Dante’s Paradise: A Celebration of the Celestial

danteI finished Dante’s Divine Comedy this week, and it ended as strong as it started. Paradise takes the social commentary of Inferno and the moralizing of Purgatory and then just cranks that gorgeous poetry amp up to 11. It is, by far, the most beautifully written entry in the trilogy and maybe even imbued with the deepest ideas.

Four favorite passages may serve to illustrate.

First, from canto four, we see a meditation on how spiritual truth must be understood metaphorically by our merely mortal minds. The top and bottom of this page are pithy quotes by themselves, but the body between constitutes some of the more clever comparisons I’ve ever seen:

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Next, from much later on, this part starts with lines that could apply to art and writing in general, but then wax eloquent about matters of faith, integrating mind and spirit, but ending with a paean to scripture and the Holy Spirit.

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Canto 27 begins with some of the best, most exultant poetry in the whole volume (especially lines 1-9), and ends with some of the most explicit cultural criticism in all the Divine Comedy. Yes, Dante has Saint Peter here directly call out the then-current Pope, Boniface VIII (who was a major target of Dante’s all throughout).

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Though the book is comprised of 33 cantos, and the book seems to purposely become more and more beautiful throughout the journey, as Dante comes physically closer to God, for me the climax came here, in canto 30. This whole section is majestically sublime, but even on this first page you can see gorgeous, lush intensity that’s already being veiled a bit by the enormity of the subject. In the few remaining chapters, Dante hedges his bet even more than he does here (“it was so amazing that I can’t even begin to do it justice” kind of stuff)–canto 30 is the peak of achievement in the Divine Comedy.

I might try the compliment in lines 16-18 on my wife. Great material, right? :)

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