ENGL 203: Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Dante as Vernacular Poet: the Vita Nuova and 
the Divine Comedy

[NOTE: all page references on this study guide refer to the Portable Dante]

Background to Dante

In addition to De Vulgari Eloquentia, the Italian poet Dante (1265-1321) wrote two great literary works in Italian: the Vita Nuova (ca. 1292-1300), a series of lyric poems about a beloved lady named Beatrice that are embedded in a sort of frame narrative that is both fictional autobiography and an (equally fictional) account of their own composition (a razo); and the Divine Comedy or Commedia (ca. 1307-21). The latter is a Christian epic in which the "Pilgrim" Dante visits Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio) and Heaven (Paradiso); the first two visits are guided by Virgil (whose Latin epic the Aeneid we also discussed this quarter). Virgil turns his pupil over to Beatrice upon reaching the Earthly Paradise at the top of Mount Purgatory; she is his guide through most of Paradise (Purg. xxviii-Par. xxxii).  When Beatrice leaves him to take her rightful place among the holiest of saints, Dante's final guide (in Par. 31-33).is none other than Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, author of the Sermons on the Song of Songs which we read last week, and whom Dante chose, presumably, because of his particular love and veneration for the Virgin Mary, a parallel to Dante's love and veneration for Beatrice.

Read carefully the Introduction in the Portable Dante (pp. ix-xxxvi), paying particular attention to Dante's education (x-xiii), his relationship with Beatrice (xi-xii), and the three works discussed in this class: De vulgari eloquentia (xxiv-xxv; also review previous study guide); the Vita nuova (xvi-xxi); and the Divine Comedy or Commedia (xxx-xxxvi). Know Dante's lifespan (1265-1321), approximate dates for these three works, and supposed date of events recounted in the Divine Comedy. Know what is meant by epic and by epic conventions (see entries in your Glossary of Literary Terms), canto, canticle, tercet (or terzine), terza rima and hendecasyllabic line (see Intro xxxi). Know number of cantos in each canticle and total number of cantos in the epic as a whole (Intro xxxi). Be able to describe the formal aspects of the Divine Comedy using proper terminology (books/canticles, cantos, stanzas, lines). Are all the cantos of the same length? With what does each canto end, after the long series of terzine or tercets (three line stanzas in which the first and third lines rhyme)? How is that final line of each canto connected to the previous tercet? (See e-reserve reading with canto 1 in the original Italian; be sure you understand the rhyme scheme.)

Although the Divine Comedy is universally recognized today as a masterpiece of world literature, recall that Dante felt compelled to defend the legitimacy of literature written in Italian (as opposed to Latin) in his treatise De Vulgari Eloquentia ("Of Literature in the Vernacular," 1304-1306) -- and that he wrote that work in Latin, not Italian, because he wanted it to be taken seriously!

Context for the Commedia: Beatrice and the Vita nuova

In De Vulgari Eloquentia, Dante expresses his admiration for troubadour love poetry written in the langue d'oc (Provençal, which he considers the vernacular best suited for love poetry). Recall that the first known troubadour poet was William IX, grandfather of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who introduced the ideal of "courtly love" found in troubadour lyrics into the literary tradition of Anglo-Norman England. In the Vita nuova, Dante claims to have taught himself to write love poetry in the fashion of the troubadour poets (see VN 3, p. 592). The Vita nuova presents a series of lyric poems written for or about Beatrice, an actual lady loved by Dante (see introduction xi-xii and xvi-xxi). The poems are set in a sort of frame narrative that is at once a pseudo-autobiography and a fictional account of their own composition modelled on the troubadour writings known as razos (fictional accounts of the genesis of a poem; see p. 641 n. 88). Recall that courtly love was traditionally thought to be an ennobling force whether or not it was consummated, and regardless of the lady's feelings for the knight or awareness of his passion (review courtly love). In the Vita nuova (ca. 1292-1300), Dante claims to have felt such an ennobling love for Beatrice, who ultimately becomes the source of his salvation. Dante's Beatrice undergoes a gradual transformation in the course of his works: from the traditional lady of "courtly love" poetry, she comes to symbolize a purified, spiritual love relationship. In the Divine Comedy (ca. 1307-21), she becomes Dante's personal savior, the instrument of God's grace: his love for her leads him to God's Love, i.e. salvation.

