Dante Is the Elephant in the Room

The world has been commemorating the seven-hundredth anniversary of Dante's death (14 September 1321) in recent months—a big, boisterous literary party that I have been happy to participate in with abandon. I have read Dante daily, attended Dante recitations, written (and read) Dante-inspired poems, listened to Dante lectures, and given a few Dante talks of my own. In one particular celebration, sponsored by Loyola University Chicago’s Hank Center for Catholic Intellectual Heritage, I was invited to address the issue of “Why Dante Matters Today,” a vast, unanswerable question that prompted a series of responses from me, each considering The Commedia from a different vantage point—that of a reader, a scholar, a professor, and a poet. With each attempt, I discovered anew the folly of trying to account for Dante’s enduring influence on modern and contemporary culture in any manageable space, but, as Alexander Pope once quipped, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”—and so I did, and so I do.

T.S. Eliot once famously stated “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them. There is no third.” I think many of us poets—and most of us Catholic poets—agree. When we sit down to write, the poet who is most likely to be looking over one’s shoulder is Dante, even if we are not consciously aware of his presence. Like the singular, magnificent Gothic-Cathedral-of-a-Poem that he wrote, Dante cannot be ignored. His long shadow falls across the page.

I think most of us readers would agree with Eliot, as well. Anyone familiar with the Western Literary Canon knows that the list of writers whose work has been informed by Dante is practically endless. My students cannot adequately understand most books from the past—as well as many books written in our own time—without knowing Dante. As a professor, I cannot teach a course in literature without frequent discussion of Dante, even if he is not on the syllabus. Dante is the elephant in the room.

The form that Dante’s influence takes is sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle, and it is particularly evident in my classroom wherein I teach Catholic literature. Given the fact that it is impossible to address every writer who owes a debt to Dante, I will focus on just a handful of writers I regularly include in my seminars in American Catholic Studies. It is my hope to explore some of the ways in which, in the modern classroom, as well as in the modern university, Dante matters.

Flannery & Dante

First, I would like to begin by establishing some common ground between my favorite American Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor, and Dante. And because I am a poet first and a literary critic second, I will start with a poem. This is one of a series of 101 sonnets I’ve written that channel the voice of Flannery O’Connor. The collection is titled Andalusian Hours: Poems from the Porch of Flannery O’Connor, and each poem begins with an epigraph from O’Connor’s writings and then delves more deeply into the interesting and often provocative statement Flannery has made. This poem is called, appropriately enough, “Flannery & Dante,” and imagines what Flannery might say to Dante were she to meet up with the Master in eternity:

“For my money Dante is about as great as you can get.”
—Flannery O’Connor, Letter to Elizabeth Hester, November 10, 1955 (Habit of Being 116)

Tell me poet, pilgrim, friend
how you managed to make a world.
Your lines a sturdy scaffold we climb
to heaven, gawking at the sinners we find
along your highway out of Hell. You own
a genius for evil, as well as good,
but it’s the former that haunts me, a man
who eats his child a thing I could
not forget if I tried, and I don’t.
It’s part of me now, like last night’s corn-
bread I ate for supper. Deep under the skin
you and I are kin,
conjuring words, eager to atone
for the pity of being blood and bone.

In this little poem, I have imagined Flannery pondering the link between her work as a Catholic fiction writer from Georgia portraying the twentieth-century world she knows and Dante, the great Medieval Catholic poet whose Commedia has informed the religious imagination of the Western World for the past seven centuries. Obviously, both Flannery and Dante are Catholic writers—and Catholic writers of a definitive stamp. Both of them believe in the doctrines of the faith, both are devoted to the institutional Church (as flawed as they know it to be), and both write imaginative literature that engages essential theological truths. In her essay “Catholic Novelists and Their Readers,” Flannery O’Connor writes,

The universe of the Catholic fiction writer is one that is founded on the theological truths of the Faith, but particularly on three of them which are basic—the Fall, the Redemption, and the Judgment. These are doctrines that the modern secular world does not believe in. It does not believe in sin, or in the value that suffering can have, or in eternal responsibility, and since we live in a world that since the sixteenth century has been increasingly dominated by secular thought, the Catholic writer often finds himself writing in and for a world that is unprepared and unwilling to see the meaning of life as he sees it (Mystery & Manners, 185).


