Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century Divine Comedy is revered for the force of its imagery, its innovative terza rima and bold use of the vernacular, its creative interpretation of medieval Catholic doctrine, its ferocious political satire…
And the poignant autobiography the poet weaves throughout the story. The epic is animated by Dante’s own romantic longing and his bitter disillusionment with life. He paints himself in the first stanza as overcome by middle-aged bewilderment. Robert Durling’s translation renders the first lines thus:
In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to
myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.
He is already adrift when Virgil turns up to guide him to the famously inscribed gates of hell—“Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”
The grim descent “sets into motion what is perhaps the greatest love story ever told,” says the TED-Ed video above, scripted by Sheila Marie Orfano and animated by Tomás Pichardo-Espaillat. Dante takes this epic journey with two muses, Virgil, then Beatrice, who guides him through Paradise, a figure drawn from an unrequited obsession the poet harbored for a woman named Beatrice Portinari.
Dante turned his crush into a muse, and transformed desire into chaste religious allegory. He turned his hatred of church and state corruption, however, into gleeful revenge fantasy, torturing a number of people still very much alive at the time of his writing. A member of the White Guelphs, a Florentine faction that pushed back against Roman influence, Dante fought fiercely opposed the Black Guelphs, a group loyal to the Pope. He was eventually exiled from Florence, but not silenced.
“Dishonored and with little hope of return,” he “freely aired his grievances” in the Divine Comedy, writing in Italian, rather than Latin, to ensure “the widest possible audience.” His readers at the time would have picked up on the references. Now, we need hundreds of notes to explain the full context. We should also know some salient facts about the poet: a life of political battle and religious devotion, an imaginative literary love affair with a woman he supposedly met twice; a thwarted desire for justice and vengeance and an obsession with integrity.
We do not need extensive notes and critical essays to feel the force of Dante’s language, just as we do not need to believe in the Divine Comedy’s religion. Like all great epic poetry, its metaphysical themes amplify profoundly human emotional journeys.