 and stabbed them both to death. Francesca blames the French poet of King Arthur's court for their slipping into sin, and she is sure that her husband will go to hell for murder in circle nine reserved for betrayers of family members.

But why do Francesca and Paolo end in hell when other adulterers including some famous poets purge their sin on Mount Purgatory (cantos 25 and 26)? The Preraphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti (who was named for Dante) went so far as to claim Dante got it wrong and that Francesca really went to Purgatory. But no. At the start of the next canto our poet explains their punishment: the sin of Paolo and Francesca is not adultery as such but rather the fact that they committed it within the extended family. (Inferno 6: 2) As brother-in-law and sister-in-law they break a taboo. This infraction against social norms landed them in hell. You can't run large households if brothers and sisters are allowed to commit adultery with one another's spouses. Francesca tells a good sob-story, but she got what she deserved.

# 2 ULYSSES Canto 26

My other Romantic storyteller is Ulysses (Odysseus), whom Dante knew through Book Two of Virgil's Aeneid rather than directly from Homer. Ulysses goes to the eighth ditch of the eighth circle reserved for the fraudulent because he misled the Trojans during peace negotiations and persuaded them to let the wooden horse into their city walls. He burns in hell. But our poet invents a later career for the adventurer and has him devote fifty lines at the end of canto 26 telling how he sailed as an old man beyond Gibraltar (the pillars of Hercules) and headed south where no European had ever ventured. Eventually Ulysses' ship sank in a storm within sight of Mount Purgatory, but the old trooper rejoices that he had this last adventure. As some of you know, Dante's invention of Ulysses's last voyage inspired a poem by the young Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) called "Ulysses." I will read the opening and closing lines because their conception comes entirely from Dante. Tennyson imagines the Ulysses of Dante speaking to his sailors:

It little profits that an idle king
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an agèd wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
We are not that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

The conclusion sounds like the ethos of the Victorian missionary Daviod Livingstone or even of Scott of Antarctica. Tennyson has compresssed the credo of Victorian explorers into a "dramatic monologue." Ten years later Tennyson's future rival Robert Browning also adapted the genre of the dramatic monologue directly from Ulysses' speech in Dante. In a word Dante invented not only the story of Ulysses's last voyage, but in order to tell the tale, he invented the genre of peotry that Robert Brownng made his own.

A. The Florentines: FARINATA and BRUNETTO

The first fellow Florentine whom our pilgrim meets is Farinata in canto 10, consigned among the so-called heretics, or wilful unbelievers. Farinata goes to hell because he did not accept the truths of Christianity.

# 3 FARINATA (c. 1200-1264) Canto 10

We remember Dante's Farinata because of his defiance. He behaved "as though he held all Hell in utter scorn." (10: 36). Being the first of such unflinching spirits to appear, Farinata introduces the notion that not all the damned accept their punishment. Such unquenchable souls recur in cantos 13, 15, and throughout the ten ditches of the fraudulent. He sits stiffly erect in an open stone tomb. In a flamboyant orator's gesture, he raises his right hand as if to harangue Dante, who reports: "But the other, that great soul (magnanimo) at whose wish I had stopped, did not change countenance, nor bend his neck, nor move his cheSt" (10: 73-75) He is the "man of stone" admired by the Stoic philosophers. (I: 199) During his nineteen years of exile Dnate may well have wished that he too could become a man of stone, but of course he did not, he overflowed with compassion.

The brazen figure of Farinata makes a startling revelation. Quite without warning he narrates his heroic intervention on Florence's behalf after her defeat by his Ghibelline alliance at the battle of Montaperti outside Siena in 1260. The victors had held a council in the city of Empoli at which nearly everyone present assented to a proposal to raze the city of Florence to the ground. Only Farinata, a native Florentine and leader of the victors, raised his voice raised in defence of the city, and eventually his resolve persuaded the others. He boasts to Dante, "But it was I alone, when all agreed to make an end of Florence, I alone who dared speak out in her defense." (10: 91-93) During Florence's darkest hour this stiff-necked character unleashed his effrontery in order to keep the city on the Arno intact.

Can you imagine how European art might have developed if Farinata had not prevented the destruction of the city that within just two hundred years (to 1460) would launch Giotto, Arnolfo di Cambio, Masaccio, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, and Alberti among countless others. It requires a Dantesque imagination just to think about the consequences.Without knowing it, every humanist ever since has stood in debt to the forgotten savior Farinata. Among Florentine writers, only Dante seemed to have had the faintest inkling of the disaster that the otherwise despised Farinata prevented. Just as no Florentine ever thanked Farinata for having saved the city, so our poet implies that no Florentine ever thanked him while in exile for making the city the future center of Italian literary greatness.

# 4 Brunetto Latini (c. 1220-1294) Canto 13

And now my second Florentine. Coming in canto 15 near the middle of the Inferno, Brunetto is the first friend whom Dante meets in hell in canto 15, among the unrepentant homosexuals. He is in hell, not because Dante considered homosexual relations a mortal sin, but because Brunetto did not repent.

During Dante's youth, Brunetto Latini (ca. 1220-1294) led a career as a distinguished man-of-letters in Florence. Indeed, he ranks with his contemporary, the poet Guido Guinizelli in Purgatorio 26, as the most accomplished and best remembered Florentine to speak anywhere in the poem. Renowned as an orator, a poet, a chronicler, and a teacher, this proto-humanist spent six years in France as a voluntary exile after Florence had lost the battle of Montaperti in 1260. Already he had written most of a narrative poem in Italian rhymed couplets, just one generation after the introduction of rhyme into the language. His was the longest such poem up to its time. Although the young Dante never attended Brunetto's lectures, our poet esteemed his predecessor as a mentor in the art of vernacular literature, and canto 15 presents their unexpected reunion as one between master and pupil. Fittingly he speaks longer than anyone else in the Inferno except a denouncer of the papacy, Guido da Montefeltro, in canto 27.

