Abandon your fear. Look forward.
- Aug 3, 2022
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- My Inner World
The words on the door were clear (Abandon all hope, ye who enter here)
This is one of a three-part epic poem, Dante Alighieri takes his readers on a pilgrimage to Heaven via journeys first through Hell and Purgatory. It is a spiritual journey expounding the evils of sin through the first-person narration of the aptly named main character, Dante the Pilgrim. The title, The Divine Comedy, is not an implication that the poem is humorous in nature. Rather, the poem is a “comedy” in that it is of the classical style that existed in partnership with tragedy. Traditional tragedies had plotlines that began with an optimistic, or positive, event but ended in sadness, death, or a downtrodden existence. Comedy, considered a base genre, flowed in the opposite direction with tragedy, or at least unhappiness, reaching a happy or optimistic culmination.
About the Author:
Dante Alighieri was born in the city-state of Florence, probably in the year 1265, under the sign of Gemini (May-June) as he tells us in The Divine Comedy. At that time, Florence was consumed by a fierce struggle between two competing factions, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, not unlike the deadly struggle in ancient Rome between the followers of Marius and the followers of Sulla. The Guelphs supported the Pope and the Ghibellines supported the Holy Roman Emperor. Dante’s family were Guelphs, and Dante recounts how, as a youth, he fought as a cavalryman against the Ghibellines. After a series of brutal battles in which at first the Ghibellines were ascendant, the Guelphs finally triumphed and expelled the Ghibellines from Florence. But, as often happens, the victorious Guelphs split into rival parties, the Blacks and the Whites, to which Dante belonged.
The Whites (Guelphs) had separated from the Blacks (Guelphs) in their desire for more freedom from papal influence. In a bitter fight, the Whites finally defeated the Blacks, confiscated all their property and sent them into exile. However, Pope Boniface VIII then formed an alliance with Charles of Valois, brother of the King of France, and the exiled Black Guelphs. When, in 1301, Charles demanded entry into Florence, the city fathers sent a delegation of three men, including Dante, to Rome to learn what the Pope intended to do. But the Pope discharged the other two delegates and detained Dante. After further discussion, Charles and his army were permitted entrance into Florence. The night that Charles and his forces entered Florence, the Black Guelphs stole into the city and wreaked havoc for six days. They laid waste to Florence and murdered many opposing Whites. The new Black Guelph government of Florence, in 1302, commanded Dante to appear before them and accused him of corruption and fiscal malfeasance. When Dante refused to return to Florence and appear before them, he was sentenced to perpetual banishment. If he returned to Florence, he was condemned to be burned at the stake. In exile, Dante fell in with some other White Guelphs who had also been banished, in an effort to regain power through military force, but these efforts came to a sorry end because of treason and infighting.
Disillusioned with his supposed allies, Dante determined to strike out on his own. He lived the last nineteen years of his life in exile from his beloved Florence. In Paradise, he writes, of his banishment, “Everything you love most dearly you shall loose…You shall beg for the bitter bread of other men. You shall learn how steep is the climb up and down other men’s stairs. And that which shall weigh most heavily upon your shoulders will be the malign and unwise company with whom you shall fall into these dire straits of exile. Ungrateful, wrathful, and impious, they will all turn against you.” Little is known about Dante’s life in exile. It is believed he went to Bologna in 1304, but all the Florentine exiles were expelled from Bologna in 1306. From there he traveled to Padua, Verona and Lucca. Scholars think he began writing The Divine Comedy about 1308 and completed it a year before his death. Dante died from malarial fever about September 14, 1321, in Ravenna, where he had lived at the end of his life, after returning from a diplomatic mission to Venice. Dante is often called the father of Italian literature because he was the first to write in the vernacular. Up to this time, Latin was the predominant language in the writing of poetry, as well as that of worship, learning and legal documents. Dante was the first to employ the verse style of terza rima, that is aba, bcb, cdc, ded. There are 14,233 lines in The Divine Comedy, divided into three canticles, Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise, consisting of one hundred cantos in total, and the story takes place in the time frame between the night of Holy Thursday and the Wednesday after Easter in the year 1300.This work was originally called Commedia, but, in 1373, Giovanni Boccaccio delivered a series of lectures on the book and Dante became known as the divino poeta.
From this, the poem became known as La Divina Commedia. The reader may wonder about the use of the term Comedy. The word has nothing to do with our modern meaning of Comedy as indicating something funny or humorous. By way of explanation, there was a convention that a story was a Comedy or a Tragedy. A Comedy had a good ending, and a Tragedy had a bad ending. Concerning Beatrice, before Dante wrote The Divine Comedy he wrote La Vita Nuova, an autobiographical compendium of verse and prose. In it, he describes his relationship to the unattainable object of his affection. Dante writes that he first met Beatrice Portinari when they were both nine years old and fell in love with her at first sight. He says that he met her only two times before her death in 1290 at the age of twenty-five. This is yet another example of courtly love in the Middle Ages, idealized, distant and unrequited, just like Don Quixote’s love for Dulcinea, whom he barely knew. This is a prose translation. There are no footnotes or endnotes in this translation. If any explanations or clarifications are needed, they are embedded in the body of the text, so as not to interrupt the flow of the words. After all, as Noel Coward once famously remarked, “Having to read a footnote resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love.” Every translation is an interpretation and a series of acts of selection, judgment and calculation. Any flaws or faults in this edition are solely mine, and not those of Dante Alighieri or any other source. And so, Dear Reader, let us journey back in time seven hundred years and join Dante as he travels through the Inferno and Purgatory in order to ascend into Paradise.