All you need to know about the books you meant to read; This week: THE DIVINE COMEDY by Dante Alighieri

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The Independent Culture
Plot: One of the greatest creations of the medieval imagination, this epic poem in 100 cantos recounts the poet's vision of a journey throuph Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, concluding with a luminescent union with God.

Dante, middle-aged and scared, is lost in a tangled forest. The shade of Virgil has been asked to rescue him, providing Dante is prepared to undertake an arduous physical and spiritual adventure.

They burrow down the funnel of Hell where the damned are both tortured and continue to wallow in self-justification. Dante meets old friends, old enemies, and figures from both history and myth. Their punishments are literal representations of their spiritual states; the lustful are hurled about on ceaseless winds, the schismatics are regularly bisected.

Slowly the heroic pair ascend the mountain of Purgatory. The penitent spirits are here punished in an improving way; for instance, the slothful are made to undertake compulsory runs, the gluttonous to starve.

Near the top, Dante crosses a wall of flame to be re-united with his lost love, Beatrice, who replaces Virgil as the poet's mentor. She now conducts Dante through the ascending circles of Heaven where he meets the theologians, scholars and saints who expound the intricacies of God's design. At long last Dante's desire and will are transmuted to purest love. He has a vision of God.

Theme: "The object of the Divine Comedy is to remove those living in this life from their state of misery and to lead them to a state of happiness." (Dante)

Dante shows God's ordering of the universe to be logical, coherent and just: the poem is a guide to psychology, ethics, politics and, above all, theology.

Style: The three line stanzas are lean and lucid: the tone can be colloquial, homely or dignified. English translators either over-inflate, producing sub-Miltonic rhetoric, or play up the snappiness, turning Dante into a larky ironist.

Chief Strengths: Dante's picture of Christian belief is a spicy mixture of anguished brutality and extreme intellectual sophistication.

Chief weakness: Some of the narrative is too much entangled with the peculiarities of 13th-century politics with its attendant cast of Guelphs and Ghibellines.

What they thought of it then: Boccaccio was lecturing on Dante soon after the poet's death, the 100 cantos of the Comedy inspiring the 100 stories of the Decameron. Chaucer is a fan by the 1390s but English versions don't proliferate until the 19th century.

What we think of it now: T.S. Eliot made it fashionable among modernist poets with his peculiar assertion that Dante's Italian communicates before it is understood; in other words, you don't have to know the Italian for cat, sat, or mat to read Dante in the original. The Comedy attracts scholars who enjoy drawing maps and adding up references to Beatrice and dividing the number by the Holy Trinity.

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