Because Brunetto is the first former friend whom Dante encounters in hell, the meeting carries special poignancy. Brunetto addresses Dante with the familiar "tu," but for one of the few times in the poem the pilgrim replies with the honorific "voi." (Hollander, II: 430-431) This usage contrasts with the exchange of the familiar "tu" between Virgil and Dante that began at their very first greeting in Inferno 1. With Brunetto Dante develops a relationship shot through with mutual affection, and that is its importance. Our poet is saying that a good and loveable man like Brunetto can end up in hell if he does not repent in timely fashion while alive.


# 5 Piero della Vigna (c.1190 - c. 1249) Canto 13

It is no secret that I like the poets whom Dante inserts into the poem. In hell there are three of them. One is Brunetto and the other two are the Sicilian Piero della Vigna, a court official who committed suicide, whom we meet in canto 13, and Bertran de Born, a Provençal poet of war in canto 28. The Purgatorio features another eight poets and the Paradiso at least three.

No one except readers of the Comedy has heard of the Sicilian poet Piero della Vigna Comedy, but that is because we forget how rhyme originated in medieval poetry. Arabic poets in southern Spain's Andalusia started using rhyme about the year 900. Believe it or not, no poet in any language had ever done so before ! From there the pioneers of Provençal love poetry borrowed rhyme about 1110 (William of Aquitaine), and one of the Provençal early masters, Arnaut Daniel (who invented the rhyme scheme of the sestina) appears in Purgatorio 26. From Provence, rhyme migrated into Italian in Sicily during the 1220s, and there another Siclian poet, Giacomo da Lentini (fl1233-1248), invented the sonnet in the 1230s. Giacomo's invention consisted of starting with two quatrains totalling eight lines, and then balancing those against one quatrain and a couplet (six lines). No doubt, someone else would eventually have thought of this fourteen-line schema, but it was a Sicilian who did it firSt

Dante puts Piero della Vigna in the Comedy so that our poet can show his own skill in writing in the Sicilian style. About eighty years after Italians started using rhyme, Dante invented terza rima and thus proved himself the greatest rhymer of all. Piero della Vigna is here so that Dante can out-rhyme him in a contest between poets. Dante has Piero speak in the stiff idiom of the Sicilian court, and he writes one line of pastiche in the mannered style of the Sicilians; "I think he thought that I thought...." Dante loved to match wits with other poets.

# 6. Bertran de Born (c. 1150-pre-1215) Canto 28

After this lesson in the history of rhyme, I pass to Bertran de Born, another forgotten Provençal poet. At the end of canto 28 on schismatics we meet him, and I quote: "I truly saw, and seem to see it still, a headless body make its way like all the others in that dismal flock. And by its hair he held his severed head swinging in his hand as if it were a lantern." (28: 118-120). Our poet has assigned to this disreputable poet the dubious honor of coining a phrase to characterize how hell makes punishments fit the crime. It is Bertran, a poet who glorified warfare, who in the last word of the last line of the canto mints the word "contrapasso" to denote the exquisite fittingness of hell's retributions. Its etymological meaning of "counter-step" or "counter-measure" implies something like parrying an opponent's attempted blow in fencing. A contrapasso nullifies a sin with a counter-thrust that matches and thwarts it.

The notion of a counter-thrust against sin has gratified moralists who wish to pin a label on the penal procedures of Dante's hell by which each punishment embodies the logical consequences of the sin. With poetic flair Bertran sums up the fittingness of his own penalty for having set his lord, king Henry II of England, at odds with his son: " 'Because I severed persons thus conjoined, severed, alas, I carry my own brain from its starting-point here in my body. In me you observe fit punishment [contrapasso].'" (28: 139-142) It is one of the most memorable utterances that Dante assigns to any of the dozen or so poets who speak in the Comedy. By ascribing the ingenious term for the art of punishment in hell to a fellow poet, Dante coyly congratulates himself for the exquisite appropriateness of the punishments that he himself has devised. Our poet is a great inventor of tortures, and he has another poet supply the word that justifies their ingenuity.

D. Conclusion on the Inferno:

To sum up: My six characters exemplify three tendencies, but all of them use their speeches to justify their conduct and to try to discern a purpose in what they did. They are rationalizing their sin. Dante loves storytellers because he too is one of them as are Francesca and Ulysses. Dante features fellow Florentines whenever he can, and Farinata and Brunetto are among the most memorable with incredible tales. Most of all, Dante goes out of his way to let poets speak in the Comedy, because fellow poets give him a chance to show off his skill as a wordsmith. You will enjoy reading the Inferno because its author created memorable characters who tell memorable stories which he presents in incomparbaly inventive verse.

IV. Purgatorio: The two forgotten stages of growth: Ante-Purgatory and Post-Purgatory

After Philip's account, I am going to focus briefly on the two neglected portions of the Purgatorio, namely its first nine cantos and its last six. The concept of Purgatory already existed more than a century before Dante wrote, but my two subsections concern two regions that Dante invented: Ante-Purgatory is his waiting room for last-minute penitents and Post-Purgatory is his site of the restored Garden of Eden. There our poet explores how radical innocence functions. As regards the eighteen cantos spent climbing the Mountain of Purgatory (cantos 10-27), I will only say that they impose on penitents a prolonged Lent. Climbing through the seven terraces resembles an uninterrupted Lent.

As the middle cantica opens, the poet faces a new problem. The two travelers, like the readers who have followed them, are not merely exhausted, they are traumatized. They are suffering, however briefly, from what we today recognize as "post-traumatic stress syndrome" caused by enduring canto after canto of unrelenting horrors, which have built in unrelieved intensity from canto ten onwards and even more from canto 18. The weary journeyers need an interval to recover from their ordeal before they begin the serious business of ascending Mount Purgatory. In cantos 6 to 8, our poet detours them in the company of a fellow poet Sordello, who invites them to explore a benign new territory. To relieve the tension of the high quest, Dante the poet invents the notion of "Ante-Purgatory," the vestibule of the Mountain of Penitence.

