The Divine Comedy (canto I)

This post is not a reflection on my life, the presidency of Barack Obama, the state of humanity nor the entropy of the universe. Tis only that once again I have noticed the influx of a certain metaphor into my consciousness; mere happenstance? synchronicity? who knows? However, in the past week or so I have encountered references far outside any explanatory statistical relevance to Dante, the Rings of Hell, Purgatorio and the Divine Comedy. At some point the light bulb went on and I wondered just what I still knew or had long forgotten about this masterwork of 12th century poet Dante Alighieri.

So I danced around the interwebs first focused on the dauntingly inviting "Rings of Hell" and then onto the complete work of The Divine Comedy and Dante himself. Time to share some of what I uncovered. I'm not really sure how far I am will pursue this line of inquiry, we certainly are going to wander through the nine rings of hell, whether we get to seven to ten levels of Purgatory or ultimately to Paradise, well stay tuned.

Let's begin with some general story notes and observations. The Divine Comedy is presented in three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Basically, those translate to hell, purgatory and heaven. There are many more contemporary literary and social references to The Inferno then there are to either Purgatorio or Paradiso, which has got to say something about our collective darker side. I know I was first drawn to the whole Rings of Hell imagery. Purgatory is so, well, intermediary; sort of a spirtual cul de sac. Paradiso, on the other hand, just never came up in my initial cerebral percolation. Where the hell is some good old fashioned ecstasy when you need it!

(Sorry. I bit distracted there for a moment. Self reflection don't ya know. Meanwhile, back in Hades...)

Speaking of the infamous Rings. Dante viewed hell as a series of ever more vehement levels of sin, depravity and punishment. You will see when we explore those circles in detail that his reflection of medieval european sensibilities was not so far from those that vex our humanoid morality today. Some things just never change, despite the best efforts of the sane and the profane.

Before encountering The Inferno, I would point out that Dante lived roughly seven hundred years ago (approx. 1265-1321), therefore a great deal of what we think we know about him comes from later exegesis of his life and work. Mind you the first biography of Dante was written some two hundred years after his death, so all of what we think we know is influenced by historical writing and commentary. Dante was a poet and scholar of the late Medieval period but our first full biography of his life was written two centuries later in the near full flower of the Renaissance. That being said, an additional five hundred years have not diminished the impact of The Divine Comedy still considered the poetic masterwork of Italian literature. How many "great" authors of today will we be reading in 2709?

One final introductory mote of interest. Dante called his original work Comedy (Commedia), the 'Divine' was not appended until nearly two hundred years after his death. While it would appear on the surface that a major work constructed on the prevailing ecclesiastical themes of heaven and hell would be considered a religious work; in fact, Dante was using the religious metaphor to criticize and ridicule the political and religious figures of his time. The veil of the heaven-purgatory-hell imagery was both a literary vehicle as well as some social protection from the slings and excommunicatory arrows of his satirical targets.

Next time: a few Rings of Hell