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The poem is written in the first person, and tells of Dante's journey through the three realms of the dead, lasting from the night before Good Friday to the Wednesday after Easter in the spring of 1300. The Roman poet Virgil guides him through Hell and Purgatory; Beatrice, Dante's ideal woman, guides him through Heaven. Beatrice was a Florentine woman whom he had met in childhood and admired from afar in the mode of the then fashionable courtly love tradition which is highlighted in Dante's earlier work La Vita Nuova.
In central Italy's political struggle between Guelphs and Ghibellines, Dante was part of the Guelphs, who in general favored the Papacy over the Holy Roman Emperor. Florence's Guelphs split into factions around 1300, the White Guelphs, and the Black Guelphs. Dante was among the White Guelphs who were exiled in 1302 by the Lord Mayor Cante de' Gabrielli di Gubbio, after troops under Charles of Valois entered the city, at the request of Pope Boniface VIII, who supported the Black Guelphs. This exile, which lasted the rest of Dante's life, shows its influence in many parts of the Comedy, from prophecies of Dante's exile to Dante's views of politics to the eternal damnation of some of his opponents.
In Hell and Purgatory, Dante shares in the sin and the penitence respectively. The last word in each of the three parts of the Divine Comedy is stelle, "stars."
"For sheer liveliness, combined with accuracy and closeness to the text, it will be hard to rival." —A.N. Wilson, author, The Victorians
These words were written, dim and darkly etched, Above a gateway. I could not understand them. "Master," I said, "teach me the sense of this." He answered knowingly, as wise men can: "From this point on, abandon cowardice, All mistrust must die. This is the land "I told you we would come to, where you'd see Those men and women lost to the human mind And all its truthful work and useful reason." Then, quietly, he put his hand on mine, Turned and gave me a pleasant glance, and I Was comforted. He walked, I followed behind To that unknown place, where shrieks and desperate sighs, Weeping, and fervent moaning filled the starless Air; I could not keep myself from crying.
Excerpted from The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri Copyright © 2010 by Paul J. Contino. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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