Just as Limbo accomodates pagans who missed the sacrament of baptism, this place accommodates those Christians who missed the sacrament of penance before dying. They include the excommunicated (canto 3), the slothful, where Samuel Beckett's Belacqua belongs (canto 4), and late repenters (canto 5). Although few if any readers will have thought beforehand about such a place as Ante-Purgatory, it turns out to be remarkably attractive in topography, climate, and inhabitants. The notables who accost Dante include an Emperor's son Manfred and the talkative poet Sordello, who in canto 7 shows the travelers the Valley of the Princes. This enclave functions to mark a pause not unlike that of the noble castle in Inferno 4. In almost every way the setting of the first nine cantos offers a contrast with the horrors of hell, and in many ways the visitors enjoy its relative leisure more intensely than they will either the ardors of Mount Purgatory, the unexpected drama of the Earthly Paradise, or the almost uninterrupted instruction that the pilgrim must imbibe in heaven.


The last six cantos of the Purgatorio comprise a world set apart in the unnamed Garden of Eden preserved atop Mount Purgatory. The text delivers a flagrant instance of the poet's refusal to assign a name to a significant encounter, this time an encounter with a place. To underline the refusal to name things, he postpones disclosing the name of the lady who in 28: 40-41 goes "singing and picking flowers" until five and half cantos later he casually lets Beatrice name her "Matelda." (33: 119). Although the text uses the past tense, the timeless character of the site, underlined by Dante the pilgrim's "slow, slow" pace of exploring it (28: 5), encourages one to think of its events as occuring in a mythic present.

Although Dante the poet never calls this "divine forest" (28: 1) the "Earthly Paradise," that name has clung to it. Another evocative name cited by Robert Hollander comes from Benevenuto da Imola (1380): "Post-Purgatory." (II: 630). Similarly the garden functions as the eighth terrace of the Mountain of Purgatory (II: 658), albeit without ever being so named. Descriptions in Canto 28 abounds in imagery from the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2-3 (esp. 28: 91-96) and from Ovid's description in the Metamorphoses of both Proserpina (28: 49-51) and the Golden Age (28: 139-141). Beatrice specifically names the Tree of Knowledge in 33:58-63, and the chorus murmurs the name of Adam as it circles the tree in 32: 37. For all these reasons we are entitled to hail this mythic site as Eden Preserved, albeit devoid of its first human residents. To situate them in heaven, Adam and a vignette of Eve will materialize rather unexpectedly next to St John in canto 26 of the Paradiso, and they both will resurface even more unexpectedly at the feet of the Virgin Mary in canto 32.

All of these allusions suffice to establish the pre-lapsarian atmosphere of the "holy ground" (28: 118) which "the Supreme Good...gave to humankind as a token of eternal peace." (28: 93) Here "it is always spring" and every fruit remains in season. (28: 143) Upon arriving in the Post-Purgatory after the exertion of climbing the mountain, Dante enters a world from which sin has been banished. For six cantos we explore with him how human life on earth might have evolved if Adam and Eve had never lapsed. Our poet imagines in depth what a prelapsarian existence might involve. He embodies it in the singing girl Matelda, who only gets named at the end of the last canto. As, an emblem of the prelapsarian Eve, Matelda performs a role as servant rather than master. Her permanent innocence takes the form of meeting the needs of others rather than trying to reshape their behavior as Beatrice does.

What the recovery of innocence involves for Dante is that he must cope with the disapperance of his leader Virgil without having said good-bye. Then comes the emergence of his beloved Beatrice, who briefly greets him in canto 30 and then spends a half of canto 31 scolding him for his subsquent involvement with other women and with the Lady Philosophy. Finally in canto 31 she tells her handmaiden Matelda to dunk Dante in the river Lethe, which will make him forget all this sins as well as all those other women. Later she tells Matelda to anoint him with water from a second river, this one invented by Dante called Eunoë. Just as Lethe causes forgetting — a great blessng — the river Eunoë causes remembering of all the good things in life — an even greater blessing. As Dante prepares to depart with Beatrice on a journey through the ten spheres of heaven, he writes about the other river Eunoë:

From those most holy waters
I came away remade, as are new plants
renwed with new-sprung leaves,
pure and prepared to rise up to the stars. (33: 142-145)

I note in closing that the first canto of the Paradiso also takes place in the Earthly Paradise. While still on earth Dante and Beatrice start their process of mutual transformation. Dante assures us that you do not have to ascend into heaven to feel that you are in heaven

V. Paradiso: Three Types of Discourse: Beatrice's Tutorials, Theologians' Lectures, and Dante's Meditations.

1. Beatrice's Tutorials

I feel a responsibility to share with you my growing love of the Paradiso. Many readers of the Comedy never reach the point of actually preferring the Paradiso. I want to tell you why I now do so. The answer hinges on how Dante the poet grows in mastery of expression. During this cantica, he recounts how he is maturing as a poet.

The Paradiso divides not into three regions like the Purgatorio but rather into three types of discourse. We can learn to enjoy each of the three types if we recognize each for what it offers.The most noticeable type, especially. in the first ten cantos, is what I call Beatrice's tutorials, where alone with Dante she lectures to him one on one about theology. Almost no one considers this a favorite part of the poem! Although these passages are highly inventive, they are rarely enjoyable.

In ten cantos that start with canto 1 and climax with canto 29, Beatrice delivers one-on-one lectures to her lover Dante concerning topics of theology. Usually these "tutorials" take place when the two space-travelers are alone, often when they are ascending from one sphere to the next one. The explanations dissect, often with scholastic nicety, such matters as the quality of light (canto 2), the distinction between absolute and conditioned will in canto 4, or the question of how to repair broken vows (canto 5), and the tutorials culminate in two discourses on the hierarchy of the angels (canto 28) and their mode of creation (canto 29). In nearly every tutorial Beatrice paraphrases in Italian theological ideas which our poet could have absorbed only from texts in Latin. Thus among the poem's many other innovations, it also vernacularizes the language of theology, just as her name vernacularizes the Latin Beatrix, which means a woman who blesses.

