Thursday, June 16, 2011

Dante's Divine Comedy

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Dante’s Divine Comedy

In the early fourteenth century, Dante Alighieri wrote his masterpiece. “The poem is a narrative of a journey down through Hell, up the mountain of Purgatory, and through the revolving heavens into the presence of God (Cary, 4)”. The Divine Comedy is viewed as a poem of grandeur that defies any classification (Critical Survey, 10). The poem was so named because Dante wrote it in Italian, the “vulgar” language. Also because the poem begins in despair and ends in pure bliss (Witt 5). The Divine Comedy was written to express Dante’s interest in human nature and individual dilemmas. On the whole it is a Christian poem that builds on all aspects of life and points toward the wonder and awe of God. To further express his views, Dante relied heavily on numbers that become apparent symbols throughout the poem. The poem summarizes his theology, philosophy, and life (Kuiper). Throughout the Divine Comedy, Dante uses number symbolism and vivid imagery to illustrate his views of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.

The Divine Comedy is thoroughly based on the use of number symbolism. Dante’s own rhyme scheme, terze rima, makes use of the number three and goes as follows aba, bcb, cdc, etc. The use of numbers illustrates Dante’s deep Christian faith. Each number represents some form of Christian symbol. Two symbolizes the duality of nature, the difference between Church and State, the Old and New Testament, corporal and spritual. The number three plays an especially important role throughout the poem. One poem divided into three canticles represents three persons in one God (100 Evaluations, 54). There are nine circles or terraces in each world, which is a multiple of three. The number four represents the seasons, elements, directions, and cardinal virtues. Four combines with ever-important three to make seven, which represents the days of creation, days of the week, virtues, and vices. By using this type of symbolism Dante illustrates his Christian beliefs.

In the beginning of the poem Dante is found walking through the forest the day before Good Friday. He is confronted by three beasts each with a different representation a leopard which represents lust, a lion which represents pride, and a she-wolf which represents covetousness. The Latin poet Virgil, who was sent by Dante’s lost love Beatrice, rescues Dante. In order to give Dante a better view of what will happen if he does not change his way of life, Virgil guides Dante down into Hell and proceeds to give him a tour. Hell, as well as Purgatory and Heaven, is divided into nine circles starting with the lesser sins and spirals down towards the worst sins (Witt, 5). The worst of all sins, the traitors to God and country, are overseen by Satan himself. Hell, as described by Dante, consists of dark and frightening abysses between gigantic rocks; steaming, stinking marshes, lakes, and streams; storms of hail, rain, snow, and fire; tortured souls, grimacing faces, and blood-curdling screams (Durant, 106).

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Dante’s journey begins in Limbo, the first circle. Dante describes Limbo as a “dread abyss that joins a thunderous sound of plaints innumerable, thick with clouds o’erspread (Dante Canto IV).” Limbo holds those who died before Christ or were unbaptized, but generally good people. Those in Limbo proceed unhurt and unpunished, but are unable to behold God (Durant, 1070). After Limbo, the travelers proceed to the second circle. This circle contains the lustful. Also, Minos, the judge of hell, resides here. When sinners enter hell, Minos directs them to their proper place in the underworld. He does this by the number of times he wraps his tail around himself. Those condemned to the second circle, the lustful, are tossed about by ferocious winds (Durant, 1070). Along with those tossed about Dante comes upon two lovers that are stuck together forever in lovemaking without the joy of satisfaction as their punishment (Dante, Canto V).

Next, Dante and Virgil journey down to the third circle. The third circle is overseen and ruled by the three-headed Cerberus, a disgusting, drooling beast. Cerberus barks as a dog at the mass of sinners. “His eyes crimson, black his unctuous beard, his belly large, and claw’d the hands, with which he tears the spirits, flays them, and their limbs piecemeal disparts (Dante Canto VI).” Cerberus oversees the gluttonous whose punishment is to be trapped under continuous storms of rain, sleet, and snow. Continuing down to the fourth circle Dante encounters the prodigious and avaricious. For their punishment each are condemned to roll heavy stones against one another (Durant, 1071). The fifth circle contains the wrathful that wallow in mud and in their rage bite each other and themselves.

As Dante and Virgil continue they arrive in the city of Dis. The city holds those who were heretics. Coffins line the city with the heretics inside while raging fires burn under them. The travelers continue through on a river of blood towards the seventh circle, which holds the violent. The seventh circle is divided into three parts. Each part is devoted to each type of violence. One part is for those who were violent towards others. Those sinners are constrained to the river Phlegethon, a boiling tar-like river, guarded by demons who stab the sinners as they surface for air. Next are the suicides who are stripped of their bodies and made into trees. The third is those who were violent against God and are condemned to walk on burning sands. All of these circles are guarded by the Minotaur, who in mythology was the quintessential representation of violence (Durant, 1070).

