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A Review of Dante’s Divine Comedy

A Review of Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Christian Literature Masterpiece

I followed my recommendations and read the Divine Comedy through and have learned from that experience. With that recent experience (I just finished January 2021)) comes a new and deeper understanding of Dante’s poem and its accessibility to 21st-century readers.

The original article is largely intact, but I have added 10 factors to consider before undertaking this momentous reading journey.

Dante’s Divine Comedy: Christian Literature Masterpiece

Almost everybody has heard of The Divine Comedy and recognizes Dante as its author. So too, everyone knows what the Holy Bible is but is not so sure about its Author. Both are well-known and seldom read; rarely in their entirety. (Read a short biography of Dante in SPIRITUAL LIVES )

Why do so few people read Dante’s Poem?

For the same reason, people don’t read the Bible. It is not an easy read. It must be read slowly, thoughtfully, and carefully, devotionally. Is it worth the effort? If you are a serious reader and interested in Western culture, the answer is “Yes,” especially if you are a Christian.

If you are not, the answer is no. Why? It is very long, 14,000 lines (3 times as long as Hamlet), and written in poetic form, in an early form of Italian. The quality of the translations varies, and your ability to scan poems and absorb their syntax (work order) will be tested. It will take an average reader (250 words per minute) about 7 hours to read all three parts. I am reading LONGFELLOW’S TRANSLATION but it is a tough read.

Often the syntax is difficult to follow and who is speaking is unclear. Some of this is Longfellow, but Dante is so steeped in his own time and medieval concepts that efforts of understanding are of little value.
Of less value still to modern readers is the presence of hundreds of references to the lives of people now obscure, people important in Dante’s time, but unknown to us and of little interest.

Why is Dante’s Poem still important?

It is a landmark of Western literature and civilization. Noble prize-winning poet T.S. Eliot said it was the most beautiful poetry ever written and added this evaluation:

“Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third”

But even unbelievers like James Joyce and Percy Bysshe Shelley saw its greatness:

  • His very words are instinct with spirit; each is as a spark, a burning atom of inextinguishable thought; and many yet lie covered in the ashes of their birth, and pregnant with the lightning which has yet found no conductor.


What is this “spirit” that flows through Dante’s poem? Joyce makes this linkage: I love Dante almost as much as the Bible. He is my spiritual food; the rest is ballast.

Neither Shelley nor Joyce was a Christian, and the “spirit” Shelley responds to is not the Holy Spirit. Joyce used the Bible and Dante as literary sources and reference points and certainly was inspired by Dante’s poem, but saw it as a part of tradition and culture, “spiritual food” only in a humanistic sense.

What Makes Dante’s Poem “Christian Literature?”

Dante’s poem and Dante’s world operated 100% under the influence and authority of the Bible. Its themes and subjects are drawn from the scriptures which were everywhere studied. People learned to read from the Bible, patterned their lives by it, grew up in its spirit, and lived by its words.

People believed then, as evangelical Christians do today that:

“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” 2 Timothy 2:16-17

Dante’s purpose is very much like the Bible’s. He believed that his work too was inspired of God, that the Holy Ghost was with him as he wrote to lead others to Jesus and His righteousness:

The purpose, Dante wrote, was to convert a corrupt society to righteousness, “to remove those living in this life from a state of misery and lead them to a state of felicity.” Christianity Today.

What Is the Story of Dante’s Poem?

Dante presents us with a story, of a man in the middle of his life lost in a forest. Suddenly, a heaven-sent guide arrives and leads him to a valley he must descend and a mountain he must climb to reach safety.

This is an allegory, the central figure, Dante himself, an Everyman, middle-aged and surrounded by countless “trees” of sin. He is hopeless but helped from Above when a guide is sent to show him the way out. This guide is Virgil, the famous Latin poet whose work Dante knew well, and Virgil represents “Reason,” the most common way men try to resolve their problems.

Like the Gospel, Dante’s poem begins with bad news: Hell awaits everyone who refuses God’s gift of salvation. (The word “Comedy” as used here means a story with a happy end, just as the Good News of the Gospel lies at its end.)

Dante’s allegorical journey was the inspiration for many others like the “Fairie Queene” and later “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Later still came “Hinds Feet on High Places” which makes the journey more accessible but puts it in 20th-century vernacular. The “Fairie Queene” is nearly as inaccessible as Dante’s poem, but the others are well worth reading. You will enjoy them.

What do we learn from the “Inferno”?

“The path to paradise begins in Hell.” – Dante

Hell is a long and narrowing cone, wide at the entrance on the surface of the earth, narrowing sharply to a single frozen cubical at the center of the earth where Satan is bound eternally. Virgil guides Dante through each circle, explaining and teaching as they go.

The cone is divided into nine circles, each containing those judged guilty of offenses ranging from ignorance to treason. God has righteously designed Hell to place the reprobate in the place that complements his sin.