Read Vita nuova sections 1-3, 11-12, 19, 23-25, 28-30, 39-42. Don't sweat the poems; read carefully the explanations that precede them. Look for: details concerning the significance of Beatrice to Dante; references to his development as a poet; the visions in which he sees the God of Love; references to Pilgrims (esp. pp. 647-8; Dante will be referred to as the Pilgrim in the Divine Comedy). Know how old Dante and Beatrice were when they first met; how old they were when he next saw her; the visions he has about her; when she died; and the connection between the Vita nuova and the Commedia: in VN 42, p. 649, he claims that one day he will write of her in a "nobler way . . . that which has never been written of any other woman."  Know the significance of the number nine within the text (see esp. pp. 589-92, 601, 619, 632-3, 645). Note both parallels and significant differences between the dreamer-lover-poet figures in the Vita Nuova and both versions of the Romance of the Rose.  Note parallels and significant differences between the depiction and function of the God of Love/Cupid figures in the Vita Nuova, both versions of the Romance of the Rose, and the God of Love's Letter.

Dante's Divine Comedy: General

Tripartite Structure: The Divine Comedy is made up of three canticles (or books), Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, which together number one hundred cantos (analogous to chapters, from the Italian for "chant" or "song"). Each canticle has its own tripartite structure. Cantos 1-9 of each canticle are a sort of "preface" to a larger segment that begins in canto 10: in Inf. 10, the pilgrims enter the City of Dis; in Purg. 10, they leave the "ante-Purgatory" and enter the first terrace of Purgatory proper. Similarly, Par. 1-9 recount Dante's visit to the three planetary spheres that are still touched by the earth's shadow (Mars, Mercury and Venus). Symbolically, these spheres are the least perfect, since they are most distant from God and are in the shadow of earth, home of fallen mankind. The final cantos of each canticle also make up a distinct segment: the icy ninth circle of traitors (Inf. 31-33); the Earthly Paradise where Dante is reunited with Beatrice (Purg. 28-33); and the Empyrean (Par. 30-33), a realm of pure light. This triple tripartite structure recalls the importance of the mystical number nine that was associated with Beatrice in the Vita Nuova. Triply triple, this structure recalls both the holy Trinity, in which God is at once Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and Dante's personal "feminine trinity," the Virgin Mary, Saint Lucia (=Light), and Beatrice, each of whom could be called a "lady with intelligence of (Divine) love" (to borrow a line from the canzone embedded in VN XIX, p. 611, and quoted by Dante at Purg. 24, line 51, p. 330). The Divine Light is the ultimate goal of the Pilgrim (within the poem) and of the Poet (who struggles to convey it adequately to his readers). The Divine Light of Paradiso prefigures the Heavenly Light which will become Milton's Muse in Paradise Lost.

Reading Tips for Dante's Commedia: 

1) You are not expected to read every line or every canto of Dante's Commedia, but you should carefully read all passages referenced on this Study Guide.  I recommend that you also read the summaries provided at the beginning of each canto so that you have a sense of how the selections we consider together fit into the poem as a whole.  (Of course, if you are interested and have the time, feel free to read or skim cantos that are not assigned or referenced here, but if you do, don't sweat the details!)

2) Don't worry about references to contemporary politics or specifics of theology; look instead for Dante's use of epic and mythological elements; his references to prior literary tradition; implicit and explicit references to his own writing or status as poet; the transformation of Dante's love for Beatrice from earthly desire to divine love; and Dante's vision of Christian salvation (esp. references to Beatrice's role in his salvation and to fact that his "pilgrimage" through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise is willed by God). Be particularly sensitive to the ways in which Dante shows himself to be a new (and better) Virgil and to the allegorical level upon which the Divine Comedy can be seen as guiding every Christian to salvation.

[NOTE: In the reading notes below, references to whole cantos are given as arabic numerals;
for specific line references, roman numeral=canto number and arabic numerals=line numbers.]

