He who sees a need and waits to be asked for help is as unkind as if he had refused it. – Dante Alighieri (Born: May 9, 1265?)
All literary traditions have their shining stars, some brighter than others. Italian has Dante’s La Divina Commedia, unsurpassed in rhyme and rhythm, unique in style and symbolism. It is one of the greatest masterpieces of world literature. Known in English as The Divine Comedy, it has a hundred three-lined Cantos, evenly divided in three Canticas of thirty-three cantos, plus an introductory one. The numbers have significance: Three stands for the Trinity, thirty-three for Christ’s age at crucifixion, and hundred signifies perfection. The work is regarded as an allegory for the slow march of the human soul towards the Divine. Comedy, in is name, is not play with a jolly ending, but a harmonious world which, with all its chaos and confusion, is heading towards a lofty heavenly goal.
The poem is in the format of a tour of the post-mortem realms of Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise) that poet has taken.
The epic begins by saying that when the poet was in the middle of his life’s journey he strayed away from the straight path. He encountered a leopard, a lion, and a wolf, symbolizing the sins of fraud, pride, and greed. In that frightened state there appeared (at the urging of Beatrice – his love of youthful years) the ancient Latin poet Virgil. Virgil escorted Dante to the first two of the ethereal realms with their several circles and layers.
In the first circle of the Inferno they saw Greek and Latin writers and thinkers who had lived before they could be saved by Christ on earth, such as Homer and Heraclitus, Horace and Ovid, and many more. Just as one unfamiliar with Indic sacred history, cannot understand the references in the Bhagavad Gita, one unacquainted with Western cultural history will be utterly confused by Dante’s allusions.
They went through other circles, like visitors to a zoo watching creatures in cages. They saw sinners: gluttons, misers, wasters and such. These were sunk in mud or at hard labor. Devils tried to stop them from the City of Dis, but angels helped them go in. Here they saw heretics, despots, murderers, cheats, thieves, traitors, and other sinners, everyone in excruciating pain, caused by red-hot iron, boiling blood, and other torturous agents.
Dante could recognize among the denizens of these places individuals he had known or read about: They included some famous people, politicians and prophets, archbishops and popes. One of them said to Dante, like Henry Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalion:
I don’t know who you are or in what way
You’ve come down here; And yet you surely seem,
From what I hear – to be a Florentine. (xxx:10)
Finally, they came to the bounds of Inferno where Lucifer was chewing away Brutus and Cassius – the Caesarian assassins – as well Judas, – the betrayer of Christ.
Then they come to Purgatory which was made up of seven terraces, one each for the seven deadly sins: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Laziness, Miserliness, Gluttony, and Lust. At its portal was an angel that etched on Dante’s forehead the letter P for peccata (sins). The poet was commanded to cleanse his forehead of that mark. As they marched forward they heard celestial voices. There again they saw repentant sinners begging for mercy.
When they were out of Purgatory, Beatrice appeared, and Virgil left Dante. Beatrice was the one for whom the poet had taken fancy when they both were nine-year-olds. They had seen each other a decade later, but she married someone else, only to die soon thereafter. Beatrice had always been in the poet’s heart.
Now Dante and Beatrice entered Paradise which was engulfed in sheer radiance. He could hear the harmonies of the heaven of which Pythagoras had spoken, the cosmic shabda of aum, one might say. As they moved from region to region Beatrice became more and more beautiful. The heavenly realm included the Sun and the Moon and all the known planets too. Dante learned about mystic powers and Redemption, and was blessed with Love. He recognized eminent saints and philosophers, scholars and poets: King Solomon, Aquinas, Boethius, and the Venerable Bede were among the luminaries blissfully residing in Paradise. The realm of the stars was the Eighth Heaven. On two occasions (Cantos 22 and 27) he spied the planets from the constellation Gemini: The earth was so pitifully small it made him smile: a remarkable flight of imagination for his time.
Then he had visions of Christ and Mother Mary, as also of the Apostles. There was a higher Heaven still. In that Ninth crystalline pinnacle he saw God in all glory, but it was all blindingly effulgent. Beatrice asked him to open his eyes, but he only saw a multitude of splendors on which there was a shower of lightning. Finally, Beatrice bade him goodbye and merged with the blessed ones. Dante listened to a prayer uttered by St. Bernard upon hearing which he was overcome by ecstasy for he realized the centrality of “Love that moves the sun and the other stars: l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.” No other writer before Dante seems to have referred to the sun as another star.
As with other great literary classics of the world, La Divina Commedia has been read, studied, translated, and commented upon by countless people over the centuries. Its sweep of post-mortem fantasy worlds is impressive. While its notions of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven are not exactly original, their review as a stirring tour-guide is fascinating and unusual, besides revealing the grotesque landscapes of heaven and hell in pre-modern times: Views, with all their horror, implausibility, and Divine heartlessness, are still taken as Reality by millions even today. The broad pictures are somewhat trivialized by placing particular historical and mythological personages in various regions. Dante’s views on values and morality are medieval and traditional: chastising gluttony, lust, anger and greed: mostly victimless crimes. Its philosophical reflections are interesting but not highly insightful. Its descriptions of Hell and its torture chambers are not much different from what one reads in the Vishnu Purana or in the Holy Qur’an. With all that, La Divina Commedia of Dante is a masterpiece because it is grand poetry. Its simple yet majestic lines chiseled in terza rima (ABA-BCB-CDC-DED rhyming pattern) make it magnificent poetry in the original, and enjoyably readable even in translations.
May 9, 2016