The ignorant in an impenetrable fog; the lustful in the midst of constant and contrary winds that give them no rest. Thirdly, gluttons mired in heaps of stinking garbage befouled by worms. The wasters and misers pitted against each other in an eternal struggle.
The angry constantly fighting and obstinate permanently mired in mud. The heretics locked in fiery tombs. The violent judged by the direction of their violence, and so on until we come to the ninth cycle of treason where Brutus, Cassius, and Juda Iscariot are tormented in the mouth of Satan, himself locked in icy darkness.

Hell is real. Dante delivers Jesus’ warning: But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear Him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear Him. Luke_12:5

What can we learn from the “Purgatorio”?

While the idea of such a place as “Purgatory” is unique to Roman Catholics, we can learn about repentance, a much-neglected subject in evangelical circles. God is holy and holiness is required of those who would enter Paradise:

And there shall in no wise enter into it anything that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Revelation 21:27

In the Divine Comedy, Purgatory is a symmetrical opposite of Hell, a huge mountain, broad at the base and narrowing as Dante and Virgil ascend. Here there are seven circles corresponding to the seven deadly sins, but the purging going on here is not punitive. As Longfellow renders Dante:

From the confessionals I hear arise ⁠Rehearsals of forgotten tragedies, ⁠And lamentations from the crypts below; And then a voice celestial that begins ⁠With the pathetic words, “Although your sins ⁠As scarlet be,” and ends with “as the snow.” Introduction to Purgatorio

What makes our sins white as snow is the cleansing blood of Jesus, and we need no further cleansing such as that described here. This is the very thing Martin Luther railed against to begin the Protestant Reformation. The work of our Savior was complete on the cross, and we are fit now to stand before God’s throne dressed in His righteousness alone.

But we will seek to escape the practice of sin, “mortifying the flesh,” not physically but spiritually and we benefit greatly from seeing here such a graphic portrayal of the horrors of sin. Thank God for Jesus’ cleansing blood.

Are We Able to Behold the Glories of the “Paradiso”?

Atop Purgatory is an earthly paradise, that Garden of Eden we know from Genesis, and above that 10 spheres of heaven, the highest the throne of God. Virgil cannot enter this realm, and so Dante is blessed with other guides, first Beatrice, his lovely innocent first love and later Bernard of Clairvaux who shows him there our Triune God in all His glory.

Here, Dante has written the most beautiful poetry ever written (T.S. Eliot). Lines that Victor Hugo said, “The human eye was not made to look upon so much light, and when the poem becomes happy, it becomes boring.” This has been the “rap” on heaven itself for hundreds of years. Because we ourselves are not sanctified, we cannot enjoy or appreciate the untold bliss of those beings who have never known sin.

We stop reading when we read “behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald. Revelation 4:2-3

Nor are we able to stay with those holy beings that rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come. Revelation 4:8

Dante himself could not stand the vision and closes his work with these lines:

Here vigour failed the lofty fantasy: But now was turning my desire and will, Even as a wheel that equally is moved, The Love which moves the sun and the other stars. Paradiso, Canto XXXIII

Why I Am Reading the Dante’s Poem

I too am on a journey to heaven, and Dante’s path through Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, and this wonderful Divine Comedy, a Masterpiece of Christian Literature warns, focuses, and encourages me every step of the way.

Dante understood that the Divine Comedy is like the Bible, we cannot understand it fully until we have read it all and especially grasp it in terms of its ending. We need to read Revelation and see Jesus as He is there before we can understand Him adequately, and we need to read Paradiso to appreciate God’s glory and our blessedness in belonging to Him. See Jesus in all His glory within the AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF THE LORD JESUS CHRIST. A Reading Challenge

Get a copy of the whole poem and begin to read. It will be hard at first. You will not understand many of the names and references, just as you will not understand the names and references in much of the Old Testament. But keep on reading. You will get the gist of it. Just the same way you will get the gist of Revelation when you read it through at a sitting.

Sad to say, this was not my experience. The constant references to obscure people and literature overwhelmed the poetry. Dante’s poem does not have the inspiration, anointing, or power of the Bible.

Seven blessings are promised to those who read Revelation, and I believe you will experience at least that many as you read the Divine Comedy. As you read both, your spirit will become attuned to the spirit of the text, and you will understand it more and more as you read. I think St. John’s advice applies to both Revelation and the Divine Comedy:

But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him. – 1 John 2:27

Read on; enjoy the beauty and the anointing.

I find his final admonition truer than ever for Revelation, but not for Dante’s poem. The weight of it and the complexity were too much for me. Of course, I did not read Dante’s original Italian poetry, but Longfellow’s rendition of it was leaden, and the only beauty and anointing I found were in his copious notes, not the text of Dante’s poem.

I am glad that I read it just to see for myself if what I had read about it was trustworthy. The Biblical worldview is solid and Dante’s aim is to lead others to Jesus. I trust that it has and continues to do so in Italy where it is read in the original and taught in the schools. I recommend another allegory, the Pilgrim’s Progress, for our culture as a beautiful and compelling witness to the Lord Jesus and the way to salvation.

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