“In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost.”1
These words open Dante’s epic poem, The Commedia. But even traveling the space of their few metrical feet, we find ourselves in an ambiguous realm. Since the journey is the metaphorical journey of our lives, we must assume that what follows is also figurative. The forest in which the narrator comes to himself remains shadowy and vague. We may call it The Dark Wood of Error and, confident in our judgment that we are reading an allegory, continue, lost among its unreal trees.
But things may not be so simple. The shade of the poet Virgil then appears to our protagonist in order to conduct him on a journey through the Christian afterlife. Virgil, after all, was an actual person who lived and died at a specific time and place. He is not an abstraction like the character Evangelist in Bunyan’s work. Nor is the narrator a generalized stereotype like Everyman. Instead, he is the very poet Dante whose work we are reading with his complex life-history, political beliefs, and personality intact.
What follows is a magical mystery tour into the depths of Hell, up the mountain of Purgatory, and, eventually, into the Heavens. And as we observe this particular pilgrim in his progress, we find it increasingly challenging to maintain the assumptions we made at first. From the vast bridges that span the moats of the abyss to the humble reeds with which Dante cleans his face on the seashore, the poem continually presents us with elements that do not seem to be merely figural. Moreover, the poet and his guide encounter not only mythological monsters but historical figures and men and women that Dante knew. Apart from their condition in the afterlife, these people speak and act as they would in reality. And even the monsters seem to take on a solidity that we would not expect in an allegory.
Consider the following passage from The Inferno. Dante and his guide come to a boiling river of blood in which the violent are punished. This gory stream is patrolled by centaurs who, on seeing the strangers, approach, prepared for battle.
“When we came closer to those
agile beasts, Chiron drew an
arrow, and with its notch
he parted the beard to both sides
of his jaws.
When he had uncovered
his great mouth, he spoke to
his companions: ‘Have you
noticed how the one behind
moves everything he touches?
This is not what a dead man’s
feet would do!'”2
We would hardly anticipate that an allegorical subject might be so richly portrayed. For a point of comparison, we may consider The Blatant Beast in Edmund Spenser’s work, who possesses a thousand tongues and acts merely as a personification of malicious gossip. By contrast, Chiron strikes us as a majestic and lively figure. He is characterized by his powers of thought and observation since He recognizes that Dante is a living man. And his curious personal gesture of using the notch of his arrow to comb back his shaggy, hipster beard adds the finishing touch to the portrait. In short, he appears to have a life of his own apart from any symbolic function he may serve in the story.
The Divine Comedy is not an allegory, then, in the sense of many other works. But if this is the case, what are we to make of the prologue in the dark wood? The disparity between the colorless, abstract opening and the realism of the rest of the poem opens a rich field for inquiry and discussion.
Critic John Freccero contends that the overarching theme of The Divine Comedy is Dante’s conversion. He writes that the prologue in the dark wood represents a failed merely intellectual repentance, hence its conceptual and unreal setting. “The prologue is radically unlike any other part of The Commedia and matches the abortive journey of the pilgrim with an apparent failure that is the poet’s own.”3 In other words, the opening is a simplistic allegory because its subject matter is a naive and unserious attempt at spiritual renewal.
This still leaves us with the question, though, of how to read the rest of the poem. Is the epic merely to be understood as a creative presentation of the Christian afterlife, valuable only for its imaginative vision and the beauty of its language? Or, to put it another way, does appreciating its “realism” require us to abandon any attempt to see further symbolic meanings in the remainder of the work?
I think most would find this an unsatisfactory response. The characters and situations that Dante presents cry out continually that they point to something beyond themselves. As a result, Erich Auerbach and others use the term “figural realism” to describe how Dante approaches his material.4 For example, Chiron is a character in his own right, but he is also a type or a figure of violence. He has the upper body of a man, but it is joined to the lower body of an animal, signifying the bestial nature of aggression and brutality.
It seems that we must read this work with a kind of literary double vision. We view what happens to the narrator as both real and, at the same time, metaphorical.
But here, we might want to reexamine our terms. Throughout this essay, I’ve used “realism” to oppose the straightforward and simplistic allegory of the first canto. It was the word that sprang most readily to mind, and by it, I’ve only meant that characters and situations are portrayed in a complex manner that seems true to our experience of life.
But perhaps “realism,” with its associations with a post-Enlightenment worldview, is not the proper lens through which to view The Commedia. Dante’s understanding of reality was quite different from ours. And, after all, it is difficult to write seriously of a realistic portrayal of a centaur.
Some modern critics choose to eschew the author’s viewpoint, preferring to encounter the text on its own terms. And while there is often a great deal of merit to these projects, with a work of such grand design and sweeping scope, perhaps it’s best to avail ourselves of all the help that we can get.
Let’s turn, then, to what Dante himself said about how to read The Commedia. In a letter to his patron Cangrande della Scala, Dante described his work as “polysemous,” that is, having multiple meanings. He took his point of departure from an explanation of the Christian scriptures. One sense of the text is the literal. For example, Israel was an actual nation whose inhabitants were, in fact, deported into Babylon. But the text also had other levels of meaning called allegoria in factis (the allegory of things or actions). Israel’s captivity in Babylon can be seen as a type or allegory of Christians living in the sinful world.5
Dante desired The Commedia to be read in a similar way. What we have been calling Dante’s realism, then, is the literal level of his text. And it is his genius that he created such a rich and multi-faceted world.
But these characters and scenes, fascinating in their own right, point to other allegorical meanings. And for Dante, these further implications are just as real, if not more so. Unfolding and exploring these various additional levels of the text constitutes the unique pleasure of reading The Commedia. Like Chiron, we must closely observe the pilgrim’s footsteps and wisely interpret what we see.
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1. Dante, Inferno tr. John D. Sinclair, Oxford University Press, p. 22
2. Dante, Inferno tr. Mark Musa, Penguin Books, p. 64
3. Freccero, Dante: The Poetics of Conversion, Harvard University Press, p. 1
4. Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, tr. Willard Trask, Princeton University Press, p. 196
5. Kreisel, James C. “Allegories in the Corpus,” The Cambridge Companion to Dante’s Commedia ed. Zygmunt G. Baranski, Simon Gilson, Cambridge University Press, p. 111
The Centaur’s Beard: Copyright 2022 by Jonathan Golding. All Rights Reserved.
Artwork: Domenico di Michelino, La Divina Commedia di Dante, 1465, public domain.