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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."

Purgatorio, Canto X

Dante Alighieri, 1265 - 1321
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,
  Which undulated to this side and that,
  Even as a wave receding and advancing.

"Here it behoves us use a little art,"
  Began my Leader, "to adapt ourselves
  Now here, now there, to the receding side."

And this our footsteps so infrequent made,
  That sooner had the moon's decreasing disk
  Regained its bed to sink again to rest,

Than we were forth from out that needle's eye;
  But when we free and in the open were,
  There where the mountain backward piles itself,

I wearied out, and both of us uncertain
  About our way, we stopped upon a plain
  More desolate than roads across the deserts.

From where its margin borders on the void,
  To foot of the high bank that ever rises,
  A human body three times told would measure;

And far as eye of mine could wing its flight,
  Now on the left, and on the right flank now,
  The same this cornice did appear to me.

Thereon our feet had not been moved as yet,
  When I perceived the embankment round about,
  Which all right of ascent had interdicted,

To be of marble white, and so adorned
  With sculptures, that not only Polycletus,
  But Nature's self, had there been put to shame.

The Angel, who came down to earth with tidings
  Of peace, that had been wept for many a year,
  And opened Heaven from its long interdict,

In front of us appeared so truthfully
  There sculptured in a gracious attitude,
  He did not seem an image that is silent.

One would have sworn that he was saying, "Ave;"
  For she was there in effigy portrayed
  Who turned the key to ope the exalted love,

And in her mien this language had impressed,
  "Ecce ancilla Dei," as distinctly
  As any figure stamps itself in wax.

"Keep not thy mind upon one place alone,"
  The gentle Master said, who had me standing
  Upon that side where people have their hearts;

Whereat I moved mine eyes, and I beheld
  In rear of Mary, and upon that side
  Where he was standing who conducted me,

Another story on the rock imposed;
  Wherefore I passed Virgilius and drew near,
  So that before mine eyes it might be set.

There sculptured in the self-same marble were
  The cart and oxen, drawing the holy ark,
  Wherefore one dreads an office not appointed.

People appeared in front, and all of them
  In seven choirs divided, of two senses
  Made one say "No," the other, "Yes, they sing."

Likewise unto the smoke of the frankincense,
  Which there was imaged forth, the eyes and nose
  Were in the yes and no discordant made.

Preceded there the vessel benedight,
  Dancing with girded loins, the humble Psalmist,
  And more and less than King was he in this.

Opposite, represented at the window
  Of a great palace, Michal looked upon him,
  Even as a woman scornful and afflicted.

I moved my feet from where I had been standing,
  To examine near at hand another story,
  Which after Michal glimmered white upon me.

There the high glory of the Roman Prince
  Was chronicled, whose great beneficence
  Moved Gregory to his great victory;

'Tis of the Emperor Trajan I am speaking;
  And a poor widow at his bridle stood,
  In attitude of weeping and of grief.

Around about him seemed it thronged and full
  Of cavaliers, and the eagles in the gold
  Above them visibly in the wind were moving.

The wretched woman in the midst of these
  Seemed to be saying: "Give me vengeance, Lord,
  For my dead son, for whom my heart is breaking."

And he to answer her: "Now wait until
  I shall return."  And she: "My Lord," like one
  In whom grief is impatient, "shouldst thou not

Return?"  And he: "Who shall be where I am
  Will give it thee."  And she: "Good deed of others
  What boots it thee, if thou neglect thine own?"

Whence he: "Now comfort thee, for it behoves me
  That I discharge my duty ere I move;
  Justice so wills, and pity doth retain me."

He who on no new thing has ever looked
  Was the creator of this visible language,
  Novel to us, for here it is not found.

While I delighted me in contemplating
  The images of such humility,
  And dear to look on for their Maker's sake,

"Behold, upon this side, but rare they make
  Their steps," the Poet murmured, "many people;
  These will direct us to the lofty stairs."

Mine eyes, that in beholding were intent
  To see new things, of which they curious are,
  In turning round towards him were not slow.

But still I wish not, Reader, thou shouldst swerve
  From thy good purposes, because thou hearest
  How God ordaineth that the debt be paid;

Attend not to the fashion of the torment,
  Think of what follows; think that at the worst
  It cannot reach beyond the mighty sentence.

"Master," began I, "that which I behold
  Moving towards us seems to me not persons,
  And what I know not, so in sight I waver."

And he to me: "The grievous quality
  Of this their torment bows them so to earth,
  That my own eyes at first contended with it;

But look there fixedly, and disentangle
  By sight what cometh underneath those stones;
  Already canst thou see how each is stricken."

O ye proud Christians! wretched, weary ones!
  Who, in the vision of the mind infirm
  Confidence have in your backsliding steps,

Do ye not comprehend that we are worms,
  Born to bring forth the angelic butterfly
  That flieth unto judgment without screen?

Why floats aloft your spirit high in air?
  Like are ye unto insects undeveloped,
  Even as the worm in whom formation fails!

As to sustain a ceiling or a roof,
  In place of corbel, oftentimes a figure
  Is seen to join its knees unto its breast,

Which makes of the unreal real anguish
  Arise in him who sees it, fashioned thus
  Beheld I those, when I had ta'en good heed.

True is it, they were more or less bent down,
  According as they more or less were laden;
  And he who had most patience in his looks

Weeping did seem to say, "I can no more!"

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
"'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,
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