The eighth circle consists of the fraudulent. This circle is divided into ten circles called bolgias. Each bolgia consists of different types of frauds ranging from counterfeiters to hypocrites to fortunetellers. Each bolgia has different punishments. The seducers have flames placed under their feet. The fortunetellers have their heads turned backwards. Thieves have venomous snakes bite at them. Counterfeiters are afflicted with various diseases while the air stinks of pus (Masterpieces of World Literature, 16).

Next is the ninth and final circle. Satan himself oversees this circle. Satan is described as a three-headed beast trapped in a lake of ice. Each face is a different color and each face is chewing on a different head. Each of these heads belongs to traitors against God and countrymen. The middle face, a red face meaning hatred, chews on the head of Judas Iscariot, Jesus’ traitor. The right face, yellow which means impotence, chew on the head of Cassius. The left face, black which means ignorance, chews the head of Brutus, who stabbed his best friend, Julius Caesar, in the back (Durant, 107).

Dante and Virgil make their way past Satan and out of hell. After hell they journey to Mount Purgatory. Mount Purgatory is pictured as a mountain divided into nine levels and seven terraces. The first two levels, antepurgatory, holds those not ready to begin their journey of repentance. The mountain itself was composed of seven concentric ledges separated by steep cliffs. On each ledge, one of the seven capital sins waited on a soul. They were composed of Pride, Envy, Wrath Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust. When the soul had released his sin, he was able to proceed to the next level. When he ascends to the next level, an angel would greet him and perform a cleansing ritual (Durant, 107). In addition, on each ledge of Purgatory, there were models of the sin as well as the virtues, which opposed the sin. Dante picked the sins that most described the ways of his life.

On the first terrace, the proud, carry massive stones on their backs moving back and forth. As they walk a wall shows the consequences of being proud. On the second terrace, the envious have their eyes repeatedly sewn up by iron threads. The third terrace contains the angry, the fourth sloth, and the fifth avaricious. Each terrace provides proper punishments for their sins. On the sixth terrace, the gluttonous, are punished because they ate continuously. These sinners are punished by having fruit dangled in front of them and it is withdrawn as the gluttonous reach for it. The seventh and final terrace cleanses those who had fulfilled their punishment. The top of Purgatory merges with the beginning of Paradise or heaven and those entering are cleansed by fire (Durant, 1075).

Virgil guides Dante to the gates of heaven but cannot enter because he is not permitted and returns to his place in hell. Instead Dante’s lost lover, Beatrice, comes to guide Dante on the rest of his journey. Dante envisions paradise as nine crystal spheres revolving around the earth. These spheres are representations of the “many mansions” of the Father’s house (Durant, 1077). These spheres contain planets and stars, which move around singing songs of joy. Each star is reserved for the saints. The stationing of the spheres are based on the merits of the people. The higher the merit on earth, the closer to God the people are (Durant, 1077). To Dante, God is envisioned as a continuous form of light and the source of all love (Witt, 6).

Beatrice guides Dante to the first circle, the moon. The moon contains those who were forced to violate their religion. They enjoy bliss and are free from envy and discontent. The next planet, Mercury, contains those who did good deeds to further their good name instead of God’s will (Durant, 1077). Next comes Venus, which contains those who lived by God’s virtues. The fourth sphere, the sun, holds the Christian philosophers. The martyrs are stationed on the fifth circle, Mars. The stars around the planet are arranged in the form of a cross (Magill’s Survey, 17). The sixth circle, Jupiter, contains those who administered justice in the name of God. The stars are arranged in the form of an eagle and speak with on voice (Durant, 1078). The seventh sphere, Saturn, holds those who spent their lives in meditation. The eighth sphere, the fixed stars, holds the apostles. They discuss with Dante his faith, who in turn offered his insight on the duality of Christ and modern scientific theories. At last Dante is permitted to ninth heaven, outerspace, where he receives grace. Dante is permitted by Christ and Mary to gaze upon divinity and to hear the chorus’ of angels. Dante is left alone to behold the glory of God and the unity of the Trinity (Masterpieces, 17).

Dante’s writings gained him the criticism that he was trying to be more than a poet and through that becoming less of a poet (Grendler, 1). In the end the Divine Comedy can be separated into four levels of interpretation literally, allegorically, morally, and anagogically. As a literal story Dante learns about himself, the world, and the relationship between the two. His journey to another world helps put into perspective his own. Allegorically, it integrates political, cultural, and scientific parables, which becomes a symbol for the real and spiritual world order. Morally, it warns against the consequences of certain behaviors and brings an understanding of sin, penance, and salvation. Finally, anagogically, it shows God’s plan for the universe (Magill, 550). If each of these is understood then Dante’s work becomes a masterpiece.

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