“Midway along the journey of our life / I woke to find myself in a dark wood / for I had wandered off from the straight path.” Thus opens Dante’s grand epic of love. But why did the pilgrim poet have to descend into hell—of all places—before he could climb Mount Purgatory and take his seat in the blossoming bud of the white rose of heaven? The Divine Comedy is a love epic. It is the greatest love epic. It is the most ambitious love epic ever crafted by the hands of a mere mortal. Dante descends into hell to learn to love again by the most extreme examples of misdirected love and also through his relationship with Virgil.
That there is much depth to Dante is an understatement. There is much allegory, theology, political commentary, reflections on history, poetry, and economics, that give life to Dante’s brilliant masterpiece. There are many ways to understand the multilayered world of hell: From its construction to why, at the lowest circle—rather than a fiery pandemonium as imagined by John Milton—the lake of hell is cold, dark, and frozen. Yet the descent into the abyss that is the inferno is perplexing at first glance.
When Dante begins his epic, he states that he is having a sort of mid-life existential crisis. The poem is about him. But it is more than about him. Dante says that midway along “our” life he awoke to find himself in a dark wood because he had wandered off the straight and true path. That straight and true path is the path of love.
It isn’t surprising, given this reality, that the first proper circle of hell is the sphere of lust. Lust is the beginning of misdirecting love—as evidenced by the pilgrim’s discussion with the wounded lusters Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta. The two had carried on an illicit affair for a decade. Francesca, in talking to Dante, subtly blames the poet. It was Dante’s romance poetry that had captured the heart of Francesca and filled her heart with erotic intent that ultimately was her own undoing. Dante takes pity on Francesca and faints.
In the beginning of all three parts of the Divine Comedy, Dante invokes poetry to guide him. “O muses! O high genius! Help me now!” he frantically cries at the beginning of the second canto of the Inferno. Before ascending up the slopes of Mount Purgatory, Dante also invokes the muses again, “Here let death’s poetry arise to life, / O muses sacrosanct whose liege I am! / And let Calliope rise up and play.” By the time he enters into heaven, Dante invokes Apollo (beyond being god of the sun, he was also the god of poetry), “O great Apollo, for this final task, / make me a vessel worthy to receive / your genius and the longed-for laurel crown.”
Dante invokes the muses and gods of poetry in his journey because poetry, up through Dante’s time, always had love as its great theme. The epic poetry of Homer, though surrounded by the maelstrom of war, chiefly concerns itself with love. The Troubadours of Provence were love bards and poets who set the medieval world aflame—and Dante meets one such Troubadour on his ascent up Mount Purgatory.
But in the Latin mind, no greater love poet stood out than Dante’s own guide through hell and purgatory. Virgil was the chief poet of love in the Roman world. His epic is a grand tale of love which Dante feels insignificant in comparison to. “I am not Aeneas,” he tells Virgil before journeying to the underworld. Virgil’s additional poetry, like the Eclogues, also chiefly concerns itself with love. “Omnia vincit amor,” as Virgil famously wrote in Eclogue X.
By invoking the muses of poetry and in being guided by Virgil, Dante tips his hand and reveals to the astute reader (or listener) that the journey into—and through—hell will require the flowering of love. Hell, after all, is a loveless place. And Dante’s journey is one in which the muses of love must nurture him.
The initial relationship between Dante and Virgil is standoffish and cold. While Virgil has been selected by Beatrice, Virgil treats Dante more as an insolent child than a son. Virgil is, at the poem’s beginning, more of a reluctant guide. He regularly accosts Dante for his stupid questions and repeated mistakes journeying through hell. Dante repeatedly faints, much to Virgil’s chagrin.
Two things are missing in their relationship when they enter into the gates which infamously read: ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE. There is a lack of trust between Dante and Virgil. As such, there is a lack of love between the two poets. In fact, the two missing ingredients are also the two missing values that permeate hell itself. Moreover, the lack of trust and lack of love are also envisioned as being united together. Without trust there can be no love. Without love, there can be no trust.
Read the rest here, from my literary column at TIC: Learning to Love Again: Dante’s Descent in the “Inferno” (4 Dec 2019)