The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)
From the early 14th century, the cultural movement known as the Renaissance began to spread across Europe from the Italian city of Florence. It was marked by a change from medieval attitudes – which were dominated by the dogma of the Christian Church – to a far more humanist perspective that was inspired by a rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and culture. But this was more than a simple rebirth of classical ideas – the period was also a time of innovation.
The epic and the everyday
In literature, although inspiration came from classical style and forms, writers chose to work in vernacular languages, as opposed to Latin or Greek, and to create their own stories rather than retell those of the past. Among the first to write in this way was the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri, whose The Divine Comedy was not only an epic poetic journey through the afterlife but also served as an allegory for the contemporary world.
At the same time, other writers chose to turn away from the realm of epics and legends altogether, and focus on the lives, autonomy, and ingenuity of ordinary people. In The Decameron, published in 1353, Giovanni Boccaccio presented a collection of 100 “novellas” in prose in the Florentine vernacular. Shortly afterwards Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a similar collection of stories, The Canterbury Tales. Both works contained a variety of tales of everyday life – from love stories to moral parables. With their discussions of human vices, accounts of licentiousness, and bawdy practical jokes, they soon became popular reading.
The birth of the novel
In the 15th century, the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press hastened the spread of ideas, and this technology also made it easier to cater to audiences in vernacular languages. Popular demand for books had been stimulated in particular by the prose storytelling of Boccaccio and Chaucer. From these early stories emerged a form of literature as a long, prose narrative that is now ubiquitous, but was then very much “novel”.
During the 16th century, prose narratives gradually replaced the epic poem as the predominant literary form in most of Europe, and readers particularly responded to humorous stories, such as François Rabelais’ satirical adventures of Gargantua and Pantagruel. Miguel de Cervantes of Spain continued in this tradition, albeit with a gentler wit, in Don Quixote. However, Cervantes’ satire about chivalry has a more serious undercurrent, and rather than a hero, the eponymous knight is depicted as all too human. Don Quixote is often considered to be the first modern novel, or at least the first European novel – China’s four great classical novels and Japan’s The Tale of Genji were all written much earlier.
Life on stage and page
In England, the prose narrative took longer to capture popular attention. Poets such as Edmund Spenser and John Milton continued to reinterpret the epic poem, but it was the theatre that most attracted the public. The plays of Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson built on the ideas of Greek tragedy and comedy with their dramas, but even they were eclipsed by Shakespeare’s mastery of the form, which allowed him to depict very human characters in a catalogue of comedies, histories, and tragedies.
Novels began to appear in England soon after Shakespeare, and rapidly overtook the theatre in popularity. From the start, English novelists such as Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding presented believable characters in their novels, which contain vivid descriptions of time and place that give the works a degree of realism. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe professes to be a “true” autobiographical account. Both Laurence Sterne’s comic Tristram Shandy and Jonathan Swift’s fantastical Gulliver’s Travels also use the autobiographical voice, but do so in ways that test the reader’s willingness to believe the narrator.
In 17th-century France, the theatre was also at the heart of literature, and was even more indebted to classical models than in England, with Jean Racine and Pierre Corneille striving to follow the “rules” of Greek drama. However, the public tended to call the tune, and it was Molière’s comedies of manners that seemed more in keeping with the times. Poking fun at the contemporary mores continued to be a part of the French literary scene in the 18th century, with Enlightenment philosophers such as Voltaire wittily satirizing the conventions of the establishment.
800 BCE Ancient Greek poet Homer writes his epic Odyssey, which influences much of Western literature.
29–19 BCE The Aeneid is written in Latin by the Roman poet Virgil. It will become a model for Latin epics of the medieval period.
1572 Luís de Camões’s Portuguese epic poem The Lusiads (Os Lusíadas) follows in Dante’s tradition, weaving together fiction, history, and politics in a story of Portugal’s voyages of discovery.
1667 The last great epic poem to be written in English, Paradise Lost by John Milton, reflects Britain’s emerging role as a world power.
The epic was the literary form of choice for some of antiquity’s greatest poets. Epics were written to celebrate the achievements of a hero – often part- divine or possessed of exceptional strength and valour – and the stories were often allegories of transitional moments in history, such as the birth of a nation or the conquest of an enemy. For example, while Homer’s Iliad is the story of the hero Achilles, it is also, more importantly, about the defeat of Troy by the great armies of Greece. Such poems often weave together the contemporary with the mythic, and their heroes play key roles in building civilization.
Long after the fall of classical civilizations, the epic poem remained the favoured literary form through which to celebrate national power. For example, English poet Edmund Spenser’s 1590 epic The Faerie Queene is a paean to the ascendancy of Elizabeth I and her country, while Italian Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, written in 1516, applauds the increasingly influential House of Este.
Dante’s Hell is situated below the city of Jerusalem and is shaped like a gigantic funnel that leads to the very centre of the Earth. Outside Hell is a “vestibule” containing the souls of those who in life did neither good nor evil. Hell proper is made up of nine circles, which contain the souls of sinners, from the least offensive (the unbaptized) to the most offensive (the treacherous). A wall, guarded by devils, impedes Dante’s progress to Lower Hell, where violent and malicious sinners are punished. At Hell’s core, trapped in ice, is a winged, three-faced Satan.
A divine epic
Dante’s The Divine Comedy fits into the post-classical epic tradition – it is long, heroic, allegorical, and often nationalistic, reflecting Dante’s active role in Florentine politics. However, it is also unusual and innovative in a variety of ways. Whereas in earlier epics the omniscient narrator remained “outside” the story, Dante sets the narrator within the text; the book audaciously uses Tuscan (Italian) vernacular language rather than traditional Latin; and Dante stretches the form of the epic by combining classical thought and mythological motifs with contemporary European philosophy and Christian symbolism.
