Originally published between 1909 and 1917 under the name "Harvard Classics," this stupendous 51-volume set-a collection of the greatest writings from literature, philosophy, history, and mythology-was assembled by American academic CHARLES WILLIAM ELIOT (1834-1926), Harvard University's longest-serving president. Also known as "Dr. Eliot's Five Foot Shelf," it represented Eliot's belief that a basic liberal education could be gleaned by reading from an anthology of works that could fit on five feet of bookshelf.
Volume XX features The Divine Comedy, the masterpiece by Italian poet DANTE ALIGHIERI (1265-1321). Written in the vernacular-a groundbreaking step for literature-it is considered the greatest work in the Italian language and an important explication of the medieval mindset, particularly regarding religion. The journey of Dante, as his own fictional protagonist, through the afterlife has inspired writers from Geoffrey Chaucer to T.S. Eliot to today's popular novelists, filmmakers and videogame designers, and continues to profoundly influence modern ideas of heaven and hell.