Dante’s Divine Comedy – an overview

The Comedy is monumental.  It has about 14,000 lines of verse.

It’s an epic, a pilgrim’s progress, an odyssey.  The pilgrim needs guides, and he receives help from Virgil, Beatrice (a woman he knew and loved, in real life, now dwelling in Heaven), and St Bernard, in succession.

It is not a comedy insofar as it is funny (it is not) but in that it has a happy ending: the first-person narrator/protagonist reaches the uppermost/outermost Heaven and has a vision of God.

It has layers of allegory, but the literal story makes sense.

The work has a threefold pattern: there are 100 cantos, divided between Inferno/Hell, Purgatory and Paradise/Heaven (34 + 33 + 33).  The poem has variety, in its images and in the characters we meet; and there are beautiful lyrical passages.

It is rooted in a place (Italy) and in a time (circa 1300) and indeed in a philosophy.  The philosophy is Christianity, more specifically Roman Catholicism, more specifically still Thomism (the thinking of Thomas Aquinas).

As a theological work, the purpose of the Comedy can be said to be to: “assert the eternal Providence, And justify the ways of God to man” (Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I, 25f).  I would argue that the concepts expressed and illustrated repay the effort of study, even if they do not all appeal to the reader.

Biblical influences are blended with the best of the “classical” writers, especially Aristotle, Virgil and Cicero. For the conception of Hell, the influences include Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid.

Sins, in their various forms, are illustrated, explained and condemned, throughout the work (not just in Inferno).  At the root of all sin is a turning away from God, and from  our fellow human beings, towards false gods/goods – with ever harmful consequences.  I would argue that this way of thinking has relevance to non-believers too.

The remedy for sin consists of: repentance, confession and making good the wrong one has done.

The Comedy is also a political work, and political sins are covered.  Men who abuse power, and those who try to usurp power to which they are not entitled, receive the harshest condemnation.  Corrupt popes are frequent objects of Dante’s criticism.  Dante was indeed a firm believer in justice and in the importance of the secular power having authority; and he hoped that the Holy Roman Emperor would come down into Italy from Germany and redress the balance of power with the Pope and with the petty princes.  (His hopes were not realised.)

At the beginning of the poem, the protagonist/narrator/pilgrim is lost (like a lost soul, indeed) in a (symbolical) dark wood.  He is confronted by three wild animals (symbolising evils, no doubt) who bar his way.  To cut a long story short, he does not find the direct path home but is directed by his guides (Virgil, first) to make the long, arduous journey, through Hell and Purgatory, until he reaches Heaven.  At the end, there is no reference to his return to the dark wood on earth where, in fear and trembling, he started out.  (This may reflect Dante’s own long life in exile: once banished, he was never able to return to his native Florence.)


Hell takes the form of an inverted cone and narrows to a tiny point, where the worst sinners are located.  It has nine main circles, reflecting a complex classification of sinful behaviours.  The threshold of Hell holds the apathetic.  The first circle is limbo – it contains pagans and the unbaptised.  Next come the circles where those who have committed sins of intemperance are detained: the second circle holds the lustful, the third the gluttonous, the fourth the avaricious and spendthrifts, and the fifth the wrathful and melancholic.  The sixth circle has the heretics. Next come those who have committed acts of violence and inhumanity, found in the seventh circle.

The eighth circle detains those who have committed sins of deceit against those who had no particular cause to trust them; and the ninth and lowest circle holds (trapped in ice) those who have committed sins of deceit (ie treachery) against those who did have cause to trust them.

In Canto XI, Virgil explains this classification of sinful behaviours and answers the pilgrim’s questions.  Recalling Aristotle’s Ethics, he refers to ‘those three dispositions that the heavens repel,’ namely, ‘intemperance, intentional harm and mad brutality’.  And he reminds the pilgrim that: ‘intemperance offends God least, and least attracts His blame’ [XI, 81-84] [R Kirkpatrick’s translation].

When the pilgrim-narrator and Virgil finally emerge from the dark, fetid pit of hell, they are greeted by fresh air and a view of the sky.  And the canto ends with these words: ‘e quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle’ (XXXIV, 139) – ‘Thence came we forth to re-behold the stars’ [H W Longfellow’s translation].

Inferno, the first ‘cantica’, is the one most talked about, perhaps because it is the most exciting, and perhaps because the punishments illustrated neatly fit the crimes the residents have committed.  (I plan to give it more detailed consideration, elsewhere.)


Purgatory takes the form of a mountain in the southern hemisphere: it is the polar opposite of Hell.  The Garden of Even is preserved at the top.  Purgatory has seven main circles (in the form of cornices), reflecting the seven deadly sins, in the order:  pride (the worst), envy, anger, sloth, avarice and prodigality (grouped together), gluttony, and finally lust.

It is worth saying that Purgatory is a happy place.  The penitents seize the opportunity to purge the sins they have committed in their terrestrial life: they are, after all, on their way to Heaven.

By the end of Purgatorio, the pilgrim is thoroughly purged of his own sins.  He feels ‘regenerate’ and ‘pure and disposed to mount unto the stars’ [Longfellow] – ‘rifatto’ and ‘puro e disposto a salire alle stelle’ [XXXIII, 143, 145].


In accordance with the cosmology of the time, nine ‘spheres’ revolve around the Earth; each is associated with a particular planet or star; likewise, each is associated with a particular type of virtuous behaviour. Nearest to Earth, the Moon comes first; it is followed by: Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the ‘Fixed Stars’, and the ‘Primum Mobile’ (which imparts motion to all the others).  As he ascends through Paradise, the pilgrim-narrator is granted a series of beatific, bliss-giving visions.  He talks to men and women who now dwell happily in Heaven, in the after-life; and he meets saints (who examine him on his grasp of the theological virtues of faith, hope and love).  Ultimately, he is given the power to gaze upon the Holy Trinity.  God is portrayed both as creator of the world and lover of his creation; and it is his love that keeps the world turning.  The first-person narrator conveys a hint of what he has seen; he tells the reader that he cannot truly communicate it; but he tells us that God – the force of love that moves all the stars – now controls too his own desire and his will, like a smoothly rotated wheel:

‘ma già volgeva il mio disìo e velle,

sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,

l’Amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.’

[XXX, 143-145]

‘But now was turning my desire and will,

Even as a wheel that equally is moved,

The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.’

[Tr Longfellow]


And, after such a fitting climax, there is no more to say.


David Harries

December 2013




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