An Introduction to Dante’s Inferno ENG 251 Western World Literature Stephen Wood TCCC “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them, there is no third.” - T.S. Eliot “Oh, hell.” - Dante’s publisher The Life of Dante Alighieri 1265 Dante is born in Florence, the city that would dominate his political and literary life. Dante’s family was a noble one, but no longer wealthy. The Life of Dante Alighieri Dante receives a solid education. Like the education of most in western Europe, his education is based on the trivium and the quadrivium, a pattern for education popular since ancient times. Trivium: Grammar, logic, rhetoric Quadrivium: Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, Music The Life of Dante Alighieri Dante’s family is very active in politics, as were all noble families in Italy in the day. Politics in Florence is an especially nasty business. The two major political factions of the day are the Guelfs and the Ghibellines. Further, the Guelfs are divided into two factions, the Whites and the Blacks. Primarily, these political divisions were focused on where earthly power properly resided. The two main rivals were the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and the Pope. Dante is a White Guelf, a supporter of imperial power. The Life of Dante Alighieri 1274 Dante first meets Beatrice Portinari, the woman who would dominate his personal and literary life. He falls in love with her at first sight, although both were already betrothed to other people because of family arrangement. Although he meets her at this time, he would not actually speak to her for nine more years. The Life of Dante Alighieri 1283 This is a tumultuous year for Dante. He and Beatrice actually speak to one another. Beatrice passes him on the street a few weeks later and ignores him. Dante’s father dies. Dante marries Gemma Donati shortly thereafter. The Life of Dante Alighieri 1287 Beatrice is married. The Life of Dante Alighieri 1289 Dante participates as a calvaryman in a battle between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines The Life of Dante Alighieri 1290 Beatrice dies. In her honor, Dante writes his Vita nuova (New Life), which recounts his love for her in verse and prose. This was begun in 1292 after a vision and was completed by 1294. The Life of Dante Alighieri 1295 As a member of the dominant White Guelf party in Florence, Dante enters local politics. 1300 Dante serves as one of the six highest magistrates in Florence for two months. As part of his duties, he is forced to banish a friend for causing a riot. The Life of Dante Alighieri 1301 Dante is sent to Rome as an envoy. 1302 While Dante is away, the Black Guelfs take power in Florence; this party is led by a cousin of Dante’s wife. Dante is banished under a death sentence and never returns to Florence. He never sees his wife again, although a daughter and two sons eventually joined him (the sons have to leave Florence when each turns 14). The Life of Dante Alighieri Dante begins almost twenty years of wandering; he is done with politics and Florence forever. The Life of Dante Alighieri 1306 Dante begins writing the Divine Comedy. 1314 The first part of the Divine Comedy, the Inferno is published. 1321 Dante dies; the second and third parts of the Divine Comedy are published posthumously. Dante’s Intentions In his exile years, Dante wrote a letter to a friend and patron named Can Grande. In that letter, he explained his intentions concerning his comedy. Dante’s Intentions “The subject of this work must be understood as taken according to the letter and then interpreted according to the allegorical meaning. The subject, then, of the whole work, taken according to the letter alone, is simply a consideration of the state of souls after death; for from and around this the whole notion of the work turns.” Dante’s Intentions This tells us that Dante intended his work to be understood on two levels -- the literal and the allegorical. The literal is the most fundamental; Dante believes that his work is at its foundation purely descriptive. The Divine Comedy is literally what happens to souls after death, in Dante’s view. Dante’s Intentions “But if the work is considered according to its allegorical meaning, the subject is man, liable to the reward and punishment of justice, according as through the freedom of will he is deserving or undeserving … The aim of this work is to remove those living in this life from a state of misery and guide them to a state of happiness.” Dante’s Intentions The second level upon which to interpret Dante’s work, then, is the allegorical level. Instead of being purely descriptive, the Divine Comedy is also prescriptive; it is allegorical instruction to help human beings avoid sin and find salvation. Notice Dante’s use of the twin concepts of justice and free will. Dante’s Intentions “The title of the book is ‘Here beginneth the Comedy of Dante Alighieri, a Florentine by birth but not by character.’” Remember that Dante wrote his comedy during his years of exile from his home city of Florence, and his bitterness toward his home is evident throughout the work. Dante’s Intentions “And for the comprehension of this, it must be understood that comedy is a certain kind of poetical narrative which differs from all others. It differs from tragedy in its subject matter -- in this way, that tragedy is in its beginning admirable and quiet, in its ending of catastrophe foul and horrible … Comedy, on the other hand, begins with adverse circumstances, but its theme has a happy termination.” Dante’s Intentions “… From this it is evident why the present work is called a comedy. For if we consider the theme, in its beginning it is horrible and foul because it is in Hell; in its ending, desirable and joyful because it is in Paradise.” Dante’s Intentions Thus, the movement of the plot mirrors the movement of the human soul, from sin and destruction to paradise and salvation. Life is, after all, a comedy. Dante’s Plan Dante constructed his comedy in much the same manner as a cathedral. In a cathedral, every architectural detail, every measurement, every angle, every ratio - every detail is designed to have spiritual significance and to glorify God. Dante’s Plan The divinity of the Holy Trinity and mystical significance of the number 3 •The Divine Comedy is divided into three books: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. •Each book contains 33 cantos (except for Inferno, which has the introductory canto to the whole comedy, thus 33 + 1 •Each realm of the afterlife, Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, has 9 (3 x 3) divisions. •The poetic form of the work, terza rima, is based on tercets (groups of three lines stanzas). The rhyme scheme of terza rima is ABA BCB CDC, etc. Thus, the three (ABA) is centered on a one (B), which produces the next tercet (BCB). Dante’s Plan Other important numbers that recur throughout the comedy are 7 and 10, reflecting the seven days of creation, and the perfection of the number 10.