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An Introduction to the Divine Comedy

Dantes Divine Comedy, written in or about 1320, is facially the story of a pilgrim

moving through the three realms of medieval Christian theology (Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven)

that represent the three major stages of a souls existence on its way to salvation (recognition of

sin, its renunciation, and the rewards for being cleansed of its taint). The intent, however, was

quite different. In this, it had a threefold purpose: current political commentary, an encyclopedia

of extant knowledge (pagan, Israelite, and Christian), and a lament for the perceived injustice of

his situation. Though lofty in many regards, Dante was not above the occasional personal barb as

he traversed Hell and freely admits his own primary sin is that of Pride as he passes through


The work is unusual in several ways, both in structure and in reception. Structurally, it is

a congeries of threes and nines, each Canticle being arranged into 33 cantos, plus the

introductory canto, for a total of 100. Terza rima is observed throughout, save for the heroic

couplets at the end of each canto. The word Christ is rhymed, but only with itself, three times in

the text, possibly as a way to make up for a prior work in which the word was used rather more

freely. Lastly, the final word in each Canticle is the same, stars. Translations which do not

observe these structural traits do a great damage to the overall spiritual setting intended to be

described by the poet. It is thus possible that the heavily annotated version by John Ciardi

represents the pinnacle of English translation.

The reception was also rather unusual. Unlike most other works of its era, Dante wrote

the Comedy in vernacular Tuscan Italian. Indeed, his efforts were so popular that this dialect

formed the core of modern standard Italian, relying in part on the conceit that the language of

Tuscany is the language of Rome. Also unusual was its reading in the public squares of Italy, an
honor rarely bestowed on living writers. But then, Dante the man was also an ambiguous sort,

being alternately reputed the last medieval writer or the first of the Renaissance, depending on

the commentators view. There is much to support either position in the Comedy, thus making it

impossible to classify by any sort of strict temporal or traditional guideline.

Each of these themes informs the entirety of the Comedy, albeit in different ways at

different points in the narrative. They will be discussed as appropriate in each section along with

relevant historical background and the events of Dantes life.