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The author of La Commedia (The Divine Comedy), considered a masterwork of world literature, Dante Alighieri was born Durante Alighieri in Florence, Italy, in 1265, to a notable family of modest means. His mother died when he was seven years old, and his father remarried, having two more children.

At twelve years old, Dante was betrothed to Gemma di Manetto Donati, though he had already fallen in love with another girl, Beatrice Portinari, who he continued to write about throughout his life, though his interaction with her was limited. The love poems to Beatrice are collected in Dante's La Vita Nuova, or The New Life.

In his youth, Dante studied many subjects, including Tuscan poetry, painting, and music. He encountered both the Occitan poetry of the troubadours and the Latin poetry of classical antiquity, including Homer and Virgil. He read Boethius's De consolatione philosophiae and Cicero's De amicitia. By the age of eighteen, Dante had met the poets Guido Cavalcanti, Lapo Gianni, Cino da Pistoia, and others. Along with Brunetto Latini, these poets became the leaders of Dolce Stil Novo ("The Sweet New Style"), in which personal and political passions were the purpose of poetry.

He later turned his attention to philosophy, which the character of Beatrice criticizes in Purgatorio. He also became a pharmacist, and in his twenties and thirties took an active part in local public affairs.

Like most Florentines during his lifetime, Dante was affected by the Guelph-Ghibelline conflict, a political division of loyalty between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Papacy. On June 11, 1289, he fought in the ranks at the battle of Campaldino on the side of the Guelphs, helping to bring forth a reformation of the Florentine constitution.

After defeating the Ghibellines, the Guelphs themselves divided into two factions: the White Guelphs, Dante's party, who were wary of the Pope's political influence; and the Black Guelphs, who remained loyal to Rome. Initially the Whites were in power and kicked the Blacks out of Florence, but Pope Boniface VIII planned a military occupation of the city. A delegation of Florentines, with Dante among them, was sent to Rome to ascertain the Pope's intentions.

While he was in Rome, the Black Guelphs destroyed much of the city, and established a new government. Dante received word that his assets had been seized and that he was considered an absconder, having left the city. Condemned to perpetual exile, Dante never returned to his beloved Florence. An outcast, Dante wandered Italy for several years, beginning to outline La Commedia, his great work.

In 1315, the military officer controlling Florence granted an amnesty to Florentines in exile, but the government of the city insisted that returning expatriots were required to pay a large fine and do public penance. Dante refused, preferring to remain in exile. Six years later, Dante died on September 13, 1321 in Ravenna, Italy, most likely of malarial fever.

Unlike the epic poems of Homer and Virgil, which told the great stories of their people's history, Dante's The Divine Comedy is a somewhat autobiographical work, set at the time in which he lived and peopled with contemporary figures. It follow's Dante's own allegorical journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Paradise (Paradiso). Guided at first by the character of Virgil, and later by his beloved Beatrice, Dante wrote of his own path to salvation, offering philosophical and moral judgments along the way.

Dante is credited with inventing terza rima, composed of tercets woven into a linked rhyme scheme, and chose to end each canto of the The Divine Comedy with a single line that completes the rhyme scheme with the end-word of the second line of the preceding tercet. The tripartite stanza likely symbolizes the Holy Trinity, and early enthusiasts of terza rima, including Italian poets Boccaccio and Petrarch, were particularly interested in the unifying effects of the form.

Also unlike the epic works that came before, The Divine Comedy was written in the vernacular Italian, instead of the more acceptable Latin or Greek. This allowed the work to be published to a much broader audience, contributing substantially to world literacy. Due to the monumental influence the work has had on countless artists, Dante is considered among the greatest writers to have lived. As the poet T. S. Eliot wrote, "Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them, there is no third."

Inferno, Canto XXXIV

Dante Alighieri, 1265 - 1321
"'Vexilla Regis prodeunt Inferni'
  Towards us; therefore look in front of thee,"
  My Master said, "if thou discernest him."

As, when there breathes a heavy fog, or when
  Our hemisphere is darkening into night,
  Appears far off a mill the wind is turning,

Methought that such a building then I saw;
  And, for the wind, I drew myself behind
  My Guide, because there was no other shelter.

Now was I, and with fear in verse I put it,
  There where the shades were wholly covered up,
  And glimmered through like unto straws in glass.

Some prone are lying, others stand erect,
  This with the head, and that one with the soles;
  Another, bow-like, face to feet inverts.

When in advance so far we had proceeded,
  That it my Master pleased to show to me
  The creature who once had the beauteous semblance,

He from before me moved and made me stop,
  Saying: "Behold Dis, and behold the place
  Where thou with fortitude must arm thyself."

How frozen I became and powerless then,
  Ask it not, Reader, for I write it not,
  Because all language would be insufficient.

I did not die, and I alive remained not;
  Think for thyself now, hast thou aught of wit,
  What I became, being of both deprived.