The Inferno contains 34 cantos. Canto 1 is the introduction to the Divine Comedy as a whole; it is followed by the 33 cantos of the Inferno proper (Purgatorio and Paradiso are the same length). In canto 1 there are two Dantes: the Poet who occasionally addresses the audience in the present tense, and the fictional Pilgrim, the Dante who was lost "midway along the journey of our life/ . . . in a dark wood" (INF i.1-2) on Good Friday of the year 1300 (see note p. 116 for this fictional date; also note the use of the epic convention of starting the narrative in media res, "in the middle of things"). Dante's dual roles as poet and fictional character recall the dual roles of Poet and Lover in the Roman de la Rose; he is both actor in and author of the Commedia, and on one level, it is the poet who becomes the epic hero.   The pilgrim Dante is also an Everyman: what God has done for him, He can do for any Christian.

By choosing Virgil as his initial guide within the fiction of the epic journey, Dante implicitly demonstrates his participation in the process of translatio studii. Writing in vernacular Italian, but following the example of his "guide," Virgil, Dante in effect becomes the "new Virgil," producing an epic in vernacular Italian which is as great as Virgil's Latin Aeneid. As such, his work is full of epic conventions which you should be aware of when you read, e.g. the Invocation of the Muses in Inf. 2 (the beginning of the Inferno proper), Purg.1 and Par. 1. Another epic convention, the "Descent into the Underworld" (found e.g. in Homer and in Virgil's Aeneid), becomes the subject of the whole of canticle I, the Inferno. (For other epic conventions used by Dante, consult the reading on the Epic on e-reserve in Polylearn).  Note in passing the way in which Dante incorporates many aspects of the Underworld described in Greek and Latin mythology into his Christian vision of Hell (e.g. the ferryman Charon; the three-headed dog Cerberus; the rivers Acheron, Styx and Phlegeton; the Furies; Medusa; the centaurs Chiron and Nessus, etc.).

But Dante's epic is not just equal to Virgil's -- it surpasses it, since it is a Christian epic (while Virgil's was a Pagan one). Virgil will be unable to enter the Earthly Paradise at the top of Mount Purgatory (he disappears after declaring that Dante no longer needs his guidance, Purgatorio 26). The heavenly Paradise described in Paradiso is off-limits to Virgil, a Pagan (since he died before the birth of Christ; recall that his lifespan was 70-19 B.C.). Nonetheless, Virgil's guidance is part of God's plan. We learn in Canto 2 that Dante's beloved Beatrice -- his earthly "courtly love interest" in the Vita nuova and the heavenly guide who replaces Virgil at the end of Purgatorio and in the first part of Paradiso -- came to Hell at the request of St. Lucia ( = Light) and the Virgin Mary, to ask Virgil to be Dante's guide. This feminine trinity (see esp. pp. 12-13) is part of God's plan for Dante's salvation.


Read the summaries at the beginning of each canto and look carefully at the passages referenced on this Study Guide.  (You may skip or skim the rest of Dante's text, but the summaries are important so you have a sense of how the selections we consider together fit into the poem as a whole.)

Cantos 1-5: read these cantos carefully, paying particular attention to references to prior poetic tradition (the poet Virgil introduced as Dante's guide in canto 1; the other poets of classical antiquity encountered in Limbo, canto 4) and to references to Beatrice's role in Dante's salvation. Note famous description of the gates of Hell in canto 3 and use of mythological elements throughout these opening cantos. In canto 4, note reverence for what we might call the Pagan auctores of the translatio tradition. In canto 5, look carefully at the effect of reading Arthurian fiction -- the prose Romance of Lancelot, part of the Vulgate Cycle which we have talked about previously as one of the main sources of Malory's Morte Darthure -- on Francesca and Paolo. "Galehot" (Inf. v.137) is a reference to the go-between who brought about Lancelot and Guenevere's first kiss in the Prose Lancelot, part of the Vulgate Cycle.

