To Hell and Back: Alison Cornish on the Divine Comedy
"For Dante, a poet is not just somebody who writes about how he feels. The job involves being as educated as you can be and communicating that knowledge to others in a way that makes them love it."
Written some 700 years ago, Dante’s Divine Comedy remains one of the greatest works of world literature. Religion, politics, history, love, war, money: it has it all. The three-book epic plumbs the depths of hell and reaches for the highest clouds of paradise, while always remaining grounded in the here and now. In an interview with The Octavian Report, Alison Cornish—who’s an NYU professor, president of the Dante Society of America, and author of the book Vernacular Translation in Dante’s Italy—explains why The Divine Comedy has stood the test of time, what makes it so influential, and why its politics resonate today. If you like the interview and are interested in more, you can subscribe to our weekly Substack, WHY THE CLASSICS?, by clicking here. And for more smart coverage of the arts, economics, and international affairs, check out our magazine, available online and in print.
Octavian Report: What first got you interested in medieval Italian literature?
Alison Cornish: I was an English major at Berkeley, and toward the end of my time there, I had to take a class in medieval literature. So I studied Beowulf with Allan Renoir, who was the son of the filmmaker [Jean Renoir] and grandson of the artist [Pierre August Renoir]. He said, “you should go to graduate school,” so I went to Cornell. And I had already started studying Italian and French, so I guess I came to it through language first.
OR: Why did you zero in on Dante?
Cornish: The Divine Comedy is just a book like no other—it’s the book of books, in a certain way. Like the Bible, which of course it models itself on. It’s very conscious about the written word, and how we use it to get in touch with reality. The mega plot of Dante’s work is that we’re reading a book. And education is also stressed. Those two things are what Dante the narrator needs; he needs to be led out of the dark wood by a book. That book turns out to be Virgil’s—which, of course, is a book that’s not really from his culture.
So in many ways, The Divine Comedy is a book about books. When I talk about books these days with students, I try not to say the word “books,” because students today are... I hate to say less bookish, but they respond to and are active in so much other media. Yet Dante still speaks to them. Some of these students have told me they want to do a project about fame, fame and one’s legacy. Those used to seem like antiquated ideas. But they totally understand them because of social media. And Dante offers insights into their life online as a kind of legacy, a kind of afterlife.
OR: Was Dante the first person to make himself the main character in an epic?
Cornish: Of an epic, yes.
OR: What do we know about him and why he wrote The Divine Comedy?
Cornish: We don’t know that much about Dante that he doesn’t tell us himself. Independently known facts about him are very few. We do know that he existed, that he served in government, that he was sent into exile, when he died, and that he became a fairly famous figure later on. We don’t know that much else. We know he was married to a woman named Gemma Donati. Does he ever mention her? No. Do we actually know who the character Beatrice is based on? People think it could be a woman called Beatrice Portinari, who was the daughter of a banker and married another banker. But there’s no clear evidence that it’s her.
Dante crafted The Divine Comedy into autobiography of sorts. He took lyric poems, which everyone was writing—love poetry was the fashion and the sort of pop music of the time—and he compiled them into an autobiographical narrative, always emphasizing that life is like a book. But who was he, really? I don’t know. We would probably say upper middle class. Florentine. His father was probably some kind of banker. Dante himself got into government, and to be in government then you had to join a guild. In his case, it was a guild for pharmacists and painters, who had in common the fact that they both ground their minerals in a mortar and pestle. Was Dante an actual pharmacist? Or a painter? I don’t know. It was just something you had to do to get involved in government.
We also know that in 1301, he was sent to see the pope in Rome, and that later various shenanigans led to his being exiled. We know that he tried to get back into the city in various ways. Writing letters, maybe even plotting conspiracies. He was very hopeful that the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VII, would come down and take over Florence and bring him back in. But Dante finally gave up hope of all that and went from court to court and sought patronage from other lords before he died in Ravenna in 1321.
OR: But the book became really famous, right?
Cornish: Yes, it was an instant best seller and we have evidence that people knew about “The Inferno” before Dante died.
OR: How big was the original audience?
Cornish: I don’t know how to put a number on that. One of the things that’s always said about Dante is that he was the first to write in Italian, and that this fact was marvelous because it brought learning to the people. That has to be historicized a little bit. First of all, at the time, people were demanding access to literary culture in the language that they could read—Italian—without having gone to school, which was the only place you’d learn Latin. But a lot of other stuff was already being written in the vernacular; Dante arrived at a moment when lots of translations [into Italian] were being written.
But the thing is, to write an epic of this scope and ambition, and to do it in a language that’s really tied to a very local place—Florence and Tuscany, not even all of Italy—was remarkable. It really localized something that was universalist in its scope. That’s the paradox Dante embodied. On the one hand, he insisted on the local and the personal and the “I” and used phrases like “my girlfriend” and “my language.” On the other, his work also took us all the way to the stars and beyond.
OR: Why is it a comedy, given its brutality?
Cornish: That is actually the only part of the title that Dante himself gave the work. He called it “My Comedy.” The “divine” part was added later. As for why it’s called a comedy, part of it is that it has a happy ending. Dante seems to be juxtaposing it to The Aeneid, which he calls a tragedy.
The other thing that “comedy” suggested then was a low style, having to do with servants and lower-class people—cooks, stable boys, that kind of thing—as well as a lot of vulgarity. And remember, the vernacular in which Dante wrote was seen as the language of women. It was “the mother tongue,” something you’d learn from your nursemaid.