Dante takes the reader on a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven – from sin and despair to ultimate salvation – mapping out the geography of each realm in detail, evoking an almost physical reality. The work recalls many classical epics that describe journeys to the underworld and, like earlier epics, it is an allegory: the journey through the underworld is symbolic of Dante’s search for personal meaning.
Originally, Dante called this poem simply the Commedia, or “Comedy”, which at the time was a term used for works in which the difficulties or challenges faced by the protagonist were resolved in a broadly happy ending (in contrast to the classical tragedies, which focused on loss and suffering). It was the 14th-century poet Giovanni Boccaccio who first called the poem “Divine”, a reflection on its spiritual content as well as the extreme beauty of its style.
Purgatory is a mountain of stepped terraces where the souls of the penitent undergo a different kind of suffering on each level to purge themselves of sin and enter the Earthly Paradise.
Politics and poetry
When Dante began The Divine Comedy – a work that was to take him 12 years to complete – he was already established as a poet, working in the dolce stil novo (“sweet new style”), a movement characterized by its introspection, and liberal use of metaphor and symbolism. Politics and personal passions were the subjects of his poetry, and late 13th-century Italy provided plenty of inspiration.
Dante himself was embroiled in the political life of his beloved Florence, which was involved, along with the rest of Italy, in struggles for power between the Church (the Pope) and the State (the Holy Roman Emperor). Key figures from these conflicts were portrayed in The Divine Comedy, and the inclusion of real people provided a degree of sensationalism that contributed to the poem’s success.
Dante was eventually exiled from Florence for his political allegiances and, although it greatly pained him, his removal from public affairs allowed him the distance to produce his celebrated allegory of the philosophy, morals, and beliefs of his medieval world.
The Divine Comedy is structured in thirds, reflecting the significance of the number three in Christian theology (where it symbolizes the trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit). The journey comprises three books (”Hell”, ”Purgatory”, and “Heaven”), each with 33 cantos, or chapters, plus one introductory chapter, to make 100 cantos in total. It is written in a verse style called terza rima, an interlocking three-line rhyme scheme, which was developed by Dante.
Told from a first-person perspective, the work is in the form of an eschatological journey (one about death and the afterlife). The story begins in a dark forest, a symbol of sinful life on Earth. Dante attempts to climb a mountain to find his way out of the forest, but his path is blocked by wild animals (which represent sins). Hopeless, weak, and in need of spiritual guidance, he meets the Roman poet Virgil, who has been sent to guide him by Beatrice, the lost love of his past. For Dante, Virgil represents classical thinking, reason, and poetry. Virgil assures Dante he will achieve salvation – but only after he has journeyed through the afterlife. The two then begin their journey, starting with the descent into Hell.
"There is no greater sorrow than to recall happiness in times of misery."
The Divine Comedy
Journey to the afterlife
The first book of The Divine Comedy describes the levels of Hell, and the ways in which punishments are tailored to the sins of individuals. The souls of flatterers, for example, spend eternity buried in excrement, a reminder of the excrement that they spoke on Earth. Seducers are tormented by horned devils who crack their whips over them until they become lumps of well-beaten flesh. In his visceral descriptions of the punishments and layout of Hell, Dante invites readers to reflect on their own failings, to change direction, and to live in harmony with other people and with God.
When their journey to the bottom-most reaches of Hell is complete, Dante and Virgil begin the ascent of Mount Purgatory, with its circular terraces. Purgatory is a place for sinners who lived selfishly on Earth, but showed enough remorse to offer hope for salvation. In Purgatory, they may purge themselves in preparation for entering Heaven. As they climb the mountain, passing through seven levels representing the seven deadly sins, Dante and Virgil meet individuals painfully working to overcome the flaws that led to their sins. Proud souls, for example, carry huge stones on their backs while they learn humility.
Once out of Purgatory, Beatrice takes over as Dante’s guide: this is because Virgil was born before Christ and therefore could not enter the “Blessed Realms”. Beatrice can be seen as the eternal feminine guide, the heart and soul of humankind. It is she who intervenes for Dante’s salvation, and through her, Dante comes to understand the love of God.
Dante adapted the form of the classical epic, with its adventurer-heroes and multiple gods, to express a profound vision of Christian destiny, incorporating both personal and historical events into the story. Innumerable artists and writers have been inspired by The Divine Comedy, and American-born writer T S Eliot described it as “the highest point that poetry has ever reached or ever can reach”.
Dante journeys through Heaven’s nine spheres, each of which is linked with a celestial body, in line with medieval Earth-centric ideas about the structure of the universe, and with the hierarchy of angels. Beyond the spheres is God in the Empyrean – a heaven beyond time and space.
A politician, writer, and philosopher, Durante degli Alighieri (known as Dante) was born in Florence, Italy, in 1265 to a wealthy family with a long history of involvement in Florentine politics. Dante was betrothed to be married in 1277 but he had already fallen in love with another girl, Beatrice “Bice” Portinari, who became his muse and to whom he dedicated many love poems. Tragically, she died suddenly in 1290. So grief-stricken was Dante that he immersed himself in political life, becoming a priore (a high official) in 1300 and acting as envoy to Pope Boniface VIII during upheavals in Florence. While he was in Rome, his enemies gained power and Dante was exiled from Florence, never to return. It is not known exactly when he began work on The Divine Comedy, but it may have been as early as 1304. Dante died in Ravenna, Italy, in 1321.
Other key works
1294 La Vita Nuova (The New Life)
1303 On the Eloquence of Vernacular
1308 Convivio (The Banquet)
See also: Aeneid • Odyssey • The Faerie Queene • The Lusiads • Paradise Lost • The Red Room • The Waste Land