Dante: Christian Thought Expressed through Poetry

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CVSP 202/205: DANTE 1 Dante: Christian Thought Expressed through Poetry
Dante Alighieri
Key writings:
La Vita Nuova
De vulgari eloquentia
De monarchia
La (Divina) Commedia
(Domenico di Michelino, 1465) LECTURE TOPICS
Beginnings, Middles, Ends
The Divine Comedy: Structure and Narrative
The Divine Comedy: Christianity and Antiquity
Medieval reading practices
Dante and Florence: politics and exile
Reason (philosophy)
Representative authors:
-Aristotle, Virgil
Virgil leads Dante from the gates of
Hell to the ascent of Mount
Faith (theology)
Representative authors:
-Augustine, Aquinas
Beatrice leads Dante from the
Earthly Paradise through the
heavenly spheres
3 Spaces, subdivided:
-Hell (circles)
-Purgatory (terraces)
-Heaven (spheres)
3 Canticles, subdivided
-Inferno (34 cantos)
-Purgatorio (33 cantos)
-Paradiso (33 cantos)
Organizing principle: divine love
Organizing principle: journey
Comprehended by: Dante the poet
Apprehended by: Dante the pilgrim
“Io non Enëa, io non Paulo sono” (“I am not Aeneas, I am not Paul” Inf. II.32)
Dante’s epic is composed in a verse form of his own invention known as terza
rima: staggered, alternating triplets of lines rhyme, while consecutive lines are
grouped into “tercets” of three lines each. The result: the first and last lines of
each tercet rhyme, while the ending of the middle line gives the rhyme-sound
that will appear in the next tercet. Follow this effect in the poem’s opening
(Inferno I.1-9) both in the Italian text and the rhymed translation by M. Palma.
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Midway through the journey of our life, I found
myself in a dark wood, for I had strayed
from the straight pathway to this tangled ground.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!
How hard it is to tell of, overlaid
with harsh and savage growth, so wild and raw
the thought of it still makes me feel afraid.
Tant'è amara che poco è più morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch'i' vi trovai,
dirò de l'altre cose ch'i' v'ho scorte.
Death scarce could be more bitter. But to draw
the lessons of the good that came my way,
I will describe the other things I saw.
In his Letter to Can Grande, which functions as a preface to the Paradiso (this
canticle is dedicated to Can Grande della Scala, a Veronese noblemen and
patron of Dante toward the end of his life), Dante makes an orthodox
distinction between four “levels” of reading—the level of the literal sense, plus
three forms of allegorical sense— using the Biblical exodus to illustrate:
“For the first sense is that which is contained in the letter, while there is another
which is contained in what is signified by the letter. The first is called literal, while
the second is called allegorical, or moral or anagogic. And in order to make this
manner of treatment clear, it can be applied to the following verses: ‘When Israel
went out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a barbarous people, Judea was made his
sanctuary, Israel his dominion’ [Psalm 114:1-2]. Now if we look at the letter alone,
what is signified to us is the departure of the sons of Israel from Egypt during the time
of Moses; if at the allegory, what is signified to us is our redemption through Christ
[typology]; if at the moral sense, what is signified to us is the conversion of the soul
from the sorrow and misery of sin to the state of grace; if at the anagogic, what is
signified to us is the departure of the sanctified soul from bondage to the corruption of
this world into the freedom of eternal glory.” (Trans. R. Hollander)
Dante coordinates the literal details of his narrative to aid and suggest
allegorical reading to an extraordinary degree. Both space (see diagrams
below) and time (e.g. the descent of Inferno is made to coincide with the
historical date of Good Friday, 1300) are activated to create these
The Exodus episode one of the multitude of recurrent touchstone throughout
the epic, and can be clearly related both to the journey form of the narrative,
and to Dante’s experience of exile (see below).
and the celestial pilot stood astern
with blessedness inscribed upon his face,
More than a hundred souls were in his ship:
Two at the end were shouting “All of those
for whom the Red Sea’s waters opened wide
were dead before the Jordan saw their heirs;
In exitu Israël de Aegypto,
they all were singing with a single voice,
chanting it verse by verse until the end.
(Purgatorio II.43-48)
and those who found the task too difficult
to keep on striving with Anchises’ son,
give themselves up to an inglorious life.”
(Purgatorio XVIII.133-38)
The exodus story is also the vehicle for one of Augustine’s most well-known
pronouncements on the relationship between Christianity and Antiquity: as the
people led by Moses were not blameworthy for taking with them and making
use of Egyptian treasures, so the Christian writer may, without necessary
spiritual blame, take and adapt the “treasures” of classical literature.
Political life in medieval Tuscany was concentrated around three poles: city,
church, and empire. Italy in its present borders became a unified nation-state
only in the 19th century; circa 1300, fortified towns constituted their own citystates, and Florence was among the most wealthy and influential. For that very
reason it was a prize eyed by the two other forces competing for dominance:
the Catholic church headed by the Pope, and Holy Roman Empire (a legacy
political construct whose plausibility and coherence waxed and waned
throughout this period, as did the political ambitions of the claimants).
Dante, in De monarchia, argued that each ought to be a supreme but separate
authority in its own domain: the worldly affairs of humankind should be
administered under the supreme rule of the emperor; its spiritual affairs under
church and pope. This political philosophy is echoed in The Divine Comedy,
but did not correspond with reality: Florence and the entire Italian peninsula
were roiled by continual intrigue, conflict, and war, and as a result of one
factional struggle in 1301, Dante was permanently exiled from his native city.
“To me, however, the whole world is a homeland, like the sea to fish—though I drank
from the Arno before cutting my teeth, and love Florence so much that, because I
loved her, I suffer exile unjustly—and I will weight the balance of my judgement
more with reason than with sentiment.” (De vulgari eloquentia, trans. Steven
Botterill, I.vi) [Compare I.vii; Inferno XXVI.1-12]
CVSP 202/205: DANTE Fig. 1: The Cosmos of The Divine Comedy
Hell and its circles [Inferno] opposite mountain of Purgatory and its terraces
[Purgatorio] beneath Heaven and its spheres [Paradiso].
4 CVSP 202/205: DANTE Fig. 2: The Mountain of Purgatory
Arrival area [“Antepurgatory”] leading through the gate to seven terraces over which
the seven capital vices are purged, and ultimately to the Earthly Paradise.

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