Dante Alighieri was a Medieval Italian poet and philosopher whose poetic trilogy, the Divine Comedy, made an indelible impression on both literature and theology. He was one of the most learned Italian laymen of his day, intimately familiar with Aristotelian logic and natural philosophy, theology, and classical literature. He is, of course, most famous for having written the Divine Comedy, but in his poetry as well as his philosophical treatises and other writings, he freely mingles and synthesizes philosophical and theological language as well extensive references and allusions to scripture and classical and contemporary poetry. While his contributions to world literature and other artistic genres are universally acknowledged, his theological imagination has also remained influential from his own time to the present day. His philosophical legacy, by comparison, remains more difficult to assess, though his writings provide, at the very least, a powerful tool for the study of the landscape of late medieval and Renaissance philosophy. He is widely considered the major Italian poet of the Middle Ages and is recognized as the father of the Italian language.
Even when the epic lost its appeal and was replaced by other art forms (the novel, primarily, and the drama) Dante’s fame continued. His great poem enjoys the kind of power peculiar to a classic: successive epochs have been able to find reflected in it their intellectual concerns. In the post-Napoleonic 19th century, readers identified with the powerful, sympathetic, and doomed personalities of the Inferno. In the early 20th century they found the poem to possess an aesthetic power of verbal realization independent of and at times in contradiction to its structure and argument. Later readers have been eager to show the poem to be a polyphonic masterpiece, as integrated as a mighty work of architecture, whose different sections reflect and, in a way, respond to one another. Dante created a remarkable repertoire of types in a work of vivid mimetic presentations, as well as a poem of great stylistic artistry in its prefigurations and correspondences. Moreover, he incorporated all of these important political, philosophical, and theological themes and did so in a way that shows moral wisdom and lofty ethical vision.
The plot of the Divine Comedy is simple: a man, generally assumed to be Dante himself, is miraculously enabled to undertake an ultramundane journey, which leads him to visit the souls in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. He has two guides: Virgil, who leads him through the Inferno and Purgatorio, and Beatrice, who introduces him to Paradiso. Through these fictional encounters taking place from Good Friday evening in 1300 through Easter Sunday and slightly beyond, Dante learns of the exile that is awaiting him (which had, of course, already occurred at the time of the writing). This device allowed Dante not only to create a story out of his pending exile but also to explain how he came to cope with his calamity and to offer suggestions for the resolution of Italy’s troubles as well. Thus, the exile of an individual becomes a microcosm of the problems of a country, and it also becomes representative of the fall of humankind. Dante’s story is thus historically specific as well as paradigmatic.
His great poem enjoys the kind of power peculiar to a classic: successive epochs have been able to find reflected in it their intellectual concerns. Dante created a remarkable repertoire of types in a work of vivid mimetic presentations, as well as a poem of great stylistic artistry in its prefigurations and correspondences. Moreover, he incorporated all of these important political, philosophical, and theological themes and did so in a way that shows moral wisdom and lofty ethical vision.
Dante’s Divine Comedy is a poem that has flourished for more than 650 years. In the simple power of its striking imaginative conceptions, it has continued to astonish generations of readers; for more than a hundred years it has been a staple in all higher education programs in the Western world, and it has continued to provide guidance and nourishment to the major poets of our times. William Butler Yeats called Dante “the chief imagination of Christendom,” and T.S. Eliot elevated Dante to a pre-eminence shared by only one other poet in the modern world, William Shakespeare: “[They] divide the modern world between them. There is no third.” They rival one another in their creation of types that have entered into the world of reference and association of modern thought. Like Shakespeare, Dante created universal types from historical figures, and in so doing he considerably enhanced the treasury of modern myth.