Divine Comedy: 25 Books Every Person Should Read

Domenico di Michelino‘s 1465 fresco of Dante and The Divine Comedy

This month, September 2021, marks the 700th anniversary of the death of Italian poet, Dante Alighieri. Dante, born in 1265, in Florence, Italy, is best known for his epic three-volume poem, The Divine Comedy, a work he began in 1308, and completed a year before he died on September 14, 1321, 700 years ago this week. The Divine Comedy, written in the language of the people, in vernacular Italian, is considered the most outstanding work ever written in the Italian language, one of the finest epic poems ever written in any language, and one of the greatest of all Christian spiritual classics ever written.

I had the privilege of taking a literature class on Dante in 1978, while studying at University of Washington as an undergraduate student. The professor was an Italian man in his 80s who read to us from The Divine Comedy in Italian, and translated from the original as he taught. We read from what our professor considered the best translation of The Divine Comedy, by the brilliant British writer, Dorothy Leigh Sayers, who learned Italian in order to do her translation. Sayers is best known for her 15 books of detective fiction featuring her protagonist, Lord Peter Whimsey. She considered her translation of The Divine Comedy to be her finest work, a three volume collection of Dante’s poetic work, published by Penguin: Hell, 1949; Purgatory, 1955; Paradise, 1962, after Sayers died.

One of the remarkable features of Sayers’ translation is that she preserves Dante’s rhyme and meter schemes. Dante’s rhyme scheme is a form called terza rima, with each stanza of poetry containing three lines, or tercets, according to the following rhyme scheme: aba, bcb, cdc, ded. The sequence of poetic stanzas are interlocking in their rhyme scheme, with the central rhyme in one stanza forming the outer rhymes in the following stanza. In addition, each line in Dante’s Italian contains exactly eleven syllables, with each stanza containing a total of 33 syllables. This strict poetic structure is followed through all three volumes of Dante’s work, through hundreds of pages of poetry. Sayer’s translation maintains Dante’s rhyme scheme in English, and keeps Dante’s meter, with 11 syllables per line.

Other gifts Sayers gives us in her translation are her insightful commentaries and diagrams interspersed throughout each of the three volumes. These alone help guide a reader deeper into the spiritual meanings behind the poetry.

More important that the poetic structure of Dante’s poetic work, is Dante’s vision of the human spiritual journey. In The Divine Comedy, Dante takes an epic pilgrimage or road trip, led by the classic Roman scholar Virgil. They first visit Inferno (Hell); then climb up the terraced slopes of Mount Purgatorio (Purgatory); and finally, Dante enters Paradiso (Paradise), led by the beautiful Beatrice. These three realms, hell, purgatory, paradise, express the soul’s journey to God, the journey of spiritual formation from a life lost in darkness and sin, through a life struggling to be transformed and reshaped, into a life of intimacy with God.

Title page of the first printed edition of The Divine Comedy
(Foligno, 11 April 1472)

Here is Dante’s opening stanza in the Book One, Hell:

Midway this way of life, we're bound upon,
   I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
   Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.

How many people suddenly wake up in life and realize the right road was “wholly lost and gone,” and they are in some “dark wood.” How I got into it I cannot say / Because I was so heavy and full of sleep / When first I stumbled from the narrow way. Jesus invites us to enter God’s Kingdom along the narrow way: “You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).How easily we lose the way, and find ourselves in some dark wood, lost, unsure of where to go, which way to turn.

People stumble in the dark, into many forms of seductions and temptations, as described in Book One, Hell, in the seven levels or circles of Hell, including circles of lust, envy, gluttony, greed, wrath, sloth, and pride, following the cardinal sins from medieval teachings of the faith. According to Dante’s vision, in Book Two, Purgatory, there is a realm where humans are transformed through suffering, thus prepared to enter into heavenly bliss in Paradise.

For to the second realm I tune my tale,
   Where human spirits purge themselves, and train
   To leap up into joy celestial.

In Book Two, Purgatory, Dante follows Virgil up the mountain of purgatory, where people are being purged of their sins before they are allowed to enter Heaven. Dante’s forehead is tatooed with seven Ps, and then climbs seven terraced slopes of Mount Purgatory to view the seven-fold purification of the soul being cleansed of all seven deadly sins. After being completely purified of all sin, in Book Three, Paradise, Dante is guided by the beautiful Beatrice into the many levels of Paradise, a realm filled divine light. Along the way, Dante meets the great saints of the Bible, including Solomon, Mary, Peter, and John. An old man meets Dante toward the end of Book Three, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), encouraging Dante to look upon God shining in eternal glorious light.

The Divine Comedy has long been heralded as a masterpiece of literature, theology, and poetry. Dante’s journey down through the depths of hell and then up through purgatory to the celestial heights of heaven is as beautiful and evocative as it is essential for our spiritual formation.” ~quoted from 25 Books Every Christian Should Read, 63.

In the September 20, 2021 edition of The New Yorker, Judith Thurman writes an article, Asylum Seeker, celebrating the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death this month. Thurman asks, “Seven centuries after Dante’s death, are we finally ready for Purgatory?” Thurman asserts, “Dante was a good companion for the pandemic, a dark wood from which the escape route remains uncertain. The plagues [Dante] describes are still with us: of sectarian violence, and of the greed for power that corrupts a regime.”

Though Thurman is not much consoled by Dante’s medieval theology, she writes that “his art and its truths feel more necessary than ever: that greater love for others is an antidote to the world’s barbarities, that evil may be understood as a sin against love, and that a soul can’t hope to dispel its anguish without first plumbing it.”