Canto 9: Note the use of mythological reference (the Furies, Medusa) in this canto. Notice how Virgil the poet is presented as an epic hero who himself has previously made this descent into Hell; look for further passages where Virgil or Dante are described as epic heros throughout the poem (e.g. pp. 53, 62, 69. . . ) Note explanation of allegory p. 48 and references to God's Will p. 49 (see also pp. 17, 27, 37, 45, 115, etc.)

Canto 15: Dante's encounter with his former teacher, Brunetto Latini. Note Dante's affection and respect for his former teacher, despite his presence in Hell. Note Latini's praise of Dante's literary work and references to immortality through literature (p. 82; see also e.g. pp. 86, 88, etc.)

Canto 20: Note Dante's direct address to the Reader and references to his "literary destiny"-- what he "MUST" turn into verse -- as well as the indication that the structure of the Commedia as a whole was carefully planned (his reference to "the matter of the twentieth canto / of the first chant, the one about the damned" [Inf.xx.2-3]). This canto draws our attention to the Inferno's status as a poem created by Dante, and reminds us that as readers we are in Dante's power (he is the "God" who created this epic masterpiece). On p. 110, note reference to Dante's detailed knowledge of the Aeneid (Inf. xx.114) and Dante's comment that Virgil's explanations are "truths" whereas other possible explanations (other literary auctoritas?) are like "burned-out coals" (Inf. xx.100-2); compare with Chrétien de Troyes's reference to the now-dead embers of prior civilizations in the Prologue to Cligés (Arthurian Romances p. 123; go back and have a look!)

Canto 21: Note reference to time frame (Holy Saturday 1300) p. 116. Note references to God's will p. 115 (recall similar references e.g. pp. 17, 27, 37, 45, 49, etc.) Note a first indication that Dante will surpass his master Virgil: Dante is smarter than his teacher in his mistrust of the devils; see p. 116, Inf.xxi.127-135. (Dante is right; see cantos 22-23; in xxiii, p. 128, note the reference to those "cherished footprints" -- Virgil's -- that Dante follows).

Canto 25: Note Dante's pride in his literary achievement, which he draws attention to p. 136 (Inf.xxv.46-48) in a direct address to his readers. Dante brags that he surpasses his models Lucan and Ovid on p. 137 (recall that they were among the great Pagan poets whose shades Dante met in Limbo; see canto 4, p. 22). Note reference to the power of Dante's pen, Inf.xxv.144.  

Canto 26: in the famous "Canto of Ulysses", Dante demonstrates that very epic power by creating an original sequel to Homer: the story of Ulysses's last voyage, which ends in shipwreck in the waters off of Mount Purgatory. Ulysses recounts how he challenged his sailors to explore the unknown because as Greeks they were "not born to live like mindless brutes/ but to follow the paths of excellence and knowledge" (Inf.  xxv.119-120). He tells how they sailed past the boundaries of the known world (i.e. through the straits of Gibraltar) to arrive at last at the "bottom" of the world, within sight of Mount Purgatory (for Dante, located at the South Pole -- see map at the beginning of Inferno, p. 2).  Ulysses and his men perish in a whirlpool before reaching its shores, since as Pagans consigned to Hell, Mount Purgatory is off limits to them.  But Ulysses's aspiration to reach this forbidden ground is a heroic if futile impulse. Indeed, Dante's Ulysses appears unaware that he is challenging Divine Law -- he is interested only in pushing the limits of human possibility (arguably a noble impulse, since it equates to an aspiration to move closer to God). Thus, Ulysses's last voyage functions simultaneously as a metaphor for the "voyage" of the soul seeking God (a metaphor for the epic adventure of the individual human life) and for Dante's own heroic adventure, his quest to establish himself as the Christian, vernacular-language translatio poet who will inherit the torch of liteary greatness from the epic poets of Pagan antiquity, Homer (Greek) and Virgil (Roman writing in Latin).  The dual metaphors of poem (or poet or poetry) as "ship" on a voyage and of the "voyage" of the Pilgrim-soul toward God will be powerfully developed elsewhere in the poem (see e.g. Purg. i and Purg. viii).

