Distracted mortals! of what paltry worth
Are the arguments whereby ye are so prone
Senselessly to beat down your wings to earth!
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The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
Dante Alighieri, called Dante, wrote the poetic masterpiece La
Divina Commedia, or The Divine Comedy, which helped establish his native Tuscan dialect as the literary language of
Italy. He is not only Italy's preeminent poet but, along with Shakespeare, one of the
towering figures of Western
literature. This primacy is accorded him because of his profound understanding of medieval thought, his mastery of
complex technical skills, and the dramatic range and originality of his imagination. Dante's life spanned the
troubled years of the late Middle Ages, in which the long struggle between pope and emperor for supremacy in
Italy reached its most acute phase, and in which the concept of nationalism, exemplified by the growing power
of the French monarchy, was displacing the medieval vision of a united Christendom. Deeply involved in the
issues and events of his day, Dante reflected in his writings the aspirations and anxieties of his contemporaries,
while projecting into them a universal and timeless dimension.
Of a middle-class Florentine family with some pretensions to ancient nobility, Dante received a good education both in the classics and in scholastic Christian literature. At a very early age he began to write poetry, largely love lyrics (canzoni) in the style of Guido Guinizelli and Guido Cavalcanti. The most memorable events of his youth were his two encounters (1274 and 1283) with Beatrice Portinari, to whom he remained spiritually devoted for the rest of his life -- in a metaphysical transformation of the tradition of courtly love popularized by the Provencal troubadours -- despite his own marriage (c. 1285) to Gemma Donati (which produced several children) and Beatrice's to Simon de'Bardi. The progression of his love for her was embodied in the love poetry of his first book, La Vita Nuova (The New Life, c. 1293), written a few years after Beatrice's death in 1290. In the much later Divine Comedy, she assumes the role of the poet's savior and guide and bears the allegorical significance of Faith or Theology.
In the political wars between the Guelphs and Ghibellines (the pro-Papal and Imperial parties, respectively), Dante was originally a Guelph and in 1289 fought with his fellow citizens against the Ghibellines at the Battle of Campaldino. When the Guelphs later split into Black and White factions, Dante favored the Whites, who, suspicious of Pope Boniface VIII's designs on Florence, gradually took on the political coloration of the Ghibellines, whose ideal was a unified, peaceful Italy under the temporal authority of the Holy Roman emperor.
At the turn of the century Dante held high public office, having risen from city councilman to prior and occasional ambassador of Florence. This career ended in 1301 when the Black Guelphs and their French allies seized control of the city. In 1302 they confiscated Dante's possessions and sentenced the poet to permanent banishment from Florence, and to the death penalty should he ever return. Thereafter Dante lived in various centers sympathetic to the Ghibelline cause, most notably at the courts of Can Grande della Scala in Verona and Guido da Polenta in Ravenna after the death (1313) of Holy Roman emperor Henry VII finally ended his hopes for an imperial victory. This long exile marked the beginning of a steady literary output.
Among the minor works written during his exile are the Quaestio de Acqua et Terra (Question of Water and of Earth) and two Latin eclogues. The former is a cosmological treatise, in Latin, dealing with a matter of great concern to contemporary thinkers: whether the surface of the sea or of any body of water is higher at any point than the surface of the earth. The eclogues are modeled after those of the Roman poet Virgil, whom Dante considered one of the most important influences on his thought. The unfinished Convivio (The Banquet, c. 1304-07), in which he expatiates on his earlier love poetry, reflects his immersion in the pagan philosophers and cultivation of the Roman tradition. De vulgari eloquentia (On the Vulgar Speech, c.1304-06), in Latin, is a pioneering study of linguistics and style in which Dante argues for the use of the vernacular in serious works of literature and for combining a number of Italian dialects to create a new national language. De Monarchia (On Monarchy, c. 1313), also in Latin, presents Dante's case for a world order united by one ruler who would be supreme in secular affairs, while the church, no longer a rival for worldly power, would remain sovereign in spiritual matters.
The Divine Comedy was probably begun about 1307; it was completed shortly before his death. The work is an allegorical narrative, in verse of great precision and dramatic force, of the poet's imaginary journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven. It is divided into three sections, correspondingly named the Inferno (Hell), the Purgatorio (Purgatory), and the Paradiso (Paradise). In each of these three realms the poet meets with mythological, historical, and contemporary personages. Each character is symbolic of a particular fault or virtue, either religious or political; and the punishment or rewards meted out to the characters further illustrate the larger meaning of their actions in the universal scheme. Dante is guided through hell and purgatory by Virgil, who is, to Dante, the symbol of reason. The woman Dante loved, Beatrice, whom he regards as both a manifestation and an instrument of the divine will, is his guide through paradise.
Each section contains 33 cantos, except for the first section, which has, in addition, a canto serving as a general introduction. The poem is written in terza rima (third rhyme), a three-line stanza rhyming aba, bcb, cdc, etc. Dante intended the poem for his contemporaries and thus wrote it in Italian rather than Latin. He named the poem La Commedia because it ends happily, in heaven, his journey climaxed by a vision of God and by a complete blending of his own will with that of the deity. The adjective Divina was first added to the title in a 1555 edition.
The work, which provides a summary of the political, scientific, and philosophical thought of the time, may be interpreted on four levels: the literal, allegorical, moral, and mystical. Indeed, part of the majesty of this work rests on its multiplicity of meaning even more than on its masterfully poetic and dramatic qualities. It is supreme as a dramatization of medieval Christian theology, but even beyond that framework, Dante's imaginary voyage can be understood as an allegory of the purification of one's soul and of the achievement of inner peace through the guidance of reason and love.
By the 15th century many Italian cities had established professorships for the study of The Divine Comedy; in the centuries following the invention of printing, almost 400 Italian editions were published. The poem has always inspired artists. Editions have appeared illustrated by the Italian masters Sandro Botticelli and Michelangelo, the English artists John Flaxman and William Blake, and the French illustrator Gustave Doré. The Italian composer Gioacchino Antonio Rossini and the German composer Robert Schumann set parts of the poem to music, and it formed the subject of a symphonic poem by the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. It has been translated into more than 25 languages. Among the many notable translations into English are verse renditions by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1867), and, in the 20th century, by the English writer Dorothy L. Sayers and the American poet and critic John Ciardi.
The work of modern poets throughout the world has been inspired by Dante and imbued with Dantean imagery, especially that of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, Gabriele D'Annunzio, Paul Claudel, and Anna Akhmatova.
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