OR: Why is it that everyone knows “The Inferno” so much better than the other parts of The Divine Comedy?
Cornish: Well, “The Inferno”’s door is open. The gate to hell is wide, and it’s easy to get into it. There’s a lot of action, there’s a lot of horror, and there’s a lot of seductive people to root for, who seem to be rebelling against the order that they’ve been placed in. Meanwhile, “Purgatory” is a mountain and requires work, and “Paradiso” requires even more. Some people say that “Purgatory” is where the lectures begin. Of course, it’s not all lectures, you’re also meeting people. But it’s more difficult.
OR: Do you have a favorite section?
Cornish: I don’t know. A lot of people say “Purgatory,” and that’s understandable: it looks like the Earth. The sun rises and sets and there’s a blue sea with an island in it. But I don’t know how to answer your question. I like the whole thing.
OR: You mentioned that it’s a book about books. Dante also spends a lot of time on time, and the positioning of the sun, the moon, and other astral objects with a lot of precision. Was it normal for that period for people to be that sophisticated about astronomy?
Cornish: Yes. Dante’s using contemporary knowledge, what people were giving lectures on in Paris. People were very interested in the workings of the universe.
That said, how many poets actually tried to make a cosmological poem? A few people after Dante tried, but they weren’t as successful, engaging, or compelling. I don’t know that Dante was the most educated person of his time, but he combined his knowledge with his curiosity about everything: science, philosophy, theology, and poetry. For Dante, a poet is not just somebody who writes about how he feels. The job involves being as educated as you can be and communicating that knowledge to others in a way that makes them love it. That’s the role of the poet. It’s not just intellect—“Let me explain this to you,”—it’s also, “Let me show you why this is beautiful.”
OR: Why did he select Virgil as Dante-the-narrator’s guide?
Cornish: There were plenty of reasons not to chose Virgil: for starters, he wasn’t a Christian, and this is clearly a Christian poem. We know that Virgil doesn’t have faith and is damned. So here you are on a search for God, and the person who’s guiding you doesn’t believe in that God. It’s very peculiar.
Yet the choice is not so surprising when you remember that everyone at the time had read Virgil. In learning Latin, you would always encounter Virgil. But Dante really read him. And he began to think that Virgil was right about the providential role of Rome, and so took him on as kind of prophet of Rome. Rome for Dante was not just the eventual seat of the papacy—the top of the hierarchy of the Christian church. He also venerated the Roman Empire, as did Virgil. It had brought peace to the world. Christ had chosen to be born in the empire during the Augustan peace, which served as a kind of divine stamp approval for the Roman project.
I used to think Dante’s nostalgia for the empire is one of the things about him that’s a little weird and a little hard to swallow. When Italy became a nation, some people looked to Dante as the prophet of Italy. But he actually wanted the whole world to be under one hierarchical order with a single ruler at the top.
OR: Even though the poem is very religious, do you think Dante’s sympathies come down on the secular side of things?
Cornish: Yes, I think that he’s secular and I think part of his Christianity is of the “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” variety. He really takes that very seriously. And he has a radical idea of what the Church ought to be. In his view, the Church shouldn’t have property, which is a Franciscan kind of idea. He thinks the emperor ought to have riches and territory and armies and all of that, but the pope should not. Those things should be separate. He has an idea of the human being as the horizon between two hemispheres: the body and the soul, the matter and spirit. It’s both together, but the two are also separate, so you need two different kinds of leaders. He’s really radical about what we would call the separation of church and state.
OR: It’s amazing to a contemporary reader to discover how openly critical Dante was of the church.
Cornish: People often ask me, “Why didn’t he get in trouble?” In The Divine Comedy, popes are stuffed into hell. Why was that okay? My attitude is, was the church really paying that much attention? This was before the printing press, remember. The idea that something could go viral was completely in the future. Something in the vernacular that rhymes, that seems to be a love story—I don’t know how much it was on anyone’s radar at that time.
Also, the church was not the organized Gestapo that people imagined it was. It was a fairly scrappy kind of thing.
OR: Harold Bloom put Shakespeare one and Dante two on his list of all-time greats. What is it about Dante that puts him in such a select company? And what is it about Dante that still resonates? Why should somebody read him today?
Cornish: I think it was T. S. Eliot who said, “Shakespeare and Dante divide the world. There is no third.” There’s really nothing like The Divine Comedy. It’s so ambitious. It’s a little bit like a video game: it makes this complete world, top to bottom. It answers every question. And it’s universal in its aspirations. Dante tried to talk to everybody, to go beyond the limitations of his own place and time.
Why read it today? Because it’s a journey out of a dark wood. And everybody, to some extent, is in a dark wood and is trying to figure out how to get out. It’s a universal story: life is a journey and we can’t do it alone.
Then there are all the reasons we consider Dante modern. The fact that The Divine Comedy is autobiographical; that it represents the idea that an author is not authoritative because of his antiquity, but because of his authenticity.
Dante also read every book he could get his hands on and incorporated everything into the text, so you really feel that you’re gaining from it. As an education, it’s a shortcut to knowing a whole lot about the classics and knowing a whole lot about what comes after, because Dante is so influential.
OR: Where do you see his influence as being the greatest?
Cornish: You see it on Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. I think you run into Dante all the time, everywhere. It’s one of those texts that people are always coming back to.
Which reminds me: one other reason to read Dante right now is that the reason he ended up getting so positive about empire is that he grew up in a place that touted its republicanism, but that in reality was extremely violent, factional, and polarized. I think Dante speaks to us very sternly about that and what lies down that road.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.