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Definition: Divine Comedy, The from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Epic poem by Dante 1307–21, describing a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. The poet Virgil is Dante's guide through Hell and Purgatory; to each of the three realms, or circles, Dante assigns historical and contemporary personages according to their moral (and also political) worth. In Paradise Dante finds his lifelong love, Beatrice. The poem makes great use of symbolism and allegory, and influenced many English writers including Milton, Byron, Shelley, and T S Eliot.

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Summary Article: Divine Comedy, The
from Brewer's Curious Titles

An epic poem by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), who completed it in 1321, just before his death. The original title was simply Commedia (Italian, ‘ play’), and it was not until after the 16th century that it became known as the Divina Commedia. There are three parts, Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio and Paradiso.

The poet starts his journey through these regions on Good Friday, 1300, guided by the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BC). Virgil takes him through Hell, which consists of nine levels or circles spiralling down into the earth. The first circle is Limbo, the region for those who cannot go to heaven simply because they have not been baptized, or were born before Jesus Christ. The subsequent circles, from second to ninth, are for the perpetrators of successively more heinous sins. Carnal sinners such as FRANCESCA DA RIMINI are on the second circle, and many other historical characters (including several popes) are encountered during the course of Dante's descent. Our vision of Dante's Inferno has largely been shaped by the series of engravings (1861) by the French illustrator Gustave Doré (1832-83).

Subsequently, on Easter morning, Virgil guides Dante up the peak of Purgatory. At the summit Virgil must leave him, as, being a pagan, the ancient Roman cannot take him further upward. That role is left to Beatrice. Beatrice Portinari had become Dante's idealized love when she was just a girl; however, she married another, Simone de Bardi, in 1287, and died in 1290, not yet 24. In The Divine Comedy she represents the wisdom of faith, and she leads him through Paradise to God.

The film Dante's Inferno (1935) has little to do with The Divine Comedy apart from a ten-minute sequence in which an unpleasant carnival owner (Spencer Tracy) is forced to experience a vision of Hell. Other titles inspired by Dante and/or The Divine Comedy include:

Dante Sonata, a piano piece (1837-9) by Liszt, originally entitled Après une lecture du Dante (French, ‘ after a reading of Dante’).

Dante Symphony (German title: Eine Symphonie zu Dantes Divina Commedia), an orchestral piece by Liszt, first performed in 1857, with movements entitled Inferno and Purgatorio, and ending in a Magnificat.

The System of Dante's Hell (1965), a novel by the African-American writer LeRoi Jones (b. 1934) set in the slums of Newark.

The First Circle (1969), a novel by the dissident Soviet writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn (b.1918), where contemporary Russia is seen as Dante's Limbo.

Hope Abandoned (1974), a memoir by Nadezhda Mandelstam (d. 1980) of her husband, the poet Osip Mandelstam (1891-?1938), who was arrested in one of Stalin's purges and died somewhere in the GULAG ARCHIPELAGO. The title of the memoir, a sequel to Hope Against Hope (1971), comes from the inscription above the entrance to Dante's Inferno: ‘ Abandon hope, all ye who enter here’ (Canto 3).

Dante's Drum-Kit (1993), a verse collection by the Scottish poet Douglas Dunn (b. 1942).

Numerous operas have also been inspired by Dante, few of them memorable.

© Cassell 2002

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