I’ve known forever that I should read Dante’s Divine Comedy. After all, it’s one of the most famed of all literary writings. Hence we should all have at least a nodding acquaintance with the Inferno and Purgatoria, perhaps even Paradisio, right?
But yet I managed to avoid reading it in undergraduate English classes. After all, I was an atheist, why would I want to read about hell, purgartory and heaven?
Much later, after converting to Catholic Christianity, I made a few perfunctory attempts to read the epic poem. But it was only when my online friend, Maura Harrison began posting her astounding images of the 100 Days of Dante that I decided, finally, to do this. But around Canto 20 in The Inferno, again I quit. Despite the excellence and variety of the professors commenting on the Inferno, I couldn’t get into it. The images, names, times and events felt far removed and Dante Alighieri? He felt like a wholly alien being.
But now, I get it. With that perfectly banal phrase, I mean that not only do I understand why the Divine Comedy is considered superior literature, but that Dante is no longer foreign to me. In fact, I have gained, I believe, another friend in heaven.
My title, “a little spark gives way to a great fire” is taken from Canto 1 of Paradiso beginning with this tribute to God. By the now wise and knowledgeable Dante:
THE glory of Him who moveth everything 1
Doth penetrate the universe, and shine
In one part more and in another less…
So seldom, Father, do we gather them
For triumph or of Caesar or of Poet,
(The fault and shame of human inclinations,)
That the Peneian foliage should bring forth
Joy to the joyous Delphic deity,
When any one it makes to thirst for it.
A little spark is followed by great flame;
Perchance with better voices after me
Shall prayer be made that Cyrrha may respond…
The poet’s words recall Christ’s preaching, “For truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.”
course by Dr. Stephen Smith on the Divine Comedy, this translated verse would have rung hollow and meaningless in my ears and mind. Much like most poetry did while a kid English major a million years ago. However, Stephen Smith’s passion for the Divine Comedy, love for the pilgim Dante Allighieria, and his irresistible delight in explaining precisely why this is indeed a masterpiece, ensnared me for the entirety of his ten lecture series.
Each one of his talks, it seemed, was better than its predecessor.
Initially, I’d planned to write snippets about this astounding 700 hundred-year-old work. Quoting some of the most salient-perhaps enlightening aspects of the Inferno and Purgatoria. Like Dante’s words upon entering the Inferno on Good Friday:
MIDWAY upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
So familiar was the poet’s lament about the disappointment, confusion and often betrayals of midlife that it is one of the first quotes that appears in my first novel, .
And then famed Francesca’s insistence that it was love that landed her in the Inferno-she had no responsibility when she chose adultery is almost comical. It wasn’t her fault but that of the love that overwhelmed her.
“Were He who rules the universe our friend…,” she opines. God is the enemy of each of the lost souls we meet in the Inferno.
As if the descending nine levels of the Inferno aren’t dreadful enough, we then enter Malebolge at the eighth level of hell. It is made up of ten separate bolgias of damned souls who knowilingly and willingly commit fraud.
Dante’s itchily contemporary list?
Then finally, the lowest level of the Inferno, where Satan lies, encased in ice.
Behold Dis– Behold Satan
the immensity of this poet’s genius and gut-wrenching honesty without watching-participating in- the whole course on Dante’s Divine Comedy for yourself. As told by Dr. Stephen Smith.
There are countless reasons I say this. Primarily though, it’s that feeling of being back in those heady days when I was discovering the great thinkers and philosophers. Excited and challenged by instructors of the caliber of Dr. Smith. The sheer unadulterated joy of learning, studying and questioning.
We see in these lectures that Dante’s odyssey, his pilgimage, is that of all of us. His pain at the realization that his desire can be satisfied only by letting go of our desperate and dangerous grip on all that is not God, is that of all humanity. Even, maybe especially, our very love for justice, peace and beauty.
We learn from Dante that the Beatrices in our lives are not our endpoint, we must not rest in them.
Upon leaving the Inferno, then Purgatoria and ascending into the Heavens of the Sun, Dante’s poetry becomes more and more delicious, the visions and images ineffably splendid…like Piccarda’s reply to Dante when he observes that she is only in the first level of the Heavens, wouldn’t she be unhappy with being placed so low?
Consused by Piccarda’s effusive joy that pours out of her soul, Dante asks, “But don’t you wish you were higher in the heavens?”
“In his will is our peace.”
And then the gripping image of the Eagle of Justice appearing in the Heaven of Justice…these are only two of the magnificent metaphors in this poem worth pondering forever.
is, of course, the point of the entire Divine Comedy and of each one of our lives: Christ.
St. Bernard’s last piece of advice to our pilgrim: “Into the face that most resembles, Christ, for by her radiance, only she can prepare you to see her Son…” sage counsel for us, day by day, moment by moment.
Dante echoes Thomas Aquinas’s words upon completing the Summa when he ends his 100 cantos:
My words are less than what a baby says who wets his tongue at his mother’s breast…how feeble language is, how lame my thoughts…”Canto 33 Paradisio