2. The lecturers

The second type of discourse is more familiar from the encounters in the Inferno and the Purgatorio, and much more enjoyable than the tutorials. From canto 3 onward Beatrice recruits wisdom figures to instruct her protégé in the heavenly mysteries. Starting with the ex-nun Piccarda in canto 3 and the Emperor Justinian in canto 6, these invited lecturers include some very prestigious individuals indeed, all of whom gladly oblige Beatrice by discoursing at length, usually on topics that she assigns. Like Beatrice the tutor, they too are — for the first time ever — transposing Latin theological texts into Italian verse.

In a famous instance, in canto 11 the Dominican master of scholastic reasoning, Thomas Aquinas, extols the Franciscans and in the next canto his competitor, the Franciscan scholastic, St Bonaventure, replies by praising his rival Dominicans. Thus Dante has leaders of the two competing Mendicant orders laud one another. Remarkably Dante's St Francis in love with Lady Poverty foreshadows out ebullient present pope, while Dante's rigorous St Thomas foreshadows the scholastic Benedict XVI. In canto 14 Solomon, the (supposed) author of the Song of Songs delivers a highly poetic addendum to it. (14: 36-63) Cantos 21 and 22 present two luminaries of monasticism, St Peter Damian and St Benedict himself, to explicate the contemplative life. In cantos 24-26, the New Testament writers St Peter, St James, and St John conduct mock oral examinations about Dante's theological expertise. Protestants will be disappointed that the writers of the Synoptic Gospels as well as as St Paul play no role here. Dante revels in a cameo appearance from none other than Adam, whose invention of the first language our poet hails as the work of a fellow poet. (26: 91-142) Adam was a poet - think about it! Finally in canto 31 Beatrice, before she ascends out of Dante's company has invited an old man whose eyes radiate "kindly joy," to take over her task of explaining how the highest sphere of heaven works. We meet St Bernard of Clairvaux, who holds our attention for two of the final three cantos. Amazingly, the most influential of all medieval theologians gets overlooked: St Augustine. Apart from this omission, you can read the lectures of the theologians as a refresher course in the history of medieval thought.

3. Dante's Meditations or Reflective Monologues

Best of all comes the third type of discourse. It is less frequently identified than the other two even though it grows in frequency as the poem proceeds. The third type consists of what may be called Dante's reflective monologues. In these lengthy passages, the poet himself takes center stage and becomes his own explainer-in-chief. No longer dependent either on Beatrice's tutorials or on the lecturers whom she recruits, our poet launches into meditations about his reactions to what he is hearing and seeing, as though he were writing a journal to record stages of his growth in consciousness. The poet does not address these lyrical journal-entries to anyone in particular, least of all to his companion Beatrice. In these first-person accounts, Dante, the practiced lyric poet, voices to himself and to us his growing self-confidence as a witness of heavenly wonders. He begins to take seriously Beatrice's invitation "Open your eyes and see me as I am. The things that you have witnessed have given you the strength to bear my smile." (23: 46-48)

Starting after the heart-to-heart meeting with his ancestor Cacciaguida in cantos 15 to 18, the poet makes bold to serve as his own tour-guide and ours. The distinction between Dante the pilgrim and Dante the poet which has pervaded the poem up to now gives way as the two roles fuse into that of Dante the poet-pilgrim. The monologues of that newly empowered traveler culminate in three of the last four cantos, more than half of whose length recounts the poet-pilgrim's final reflections. By then he is well advanced on the path to becoming his own wisdom figure. We discover how much he had learned and how remarkably he has grown in ability to digest the mysteries that he and others have witnessed. In the course of a hundred cantos he has, he now realizes, developed into the poet who will write our poem (33: 85-87).

Dante's ten odd monologues often fail to be recognized as constituting a separate third genre, because by definition they do not narrate encounters with others and therefore do not generate human drama. Even though these solo-recitals demonstrate the poet's increasing mastery of his craft, they do not call attention to themselves because most of them lack narrative drive. They climax in the last hundred lines of the poem, which reflect on light and desire until in the last six lines a bolt of lightning deprives our poet's "exalted vision" (alta fantasia) of its power (33: 143). Like Prospero the enchanter at the end of The Tempest, our enchanter too must lay down his wand, and in the last seven lines, which we will read at the very end of this evening, he acknowledges that he must end his poem after a bolt of lightnng takes away his "exalted vision."

Conclusion: "Transhumanization" and "Imparadise the Mind"

In conclusion, I am going to give two example of our poet's invention of poetic phrases to use in theology.

Transhumanization In what amounts to the first of Dante's monologues (Paradiso 1: 1-84), the poet coins a word that conveys the essence of both the entire Paradiso and indeed of the goal of the poem. The poet writes, "To soar beyond the human [trasumanar] cannot be described in words." (1: 70-71). At this moment when Dante and Beatrice together discover that they are "soaring beyond the human." They are being "transhumanized" into a state beyond anything that they could have known previously. From now on, the task for both the poet will be to evoke successive stages of this miracle. His monologues explore new phases of his feeling "transhumanized," but of course because he is sexist he does not let Beatrice speak about how the process feels to her. We learn a lot about Dante's inner state, but we never learn about hers. How regrettable, some would say deplorable.

Imparadise the Mind Canto 28 opens with a remarkable neologism: "When she [Beatrice] who does imparadise my mind?." (28: 1) Coined very late in the poem, this verb may be said to characterize the forward movement in the Paradiso, whereby Dante's process of transhumanization, begun jointly with Beatrice in canto 1: 70, gradually absorbs Dante's mind into paradise. That is a good note on which to end. The Paradiso tells how the journey up through ten spheres of heaven imparadised Dante's mind. That is what reading the Paradiso should do to you. You too can begin to let your mind feel imparadised as you grow beyond guilt. Let the poet carry you away into undreamed of realms beyond the world of sin in the Inferno and that of repentance in the Purgatorio into the state of being transhumanized, whether through participating in liturgy, through practising meditation, or .... through reading Dante. In a word, I like the Paradiso most because it does the most to imparadise the mind.

