100 Best Books for an Education

A Revision and Update of Will Durant's 100 Best Books for an Education

Note 53



Dante’s Divine Comedy



Europe was passing through her Dark Ages when China, in the Tang and Song Dynasties, “undoubtedly stood at the very forefront of civilization,” as “the most powerful, the most enlightened, the most progressive, and the best-governed empire . . .  on the face of the globe.”* How slowly Europe recovered from her long nightmare of Roman degeneration and barbarian invasion! But at last new cities grew, new wealth, and new poetry; from France to Persia, and from Nijni Novgorod to Lisbon, reawakened trade brought forth the flowers of literature and art. In Naishapur Omar the Tent-maker sang his Rubaiyat of disillusioned joy; in Paris Villon subtracted heads from bodies and added verse to verse; and in Florence Dante met Beatrice, and was never the same again.

    See him, aged nine, at a party, trying to hide in the midst of a multitude, conscious of every limb on his body and of every eye and mind in the room, wincing at the thought that such a man is stronger, and such a girl too beautiful to notice him. Suddenly Beatrice Portinari is before him—only a girl of eight; but at once he is in love with her, to the full depth of his adolescent soul, with a love too young to think of the flesh, and yet mature enough to be flooded with devotion. “At that instant I say truly that the spirit of life, which dwells in the most secret chamber of the heart, began to tremble with such violence that it appeared fearfully in the least pulses, and, trembling, said these words: ‘Behold a God stronger than I, who, coming, shall rule over me.’” So he writes years later, in an idealized account, for nothing in memory is ever so sweet as first love. And he goes on:


    My soul was wholly given over to the thought of this most gentle lady; whereby in brief time I fell into so frail and feeble a condition, that my appearance was grievous to many of my friends. . . . And many sought to know from me that which I wished to conceal. But I, perceiving their questioning, answered that it was Love that had brought me to this pass. I spoke of Love because I bore on my face so many signs that this could not be concealed. But when they asked me, “For whom has Love thus wasted thee?” I, smiling, looked at them and said nothing.


    But Beatrice married another, and died at twenty-four, so that it was possible for Dante to love her to the end. To make this love doubly sure he married Gemma dei Donati, and had by her four children and many quarrels. He could never quite forget the face of the girl who had died before time could efface her beauty, or realized desire could dull the edge of imagery. He plunged into politics, was defeated and exiled, and all his goods were confiscated by the state. After fifteen years of poverty and wandering, he received intimation that he might be reinstated in all his rights of citizenship and property if he would pay a fine to Florence and undergo the humiliating ceremony of “oblation” at the altar as a released prisoner. He refused with the pride of a poet. Thereupon the gentle Florentines, being Christians to a man, decreed that wherever caught he should be burned alive. He was not caught, but spiritually he was burned alive: he could describe hell later because he went through every realm of it on earth; and if he painted Paradise less vividly, it was for lack of personal experience. He passed from city to city, hunted and friendless, repeatedly near starvation.

    Perhaps the poem that he now began to write saved him from madness and suicide. Nothing so cleanses the dross out of a man as the creation of beauty or the pursuit of truth; and if the two are merged in one with him, as they were with Dante, he must be purified. This bitter world was unbearable except, as Nietzsche would phrase it, to the eye that considered it a dramatic and aesthetic spectacle; to look at it as a scene to be pictured would take some of its sting away. Therefore, Dante resolved to write: he would tell, in terrible allegory, how he had gone through hell, how he had been made clean by the purgatory of suffering, and how he had won a heaven of happiness at last, under the guidance of wisdom and love. And so, aged forty-five, he set his hand to The Divine Comedy, the greatest poem of modern times.