The Emperor of the kingdom dolorous
  From his mid-breast forth issued from the ice;
  And better with a giant I compare

Than do the giants with those arms of his;
  Consider now how great must be that whole,
  Which unto such a part conforms itself.

Were he as fair once, as he now is foul,
  And lifted up his brow against his Maker,
  Well may proceed from him all tribulation.

O, what a marvel it appeared to me,
  When I beheld three faces on his head!
  The one in front, and that vermilion was;

Two were the others, that were joined with this
  Above the middle part of either shoulder,
  And they were joined together at the crest;

And the right-hand one seemed 'twixt white and yellow;
  The left was such to look upon as those
  Who come from where the Nile falls valley-ward.

Underneath each came forth two mighty wings,
  Such as befitting were so great a bird;
  Sails of the sea I never saw so large.

 No feathers had they, but as of a bat
  Their fashion was; and he was waving them,
  So that three winds proceeded forth therefrom.

Thereby Cocytus wholly was congealed.
  With six eyes did he weep, and down three chins
  Trickled the tear-drops and the bloody drivel.

At every mouth he with his teeth was crunching
  A sinner, in the manner of a brake,
  So that he three of them tormented thus.

To him in front the biting was as naught
  Unto the clawing, for sometimes the spine
  Utterly stripped of all the skin remained.

"That soul up there which has the greatest pain,"
  The Master said, "is Judas Iscariot;
  With head inside, he plies his legs without.

Of the two others, who head downward are,
  The one who hangs from the black jowl is Brutus;
  See how he writhes himself, and speaks no word.

And the other, who so stalwart seems, is Cassius.
  But night is reascending, and 'tis time
  That we depart, for we have seen the whole."

As seemed him good, I clasped him round the neck,
  And he the vantage seized of time and place,
  And when the wings were opened wide apart,

He laid fast hold upon the shaggy sides;
  From fell to fell descended downward then
  Between the thick hair and the frozen crust.

When we were come to where the thigh revolves
  Exactly on the thickness of the haunch,
  The Guide, with labour and with hard-drawn breath,

Turned round his head where he had had his legs,
  And grappled to the hair, as one who mounts,
  So that to Hell I thought we were returning.

"Keep fast thy hold, for by such stairs as these,"
  The Master said, panting as one fatigued,
  "Must we perforce depart from so much evil."

Then through the opening of a rock he issued,
  And down upon the margin seated me;
  Then tow'rds me he outstretched his wary step.

I lifted up mine eyes and thought to see
  Lucifer in the same way I had left him;
  And I beheld him upward hold his legs.

And if I then became disquieted,
  Let stolid people think who do not see
  What the point is beyond which I had passed.

"Rise up," the Master said, "upon thy feet;
  The way is long, and difficult the road,
  And now the sun to middle-tierce returns."

It was not any palace corridor
  There where we were, but dungeon natural,
  With floor uneven and unease of light.

"Ere from the abyss I tear myself away,
  My Master," said I when I had arisen,
  "To draw me from an error speak a little;

Where is the ice? and how is this one fixed
  Thus upside down? and how in such short time
  From eve to morn has the sun made his transit?"

And he to me: "Thou still imaginest
  Thou art beyond the centre, where I grasped
  The hair of the fell worm, who mines the world.

That side thou wast, so long as I descended;
  When round I turned me, thou didst pass the point
  To which things heavy draw from every side,

And now beneath the hemisphere art come
  Opposite that which overhangs the vast
  Dry-land, and 'neath whose cope was put to death

The Man who without sin was born and lived.
  Thou hast thy feet upon the little sphere
  Which makes the other face of the Judecca.

Here it is morn when it is evening there;
  And he who with his hair a stairway made us
  Still fixed remaineth as he was before.

Upon this side he fell down out of heaven;
  And all the land, that whilom here emerged,
  For fear of him made of the sea a veil,

And came to our hemisphere; and peradventure
  To flee from him, what on this side appears
  Left the place vacant here, and back recoiled."

A place there is below, from Beelzebub
  As far receding as the tomb extends,
  Which not by sight is known, but by the sound

Of a small rivulet, that there descendeth
  Through chasm within the stone, which it has gnawed
  With course that winds about and slightly falls.

The Guide and I into that hidden road
  Now entered, to return to the bright world;
  And without care of having any rest

We mounted up, he first and I the second,
  Till I beheld through a round aperture
  Some of the beauteous things that Heaven doth bear;

Thence we came forth to rebehold the stars.

From The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  This poem is in the public domain.

From The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  This poem is in the public domain.

Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri

The author of La Commedia (The Divine Comedy), considered a masterwork of

by this poet

poem
Midway upon the journey of our life
  I found myself within a forest dark,
  For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
  What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
  Which in the very thought renews the fear.

So bitter is it, death is little more;
  But of the good
poem
When we had crossed the threshold of the door
  Which the perverted love of souls disuses,
  Because it makes the crooked way seem straight,

Re-echoing I heard it closed again;
  And if I had turned back mine eyes upon it,
  What for my failing had been fit excuse?

We mounted upward through a rifted rock,