A Brief Journey Through Dante's Comedy

A Talk by Philip Harvey on 27 March 2014

I. How poets today rework Dante

Peter Steele, of blessed memory, Melbourne poet and Jesuit, cites the American Ralph Waldo Emerson: the Commedia is "autobiography in colossal cipher". By which he means, Dante's life is written large through the code of his poem. Steele embellishes on that idea by adding that the Commedia "might also be called metaphor in colossal suspense." Which I take to mean, Dante's poem keeps us hanging on even as it goes on talking about ultimate questions. In literary terms generally today, this is a central issue because while some writers strive to find through their words ways of describing and explaining everything knowable in human terms, others have abandoned that objective, saying words cannot do this, nor should we be making such grand universalising claims for our writing. So, while Dante's critics say the poet can never explain everything there is to know about existence, Dante nevertheless stands as a classical example of how this might be achieved. Can our experience be turned into global statements?

Another Australian poet, Clive James, once hosted a late night London TV show called The Late Clive James. This is a very Dantesque joke, where a person who is alive presents himself as someone who is at the same time over there interviewing people on the other side. In the introduction to his new translation of Dante, Clive asks: "What kind of story has all the action in the first third, and then settles back to stage a discussion of obscure spiritual matters? But the Divine Comedy (he says) isn't just a story, it's a poem: one of the biggest, most varied and most accomplished poems in all the world. Appreciated on the level of its verse, the thing never stops getting steadily more beautiful as it goes on. T.S. Eliot said that the last cantos of Heaven (Paradiso) were as great as poetry can ever get. The translator's task is to compose something to suggest that such a judgement might be right." (p. xi of his translation) Interviewed himself lately online, after he almost died, Clive James said that the thing about Shakespeare and Dante is they both had "an incredible, vivid capacity for imagery and argument packed into a tight space." I would add, they had an incredible store of stories they knew how to retell in their chosen mode.

Unlike Clive, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney abandoned the idea of translating Dante and it is worth hearing why. He says (p. 425-6 of O'Driscoll interview) that "for a while I was so exhilarated by the whole marvel of Dante that I was tempted to have a go at doing the complete Inferno — simply for its own imaginative splendour." Why did he abandon the idea? "Because I didn't know Italian, because I couldn't gauge tone, because I was at a loss about all the little particles strewn around the big nouns and verbs. That was what I told myself, at any rate. I soldiered on for four hundred lines or so, consulting my Sinclair and my Singleton; but after I'd done three cantos, there was a realization that I couldn't achieve what I wanted, which was to get a style going that would be right for me and the material. I couldn't establish a measure that combined plain speaking with fluent movement. I just couldn't match the shapes that the bright container of the terza rima contained. For a big job like that, you need a note that pays you back, if you know what I mean: you need to be making a music that doesn't just match the original but verifies something in yourself as well." This admission of defeat is honest and salutary. Heaney recognises that it is better to leave the poem alone rather than deliver something that doesn't work effectively. I especially like "all the little particles strewn around the big nouns and verbs", which is as good a description of dealing with Italian as you can get. It is those little inflected vowels that can change the meaning of a whole verse; sometimes a whole passage can hang on just one such sound in Italian.

Dante wrote his poem in the early 1300s. This is only a couple of decades before the pandemic known today as the Black Death killed possibly over half of Europe's population. Dante's poem is written 200 years before Columbus found the New World, a major shift in European imagination. Three hundred years before Galileo proved that the Earth goes around the Sun. Over 500 years before Darwin argued that our every existence is premised on evolution. Over 600 years before a human stands on the Moon and takes a photograph of the Earth coming up over the horizon of its satellite. All of this would have to go into a poem written by Dante in 2014 because empirical description of the world we know is as much a part of the Comedy as its spiritual attentions. These questions face serious writers today, for they are presented with the same basic questions as Dante. Who are we? What do we make of our temporal existence? Where do we come from? Where are we going?

Poets take up Dante's objectives, or are heavily influenced by his presence. Heaney abandoned direct translation but then wrote a poem about St Patrick's Purgatory in Ireland, one of the original places of the very idea of Purgatory, in which Dante plays a guiding role. In 'Field Work' we hear Heaney's translation of the story of Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri, the story in one of the lowest circles of Hell, in which two men's hatred of one another is so unforgiving that one perpetually gnaws on the other's skull. Written in the context of the bitter conflicts of the time in Northern Ireland, the poem takes on profound social meaning.

Harking back, Eliot used Dante as the mood setting and starting point in several of his most famous poems. "I had not known death had undone so many," he writes in The wasteland, written soon after the First World War, the line a direct lift from Inferno 3, in which Dante describes a near-endless procession of people filing into Hell:

Si lunga tratta
Di gente, ch'io non avrei mai creduto
Che morte tanta n'avesse disfatta.

The West Australian poet John Kinsella has written his own Divine Comedy, where Dante's poem is used as a template for a series of cantos about the private life of his family on a farm, with repeated expressions of concern about political collapse, land degradation, climate change, and urban corruption.

And so on.

But two kinds of modern writer come close to Dante in their preoccupations: story tellers who are concerned about the consequences of individual actions, whether good or bad; and writers in spirituality who wish to explain the connections between our made-up public lives and our internal private lives, determined as they are by different experiences of love.

II. Against Received Ideas About the Inferno

For many people, Dante means Inferno. Full stop. Many people who have not read Dante conclude that it's 'That poem about Hell'. Or, and this includes many genuine readers as well, Inferno is where the action is, and everything later is not so interesting. Inferno is where all the interesting evil people are to be found, they believe, and this makes for good literature. Everyone keeps one eye on the villain, because villains are at the centre of the excitement. Apparently.