“The Fall, the Redemption, and the Judgment”—this is Dante’s and O’Connor’s shared terrain. The three sections of The Commedia and all thirty-one of O’Connor’s stories focus on these three “Last Things,” concepts that shape the plots of their respective works and describe the destiny of their characters, as well as their own.

In addition, another commonality Dante and O’Connor share is an unbelieving audience—or, at least, a stubborn, skeptical one. People in any age, from Medieval to modern, do not really believe they are going to die—they would not behave the way they do if they did—and they certainly do not believe they are going to Hell.

In order to get these hard truths across to a hostile audience, both Dante and O’Connor have to resort to violent literary means. O’Connor’s stories are full of horrific events—mass murders, accidental shootings, drownings, rape, robbery, seduction, betrayal, arson, and every kind of assault. They are full of sinful characters who commit these deeds and sinful characters who are their victims. Many of her characters are grotesques—people who are misshapen, deformed, and broken in ways that are symbolic of the sins they carry—a twentieth-century Southern version of Dante’s concept of contrapasso. O’Connor learned her aesthetic of violence and the grotesque from the master—for who is better at depicting human beings misshapen by sin than Dante—and where do we find a finer collection of guilty grotesques than in the Inferno? Dante writes stuff that gives us nightmares. So does Flannery.

Another element the two share is an obsession with just punishment. “Even the mercy of the Lord burns,” O’Connor writes in her novel The Violent Bear It Away. Her God is a merciful God, but an exacting one, as is Dante’s. Human beings have been gifted with free will, and they are rewarded or punished in accordance with their choices. The universe she creates in her stories is one in which God is at work in every event of every human life—and so is the Devil. There is a contest between the forces of evil and the forces of good, and the human soul is the prize. Her vision is essentially Medieval, as is Dante’s.

O’Connor’s stories frequently depict characters who travel through a world that is fraught with spiritual dangers. Her characters wander through Hellscapes full of suffering, sorrow, and occasions for sin, many of them man-made. In her story, titled “The Artificial N****r,” a grandfather and his grandson get lost in the city of Atlanta. They are white people from an all-white town, and the grandfather has brought the child to the city on an evil errand: he wants the boy to see his first black person and he wants to acculturate him in the ways of racial hatred. As luck would have it, they get lost in the African American section of town, and they are both utterly rattled to find themselves in a world where they do not belong.

The city is depicted as Dante-equse—a dark and dangerous place, a place where sewers run beneath the surface of the streets—dank, deathly smelling spaces where a boy might get sucked down to his own dark death. Their pilgrimage through this perilous landscape results in the grandfather committing the unpardonable sin of denying his own blood, and then having to seek forgiveness from the boy and from his God. The Hell Mr. Head wanders through throws this self-satisfied man into a deep funk of desolation—yet only by traveling through that Infernal region can he find his way to Purgatory and Purgation, and hopefully, eventually Paradise. Other characters in other O’Connor stories wander through other Hells, fraught with other dangers and occasions for sin, but the pattern is always the same: the via negativa—the necessity of immersing oneself in darkness before one can find the light, going down before one can rise up, enduring a kind of death before one can experience resurrection.

One more point of contact between these two exemplary Catholic writers is the layered complexity of their work. The Commedia famously operates on multiple levels of meaning. This is true of O’Connor’s work, as well. She frequently speaks of the need to read her fiction at the anagogical level in order for the reader to understand how the actions she depicts body forth human participation with the Divine Life. Her stories raise uncomfortable questions. Among them: “What does a serial killer have to do with Grace and God?”  “Plenty,” turns out to be the answer.

In these ways, and so many more, Flannery and Dante are cut from the same cloth. As she confesses in “her” poem, “Flannery & Dante,” “Deep under the skin / You and I are kin.”

Kennedy & Dante

William Kennedy is another American Catholic fiction writer whose work is shaped profoundly by Dante. His most accomplished novel—and the one that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984—Ironweed, begins with an epigraph from the opening of the Purgatorio:

To course o’er better waters
now hoists sail the little bark of my wit,
leaving behind her a sea so cruel.

