Dante Alighieri is known for his poetic work Inferno. This work is not just famous, it is infamous. Nevertheless, infamy rarely means well understood. This epic fourteenth-century Italian poem recounts a journey through hell and is one of three poems that form a whole: The Divine Comedy or Commedia, to give it its simple Italian title. The three parts are Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. A journey through hell, purgatory and paradise might seem a long way from Psalm 51. There are, however, a number of connections between our psalm and Dante’s work. This post will explore just part of this wider relationship.
Dante (1265–1321) wrote his Commedia whilst in exile from his city of birth, Florence. There’s not time to go into how he came to be banished from his home city, but we can note, with some amusement, that the details are still potentially the subject of a court case, some seven hundred years after his death, see this recent newspaper article:
For many years the little I knew of Dante’s work meant that I wrote it off as an unhelpful dwelling on the worst kind of over-literalisation of the afterlife. More recently, I have discovered that a number of people that I hold in high regard value Dante’s work—indeed they seem to prize it, as not only worthwhile literature, but claimed it has a spiritual, even transformative potential.
That Dante has a richer and more nuanced intent than macabre speculation on the afterlife is evident at the outset. The opening three lines refer to the proverbial midlife crisis or, to put it another way, lost soul. Here they are:
At one point midway on our path in life,
I came around and found myself now searching
Through a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost. [Kirkpatrick, 2012, p.3]
We soon discover that Dante is not just lost but that he is being pursued by beasts: a leopard, a lion, and a wolf. It becomes apparent that these three animals represent specific sins that Dante is struggling with. The three respectively represent lust, pride and avarice. At line 65 in the first of 34 Cantos we meet Psalm 51 crystallised in one word—Miserere—such was its medieval importance. In context we have:
Seeing him near in that great wilderness,
To him I screamed my ‘Miserere’: ‘Save me,
Whatever—shadow or truly man—you be.’ [Kirkpatrick, 2012, p.5]
This call of mercy, arising from fear, will in fact be answered. Our interest is that for Dante his hope of an answer to all of his desperate mid-life sin and fear can crystallised in a single psalm—Psalm 51. Even more remarkable is the fact that the fame of Psalm 51 is such that it is called to mind for Dante, and his readers, in a single word. He calls miserere centuries before Allegri celebrates this same psalm in his own musical cry for mercy.
It turns out that Dante is not beset by a shadow but that this is none other than Dante’s hero poet Virgil. Virgil has been sent on an act of mercy by Dante’s departed love Beatrice. Dante does not yet know it but his prayer, his cry for mercy, has already been answered.
Psalm 51 features in both Purgatorio and Paradiso but that story must await another time and place.
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Robin Kirkpatrick (translator and editor), London: Penguin Books, 2012.