Nowadays it’s hard to understand how that long poem, how any poem, could have meant so much to people.
Educated men and women knew many verses of the Divine Comedy by heart. Even private letters are filled with quotes and allusions. People saw what that great Seer Dante saw and chose just the words he had chosen to speak about it. And not only that: they imagined what he imagined and took his fantasies for truth, for reality.
If Dante said Hell had nine circles, Hell had nine circles, and it was right that it should. They could just see that sign over the Gates of Hell: Abandon All Hope, You Who Enter. It was real, it was scary.
Dante himself read Virgil. He knew the Aeneid, the greatest poem Rome ever produced, like a prayer. More than a thousand years before,Virgil had described Hades, the dark world in which the souls of the dead wandered around in sad droves.
Both Dante and Virgil sang to themselves the poetry of Homer, the Greek poet who had taught and delighted for a thousand years. Generations of young sailors who hadn’t read or heard his epic Ulysses watched out for the Sirens when they came to an eerie stretch of ocean; and young warriors who had only been told about the Illiad daydreamed of equalling the shining deeds of Achilles.
Dante was the greatest man in hundreds of years. Until his time there were two irreconcilable worlds: the ancient and the medieval one. The ancient world was pagan and so, essentially corrupt. You couldn’t learn from those old thinkers: they themselves were lost. Christian theology had come to substitute their groping philosophies. Life now had an explanation—the explanation.
Along came Dante. He found that the old pagan philosophers and poets weren’t always so wrong. Sometimes they even seemed to speak like good Christians. And, when you came right down to it, the Latin poet Virgil had written like an angel, so beautiful was his verse.
Dante came up with the idea of writing a great poem himself about the World to Come; and he would put all those great men in it, from whatever time. And that World to Come would be the heaven Dante’s time knew, but it would also be the Underworld of the old pagans.
He wrote his poem in Italian, in his own Tuscan dialect. That was a real novelty: until then, educated men wrote and read Latin. His poem was so good, he wrote with such precision, grace, and beauty, that it became the model of language for all Italians during centuries. Of language, of thought, of fantasy.
Michelangelo read the Divine Comedy at night after work and sighed when he came to the deep and beautiful lines. He had never learned Latin and Dante was his whole education.
And the truth is, all the Renaissance philosophers and linguists, though they learned Latin and Greek and adored the writings of the pagan writers, at night they went home and read their Dante. He spoke to them in the direct, untranslated language of their heads and hearts. And made them feel that it was incredibly beautiful.
..The Empyrean (highest heaven), from the illustrations to The Divine Comedy by Gustave Doré