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More Books by Dante Alighieri
The Divine Comedy is an epic poem on a vast scale, told by Dante himself in first-person point of view. The Divine Comedy is also an allegory, a work in which characters, objects, and events have figurative as well as literal meanings. For example, in The Divine Comedy , Virgil symbolizes human reason, and Beatrice stands for faith and supernatural truth. The three beasts Dante encounters in Canto 1 represent sin; various personages in other cantos symbolize specific types of sin, such as envy, sloth, gluttony, and lust. Some allegorical characters, objects, or events symbolize several things at the same time.
Year Completed. On Good Friday in , the thirty-five-year-old Dante enters the Forest of Error, a dark and ominous wood symbolizing his own sinful materialism and the materialism of the world in general. At the top of a hill in the distance, he sees a light representing the hope of the resurrected Christ.
When he attempts to climb toward the light, a leopard, lion, and she-wolf—which symbolize human iniquity—block his way. The spirit of the Roman poet Virgil also spelled Vergil , author of the epic The Aeneid , comes forth to rescue him. Virgil, the exemplar of human reason, offers to escort him out of the Forest of Error by another route, for there is no way to get by the she-wolf. This alternate route leads first through Hell, where Dante will recognize sin for what it is, then through Purgatory, where Dante will abjure sin and purge himself of it. Finally, it leads to Heaven, where Beatrice—a woman Dante had loved before her death in —will become his guide while Virgil returns from whence he came, for human reason cannot mount the heights of paradise.
Dante happily agrees to make the journey, and they depart. Hell Inferno. After passing into hell, Dante and Virgil hear the groans and wails of the damned in the outer reaches of the abyss and see persons who were lukewarm and halfhearted in their moral lives. They then cross the Acheron River and arrive at a cone-shaped cavern with nine circles.
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In the First Circle at the top, called Limbo, are the least offensive souls, such as unbaptized but well-meaning heathens. They suffer no torment. However, they cannot move on to Purgatory or Heaven because they died before Christ brought redemption. Virgil himself dwells in the First Circle. They then pass down through the other eight circles, seeing terrible sights of suffering experienced by those who died in mortal sin in Catholicism, the worst kind of sin, such as willful murder and rape. Circles 2 through 6 contain those who could not control their desires for sex, food, money, or false religion heresy.
The Seventh Circle contains those who committed violence against themselves or others, or against God himself. The Eighth Circle contains hypocrites, thieves, forgers, alchemists, swindlers, flatterers, and deceivers. The Ninth Circle, reserved for the worst evildoers, are traitors of every kind—those who were false to friends or relatives, or to their country or a noble cause.
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Dante sees two political leaders frozen together in a lake, head to head. He also encounters the most abominable of all traitors—Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Christ—and Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar. Satan himself, the arch fiend, is here frozen in the lake. Purgatory Purgatorio. Dante and Virgil next arrive at the Mount of Purgatory, which is surrounded by an ocean. On ten terraces running up the side of the mountain are souls purging themselves of venial less serious sins such as negligence, pride, envy, sloth, or political intrigue.
Dante exults in the light and hope that greet him after leaving the horrid realm of darkness and death. At the entrance to Purgatory, Dante and Virgil meet Cato, an ancient Roman who, as censor in BC, attempted to root out immorality and corruption in Roman life. In Dante's poem, Cato symbolizes the four cardinal virtues of Roman Catholicism: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.
On Cato's instructions, Virgil cleanses Dante's face of the grime of hell and girdles his waist with a reed, symbolizing humility. An angel writes seven P 's across Dante's forehead, each representing one of the seven deadly sins. The Italian word for sin begins with a P. The angel then tells Dante he must wash away the P 's—that is, purge himself of sin—while in Purgatory.
Among the terrace dwellers are excommunicants who repented before they died, a lazy Florentine who postponed doing good works most of his life, and monarchs who neglected their duties.
The Divine Comedy, Volume 3, Paradise by Dante Alighieri
As Dante and Virgil continue upward, they also meet the proud, the envious, the avaricious, the wasteful, and the lustful. Farther up the mountain, they can gaze across the River Lethe and see the Earthly Paradise, signaling it is time for Virgil to leave and return to his abode, the First Circle of the heathens. Still observing from the opposite bank of the river and still in Purgatory , Dante sees a pageant in which the participants and sacred objects symbolize books of the Bible, virtues, the human and divine natures of Christ, Saints Peter and Paul, and other disciples of the Christian religion.
Beatrice is there, too.
Out of love for him, she rebukes him for the sins he has committed. After he confesses his guilt, she invites the purified Dante to come across the river and ascend to heaven. Heaven Paradiso. Heaven, a place of perfect happiness, is a celestial region with planets, stars, and other bodies. Astronomically, it resembles the earth-centered geocentric system of Ptolemy rather than the sun-centered heliocentric system of Copernicus and Galileo.
The placement of an individual depends on the level of goodness he or she achieved in life, although everyone experiences the fullness of God's love. Dante and Beatrice then rise into heaven. There the poet discovers that even some pagans—persons born before the time of Christ—abide in the heavenly realm because they accepted revelations from God.
At the lowest level of Heaven is the Moon. The highest level is the Empyrean, the abode of the Triune God, the Virgin Mary, other angels, and saints.
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When Dante and Beatrice reach the Empyrean, St. Bernard comes forth to prepare Dante to look upon the resplendent beings within. Dante realizes here that knowledge of heaven comes only through the grace of God and deep meditation, not through theology textbooks. After St. Bernard prays to Mary on Dante's behalf, she begs the light of God to welcome the prayer. When Dante glimpses that light, it overpowers him with a love so radiant that he cannot fathom its depth or even remember what he saw.
Canto-by-Canto Outline. The following canto-by-canto outline of The Divine Comedy accompanies the Charles Eliot Norton translation of the epic, which is in the public domain and is available at Project Gutenberg. Click here to access the complete text. Dante, astray in a wood, reaches the foot of a hill which he begins to ascend; he is hindered by three beasts; he turns back and is met by Virgil, who proposes to guide him into the eternal world.
Dante, doubtful of his own powers, is discouraged at the outset. The gate of Hell. Virgil leads Dante in. The further side of Acheron. The Second Circle: Carnal sinners. The Third Circle: the Gluttonous. The Fourth Circle: the Avaricious and the Prodigal. The Fifth Circle. The City of Dis.