The Divine Comedy (Italian: Divina Commedia) is an epic poem written by Dante Alighieri between 1308 and his death in 1321. It is widely considered the preeminent work of Italian literature, and is seen as one of the greatest works of world literature.
The poem’s imaginative and allegorical vision of the afterlife is a culmination of the medieval world-view as it had developed in the Western Church. It helped establish the Tuscan dialect, in which it is written, as the standardized Italian language. It is divided into three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. On the surface, the poem describes Dante’s travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven; but at a deeper level, it represents allegorically the soul’s journey towards God or a Psychological/Spiritual journey from darkness to light.
The work was originally simply titled Comedìa and was later christened Divina by Giovanni Boccaccio.The Divine Comedy is composed of 14,233 lines that are divided into three parts: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise)—each consisting of 33 cantos. An initial canto serves as an introduction to the poem and is generally considered to be part of the first part, bringing the total number of cantos to 100.
The poem begins in the year 1300, “halfway along our life’s path” (Nel mezzo del cammino di nostra vita). Dante is thirty-five years old, lost in the dark wood of his own mind, assailed by beasts of his unconscious (a lion, a leopard, and a she-wolf) he cannot evade, and unable to find the “straight way” (diritta via) – also translatable as “right way” – to salvation (symbolized by the sun behind the mountain). Conscious that he is ruining himself and that he is falling into a “deep place” (posto basso) where the sun is silent (‘l sol tace), Dante is at last guided by the poet Virgil, sent by Beatrice who has seen Dante fall into disgrace, and the two of them begin their journey through the underworld. Each sin’s punishment in Inferno is a contrapasso, a symbolic instance of poetic justice; for example, fortune-tellers have to walk with their heads on backwards, unable to see what is ahead, because that was what they had tried to do in life. Dante decends through the nine circles of hell, and the seven deadly sins of Purgatory to understand the error of his ways.
Not until Dante reaches the Earthly Paradise at the top of Mount Purgatory does Beatrice come to him and Dante learns compassion and the error of his ways, form this moment onwards Dante is led by Beatrice into Paradiso, she being his love and inspiration to the final sacred vision.
The poems are written in “terza rime” (third rhyme) where the first and third lines rhyme in Italian, also the second line ryhmes with the first line of the second stanza. That Dante was able to acheive this through out the whole work is astounding.
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
The complete work can be found here in Italian and two English translations: http://dante.ilt.columbia.edu/comedy/index.html And here with Salvador Dali’s illustrations and Gustave Dore Illustrations: http://www.divinecomedy.org/divine_comedy.html