Our responses in this regard are very modern. It comes from reading too many novels and seeing too many films. It is our expectation that bad people will help spice up the story. It defines us as brainwashed romantics with an addiction to crime stories.

However, the Comedy is not a novel in the modern sense at all, the novel had not been invented when Dante wrote his poem. The Comedy draws on romances like Arthur and other knightly legends and on the courtly love mode then prevalent in European writing. It is truly an anthology of short stories and anecdotes, but it is not a novel.

Nor are the people found in Inferno there for our vicarious delectation as readers with prurient interests in bad people and what they might do next. They are there because they are in Hell, and that is the main message. In fact, Dante is showing us that people in Hell cannot do anything 'next'. They are actually trapped permanently and cannot escape. There is No Exit. When we see these people in such a state Dante and Virgil are asking us, by implication, would you want to find yourself in this predicament? Because, you see, it is Inferno that is not interesting. The descriptions are certainly interesting, but who would want to live there?

A way to appreciate the message is by paying attention to the character Dante's own reactions in the circles he visits with Virgil. When it is sulphuric, he holds his nose it's so disgusting. When he sees something especially horrible in a pit or stream he is shocked, he averts his gaze. Sometimes he gets the shakes, or faints. In real time, if we were Dante himself and not the armchair traveller, we are being advised that this would be our response too. Our main reaction would be: I'm out of here!

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
che la diritta via era smarrita.
(Inferno I, 1-3)

Companionship is vital to our reading of the Divine Comedy. Without Virgil we could not traverse Inferno. I say 'we' because the opening lines of the poem must not be translated 'In the middle of my life' but quite explicitly 'In the middle of our life'. Brilliantly and subtly, Dante involves us, any reader of his poem, from line 1 as a fellow traveller. So right away we too trust Virgil and treat his every word and action with respect and expectation. In fact we too can only survive Inferno by going along with Virgil. In Inferno we are locked into witnessing shocking things with only one person to help us through, and even then Virgil is not always very communicative.

Inferno is a place of stone, streams, and darkness. It is rough and disorganised. There is no fiery lava because Dante had never seen a volcano. In fact the further down we go the colder it gets, until the pit of hell is solid ice. There are manmade landscapes in Inferno, notably in Malebolge, and we wonder what constructions Dante knew from life that correlate to these fearsome ditches. We remember this when we arrive at Purgatorio, because that is a place of increasing interestingness, where entrances lead to new places full of something surprising, something to look forward to. At each step of the way in Purgatorio landscape is increasingly inviting, there is improvement, there is promise. This is not the case in Inferno.

The condition of those in Inferno is a warning to the reader about the pitfalls of committing those things, with the certain implication that we are in fact capable of doing such things. Inferno is at least realistic in forwarding the view that humans are quite capable of mistakes, crimes, and evil, and that we have to start by examining our own selves.

Falling and rising, descent and ascent are contrasts made between Inferno and Purgatorio. In Inferno we not only descend physically into more extreme conditions, but the descent is one of increasingly intolerable scenes of sin and punishment. Dante himself literally falls down on a number of occasions.

Many of our modern responses to Inferno are romantic goth. They indulge in the gloomy and terrifying. Or they presuppose that this is one really weird place that has to go on the tourist itinerary. Or it's a chamber of horrors that give us an added thrill. But all of these modern responses still have to confront the actual meaning of the words on the gates of Inferno. We will read three English translations of the words very soon, but here they are in Dante's original:

    Per me si va ne la città dolente.
Per me si va ne l'etterno dolore.
Per me si va tra la perduta gente.
    Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore;
fecemi la divina podestate,
la somma sapienza e'l primo amore.
    Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
se non etterne, e io etterno duro.
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate.
(Inferno 3, 1-9)

III. Mountain of Purgatory, Mountain of Hope

Although Purgatory was hardly doubted throughout the Middle Ages, the definition of Purgatory by the Western Church was only made in 1274, at the Council of Lyons. Dante (1265-1321) in that year was nine years old, living in Florence, which means he was of the first generation of Christians to grow up treating Purgatory as an officially sanctioned place of temporal punishment. In his lifetime Purgatory had moved from being a need for purification of sin of the departed, to being a recognised corridor towards paradise, one that all human souls might have to traverse. Purgatory has suddenly become big time, something we all need to know about.

So when we read Purgatorio we are shown a version of the place (it is now a place) at a precise moment in its evolution in religious awareness. We have to accept the idea that Dante wrote a poem about somewhere none of us can talk of with 100% certainty, the afterlife, using geographic forms like a mountain for Purgatory, which all of his readers knew to be a literary trick, but about which the place itself his readers decidedly believed in. It is, for us, a remarkable suspension of belief on their part to read descriptions of Purgatorio knowing they are a fiction, while the whole time hanging on every word in the certain knowledge that they and those they love will very likely find themselves in Purgatory itself at some future date. Anytime soon, in fact. "Metaphor in colossal suspense." (Peter Steele)

Purgatorio the poem is an instruction about expectations. Dante meets two of the vital requirements of good storytelling: to entertain and to inform. But it is also a warning and even catechetical in its motives. Attentive readers of Purgatorio are wised up: they finish the poem better prepared than when they started. And they will read Dante ahead of other accounts because it is a superlative poetic accomplishment. While there are countless artworks and writings from the period that help explain Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise to believers, the Commedia is an artistic expression in its own league. It is like comparing the rock video on the subject with the three hour cinematic masterpiece put out by Dante Studios. There is time for both, but most people will more certainly be wowed and warned by the big new sensaround release at the local picture house. Soon to be out on DVD.

Certain outcomes of making Purgatory doctrine laid the foundations for the Reformation 200 or so years later, especially in the practice of indulgences. Indulgences do not concern us here, though it is worth quoting Diarmaid MacCulloch when he delineates the pre-Reformation obsession with Purgatory geographically, saying that people north of the alps and on the Atlantic seaboard became more concerned with prayer as a ticket out of Purgatory than those south of the alps. As he phrases it in a sentence typical of his suave irony, "Dante Alighieri's detailed descriptions of Purgatory in his fourteenth-century masterwork the Divina Commedia might suggest that southerners were indeed concerned with Purgatory, but his Italian readers do not seem to have transformed their delight in his great poem into practical action or hard cash."

