What joy it is to spend time with Dante! For over seven hundred years, Dante’s poetry has moved the hearts and minds of Christian people. Even those of us who have to read his poetry in translation, find it rich in image and meaning. As a classicist, I have always taken great delight in the ancient Greeks and Romans, especially Homer and Virgil, but there is something especially sublime about Dante, and that sublimity comes to light particularly in a look at Dante’s cosmos.
In Dante’s cosmos, nothing is outside the sphere of the Divine Love, the Divine Wisdom or the Divine Power. Dante invites us to imagine a Ptolemaic universe, with the fallen gravity-ridden silent planet of Earth surrounded by the singing angelic spheres, moved by their love for God, with God Himself and His Heaven encompassing, embracing, and comprehending all the rest.
Nothing is left out of this cosmic view; nothing good is lost. In his final poem, The Divine Comedy, Dante gathers up the goodness and truth and beauty of the past and the present – sacred and mundane, literary and historical, Christian and pagan, classical and medieval – and sings his great song of redemption. In every one of the one hundred cantos, there are Old and New Testament references, allusions to ancient classical stories and myths, and references to the history of ancient and medieval Italy.
Using principles drawn from classical philosophy and Christian theology, Dante reveals to his readers God’s providential work throughout the history of the world from the time of creation. “Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty: for all that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine; thine is the kingdom, O Lord, and thou art exalted as head above all.” (1 Chronicles 29:11)
Dante structures his poem like a Gothic cathedral or a polyphonic motet: as an imitation of the Trinity – three and yet one. One poem in three canticles; 33 cantos in each canticle plus the introductory first canticle giving us a perfect 100. Dante invented the terza rima – an interweaving rhyme scheme, based on tercets (three-line stanzas) in which the rhyme from one tercet is woven into the next (aba, bcb, cdc, ded) – distinct, yet connected, always moving forward – and finally completed with a single line at the end of each canto.
In the Purgatorio and the Paradiso, our eyes are continually being drawn heavenward, toward the stars and our ultimate celestial destiny. God is the true end of all things, everywhere and always. An extraordinary thing occurs when the Christian pilgrim, sanctified by Divine Grace, enters that heavenly sphere, God’s own Empyrean. The perspective shifts, and God now is seen as the light-filled center of all things, the One on whom everything else is focused, drawing all to Himself. So God is both the Circumference and the Centre. God is the Love that binds all in all, and also the Beloved of all He has made.