Nothing in literature matches Dante’s bold poetic depiction of the state of souls after death, stories that show impenitence fixed in hell, hope assured in Purgatory, and both eclipsed by charity in Heaven. As Pope Benedict XV writes in his 1921 encyclical for the sixth centenary of Dante’s death, this “most eloquent singer of the Christian idea”1 glorifies in his poem “the justice and providence of God, who rules the world through time and all eternity.”2
While the poem contains much theology and philosophy—a compendium, it can be said, of the whole of medieval Catholic thought—the most memorable parts of the work as literature are the various descriptions of souls who have chosen to either reject or embrace the will of God, in which “is our peace.”3 With the hand of a master, Dante not only tells great stories with compelling characters to illustrate his themes, but also populates later parts of the poem with figures that recall previous episodes. The effect is to show the conclusiveness of the final act of the will before death; although man has the free will to definitively refuse his Creator, God in His goodness will go to great lengths to redeem the creation He so loves.
The life and death of two men—a father and a son, the first damned and the second saved—beautifully illustrates this point. The father is Guido da Montefeltro, a soldier from the region directly east of Dante’s hometown of Florence who fought in the political wars that gripped northern Italy in the thirteenth century. He is in the eighth part of the eighth circle of hell. The eighth circle itself is for various malicious acts of fraud and is divided into ten pits or pouches; in Italian they are called Malebolge—the “evil ditches”—a word coined by Dante himself. The eighth pit, where Guido is wrapped in flame—an infernal parody of the fire of Pentecost—is for the sort of fraud that persuades and enables others to do evil; the black Cherubim who takes Guido’s soul mentions his “false counsel”4 while Dorothy Sayers notes that these sinners “are spiritual thieves, who rob men of their integrity.”5 It is interesting that the two main representatives of this bolgia—Guido and Ulysses—were military men. In fact, as Guido tells his story to the Pilgrim and Virgil, the damned soul mentions that for most of his life he was a military strategist and tactician: “all my actions were / not those of a lion, but those of a fox; / the wiles and covert paths, I knew them all.”6 Toward the end of his life, Guido tries to make one more crafty deal: to become a Franciscan friar in a last minute attempt to win heaven. Claiming to have been “repentant and confessed,”7 Guido laments the failure of his scheme: “I took the vows / a monk takes. And, oh, to think it could have worked!”8 Alas, it is the pope himself who puts him “back among [his] early sins”9 involving deceit and the destruction of enemies, even promising him absolution in advance, but Dante’s point is clear: Guido deceives himself into thinking that repentance is some sort of transaction, a deal that doesn’t require actual sorrow and amendment. The end of Guido’s story is chillingly appropriate. Since he joined the Friars Minor, the charitable St. Francis comes to his deathbed, but one of the fallen Cherubim—ironically the choir associated with knowledge—is waiting and says to the Seraphic Father:
Don’t touch him, don’t cheat me of what is mine!
He must come down to join my other servants
for the false counsel he gave. From then to now
I have been ready at his hair, because
one cannot be absolved unless repentant,
nor can one both repent and will a thing
at once—the one is canceled by the other!10
As a parting shot, the demon turns to Guido and says, “Perhaps you never stopped to think / that I might be somewhat of a logician!”11 For his final impenitence and false hope, Guido is lost, never having really repented of his sins but clinging to them eternally, the deceiver deceived.
