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Dante: unique guide to human experience

10 September 2021

His place in literature is justified, and his insight as a theologian should be recognised, too, writes Robin Ward

Anonymous portrait of Dante Alighieri, Chateau d’Ambras, Austria

Anonymous portrait of Dante Alighieri, Chateau d’Ambras, Austria

And yet
The chief imagination of Christendom,
Dante Alighieri, so utterly found himself
That he has made that hollow face of his
More plain to the mind’s eye than any face
But that of Christ.


THIS year is the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. W. B. Yeats could write of him just over 100 years ago that his face was plainer to us than any other than Christ; but the Dantista of today has a harder task of it to commend the chief poet of Christendom to a much more secular world.

Indeed, many picking up Dante’s crowning work, the Divine Comedy, for the first time might be more inclined to agree with the sentiments of that enlightened 18th-century critic Horace Walpole, who described him as “extravagant, absurd, disgusting, in short a Methodist parson in Bedlam”.

The new reader needs a guide: a guide who can explain to us the extraordinary obscurities of 14th-century Italian politics, the vast range of reference to characters contemporary and classical who populate Dante’s afterlife, and the scientific obsessions that prompt the poet to break off his elation at entering the heavenly paradise to devote time to a discussion of moon spots.

But, more than footnotes, we need to understand Dante as a theologian: a theologian of human living, who clothes the intellectual and spiritual synthesis of Dominic and Francis, Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure, with the flesh and spirit of the poetic image.

 Biblioteca Riccardiana, Firenze, with permission from the Ministry of CultureDante and his guide Virgil, an illustration from Giovanni Boccaccio’s ms version of The Divine ComedyOne of the most immediate obstacles to appreciating what Dante achieves in the Comedy is precisely the fundamental theological assertion that he makes: there is an afterlife, a time when the dead address the consequences of their sins in this life, sins that confine for ever in hell, that inflict almost unbearable oppression as they are expiated in purgatory, and that can, in some instances, continue to cast a benign shadow over the more wistful blessed in paradise.

The alien character of this architecture of eternity, the specificity of the punishments inflicted, the presupposition of a “purgatory” itself, can seem like a caricature of oppressive, unenlightened, “medieval” religion. But this is to misapprehend the extraordinary originality of what Dante does in the Comedy: his hell, his purgatory, and his heaven are not-off-the shelf renditions of familiar tropes, but profoundly original inhabitations of the human ascetical experience.


FIRST, hell. We might think that Dante’s hell is almost a caricature of a medieval doom painting, with its culmination in a shaggy Satan chewing Judas Iscariot, a bathetic rendition of the gruesome mosaic in the Baptistery at Florence, beneath which Dante himself would have received the sacrament.

But Dante’s hell is an ascetic mirror held up to ourselves: he orders the sins that are punished in the Inferno in a self-consciously non-Christian manner. In Canto 11 of the Inferno, Dante’s guide through hell (and, indeed, its own inhabitant), the poet Virgil, tells him that the ordering of this grim place of eternal punishment takes its shape from the moral taxonomy of human living proposed not by scripture but by Aristotle, in his Ethics and Physics.

This is because the Inferno is, above all, an unfolding of what the human aspiration to self-sufficiency offers: whether it be the adulterous love of Paulo and Francesca, or the harrowing inversion of love of kin that causes Ugolino to devour his children, our existential state thrown in on itself cannot be other than a failure of the love to which we are called.


IN CONTRAST, Dante’s purgatory is completely original. Although the doctrine of purgatory had taken shape by Dante’s day in Latin theology, characterised most notably with an obsession with material fire which bedevilled reunion negotiations with the Greeks until the fall of Constantinople, we see hardly anything of this in the Purgatorio.

The mountain of purgatory is itself the material displacement of the earth moved by Satan’s fall and the creation of hell, and its architecture is a straightforward commentary on the ascetic cursus of sins to overcome formulated first in the West by John Cassian. Those beginning their purgation are admitted by the angel guardian at the entrance gate marked by three stones: one white signifying purity; one black and cracked in the sign of a cross, signifying sin and penitence; one red, signifying the blood of redemption.

