In The Divine Comedy, poetic justice comes with both rhyme and reason. It is, at once, an epic of cosmic proportions and an elaborate revenge fantasy. Dante, back in the 14th century, tossed his imagination into a skillet, cooked up this three-part journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, and topped it off with the gorgeous terza rima to serve up a world-class literary feast.
Because, well, aren’t we all a little hungry to lay down the laws of eternity?
Here are some highlights of narrator-Dante’s travels through the nine circles of Inferno, the nine rings of Purgatorio, and the nine celestial bodies of Paradiso:
- In Inferno, the punishment always fits the crime. So, for example, the lustful are caught up in an infinite whirlwind, and the violent are boiled in a river of blood and fire. (I know, I know—that escalated quickly.)
- Also, in Dante’s Hell, the worse your sin, the closer you are to the devil. The ninth circle of Hell has sections named for Cain, Antenor of Troy, Ptolemy, son of Abubus, and Judas Iscariot.
- For those poor souls who didn’t bother to take sides in the Rebellion of Angels, Dante reserved this punishment, as foul as it is fluid:
These wretches never born and never dead
ran naked in a swarm of wasps and hornets
that goaded them the more the more they fled,
and made their faces stream with bloody gouts
of pus and tears that dribbled to their feet
to be swallowed there by loathsome worms and maggots.
- …Not to be outdone by these other delightful forms of Dantean comeuppance: The flatterers (or bullshitters) are immersed in human excrement. The fortune tellers have their heads on backwards. The thieves exchange bodies with snakes and lizards. And the sowers of discord—a.k.a. Internet trolls, Beliebers, and the casually gluten-free—are hacked apart by a sword-wielding demon.
- Somehow, most of Dante’s political enemies make cameos in Hell. Coincidence??
- Lucifer, for his part, takes the form of an enormous beast with three faces. He weeps from his six eyes and chews traitors to shreds with his three mouths. Among them are Brutus and Cassius, as well as Judas himself.
- Purgatory is often referred to as “Heaven’s waiting room.” Dante’s is full of lazy Christians, and all those who repented of sin just in time to die.
- The seven terraces of Purgatory represent the Seven Deadly Sins, and the souls of Purgatorio have the opportunity to address the error of their ways through work and prayer. The slothful, for example, are forced to run, the envious are blinded, and the gluttonous are starved. (So yes, in this sense, Purgatorio is basically Seven, and Dante is basically Brad Pitt.)
- At the top of Mount Purgatory lies the Garden of Eden. There’s a weird parade of allegories, including a griffin (for Christ), three circling women (for Love, Hope, and Faith), and an old man (for Revelations), and then Dante is handed off from his former guide (Virgil) to his new guide (Beatrice—Dante’s muse).
- The nine spheres of Dante’s Paradiso are the planets and stars, which represent the angelic hierarchy. We can spot the likes of Emperor Justinian, Charlemagne, Thomas Aquinas, and the Virgin Mary up here.
- Heaven is, frankly, pretty boring, until Dante “proves” his faith at Heaven’s gates and St. Peter does a little dance.
- Dante eventually stands before God face to face, described here as a trinity of circles, and has this to say about it:
I saw within Its depth how It conceives
all things in a single volume bound by Love
of which the universe is the scattered leaves.
Which just, like, WOW.
At its core, then, The Divine Comedy is all about celeb-spotting, just rewards, and math. In other words, this is a classic you won’t want to miss. Consider these fun facts:
- Dante is often called the father of the Italian language. With The Divine Comedy, he helped to unify the various regional dialects behind one form and established Italian as a literary alternative to Latin.
- The Divine Comedy is the source of the famous line “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” The words are inscribed on the gates of Hell.
- Each cantica (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso) ends with the word “stars” (stelle in Italian).
- Michelangelo’s biographers believe that he listened to a reading of The Divine Comedy while painting “The Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel. (You know, before audiobooks.)
Now try to tell me that’s not a book you want to read.
I highly recommend the John Ciardi translation to anyone who decides to take the plunge into Dante’s afterworld. And I highly recommend that, too—if only for the FOMO.
Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?
It looks straight in the faces of the other 99 and laughs.
Favorite Quotes (Note that you’re in for a fair few. This is fucking Dante):
Whether it was my will, or chance, or fate
I cannot say.
I stay on in doubt with yes and no
dividing all my heart to hope and fear.
Follow your star, for if in all
of the sweet life I saw one truth shine clearly,
you cannot miss your glorious arrival.
I hear love’s voice in every word you say.
At the hour, I think, when Venus, first returning
out of the east, shone down upon the mountain—
she who with fires of love comes ever-burning—
I dreamed I saw a maiden…
there is a lady wins us grace, and I,
still mortal, cross your world led by her love.
At each step I took
I felt my feathers growing for the flight.
Here let dead poetry rise once more to life.
My course is set for an uncharted sea.
Now hear this and, beyond all doubt, believe it
the good of grace is in exact proportion
to the ardor of love that opens to receive it.
The beauty I saw there transcends all measure
of mortal minds. I think only her Maker can wholly comprehend so great a treasure.
Here I concede defeat. No poet known,
comic or tragic, challenged by his theme
to show his power, was ever more outdone.
Already I could feel my being turned—instinct
and intellect balanced equally as in a wheel whose motion nothing jars
by the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.