Canto 31: Skim beginning, but note that the center of Hell is a lake of ice (not fire).  Note references to Nimrod and his relationship to language, esp. p. 171. Note references to the poet's ability to confer "immortality" on his subjects by writing about them, preserving their memory in the world of the living (p. 172; see also pp. 82, 88, 160, 177, 179, etc.) Note that Dante and Virgil become ONE ("a single burden," Inf.xxxi.135, p. 172) as the giant Antaeus picks them up to deposit them on the shores of the icy lake Cocytus; here we see Dante beginning to "replace" the very substance of his teacher, Virgil.

Canto 32: note references to Dante's power as a poet and a second invocation of the Muses (Inf. xxxii.10-12) prior to the poetically heroic task of describing the ninth circle where traitors are punished in the deepest depths of Hell. Note the presence of King Arthur's son Mordred among the traitors (Inf.xxxii.61-62); Mordred (whom we read about in Malory's Morte Darthur) was known to Dante through the Vulgate Cycle, part of which Francesca and Paolo were reading in Inferno 5.

Canto 33 is noteworthy for the pathos of the story of Ugolino and his children. Note Ugolino's recognition of Dante's Florentine tongue -- an explicit acknowledgement of the poem's vernacular composition (Inf.xxxiii.11-12, p. 180).  Notice also how Dante pays back enemies by placing the souls of Friar Alberigo and Ser Branca D'Oria in Hell while their bodies still walk on Earth.

Canto 34: conclusion of the Inferno. Note the direct address to the reader at Inf.xxxiv.22-24. Note the description of the fallen angel Lucifer whose three heads chew Judas, Brutus and Cassius, the greatest traitors of the Christian Bible and of Latin literary tradition (auctoritas!). Read carefully the description of Virgil and Dante climbing through the center of Hell on Lucifer's body -- embodiment of Dante's triumph over carnal sin? Note the final lines, where after "a rough climb up" (line 95) Virgil and Dante emerge to see the "to see once more the stars" (stelle) -- also the final word of Purgatorio and Paradiso.


Dante begins his tour of Mount Purgatory under the guidance of Virgil, who leaves him after escorting Dante through the wall of Fire (canto 27) to the Earthly Paradise, the Garden of Eden from which Adam and Eve were expelled at the Fall.  There, Dante is reunited with his beloved Beatrice who greets him coldly but will ultimately guide him during of his visit to Paradise. Read carefully the cantos listed on study guide; read at least the italicized summary that precedes the cantos which are not specifically listed on this study guide. As you read, look for: allusions to Dante as poet and/or to his or other poetry; the metaphor of the pilgrimage (references to Dante as Pilgrim, to his trip through Hell - Purgatory - Paradise as a pilgrimage, or to Pilgrimage as a metaphor for human life); images of ships and/or sailing to refer either to Dante's "pilgrimage" or to his poetry (review Inf. 26, the Canto of Ulysses, esp. pp. 143-5). The lowest part of the island, "Antepurgatory" (cantos 1-9), contains the souls of persons whose repentance came late in life and who aren't yet ready to begin their purgation. In the central part of Purgatory, repentant souls are punished for and purified of their sins. Note how the epic poet Statius, supposedly having just completed his time in Purgatory, joins Dante and Virgil on the upward path. See intro. xxxiv for its division into seven terraces (one for each of the seven Deadly Sins), the prayers and beatitudes assigned to each, and the representations of the sins and the virtues which counteract them on each terrace. Note the importance of the Virgin Mary: the first example of each virtue is taken from her life.


Cantos 1-2: Note reference to the "little bark" (i.e. ship) of Dante's poetry (Purg. i.1-3, p. 195). Note invocation of the Muses (esp. Calliope, muse of Epic Poetry) at Purg. i.4-12 (pp. 195-6); consider its implications for Dante's sense of his own poetic purpose. The "ancient man" who greets them (Purg. i. 31) is Cato, who exemplified the four cardinal virtues of the Ancient world: Prudence, Fortitude (or courage), Temperance (or moderation) and Justice. Because of these virtues, Cato is honored with the position of gatekeeper of Purgatory despite the fact that he died a suicide. Dante's visit to Purgatory begins at dawn on Easter Sunday (see Purg. ii.1-9 and p. 203 n. 46). Note imagery of angel as ship of salvation (Purg. ii.13-51) and of the souls in purgatory as pilgrims (Purg. ii.52-66).