Dante receives on his forehead seven marks corresponding to the seven capital sins, which are removed one by one as he passes through the seven terraces of the mountain on which each sin is purged with a punishment appropriate to its character.

Dante’s final ordeal is to pass through the fire that purges the lustful — a fire so intense that the poet confesses that to be immersed in molten glass would be relief; so he passes to the earthly paradise at the summit of the mountain.

Having now experienced what the Dante scholar John Took has called “journeying under the aspect of seeing” in the Inferno, and “journeying under the aspect of striving” in the Purgatorio, Dante now received a new spiritual guide to continue his “journeying under the aspect of surpassing” in the Paradiso.

Virgil the righteous pagan cannot enter paradise — Dante feels the need to consider the justice of this in Canto 19 of the Paradiso — and so Dante now receives as his guide Beatrice, the Florentine woman who, in life, was the object of his courtly devotion, and who becomes in the poem both an embodiment of the life of grace, and, more originally, an affirmation of how the human loves that we see thwarting themselves in the Inferno can, in fact, be loves that, when well-ordered, correspond to and lead to the contemplation of divine love itself.

Following the cursus of human flourishing in the light of divine grace worked out intellectually in the second part of the Summa Theologica by St Thomas Aquinas, Dante unfolds the virtuous multiplicity of the blessed until differentiation gives way to the impulsion of pure love embodied in his final guide, the Mellifluous Doctor, St Bernard, and the poem ends with all the scattered leaves of human experience “bound up and gathered in a single book”, as Dante contemplates the vision of God, at the heart of which he sees as incarnate “our human form”.


DANTE needed two guides to show him the afterlife: Virgil, who represents both the dignity and the tragedy of human virtue unaided by divine grace; and Beatrice, who shows the startling congruity of human love with the divine love, which is its prototype and cause. We, too, need guides if this consummate work of the poetic imagination is to speak to us 700 years after its creation.

The sheer originality of Dante’s vision, its unboundedness by the constraints of what would subsequently become theological shibboleths about human destinations after death, has meant that Dante has attracted the wisdom and imagination of many English theologians of the imagination.

We might now smile that Gladstone dedicated so much effort to proving that Dante had visited Oxford, while admiring the culture of a prime minister whose memorial at Hawarden is decorated with scenes from the Comedy.

But, for Anglicans, the insight of T. S. Eliot in “Little Gidding”, a conscious recapitulation of the Comedy, and Charles Williams, in his profound and startling study The Figure of Beatrice, shows the power of Dante’s vision to reinvigorate our own spiritual patrimony. But not only in words: Boccaccio was the first artist to realise that the Comedy, and perhaps especially the Paradiso, was susceptible to illumination through illustration, and, in the English tradition, first John Flaxman, and then incomparably William Blake, carried forward this insight in ways that made Dante real for their own time and for us.

To read Dante with Boccaccio’s terse drawings, on the one hand, and Blake’s energetic, muscular watercolours, on the other, is to be led through the ascetic ascent of the Comedy by two very different and yet reliable guides ourselves.

Novice readers of Dante’s Comedy are fortunate in our time to have Robin Kirkpatrick’s outstanding three-volume translation of the Comedy readily available: his translation of the Italian is lucid and faithful, and his introduction and notes supply all that we need to make our way through the complexities of 14th-century Florentine politics, the sometimes baffling science of the poem, and the classical allusions that deliberately mark out Dante’s commitment to the justice of the imperial past which he mourns.

The poet holds up a mirror of unparalleled clarity to our own moral life, the working of nature and grace in a moral universe that is at once deeply embedded in human history and yet, at the same time, abstracted from it, so as to be present to us with an absolute here-and-now immediacy.

If we are prepared to make the act of imagination to traverse the seven centuries that separate us from him, then we will find for ourselves what T. S. Eliot perceived when he wrote: “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third.”

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