Readers who get stuck in Inferno and see this as the place where all the action happens, have a long way to go. Inferno is a dead-end ultimately without an understanding of what happens next. Indeed, Purgatorio is the poem that helps us better appreciate what is going on in Inferno.

Quando la nova gente alzò la fronte
ver' noi, dicendo a noi: "Se voi sapete,
mostratene la via di gire al monte."

E Virgilio rispuose: "voi credete
forse che siamo esperti d'esto loco;
ma noi siam peregrin come voi siete.

Dinzi venimmo, innanzi a voi un poco,
per altra via, fu sì aspra e forte,
che lo salire omai ne parrà gioco."

And the new people lifted their faces
toward us, saying to us, "If you know
the way up the mountain, show it to us."

And Virgil answered, "Possibly you believe
that this is a place with which we are familiar,
but we are pilgrims even as you are.

We came here just now, a little before you did,
by another way that was so rough and hard
that the climb must seem like play now, after it."
(Purgatorio II, 58-66)

Notice that the people we meet here are 'nova gente' (new people) by contrast with those in Inferno, who are described as 'perduta gente' (Lost people). In these verses the word 'peregrin' (pilgrim) first appears in the Comedy. For the first time in the poem we are on pilgrimage, we are on the way to learning about ourselves. Inferno was not a pilgrimage. Inferno was an endurance test, a wakeup call, a place of no escape. But an early sign that the infernal state has been escaped is the use of 'peregrin'. It is behind us. While on pilgrimage we are not in a burning hurry, we can stop when we like, we make conversation as we wish, we have time to reflect on ourselves and others, what we have been and who we are now and what we can be in the future. None of that is possible in Inferno, which is somewhere passed through in haste, quick, get out of there. Inferno is not even really much of a journey, it is not a tourist destination. Pilgrimage is a medieval business, a way of finding the Way. Pilgrimage is what we do on earth in our allotted time, which may be why Purgatorio is for many readers, myself included, the most accessible and recognisable of the three places in Dante's poem. Pilgrimage is a way of reconciling things in our own life: it is a 'little life' within the larger span of our life. We may choose to remember the poem is set in 1300 that, coincidentally or not, was the first Holy Year of the Western Church. It was a Jubilee that was, in this case, a chance for sins to be pardoned if the penitent took a pilgrimage to Rome.

Noi volgendo ivi le nostre persone,
"Beati pauperes spiritu!" voci
cantaron sà, che nol diria sermone,

Ahi quanto son diverse quelle foci
da l'infernali! ché quivi per canti
s'entra, e là giù per lamenti feroci.

Già montavam su per lì scaglion santi,
ed esser mi parea troppo più lieve
che per lo pian non mi parea davanti.

As we were turning there, voices were
singing, "Blessed are the poor in spirit,"
so that there are no words to tell of it.

Oh how different are these openings
from those in Hell. Here one enters to singing
and there below to fierce lamentations.

Now we were climbing up the sacred stairs
and seemed much lighter than I had been where
I was walking on level ground before.
(Purgatorio XII, 109-117)

Normally it is harder to walk uphill than on a flat path, but here Dante observes that he is now lighter than he was previously. This is because heaviness is a condition of Inferno. Lightness is a feature of Purgatorio. This contrast only becomes apparent once we read Purgatorio. With each encounter, Dante feels himself lightened of a burden. Sometimes he talks about a weight being lifted from his shoulders. The first third of Purgatorio is a physical, emotional and intellectual effort of overcoming the weighted experience of Inferno. Recent scarred memory stays in the present. We are made to sense its presence, even though Inferno, it has been established, is behind us. Gradually, Dante describes the sense of being freed from the infernal state of mind. Purgatorio appears to be the place where both gravity and grace are at work, unlike Inferno where only gravity operates, and Paradiso, where we are drawn into another place altogether, one only possible through the operations of grace.

We also find here that people in Purgatorio sing, an expression not to be heard in Inferno. In Inferno there is weeping, howling, groaning, lamenting. The contrast is powerful. Singing is a natural human activity indicative of a listener, of belief in the future, of hope. Human noises in Inferno are the opposite, negative and painful sounds of enduring suffering and irreversible loss. Almost every canto of Purgatorio mentions singing. It is the singing of psalm lines, in particular, for the psalms were the commonly held poetry of the Mediterranean world of Dante. They were known to educated and uneducated alike. And we hear in this canto one of the beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit. Because pilgrims in Purgatorio will hear the words of blessing.

All of which affirms the central fact that here there is hope. In Inferno we abandon hope. Complete absence of hope is a definition of Hell. Those in Inferno are fixed at the stage where they come to a realisation of the sins they have committed. Such a moment of painful realisation in real life can be like hell, which is one way of appreciating why Dante places them there: as a warning. We have to consider the idea that people in Inferno have no wish to be free of their sin and that hope itself is not on their list of priorities, or even possibilities. While Purgatorio offers the possibility of moving out of that fixity, of finding a solution to the mistakes in life, of learning to overcome past errors.

Penance, for this reason, is central to an understanding of the first two books of the Divine Comedy. Repentance and the possibility of being forgiven seem not to be available to those in Inferno. Almost the entire reason for Purgatorio is repentance and forgiveness and reparation. The condition of those in Inferno is a warning to the reader about the pitfalls of committing those things, with the certain implication that we are in fact capable of doing such things. Inferno is at least realistic in forwarding the view that humans are quite capable of mistakes, crimes, and evil, and that we have to start by examining our own selves. Purgatorio is the option where that examination of self is on offer. Each individual in Purgatorio is going through some kind of penitential test, with the aim of future personal restoration.