Canto 6: Skim, but note Virgil's allusion to Beatrice, with whom Dante will be reunited when they reach the summit of Mount Purgatory. Virgil says that she will be able to give Dante a better explanation of the power of prayer than Virgil himself can (Purg. vi.43-8); this admission prefigures the fact that the Christian Beatrice will replace the pagan Virgil as Dante's guide.

Canto 8: Skim, but note the equation of the sailor longing for his home port with the "novice Pilgrim [who] aches with love" (Purg. viii.1-5, pp. 235-6); this equivalence suggests an analogy between the voyage by ship described in  the Canto of Ulysses and the spiritual Pilgrimage embarked upon by Dante, the goal of which is Paradise.  Ulysses could not reach the shores of Mount Purgatory (the Mountain in sight of which Ulysses's ship went down) because like Virgil, he is a pagan.  By contrast, the Christian Dante will visit both the earthly and the celestial Paradise.  Note also the reference tothe allegorical meaning of the poem in the direct address to the Reader at Purg. viii.19-21.

Canto 17: the middle canto of the middle canticle of the Commedia.  Like other medieval midpoints we have studied this quarter, this canto offers insight into the poet's understanding of his place in literary tradition (as does the translatio scene at the midpoint of the conjoined Romance of the Rose poems) and into the identity of the hero and the meaning of the poem as a whole (as does the midpoint of the Knight of the Cart).  The opening stanzas (Purg. xvii.1-6) suggest a parallel between the reader and the Dante of Inf. i: both have lost their way (one has wandered off the straight path in a dark wood; the other is caught in a mountain fog through which he cannot see).  Through the twin powers of the imagination (powerfully evoked at Purg. xvii.13-34) and of Divine Love (on the nature of love, see Purg. xvii.85-139), Dante has created his Commedia. Note Dante's assertion that his "power of fantasy" has been stirred by the "Light . . . formed in Heaven, by itself,/ or by His will Who sends it down to us" (Purg. xvii.13-18; this equation of Dante's poetic inspiration with heavenly light prefigures Milton's Muse in Paradise Lost. The light which inspires Dante's "soaring fantasy"  (Purg. xvii.25) is conflated with a "light far brighter than is known on earth": that of the angel who tells Dante, "Here is the place to climb" until he "comes face to face with his desire" (Purg. xvii.40-51).  The angel's words to Dante are also Dante's words to the reader, turning us into the Pilgrims and Dante into our guide.  Just as the Pilgrim Dante, "matching the faithful footsteps of [his] guide,/ [walks] out of that cloud into the light," so too can attentive readers follow in Dante's footsteps on the road to Paradise. Thus, Virgil's words to Dante are also Dante's words to the reader:  "This is an angel of the Lord who comes/ to show us the ascent . . . / so, let our feet obey his call, and climb/ as far as possible while there is light" (Purg. xvii.55-62).  The poetic imagination and divine Love, the twin powers which enabled Dante to write the Commedia, will also guide the reader's pilgrimage from the dark wood of human error into the heavenly light of salvation.

Canto 19: note Dante's encounter with the Siren at Inf.xix.7-36, an encounter whereby Dante equals the feat of Ulysses (Latin name of Homer's epic hero, Odysseus): to hear the Siren's song and survive to tell the tale. Because Dante is both the hero who accomplishes this feat and the poet who writes about it, this episode is further evidence of the way in which Dante conflates the epic hero and the epic poet, suggesting that his poetic endeavor in creating the Commedia is itself an epic feat.   

Canto 20: skim or skip except for the account of the earthquake at Purg.xx.127-142, where the mountain shakes and the souls cry out, "Gloria in excelsis Deo" ("Glory to God in the highest"), the words with which the Angel announces the joyous news of Christ's birth to the Shepherds (see Second Shepherds' Play, NA 473).  We will learn the significance of this joyous shout in Canto 21.