Kennedy introduces himself as our storyteller and guide who, like Dante, leaves behind the realm of Hell, where human beings suffer without hope of release from their torments, and ushers us into the realm of redemptive suffering, wherein one can gain expiation for one’s sins. Indeed, the story of Francis Phelan is the story of a man who has sinned against his family and his community, abandoned them, and now returns to his hometown of Albany in search of forgiveness for those sins.

The celebrated opening scene of the novel takes place in a graveyard, and here we enter a fantastic scenario characterized by the term “magical realism”—a supposedly twentieth-century literary phenomenon—but one that is actually inspired by fourteenth-century Dante. The people underground are not dead—far from it. They are, like the souls trapped in the Inferno, conscious, cognizant, and forever mired in the sins that afflicted them in life. Francis’s Jansenistic Irish Catholic mother gorges herself on weeds shaped into crucifixes which she devours with revulsion and his alcoholic cousins who worked on the Erie canal and were murdered for the pennies in their pockets are drunk even in death. The one exception amid this litany of sinners is Francis’s infant son, Gerald, who died when his father accidentally dropped him when he was 13 days old. Like the souls in Canto X of The Inferno who speak to Dante from their sepulchers, Gerald addresses his father from the grave, enjoining him to perform acts of expiation for abandoning his family.

Francis does, indeed, perform these acts, and sets out on a pilgrimage to do so. From the opening scene onward, the structure of Ironweed echoes the structure of The Commedia as a whole. First, in terms of temporal setting, both Dante and Kennedy frame the stories of their pilgrims in terms of liturgical time. Francis Phelan’s journey along the path of “Death, Redemption, and the Judgment” takes place in the course of three days: Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day. In this Kennedy is clearly borrowing from Dante’s depiction of his pilgrim’s journey over the course of three days: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Whereas the springtime high holy days of the Christian faith perfectly suit Dante’s tale—one that culminates in rebirth and resurrection—the dark holy days of late October/early November, the nadir of the year, suit Kennedy’s dark tale in which the dead walk abroad and in which his pilgrim’s destiny is not quite as bright.

In addition, the structure of Kennedy’s plot mirrors the three-part structure of The Commedia, the ur-text of the Judeo-Christian pilgrimage. Francis wanders through the Hellscape of Depression-era Albany, homeless and haunted by the ghosts of several men he killed. These shades speak to Francis, as the souls in Inferno address Dante. Francis then begins his deliberate journey through the dismal streets of his hometown on a Purgatorial pilgrimage towards the house where Gerald died and his family still lives. Finally, in the third movement of his journey, Francis is welcomed home by his wife, the Sainted Annie, who has never blamed Francis for their baby’s death. In a magical scene, an ordinary bathroom is transformed and sanctified as he bathes in the waters of baptism and resurrection. Thereafter he dons clean clothes and sits at the table with his wife and remaining children for a Eucharistic feast. Francis has, at last, achieved the Paradiso.

Kennedy, however, unlike Dante, does not leave his pilgrim with a vision of “the love that moves the sun and other stars.” In the final movement of the novel, Francis backslides, returns to his life as an itinerant alcoholic, leaving the reader bereft. The perfection and symmetry of Dante’s vision is denied, seemingly unreconcilable with the messiness of modernity, in Kennedy’s imagination. Even as Kennedy borrows from Dante’s work, he critiques it—takes what he finds true to his own vision and leaves the rest.

Dante Among the Poets

The same can be said of many writers who have drawn upon Dante’s Commedia, particularly the poets. No poet worth his or her salt is interested in slavishly replicating another writer’s work. Poets borrow what speaks to them—what speaks to all of us—and incorporate it into their own vision, lending their poem heft, resonance, and power. Most often, poets borrow from Dante the trope of the dead speaking from a world beyond our own, and adapt the technique to their own circumstances.

Two of the finest poets of the twentieth Century—T.S. Eliot and Seamus Heaney—adapt the Inferno, in particular, as a means of exploring the besetting sins of their own particular era. Eliot’s signature poem, The Wasteland, often credited with launching modern literature, along with James Joyce’s Ulysses, in 1922, begins his great modern epic poem by echoing his Medieval master in “The Burial of the Dead,” the opening section of the poem that laments the somnambulant state in which modern human beings live their lives, invoking Dante’s vision in Hell:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many (The Wasteland, I, 60-63).

