"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri, Introduction

First off, let me say that I consider Dante’s Divine Comedy to be the greatest single work of literature.  I’m not one who usually speaks in terms of greatest, or this one is greater than that one.  Once a work reaches elite status, it’s really hard to discriminate one from another.  But when it comes to La commedia, as Dante called it, I have long reached the conclusion that by any standard this is truly the greatest single work. 

Why?  Let me count the ways.  First, it is epic in scope.  If you want to present large themes, you need a large story.  Second, it is a national epic, which carries more weight for it captures the character of a nation.  Third, the language of the work deeply shaped the formation of the language of his people, and in this case, Italian.  Dante’s Tuscan dialect became the official Italian language.  Fourth, the writing, which in this case is poetry, is of the highest achievement, that is in terms of eloquence, sound, rhythm, originality, turn of phrase, metaphor.  To listen to it, is like listening to music.  Fifth, the characterization is realistic, natural, and authentic.  Sixth, the themes are profound.  Seventh, the story is emotionally captivating, aesthetically constructed, and captures the human condition.  Eighth, the work captures the zeitgeist of the author’s time and place. 

Now one might say that there are many writers who have produced great works that might meet all those criteria.  One can cite Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, Melville, Dickens, Joyce, Twain, Faulkner, Cervantes, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Goethe, and so on.  Why is Dante’s work the greatest?  Where Dante supersedes the others is that The Divine Comedy does all that and does it in a way that is integral to each other.  Here’s what I mean.  Ttake what I consider the three central themes of the work: man must be civically responsible, man must be true to Christian faith, and that divine beauty shapes the world.  Notice how the three interlock.  All divine commandments reduce down to Christ’s two commandments, love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself, which are integrated because by doing one you do the other.  Civic responsibility through Christian values is an act of loving one’s neighbor, which leads to loving God, and by loving God one is blessed to see the beauty and perfection of God’s creation, which reflects God Himself, which generates the beauty of one’s artistic creativity, which enlightens one’s understanding of one’s neighbor, which leads to civic responsibility.  Three themes which on the surface seem disparate form a comprehensive vision.  Dante arrives to that vision through his journey where he encounters sin, justice, redemption, beauty, love, friendship, morality, responsibility, suffering, holiness, virtue, and so on.  One could write a book how all these concepts address the three central themes in the work but I’ll have to leave it at that.

In addition to the thematic integration, there is a high degree of textual integration.  Events and ideas that happen in one section, say the Inferno, are balanced and contrasted in other sections, say in Purgatorio or in Paradiso, or even in other sections of Inferno.  An idea or motif typically may be examined in all three sections from different perspectives.  While it may appear that Dante the character is moving in an episodic, disjointed way, there is nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, that is disjointed.  It all interlocks.  Finally, that thematic and textual integration is overlaid with what I’ll call visionary integration, but the Germans have a more precise word in Weltanschauun.  Dante’s understanding of the world is an integration of the classical with the Judaic that forms the Christian.  The Old Testament events are pre-figures of the New Testament and the Classical world provided the metaphysical underpinnings that explained Judaism.  Classical, Judaic, and Christian motifs all relate to each other in some fashion.  So to conclude this, what makes The Divine Comedy exceed all other works of literary art is the complex thematic, textual, visionary integration, all presented in an aesthetic construct that harmonizes every detail.  That’s all rather abstract, so I don’t know if I made myself clear.  I’ll try to present examples as I go forward.

I can’t give a comprehensive overview for someone completely unfamiliar with The Divine Comedy.  You’ll have to read up on the various websites, but I’ll provide the briefest synopsis I can.  The poem is told in first person where Dante the character has returned from a journey through hell (inferno), purgatory (purgatorio), and heaven (paradise) which occurred during Easter in 1300.  The journey starts on Good Friday where Dante finds himself lost in a wood in mid life trapped by three beasts and unable to find the way out.  Of course that is all allegory, and through the aid of divine auspice the spirit of the poet Virgil is sent to lead Dante out, but the way out is to travel through the three realms of the dead, Inferno (the realm dislocated from God), Purgatorio (the realm of purification), and Paradisio (the realm of salvation).  The journey then is the most fundamental archetype, of acquiring knowledge, of release through redemption, and ultimately of assimilation. 

Something should be said about Dante’s poetic form in the Commedia.  Each of the three canticas is divided into cantos, each cantica having 33 cantos except for the Inferno, which has 34.  Actually that fist canto in Inferno is the introductory canto where Dante is lost in the earthly woods, so actually the passage through all three supernatural realms requires 33 cantos, thirty-three the age of Christ at His death.  And yet the sum of 34 for Inferno, 33 for Purgatorio, and 33 for Paradisio totals 100, a harmonious and complete value.  There is a lot of numerology going on through the Divine Comedy.  Each canto is roughly between 120 to 150 lines in terza rima rhyme [A-B-A, B-C-B, C-B-C…] scheme.  The meter is the hendecasyllable, which is an eleven syllable line that comes from classical sources but once Dante uses it in his epic, it becomes the principle meter in Italian poetry.  The stresses within the hendecasyllable line tend to be dactyl, but with enough variation so that it doesn’t feel repetitive.  The combination of the hendecasyllable line with the terza rima rhyme scheme accentuates a sense of forward motion.  Rhyme schemes that circle back create a sense of stasis; here the sense is progress. 