Cantos 21: Dante and Virgil meet the shade of Statius, a first-century Roman poet (lived 45-96 AD) who explains that the earthquake in Canto 20 heralded the end of his time in Purgatory; a joyous shout rings out whenever souls complete the purgation of their earthly sins and begin the ascent to Paradise (Purg.xxi.58-72 ). Like Virgil, Statius was a significant author of Latin epics and his work was well known to medieval poets. As the author of the Thebaid, an epic about Thebes, and the Achilleid, an unfinished epic about Achilles, Statius was the source for much medieval translatio writing, including Chaucer's Knight's Tale (the translatio romance which is the first of the Canterbury Tales following the General Prologue.) Read canto 21 carefully as a metaphor for translatio not unlike the passage at the center of the conjoined Romance of the Rose texts (in which the God of Love recounts how the classical love poets were succeeded by Guillaume de Lorris, who would in turn be followed by Jean de Meun). Statius regards Virgil as his model and guide, calling the Aeneid "the mother of my poetry,/ the nurse that gave it suck" (Purg. xxi.97-8) -- a sentiment which Dante shared, calling Virgil "the poet. . . who bequeathed to you/ the power to sing the deeds of men and gods" (Purg. xxi.125-6).

Canto 22: the three poets travel on together.  Note Statius's contention that although Virgil was a pagan poet, his poetry inspired Statius to be both a poet and a Christian: "It was you directed me/ to drink Parnassus' waters -- it was you/ whose radiance revealed the way to God./ . . . Through you I was a poet, through you, a Christian" (Purg. xxii.64-66, 73).  Because there is no evidence that Statius was actually a "closet Christian," as Dante suggests, it would appear that Dante made up this detail to make Statius a better translatio link between himself and Virgil: the epic torch was passed from Virgil (Pagan author of a Latin epic) to Statius (supposedly Christian author of a Latin epic) to Dante (Christian author of a vernacular Italian epic). 

Parnassus = a mountain in Greece sacred to the Muses and to Apollo (god of poetry as well as the sun); the muses are the "nine nurses" who dwell there (Purg. xxii.105); the "laurel crown" is a reference to the fact that in ancient Greece, the victors in poetry contests were crowned with laurel wreaths (hence the term "Poet Laureate" for an official "best poet"). Note the conflation of the waters of poetic inspiration (from the Muses' fountain on Mount Parnassus) and the waters of baptism. Note Statius's questions about the other classical poets (Terence, Plautus, Homer, etc.) whom we and Dante have previously met in Limbo (see Inf. 4). Note the reiterated translatio motif at Purg.xxii.127-129: "They walked ahead and I, behind, alone,/ was paying close attention to their words,/ which taught me things about the art of verse." These lines obviously have a double meaning: they apply equally to the fiction of Dante the Pilgrim visiting Purgatory and to Dante the Poet's status a translatio poet working after Virgil and Statius, whose work he admired, learned from, and emulated.

Cantos 23-26: in addition to the headnotes, read the following passages:  the statement that Beatrice will soon replace Virgil as Dante's guide (Purg. xxiii.118-130); the admiring reference to "Ladies who have intelligence of Love," Dante's canzone (Vita nuova pp. 611-612) at Purg. xxiv.49-62;  the translatio metaphor at Purg. xxiv.119-120; and Dante's encounter with two vernacular poets who wrote lyrics about love that he admired and emulated in the Vita nuova: first, the Italian Guido Guinzelli, one of the first Italian poets to write Italian lyrics modeled on troubadour love poetry (whom Dante quotes in section IX of De Vulgari Eloquentia, p. 55); second, the Provençal poet Arnaut Daniel, a troubadour poet who speaks to Dante in Provençal at Purg.xxvi.140-147 (on the "langue d'oc" as the vernacular language best suited for love poetry, see De Vulgari Eloquentia pp. 55 and 57).

