The Divine Comedy - Dante
The Divine Comedy is a three part epic poem written by the Christian poet Dante the early 14th Century. The poem tells the story of Dante Alighieri who is trying to find his beloved Beatrice. In order to do this he has to travel through Purgatory and Hell until he reaches Heaven where she is. The first part of the poem is called ‘Inferno’ (Hell), the second part ‘Purgatorio’(Purgatory) and the third ‘Paradiso’(Heaven). Dante’s guide through hell is the Roman poet Virgil, often thought to symbolise the importance of reason and rationality while Beatrice is thought to symbolise the ideal of spiritual love. Allegorically Dante’s journey through the three stages of the poem represent the soul’s journey towards goodness and God which begins in Hell, with the recognition and rejection of sin.
As Virgil leads Dante through Hell, he sees various sinners punished in different ways depending on their sin. The violent, for example spend eternity in a river of boiling blood while Judas, the greatest traitor of all, lies frozen at the very lowest part of the ninth circle of hell where he spends eternity being devoured by Lucifer. In Dante’s Inferno, the sinners suffer punishment to a degree in a manner matching that sin’s nature. It may seem unfair to a modern reader that homosexuals were forced to spend eternity walking on hot sand or that people who charged interest when they loaned money were tormented forever by a rain of fire but Dante’s narration follows strict Christian values. His moral system prioritizes not human happiness or harmony on Earth but rather God’s will in Heaven. Evil is evil simply because it contradicts God’s will, and God’s will does not need further justification.
The Divine Comedy is relevant to Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ in at least four ways. Firstly, Eliot once again refers to the necessity of a journey through hell and suffering in order to reach heaven or salvation. This mirrors the difficult and painful process of realisation and rebirth that we are going to have to go through if we are to find our way out of the Wasteland. Secondly, it is possible that Eliot sees in Virgil an echo of himself: just like Virgil, or the prophetic Sibyl in the Aeneid, he can see the spiritual, cultural and moral desolation of the world we are currently living in and is going to have to open our eyes to this painful truth in order to help us find our way to a better world. Thirdly, the idea of religious devotion or moral purity as a source of salvation runs throughout the Divine Comedy. The sinful are punished and remain condemned to hell for eternity and it is only the pure that can escape the inferno, similarly it is only the pure and good who will find a way out of the Wasteland. Finally in Eliot’s allusion to classical texts of the past we can see once more his reference to a more cultured world which he contrasts with the culturally and spiritually barren state of modern civilisation. It is only by realising the heights which humanity is capable of reaching that we can appreciate how low we have currently sunk.