To get a feel of the Italian, here is a reading of Canto 2, and I’ll just post the first 24 lines, where Dante standing on the shores of Purgatory sees the setting sun and the stars and planets in the sky, and then from the corner of his eye sees a bright light advancing toward him.


Già era 'l sole a l'orizzonte giunto
lo cui meridian cerchio coverchia
Ierusalèm col suo più alto punto;
e la notte, che opposita a lui cerchia,
uscia di Gange fuor con le Bilance,
che le caggion di man quando soverchia;
sì che le bianche e le vermiglie guance,
là dov'i' era, de la bella Aurora
per troppa etate divenivan rance.
Noi eravam lunghesso mare ancora,
come gente che pensa a suo cammino,
che va col cuore e col corpo dimora.
Ed ecco, qual, sorpreso dal mattino,
per li grossi vapor Marte rosseggia
giù nel ponente sovra 'l suol marino,
cotal m'apparve, s'io ancor lo veggia,
un lume per lo mar venir sì ratto,
che 'l muover suo nessun volar pareggia.
Dal qual com'io un poco ebbi ritratto
l'occhio per domandar lo duca mio,
rividil più lucente e maggior fatto.
Poi d'ogne lato ad esso m'appario
un non sapeva che bianco, e di sotto
a poco a poco un altro a lui uscio.

The quoted lines run to 1:17 on the youtube clip.  I’ll provide the Anthony Esolen translation here for you:

To that horizon had the sun now come,
an arc that circles both the hemispheres,
whose zenith stands above Jersualem,
And night below, in circling the same way,
rose from the Ganges with those Scales she drops
when length of darkness conquers length of day,
So that the white and rosy cheeks of Dawn,
the lovely heavens, where I was standing, turned
yellowish orange in the aging sun.
We were still walking by the sea, as those
who dwell upon the journey they will make—
the body lingers, while the spirit goes—
When, look! just as surprised by morning haze,
through the dense veils of mist to westward, Mars
sets in the sea with all its blushing rays,
Such a light now appeared—ah may I see
that light once more—surpassing any flight,
so swiftly did it move across the sea.
And in that moment when I turned my sight
to ask my guide about it, glancing back,
I saw it had grown greater and more bright,
And then from either side I caught a glow
of something seeming-white, and gradually
another gleam emerging from below.

In order to prepare oneself to read the Divine Comedy, you should briefly familiarize yourself with the life of Dante Alighieri.  His life and politics of his day run throughout the work.
Finally a word on the translations I used.  I don’t think I can say it better than as I said this over in my summary of my reads for the 2013 year:

I read two different translations of Purgatorio because shortly before I started to read the Durling translation I discovered that Anthony Esolen, a scholar I hold in high regard, recently had come out with a translation of The Divine Comedy for Modern Library Classics. I also found out Esolen was a poet as well as a medievalist scholar, which I hadn’t known before, and so I got his translation of Dante and decided to read two translations side by side. Plus I realized that while I have read Dante’s Divine Comedy before, my readings of Purgatorio and Paradisio were cursory. I had read Inferno several times, know it fairly well, but I had just blazed through the other two once, and mostly just to say I had read them. One doesn’t typically read the other two unless one is majoring in medieval lit or Italian lit. I want to understand and know Dante like I understand Shakespeare, Homer, and Virgil. And it took me over three months to read them both. I was saturated in Dante. The differences between the two translations are noteworthy. The Esolen is certainly more poetic and tries to hold to Dante’s form. The Durling translation also in meter isn’t so concerned with maintaining Dante’s tercets and will spread out to four lines if needed for precision. Also Durling’s translation provides extensive notes. Esolen too provides notes, but I would say Esolen’s notes mostly focus on understanding the passage at hand while Durling’s notes crisscrosses the entire work to show the high integration of the Commedia, and once you appreciate that integration you can fully understand why I (and many others) consider it the greatest literary work. I might characterize the differences in translations this way: Esolen’s is for the undergraduate student while Durling’s is for the graduate student. But then Esolen’s poetry is excellent, about as good as any of the Dante translations I’ve ever perused. I’m curious to see what his original poetry is like.


So in my posts on Purgatorio I’ll draw from both the Esolen and Durling translations.  I consider both excellent.  Wikipedia has a page just on the history of the English translations, here.  Off that page, the one’s I would endorse are the Mark Musa and the Robert and Jean Hollander.  The Hollander is online here at the PrincetonDante Project, which has a lot of other great resources.   Others have recommended the Dorothy Sayers translation, but I have not sampled it to feel comfortable recommending it.  I grew up on the John Ciardi translation  which was very popular when I was young, and until recently I might have even recommended it.  Perhaps it's dated now.  In this recent read, while stacking it against the Esolen and Durling translations, I found it somewhat deficient.  It’s good if that’s what you have, but you can do better.  You can find several translations on the internet, but since the Hollander is provided free, I have no idea why you would want to try any of the others. 


  1. I realize that this sounds cocky, but I would say that The Lord of the Rings matches your criteria for greatest novel. Perhaps we could make a case for it as English's greatest novel, while The Divine Comedy is that in Italian. :-)

    I've heard that the Sayers translation is not very good, but that it is worth getting because her notes are superb. Just to toss that in the mix. :-)

    1. Not cocky at all. LOTR is a great epic work that I can see how some might consider it the greatest novel. I hold it in high esteem.

      I've never seen the Sayers translation but I used to use the Ciardi translation myself. I think both the ones I mention here are better than the Ciardi. They certainly have better explanatory notes. Thanks for stopping by. :)