Similarly, falling and rising, descent and ascent are contrasts made between Inferno and Purgatorio. In Inferno we not only descend physically into more extreme conditions, but the descent is one of increasingly intolerable scenes of sin and punishment. Dante himself literally falls down on a number of occasions. Whereas Purgatorio is on the up and up. Here the climb is increasingly easy (not always what we feel when we actually climb a mountain, by the way) and Dante is not prone to the same collapses as reported from the previous place. The further away from Inferno we find ourselves, the lighter we feel.

Falling asleep is one way of dealing with trauma, with shocking sights not previously thought imaginable. Sleep is one way of dealing with pain and in Purgatorio Dante reports on several occasions how he goes to sleep. In Inferno there is much fainting and swooning, where Virgil is there to pick Dante up and keep him on track. Perhaps after Inferno Dante was suffering from sleep deprivation and Purgatorio is a kind of catch-up. No one is going to be caught napping in Inferno and when Dante does sleep in Inferno it is sudden and deep, as when he loses consciousness after witnessing Paolo and Francesca in Canto 5. This year a professor in Bologna offered the theory that Dante himself had narcolepsy. Retrospective diagnosis based on a literary text is fraught with risk. Certainly Dante is fascinated with the process of falling asleep and describes it more than once in beautiful detail. Some critics of the narcolepsy theory say that Dante describes the poetic state of reverie attendant upon the creative act. Others that Dante the person in the poem falls asleep at those moments of the day, evening in fact, when the body would fall asleep naturally, and that this is Dante's way of indicating time passing, in places where clock time is redundant. Whether or not the poet was narcoleptic, the theory draws attention to the sleep patterns through the poem and the poet's acknowledgement of dream states as part of human experience, a source of the poetic muse.

A noticeable contrast when we enter Purgatorio is improved inter-personal communication and human contact between Dante and those he meets. Contact is suddenly real, not just a matter of observation, a quick hello (if that) and then moving on, as we know it in Inferno. Words are no longer delivered under duress. Instead of briefings from Virgil about the circle we now find ourselves in, change happens. People are allowed to share their experiences. They no longer stand as examples of what we don't want happening to us, but as people who by their actions show us what we can do in our own lives. This is why Purgatorio is the critical book in the Divine Comedy, it is the main access to the meaning of everything else we read about here. It is the book of examples, it is 'Life, a User's Manual'.

IV. Why Readers Shun the Paradiso

Asked why readers shun the Paradiso reasons like these crop up:

  1. Nothing happens, there is no action.
  2. It's unreal. It's about a place that doesn't exist.
  3. Nobody is perfect, so why try being perfect?
  4. The poetry is completely over the top.
  5. It's this Italian poet's fantasy about a girl he saw once when he was nine or something.
  6. It depicts an outdated view of existence and the universe.
  7. It is completely removed from my personal experience.

However, when we read Paradiso we find the complete opposite of these prejudgements and dismissals. Our expectations are contradicted at every turn.

  1. Far from nothing happening, we find there is too much happening, and we don't have a guide like Virgil to explain.
  2. Far from being unreal, Paradiso turns out to be a series of descriptions of the inner world of our conscious experience.
  3. Although no one is perfect, and Dante admits as much right to the final canto, the poem describes the increasing wholeness of the person. This means spiritual growth and maturity, the overcoming and letting go of old ways, as seen in Inferno and Purgatorio. Each canto introduces a new way of understanding self, and self's relationship to others and to ultimate reality.
  4. As for the poetry, Eliot said that the final cantos of Paradiso are as great as poetry could ever hope to get. Translators, Clive James amongst them, confess they feel they have to start at the start and work their way through the poem, rather than picking different sections and piecing it together. It's as though they are confronted by the journey presented by Dante, they must go through the process themselves, from bad to good, damnation to grace. Paradiso is a reward for the translator. It is a reward for the reader.
  5. John Banville said of Seamus Heaney last year that "Genius is the ability to summon childhood at will." It is remarkable that Dante, despite all the relationships, the ups and downs, in his life writes at all times with the powerful memory of the beloved young woman he rarely met or was ever close to. In exile in Ravenna, it is the deep inner connection he has with the world of his upbringing. I remember this when I ponder the popularity of the three cantiche. Inferno, it seems to me, is a 20-year-old's poem, full of danger, inexplicable action, and bad stuff happening. Purgatorio is a 40-year-old's poem, looking backward with some understanding of the good and the bad, knowing there is more only what and why. While Paradiso is a poem for 60-year-olds, a poem that reaches for peace and resolution and knows you cannot go on faffing around forever. You need bearing. The whole Commedia is about the life cycle, the experience of living itself. And how does Dante maintain perspective? By focussing on someone he loved before any of the experiences in the poem had even happened to him, in early adolescence. There she is at the start and at the end, in the world, as we know it.
  6. Paradiso is unlike any other poem. I am starting to see how one of its main effects is to describe what it feels like to know you are loved by someone else. This effect grows larger with each canto. They are descriptions of conscious states of beatitude, each one more satisfactory than the last. How Dante does this I just don't know, but the reader experiences the sense of being loved by someone outside of oneself. All the poetic constructs become quite secondary to this main experience. It is, for this reason, not Inferno and not Purgatorio.  And even though there is a journey involved, it's not the going that is important here so much as the sense of being loved, and blessed. The someone else is Beatrice, that is Grace in and through a loved person, but is really what we mean by God.


Dante Alighieri. Purgatorio : a New Verse Translation by W. S. Merwin. Knopf, 2000.
Heaney, Seamus. Field Work. Faber, 1979.
James, Clive. "Introduction" in his Dante : The Divine Comedy : a New Verse Translation. Picador, 2013.
MacCulloch, Diarmaid. A History of Christianity : the First Three Thousand Years. Allen Lane, 2009.
O'Driscoll, Dennis. Stepping Stones : Interviews with Seamus Heaney. Faber, 2008.
Steele, Peter. "Dante: Love and Death on the Longest Journey", in Braiding the Voices : Essays in Poetry. John Leonard Press, 2012.

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