Guido’s son, Buonconte da Montefeltro, a military man like his father, nearly joins him among the damned. To illustrate how God’s mercy—via the intercession of the Blessed Mother—is available even at the last moment, Buonconte is not eternally lost, but is in a lower section of Purgatory that Dante invented to make this point about repentance. Dante pictures Purgatory as a great, seven-storey mountain—each level corresponding to one of the capital sins—in the southern hemisphere with Earthly Paradise at the summit. Below a gate on the mountainside that leads to the main part of Purgatory are a number of levels of ante-Purgatory where those who were excommunicated, those who put off their salvation until the moment of death, those who died violently without the last sacraments, and the like have to wait still longer. They are saved; their salvation is sure, but there is a recognition that there is something extra that must be purged before they join the main group of Holy Souls and eventually the Blest in Paradise. Among a rush of souls—compared by the poet to a “full-charging cavalry”12—begging for Dante the Pilgrim’s intercession is Buonconte who quickly tells his story in terms that recall the details of his father’s damnation. Like his father, Buonconte fought in the political wars in northern Italy, dying at the Battle of Campaldino in 1289, nine years before Guido. He goes on to describe his violent death:
I made my way, my throat an open wound,
fleeing on foot, and bloodying the plain.
There I went blind. I could no longer speak,
but as I died, I murmured Mary’s name,
and there I fell and left my empty flesh.13
As Guido describes his Particular Judgment, including the words of the black Cherubim who claimed his soul, Buonconte recounts the devil’s reaction to his salvation at the moment of death:
Now hear the truth. Tell it to living men:
God’s angel took me up, and Hell’s fiend cried:
“O you from Heaven, why steal what is mine?
You may be getting his immortal part—
And won it for a measly tear, at that,
But for his body I have other plans!”14
In an act of malignant futility, the demon causes rain to fall, the nearby river to overflow its banks, and Buonconte’s body to be swept away; but the soldier doesn’t care about what happens to his corpse: he is saved and will get his body back in the General Resurrection anyway. The lesson Dante draws by including these two scenes illustrates the nature of true repentance and the attending hope. While Guido tries to hoodwink God’s justice with false repentance and is lost, Buonconte, who sheds tears of true repentance, is saved, thanks to God’s grace and calling on the Immaculate.
It is unfortunate that among those who study the Divine Comedy at all—usually in a college survey class—often only the Inferno is covered; Dante becomes the poet of the horror film whose severe, old-fashioned morality has been rejected by enlightened modern man. Over two-thirds of the poem, however, concerns the realms of hope and love; the longest section of the epic is the Paradiso. Dorothy Sayers once quipped that to read only the Inferno is like visiting a great city and only touring the sewers. Although, as he writes in the beginning of the Inferno, “if I would show the good . . . / I must [first] talk about things other than the good,”15 Dante is “the supreme poet of joy. No one has ever sung the rapture of eternal fulfillment like him who has first ‘gone down quick into Hell’ and looked upon the face of eternal loss.”16 Balanced against the sorrowful lot of those who conclusively reject the love of God are the many examples of flawed men and women who reach out to this same love and are saved, their faith making them whole, their wills becoming truly free, ready to leap to the stars and beyond.17 Dante entitled the poem La Commedia precisely for this reason; the happy ending is there for everyone who wants it. It is this central Catholic idea that draws the reader back to the great epic again and again, filling us all with the hope that we too might one day reside with the “Love that moves the sun and other stars.”18
1 Pope Benedict XV, In praeclara summorum at https://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xv/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xv_enc_30041921_in-praeclara-summorum.html, accessed August 2, 2016, §11.
2 Ibid., §4.
3 Dante, The Divine Comedy, trans. Mark Musa, three vols. (New York: Penguin Classics), Para. III, 85.
4 Inf. XXVII, 113.
5 Dorothy Sayers, notes to The Divine Comedy 1: Hell, trans. Dorothy Sayers (New York: Penguin Classics, 1949), 237.
6 Inf. XXVII, 74-76.
7 Inf. XXVII, 83.
8 Inf. XXVII, 83-84.
9 Inf. XXVII, 71.
10 Inf. XXVII, 114-120.
11 Inf. XXVII, 122-123.
12 Purg. V, 42.
13 Purg. V, 98-102.
14 Purg. V, 103-108.
15 Inf. I, 8-9.
16 Sayers, 50.
17 Cf. Purg. XXXIII, 145.
18 Para. XXXIII, 145.