    “In the midway of this our life,” he tells us, he stumbled through a dark forest, and then, led by Virgil, found himself before the gates of hell, reading their dour inscription: “All hope abandon, ye who enter here!” In the Italian (Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate!) it sounds like a racking of limbs, a tearing of flesh, and a gnashing of teeth on edge. He tells how he saw all the philosophers gathered in hell, and heard Francesca da Rimini recount her love and death with Paolo; and how from these scenes of torment he passed with Virgil to Purgatory, and then, with Beatrice to guide him, into heaven. It would not have been medieval had it not been an allegory: our human life is always a hell, says the poet, until wisdom (Virgil) purges us of evil desire, and love (Beatrice) lifts us to happiness and peace.

    The Divine Comedy is the strangest and most difficult of all poems. No other, before yielding its treasures, makes such imperious demands. Its language is the most compact and concise this side of Horace and Tacitus; it gathers into a word or phrase contents and subtleties requiring a rich background and an alert intelligence for full apprehension; even the wearisome theological, psychological, astronomical disquisitions have here a pithy precision that only a Scholastic philosopher could rival or enjoy. Dante lived so intensely in his time that his poem almost breaks under the weight of contemporary allusions unintelligible today without a litter of notes obstructing the movement of the tale.

    He loved to teach, and tried to pour into one poem nearly all that he had ever learned, with the result that the living verse lies abed with dead absurdities. He weakens the charm of Beatrice by making her the voice of his political loves and hates. He stops his story to denounce a hundred cities or groups or individuals, and at times his epic founders in a sea of vituperation. He adores Italy; but Bologna is full of panders and pimps, Florence is the favorite product of Lucifer, Pistoia is a den of beasts, Genoa is “full of all corruption,” and as for Pisa, “A curse upon Pisa! May the Arno be dammed at its mouth, and drown all Pisa, man and mouse, beneath its raging waters!” Dante thinks that “supreme wisdom and primal love” created hell. He promises to remove the ice for a moment from the eyes of Alberigo if the latter will tell his name and story; Alberigo does, and asks fulfillment—“reach hither now thy hand, open my eyes!”—but, says Dante, “I opened them not for him; to be rude to him was courtesy.” If a man so bitter could win a conducted tour through paradise we shall all be saved.

    His poem is nonetheless the greatest of medieval Christian books, and one of the greatest of all time. The slow accumulation of its intensity through a hundred cantos is an experience that no thorough reader will ever forget. It is, as Carlyle said, the sincerest of poems; there is no pretense in it, no hypocrisy or false modesty, no sycophancy or cowardice; the most powerful men of the age, even a pope who claimed all power, Dante attacks with a force and fervor unparalleled in poetry. Above all there is here a flight and sustainment of imagination challenging Shakespeare’s supremacy: vivid pictures of things never seen by gods or men; descriptions of nature that only an observant and sensitive spirit could achieve; and little narratives, like Francesca’s or Ugolino’s, that press great tragedies into narrow space with yet no vital matter missed. There is no humor in this man, but love was there till misfortune turned it into theology.

    Dante himself never knew peace, but remained to the end an exile, dark of countenance and soul, as Giotto painted him. People remarked that he was never known to smile, and they spoke of him, in awe, as the man who had returned from hell. Broken and worn, and prematurely old, he died at Ravenna in 1321, only fifty-six years of age. Seventy-five years later Florence begged for the ashes of him whom, alive, she would have burned at the stake; but Ravenna refused. His tomb still stands as one of the great monuments of that half-Byzantine city. There, five hundred years after Dante, another exile—Byron—knelt, and understood.

    What Dante achieved at last is sublimity. We cannot find in his epic the Mississippi of life and action that is the Iliad, nor the gentle drowsy stream of Virgil’s verse, nor the universal understanding and forgiveness of Shakespeare; but here is grandeur, and a tortured, half-barbaric force that foreshadows Michelangelo. And because Dante loved order as well as liberty, and bound his passion and vision into form, he achieved a poem of such sculptured power that no man since has equaled it. Through the centuries that followed him Italy revered him as the liberator of her golden speech; Petrarch and Boccaccio and a hundred others were inspired by his battle and his art; and all Europe rang with the story of the proud exile that had gone to hell, and had returned, and had never smiled again.

* Murdoch, James, History of Japan, 3v., London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1910, vol. I, 146