The Divine Comedy (Dante Alighieri)

I really like books. This means I find book sales to be glorious. The only bad thing about books sales is the sadness that I feel when I gaze at all the titles I want to read and realize I will never be able to find the time to accommodate all of them. But that does not stop me from bringing books home. When I purchase a book it gets placed in one of three categories: 1) Read as soon as possible; 2) Read in the near future; or 3) Read someday. The books in the “Someday” category may sit for a very long time.

In the late 1990s I bought a copy of The Divine Comedy that caught my eye. It is a 1946 Doubleday & Co. publication, with illustrations by Umberto Romano (line drawings and full color plates). The cover of the book has a blue background with a gold foil embossed representation of one of the line drawings. I brought it home and placed it on the “Someday” shelf.

More than a decade later I read the book. The points below may contain spoilers, fair warning.

Some of the phrasing delighted me. Here are some examples:

  • The famous line from the sign at the gate of Hell: “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”
  • Virgil suggests a course of action posed as a request. Dante responds with: “As pleases thee, to me is best.”
  • Virgil attempts to speed up Dante when he is slowed by sights of suffering: “. . . the time permitted now is short; and more, not seen, remains to see.”
  • Dante states: “Our journey was not slacken’d by our talk, / Nor yet our talk by journeying.”
  • Beatrice drops some wisdom: “Whoso laments, that we must doff this garb / Of frail mortality, thenceforth to live / Immortally above; he hath not seen / The sweet refreshing of that heavenly shower.”
  • The eagle speaks: “Fervent love, / And lively hope, with violence assail / The kingdom of the heavens, and overcome / The will of the Most High; not in such sort / As man prevails o’er man; but conquers it, / Because ’tis willing to be conquer’d; still, / Though conquer’d, by it’s mercy, conquering.”

I find the different themes at work in the book interesting. The eternal fate of souls is a strong theme. Dante presents an afterlife full of levels and distinctions. Souls doomed to Hell or Purgatory were described by the moral sins they committed–creating a hierarchy of sin. Despite being arranged in levels, or circles, they all seem terrible. In reading through Hell and Purgatory I was struck by how my temporal paradigm shapes my understanding of the eternal.

The surprising twist to this book for me was Beatrice. I was not very familiar with the plot–aside from it being a journey through the afterlife–before reading the book, so I did not realize it would be a story of human love as well as supernatural love. As Beatrice enters the scene and becomes a major character I thought to myself: Goodness, Dante really loved a woman and wrote her into this character–this is approaching Nicholas Sparks territory. And sure enough, that seems to be the case according to a quick internet search on the matter. It appears Dante saw a woman (Beatrice Portinari) and fell in love with her and then wrote her into flattering roles in The Divine Comedy and Vita Nuova. He even had the audacity to keep her name as Beatrice. In this book she temporarily leaves Heaven to make sure Dante ends up there.

One of my favorite parts of the book occurs in Heaven. As Dante and Beatrice progress through Heaven Beatrice gets more and more beautiful. Dante is overwhelmed by her beauty and by the fact that she looks so serious. “Why so serious?” he asks her (that’s my paraphrase). Her explanation: “If I smiled at you it would kill you. I’m too beautiful for a living thing to behold” (also my paraphrase).

Yup, Dante loved Beatrice.


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