Dante defines poetry as mere creation of beautiful lies, with no value but to embellish, much like a dress in which Truth ought to show herself to the eyes of the world. There is no doubt that such conception is founded in Christian thought, poetry being an artifice that, like false idols, ought to be purified or restrained. Weaved by lies and tethered to pleasure, poetic creations, as appealing or sublime as they may be, are in themselves fantasies, charming fables, simply rhetoric.
How wonderful—and strange—it is then that his Comedy is still, seven centuries later, one of the most precise pieces of writing ever to be conceived in poetic terms. It is this quality of his work, this composition of mere lies beautifully orchestrated, that has made Dante’s poem perdure through every age. Of course, it was a Christian who ventured through the Inferno, who climbed the lonely mountain of Purgatory, and who found redemption in Paradise; but it was also a poet who wrote it—and in such writing he could barely control the hand that painted what he saw. Dante unwillingly left to humanity the most beautiful forms, the most vibrant figures, there where he intended simply to expose his moral view.
Dante’s creation cannot be understood without considering the medieval, ecclesiastical doctrine in which it was conceived. Pieces of writing had two senses: the literal sense and the allegorical sense. Dante speaks of such things himself (Convivio, Epistles to Canngrande etc). In literal terms, Dante is but an individual that ventures on a fantastic journey through the afterlife in which he sees the status of souls after death. Virgil is Virgil, Beatriz is Beatriz, Florence is Florence, and so on. Allegorically, the subject changes. It is not a simple fable anymore, but Man’s relation to Divine Justice, his moral ascent towards God. Here, Dante symbolizes the whole of humanity: Virgil embodies Reason, Beatriz Faith, Florence all nations…
Morality is the structure in which his afterlife is built. Far from being something that complements the argument, moral thought is itself the argument, deeply engraved in all his work. Dante’s ethics sought its application, its materialization, in the Comedy, and, as such, there could be no misadventures. Being the work of a supreme being, what Dante conceives must be perfectly weaved, meaning that even the less compelling piece of this divine artifice should have its justification, its reason, in morality.
Thus far, we have the foundations of a philosophical treatise. But here the poet intercedes, giving life to this static world, embellishing its form by filling it with mythology and politics, giving voice to passions and virtues, and placing himself and his experience in the middle of it all.
It is, of course, nothing but a diversion to try and conceive an artist’s motive when creating his work; even when the author confesses his intentions (as it is the case here), it’s a folly to believe that such restriction can contain the totality of the work. In truth, when a work of art is a mere reflection of that which the artist intended, it quickly becomes dull, lifeless, filled with frivolous fancies that hardly stir man’s spirit: the artist’s hands are heavy as they write, weighed down by insignificant trivialities, by mere representations that linger in the soil of their personal experiences, embellishing their own private gardens whose flowers only they can appreciate. Other type of artists pretend to reach, through their writing, the highest spheres of human thought. They fall back on mere symbolisms, the virtues of their work being something other than the work itself. They often give form to lifeless artifices, figures that rest stiff upon their sheet, and lack vitality and spirit.
Seldom do any of these types of artists feel the fragrance of creation which allows them to rise beyond this world and into the world of art; not having the proper sensibility, not being able to perceive in particular situations those elements common to the human soul. Their writings seem too artificial and insincere. Poetry knows not how to guide these men through graceful meadows, for they are blind and refuse to be guided. Being too immersed in their own self and motives, they remain forever captives of their own creations, in their own modest worlds. But that is not the case with Dante. He brilliantly fails when achieving his purpose, for had he succeeded in his project—that is, merely edifying a fiction in which his morality is something concrete, tangible—his manuscript would have long been forgotten. It would now be some fragile piece of paper, confined to darkness and oblivion.
Poetry—a mere tool for the Christian, rhetoric of simple but beautiful lies—is what helplessly emerges from the man, exceeding his purpose, embracing his eternal visions and the figures that thrive within. Thus, it is worth noticing that where the author perfectly succeeds in unfolding his symbolism, where the silhouette of his allegory is sensed with ease, one feels the weight of lifeless form, the static of the general modelled by pure morality, much like a statue empty of expression: pure, ideal, mathematically conceived, and thus unappealing, lacking the blows that make the marble vibrate with life.
Only when the Christian becomes a Poet and allows his hand to be guided by the grace of sentiment and inspiration, only then does his creations become real and individuals arise. It is not that the allegorical significance is absent in these passages, but here the philosopher is captivated by the Muse and forgets his purpose. Here, the particular lineaments of the argument emerge. The generic is not forced upon the writing, but is sensed in the swiftness of verse and rhyme, marble now being aroused by the subtle movement of poetry.
One understands now why the Inferno is the most attractive and modern piece of his work. Amidst this somber desert, through the shadows mute of light, not even the stars are to witness the torments of those condemned. How strange indeed that poetry, when wandering in such places, in the voices of the damned, sings to love, honor, sagacity, in tercets forever present in humanity. For much like we owe Homer for the splendour and passion of ancient greek religion, so one day, even if Christianity disappears from human sentiment and its doctrine no longer finds devotees to nurture and practice it—much like ancient greek religion today—Dante’s poem will nonetheless perdure. For, like Homer’s work, the Comedy stands not merely as a theological treatise, but as the most sublime representation of humanity, its vices and virtues: the most profound sentiments that weigh upon its soul.
Dante’s Inferno overflows with life. Less abstract than his other two canticles, here the allegory, the symbolism, gives way to poetic creation in its purest form. It is the canticle of individuals, even though its structure suggests quite the opposite. One can argue that those figures Dante encounters in the different circles of Hell, those individuals that rise from their torment and speak to the poet, are but mere examples of the sins they committed. Thus, their story and their persona would be simply an illustration, an emblem, but also a warning to those who read. Dante achieves this representation in his work perfectly.
Yet, when he portrays the most memorable figures of his Inferno—that is, Francesca, Ulises, Farinata, Capaneo, Ugolino—is precisely where he fails. It is not the sin they symbolise that makes them immortal. These figures are far from being idle vessels in which Dante pours the sacred wine from the vines of Eden. Here the man, guided by poetry in its most sublime forms, shapes individuals when he intends mere moral statues, symbols of sins.
Dante’s Inferno impresses us for its harshness, its strength and vitality. We find ourselves easily picturing the tortured bodies, the wounds and flesh, the contortions of matter scattered through this dolent city, absent of all hope. Moreover, these figures and their stories perdure because we find their vices amongst ourselves. Dante carved in the steep and barren lands of hell’s characters a lively burn through the dark. Though static and tethered to Christian geography, their statues refuse the coarse edges of the allegory, and through poetry they vibrate with passion.
Francesco De Sanctis claims that it was not an Italian who allowed these figures to become theatrical beings. He sees the Inferno as a place where one finds, for the first time, the conventions and characters of modernity. Even though it was Dante that gave life to these figures, it was—according De Sanctis—a certain English bard that took them by the hand, placing them in brilliant scenarios in which they experience the constant agitation of modern times.