Their death-in-life state reminds Eliot of Dante’s damned, who move through their personal Hellscapes with no hope of ever finding a way out. The spiritually dead speak to us throughout Eliot’s poem—characters who range from “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante” to the modern day Tiresias who narrates tales of sexual malaise—imparting prophecies and words of warning to us readers, the (barely) living. 

Similarly in Seamus Heaney’s tour-de-force, twelve-part poem Station Island, the dead rise up to speak to the poet while he is on retreat at St. Patrick’s Purgatory in the north of Ireland, a place of pilgrimage wherein pilgrims fast, pray, and prepare themselves for otherworldly visions. Among the denizens of this Irish version of Dante’s Purgatorio who visit Heaney are poets, priests, former schoolmasters, friends, and victims of the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. The poem concludes with one final visitation, written in fine English/Irish terza rima, echoing Dante’s signature form—from the great James Joyce (most revered of all Irish writers)—who imparts to the young poet the lesson about his vocation that he is most in need of:

The main thing is to write
for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night

dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,

so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note (Station Island, XII).

Joyce’s advice and farewell to Heaney here clearly echoes Virgil’s final words to Dante in Canto XXVII of the Purgatorio, wherein Virgil takes leave of Dante, after having led him through Hell and Purgatory. The pilgrim/poet is declared master of himself, now ready to continue the journey on his own, to encounter Beatrice, and to enter Paradise:

I’ve bought you here through intellect and art:
From now on, let your pleasure be your guide;
You’re past the steep and past the narrow path . . .

Await no further word or sign from me:
Your will is free, erect, and whole—to act
Against that will would be to err: therefore
I crown and miter you over yourself (Purgatorio, Canto XXVII, lines 130-133, 139-42, Mandelbaum translation).

Another, more recent, contemporary poet who has taken his cue from Dante is Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail whose ambitious epic poem, The Five Quintets, published in 2018, engages with the dead across time, circumstance, and discipline—including writers, philosophers, politicians, economists—saints and sinners of every sort—concluding, at last, with a conversation among the saved in paradise. O’Siadhail’s poem adapts the tri-partite structure of Dante’s Commedia and then rings changes upon it to create his own eschatological vision, one that owes much to his master and yet is entirely unique (for my more complete review of the poem click here).  

In his confessional essay “A Talk on Dante” Eliot acknowledges his debt to Dante, praising him and concluding by citing the challenge that Dante issues to every poet who comes after him:

The Divine Comedy expresses everything in the way of emotion, between depravity’s despair and the beatific vision that man is capable of experiencing. It is, therefore, a constant reminder to the poet of the obligation to explore, to find words for the inarticulate, to capture those feelings which people can hardly feel because they have no words for them.

Clearly, one of the many reasons Dante is the elephant in the room for poets—as well as readers—is because of the vastness of his imagination. The fullness and completeness of his vision, his audacity and derring-do in channeling the voices of the chiefest of sinners and the most sanctified of saints, the formal perfection of his work, from the level of its overarching tri-partite, cento-canto design to the level of each syllable of his ingeniously invented terza rima—all of these elements make The Commedia a landmark in literature that one ignores at one’s own spiritual, emotional, and intellectual peril.

Dante & Us

In his celebrated paean to “The Poet,” Ralph Waldo Emerson recognizes Dante’s incomparable contribution to the artistic tradition of the Western World: “Dante's praise is, that he dared to write his autobiography in colossal cipher, or into universality.” As Emerson notes, Dante’s story is his story, but it is also ours—just as it is O’Connor’s and Kennedy’s, Eliot’s and Heaney’s, and O’Siadhail’s—a story that has continually spoken of us and to us for the past 700 years. To know Dante is to know our history and our destiny, to know our fellow human beings in a deep and abiding way, and to know ourselves.

It is safe to conclude that without Dante, these few works of fiction and poetry (along with many others) written over the past seven centuries would not exist—certainly not in the ingenious, artful forms they exist in currently. Though it may be impossible to state with any accuracy or completeness the enormous debt art and literature of the past and present owes to Dante, it is necessary to try.

Featured Image: Taken by VillageHero Elephant National Museum Of Natural History Washington: Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0


Angela Alaimo O’Donnell

Angela Alaimo O’Donnell is a writer, poet, and professor at Fordham University where she teaches English, Creative Writing, and American Catholic Studies. She also serves as Associate Director of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies.

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