Harvard Classics, Volume 20: The Divine Comedy

Usually in these posts I talk about a work, and how it fits into the Western canon, but with Dante that is a little bit different. The Divine Comedy is doesn’t just fit into the Western canon, it defines a large portion of it. Compared to other volumes, I spent significantly more time working through Dante and getting everything I could out of it. A short blog post certainly does not suffice to do more than to hopefully encourage further study by the reader.

The Divine Comedy was written in the early 14th century, and is the most important literary work of a whole millennia of our civilization. The Divine Comedy marks the beginning of an explosion in literature. The world Dante describes is still the Medieval one, with a highly structured and hierarchical universe where things tie together in a way that seems almost allegorical today.

Unless you’re taking a dedicated course in the book, most college courses cover a selection of the 100 Cantos that make up the Divine Comedy. Even though I found the whole experience very valuable, I can understand why colleges run their courses this way. The moments when Dante is transcendent are truly something special. But those instances do not occur in every Canto and as far as I can tell, my own assessment of which Cantos were the most interesting agreed with collegiate opinion.

The Divine Comedy is split into three main components, the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Inferno usually gets the most attention because it is the least interested in theology, and the descriptions of people who do not eventually make it to heaven, especially those near the boundary, are some of the most interesting parts of the book. The common thread that runs through all three books is Love. In Inferno we see the result of putting other emotions ahead of Love. In Purgatorio, people are struggling with misplaced love. At the end of the Paradiso, Dante sees that the source of energy behind the whole of creation is Love. The object of Dante’s love, driving him forward is Beatrice. Dante longs after Beatrice through most of the books until she arrives to help him ascend into heaven, where she is with him almost to Dante’s final meeting with the Trinity.

It really is a silly exercise to try and talk about the depth, beauty and poetry of the Divine Comedy in a limited post. All I can really do is agree with the consensus that it is a sublime work that can be appreciated by from a single reading, but can also occupy the careers of scholars.

But now, with the Divine Comedy finished, we’ve reached a turning point in the Harvard Classics. From here on out, most of the readings are more modern, and there are fewer epic tomes known to everyone who goes to college. The big exception is the Odyssey, which is Volume 22. Before we get there, I’ll be reading the Italian novel I promessi sposi (The Betrothed).