Cantos 27-29: Dante passes through the wall of flames and arrives in the Earthly Paradise (the Eden from which Adam and Eve were expelled at the Fall of Man). Skim only, except for Virgil's famous farewell to Dante (Purg. xxvii.127-142, pp. 350-351) and the suggestion that the Pagan poets of antiquity were thinking of this garden when they described Mount Parnassus and/or their ideal of the Golden Age (Purg. xxix.139-144).

Cantos 30-33: Read carefully the passage describing the arrival of Beatrice (Purg. xxx.22-39), at which point Dante realizes that Virgil is gone (Purg. xxx.40-54), as well as Beatrice's rebuke of Dante for his sinful ways (Purg. xxx.55-145). Skim canto 31, noting mixture of erotic and spiritual imagery, especially in Beatrice's continued rebuke of Dante, his confession (Purg. xxxi.1-90), and her unveiling herself to him (Purg. xxxi.133-145). Skim canto 32, noting peculiar mix of courtly love imagery and Christian allegory. Skim final canto and read carefully the concluding lines (Purg. xxxiii.115-145).


Read carefully the discussion of Paradiso in the introduction, xxxv-xxxvi. Skim italicized introductions to each canto. Read the following cantos carefully, looking for these themes/images: poetry; pilgrimage; God's will; mouth and smiles; eyes, (in)sight and blindness; divine and earthly love and their roles in human salvation. Cantos to read more carefully: 1-3, 10, 15-17, 22-23, 25-28, 30-33 (as well as lines in any other cantos referred to in this guide). Don't worry about theological details, historical allusions, or prophecies.

Paradiso traces Dante the Pilgrim's trajectory through the visible heavens to the invisible heaven, the Empyrean, in which he reaches the poem's goal: a transformative visionary experience that will lead both to his salvation and to the creation of his great poetic work. Dante refers to this Canticle of his epic poem as a sacred text (Par. xxiii.61 and xxv.1) to which both heaven and earth have set their hand. As Beatrice and then St. Bernard replace Virgil as Dante's guides, God/the Divine becomes co-author of his epic poem.

The visible part of heaven comprises nine nested spheres of increasing velocity: the seven planetary spheres, the sphere of fixed stars, and the "Primum Mobile," the last material sphere (canto 27). In canto 30, he enters the immaterial heaven of the Empyrean, a heaven of pure light and love.  Dante's Heaven is a evidently a very hierarchical place; note the allusions to the different categories and classes of angels, saints etc. in canto 28.  This hierarchy recalls that found in St. Bernard's Sermon 19 on the Song of Songs.

Again, don't sweat the details of heavenly geography, historical allusion or theological debate. But you should know that Dante's heaven has nine spheres, and know what is meant by "Primum Mobile" and by the "Empyrean," as well as what happens in these last two domains. Note in particular the departure of Beatrice and her replacement by Saint Bernard in Par. 31, as well as Bernard's particular devotion to the Virgin Mary (which we have remarked upon before; see also translatio). Note how this focus on Mary and on the maternal love shown by Beatrice for Dante (see esp. cantos 22.1-6, 23.1-12) reinforces the notion of love as a salutary force. Beatrice has been transformed from courtly lady, focus of Dante's erotic love, to a maternal figure; she is now the divine Light who leads the soul of her beloved to God.

Important themes/images to note as you skim and read: poetry; pilgrimage; God's will; mouth and smiles; eyes, (in)sight and blindness; divine and earthly love and their roles in human salvation. Pay attention also to Dante's encounter with Adam: note how on one level Dante becomes the "new" Adam and Beatrice the "new Eve"; as such, they are "types" of Christ and Mary. Also take a look at Dante's meeting with his own great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida in cantos 15-17 (an event which recalls the hero's descent into the Underworld to consult a dead ancestor in classical epic, e.g. Aeneas's conversation with his father Anchises in Virgil's Aeneid). Don't worry about the details of Cacciaguida's prophecies, except his prediction, at the midpoint of Paradiso, that Dante is destined to write the Commedia, "a future that endures" (Par. xvii.98).  Read carefully this canto, the midpoint of Paradiso, for what it reveals about Dante's hopes and fears for his future reputation as a poet and for posterity's judgment of his "cry of words" (Par. xvii.133), the Divine Comedy.

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2019

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