Dante Alighieri lost the true path, as he called it, toward the middle of his life. Wandering without direction, he stumbled on the spirit of the poet Virgil, who promised to lead him through hell and purgatory to visit heaven. Dante described this journey as a dream or vision, but it held an extraordinary significance to his own waking life. Dante wrote The Divine Comedy toward the middle of his life, after he was exiled permanently from his homeland of Florence, Italy. He was, spiritually speaking, without a direction. So he set out to write a poem that would eventually be the masterpiece for which he became known.
Dante described the journey as one of discovery, led by his favorite poet Virgil. Virgil had written the Aeneid some centuries before, and Dante patterned his Divine Comedy after Virgil’s work. The idea of a journey, of a guiding spirit who helps the traveler through difficulties – these ideas were straight from the Aeneid and the tradition of epic poetry. Dante also incorporated many mythological figures into the Inferno, including Minos, Theseus, Cerberus, and Aeneas, perhaps as another homage to his literary predecessors. Dante continued his story by having his character descend into hell, which was a highly structured domain of nine circles, with punishments equivalent to the relative seriousness of the crimes the damned spirits had committed in life.
As he traveled, Dante learned about the people in hell and the crimes they had committed. Virgil led him through a river of blood, a city of heretics, and a lake of fire. Dante saw how God’s divine justice was tempered by a measure of mercy even in hell. He spoke to many lost souls who warned him not to make the same mistakes they did. He learned to let go of his anger and bitterness and embrace the love and wisdom of God.
Dante’s journey through hell changed both the character and the man. As he wrote of the horrors and punishments, his own life was filled with turmoil. The same war which forced him from his homeland continued to rage on between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Neither side was friendly to Dante, and most cities in Italy were controlled by one or the other. This hostility made it difficult for Dante to find a city willing to receive him. He was thrown into a deep depression and clung even more closely to his work as a means of expression and comfort.
As Dante the character descended deeper and deeper into hell, he described the increasingly serious crimes and punishments. In the last circle of hell, he described traitors and blasphemers being punished with fire. Perhaps he was thinking of his own life, when traitors overtook Florence and cast him out of his home. He placed many of his political enemies in the flames as a sort of poetic justice. After descending to the depths of hell and learning all God allowed him to know, Dante emerged through the firm ground, followed by Virgil. Finally, he could, as he put it, “behold the stars” (Canto XXXIV, final line).
Dante himself was soon to see the stars. A prince from Ravenna invited him to live at court and become a diplomat as he finished his manuscript. Dante gratefully accepted and his life became more stable. Throughout his poem, both he and his character experienced hardships but ultimately triumphed. His spiritual journey mirrored his physical journey.
After completing The Divine Comedy, Dante journeyed as a diplomat for Ravenna. On one of these journeys, he passed through a town where a plague of malaria was wiping out all the citizens. Dante contracted the disease and died shortly after returning to Ravenna. He had completed his poem and his true journey.