Dante Paradiso Essay Topics

Paradiso Dante Alighieri

The following entry presents criticism of the Paradiso (c.1318-21), the third cantica of Dante's Commedia (1306-21; The Divine Comedy). For coverage of Dante's other works, see CMLC, Volumes 3, 18, and 39.

The third and concluding part of Dante's Divine Comedy, the Paradiso, has been extolled as one of the most magnificent achievements in world literature. The first cantica of the Divine Comedy, the Inferno, describes the torments of hell, while the second, the Purgatorio, delineates the painful travails souls undergo in purgatory. In both of these works, the poet describes fantastic realms in highly visual terms. In the Paradiso, however, Dante relies on suggestion rather than concrete description to present the reader with a vision of Paradise. As Marguerite Mills Chiarenza has observed, the foundation of Dante's poem is intellectual vision, which contradicts the traditional concept of poetry as an art that relies on images and symbols. “Intellectual vision,” Mills Chiarenza writes, “is by its nature incongruent with poetry, for it is the denial of that of which poetry is made. … Therefore, I would like to … suggest that the basic position of the poet in the Paradiso is revealed by his struggle to express a vision which is imageless from the start.” Dante's poem, which opens with the idea of God's glory shining throughout the universe, closes with the poet's ecstatic vision of God—a vision, as far as Dante is concerned, as indescribable as it is true.

Textual History

Scholars agree that the Paradiso was written after the death of Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII (c. 1275-1313), whom Dante venerated as the God-given king destined to unify Italy and conduct a reign of justice and peace—a terrestrial Paradise. In the view of some commentators, Henry's death, which spelled the end of Dante's hopes for Italy's political future, may have moved the poet to translate his worldly vision into a poetic dream of celestial perfection. There is evidence to suggest that Dante started writing his poem in 1318 and the general consensus among scholars is that the Paradiso was completed in 1321, the year of Dante's death. The period between 1318 and 1321 was an extremely difficult time for Dante, as Ravenna (the city to which he was exiled by his political enemies in Florence) and Venice were preparing for war. During 1321 Dante was in fact part of an attempt, which was ultimately unsuccessful, to establish a Ravennese embassy in Florence. Returning to Ravenna through the marshes of Cimacchio, Dante contracted malaria and died on September 14, 1321.

Plot and Major Characters

A journey through the realms of Paradise culminating in a vision of God, Dante's poem also portrays the individual's struggle to attain spiritual illumination. The protagonist is the poet himself, who describes his voyage as a pilgrimage. While the intellectual and philosophical foundation of this pilgrimage is quite orthodox from the point of view of medieval Christianity, Dante, in radical departure from theological and biblical tradition, introduces the figure of Beatrice, his guide to the heavens. Neither angel nor saint, Beatrice, who may have been a historical figure, represents a force that may be viewed as divine, despite the obvious heretical implications of such a claim.

Major Themes

In the Paradiso Beatrice represents the dazzling incarnation of faith, wisdom, justice, beauty, and love—a tangible connection to the ineffable mystery of God. While Beatrice is an expression of the deepest level of the poem, which is spiritual, the reader also finds, as a negative reflection of Paradise, Dante's meticulous disquisitions on the sorry state of Florence and Italy. These passages emphasize what Dante viewed as the sin, evil, and political corruption that ruled the world around him. The poet himself, in his famous letter to his patron Can Grande della Scala, explained that the Divine Comedy depicts “the state of souls after death” and had four levels of meaning: literal, allegorical, moral, and mystical (or anagogical, after the Greek term anagoge, which can be translated as “upward movement”). “The three allegorical meanings, in the Comedy,” John Saly has written, “reveal to us first the state of human society and the way to the realization of the Kingdom of God on earth, secondly the progress of the individual soul in this life from sin to purification and to the life of grace and, finally, a series of inner states through which a human being passes from complete isolation to unity with all that is.”

Critical Reception

Dante's contemporaries were aware of his greatness, and commentators of the time recognized the Paradiso not only as a sublime poem but also as an encyclopedic synthesis of science, astrology, mysticism, theology, and mythology. The most famous Renaissance champion of Dante's work was Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75), writer and humanist, who was the first to offer public lectures on the Divine Comedy. In the fifteenth century, as Saly observes, thinkers related Dante's description of the soul's ascent toward God to the Neoplatonic conception of a union with God, an idea which, according to scholars, can also be found in the medieval mystical traditions that inspired Dante. According to Saly, the Neoplatonists, who “gathered around Lorenzo de'Medici in what came to be known as the Medici circle, recognized in Dante a kindred spirit.” For example, the Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) regarded his Theologia Platonica, (1482), an attempted synthesis of Christianity and Neoplatonism, as a philosophical equivalent of the Paradiso. Later studies focused on the mystical and philosophical aspects of Dante's poem. In the early twentieth century, this approach is exemplified by the work of Edmund G. Gardner. In 1929, Erich Auerbach published a seminal study of the historical and political context of the Paradiso. Complementing the work of such scholarly writers as Etienne Gilson, who described the vast range of sources of Dante's inspiration, T. S. Eliot focused, in an eloquent and compelling fashion, on Dante's poetic genius, defining the Paradiso as a work in which the immense power of great poetry overshadows any strictly thematic or historical considerations. Later in the twentieth century, scholars such as Barbara Reynolds and Rachel Jacoff have offered perspectives on the text that contribute to the widely held view that Dante's great poem is, like its subject, a source of endless interpretation.

Study Questions: Paradiso

You will probably find Paradiso an extremely strange narrative, since so much of it feels non-narrative. Large passages describe in detail manifestations of light which present themselves to Dante as he rises through the material heavens (e.g., the planets) to Heaven (or the Empyrean, as he terms it), and much of Paradiso consists of improbably long speeches by several of the souls the Pilgrim encounters, but especially by Beatrice. It may be tempting to scan past these passages to get back to the plot. That's ok, but do so only if you then return to the scanned passage for a close rereading. It takes some adjustment to adopt a new aesthetic attitude, but try to think of these lengthy set speeches as analogous to arias in an opera, the polished show-pieces in which the composer and performer demonstrate their real virtuosity as artists. As you read through these passages of theological or philosophical or scientific discourse, remember to pay attention to their "poetic" uses of language, especially figurative language, such as metaphor and simile. As so often in reading Dante, read what's there, and see if there is some connection--through the language--to other issues in this part of the poem or to larger and ongoing issues in the Commediaas a whole.

1. There is an invocation early in Canto 1 to Apollo, who pretty clearly serves as a stand-in here for the Christian God from whom the poet really seeks inspiration in this final canticle. If Dante is going to choose a classical god for this role, why not the chief deity, Jupiter? Which aspects of Apollo get focused on here? How is the Marsyas story used? How about the Glaucus story later in the canto? Both are tales of transformation told in Ovid's Metamorphoses, and both are here adapted to serve Dante's very different narrative purposes at the beginning of Paradiso. How so? You will find, incidentally that Ovid replaces Virgil in the Paradiso as the classical author most often alluded to. Later in the canto, Beatrice reads Dante's mind, asks his unexpressed question, and then answers it. (Get used to it--saints can do that sort of thing.) What question is that (82-87)? What is her answer; what is her point about the great sea of being (103-141)?

2. Dante on the "moonspots"--a real barrier. This has to be one of the most daunting passages in the history of poetry, Dante's question about the origin of the marks on the moon (49-51), his apparently erroneous attempt at an explanation (52-58), and Beatrice's "right answer" (61-148). The canto begins with distinctions between big boats and little boats. What exactly is the point of the comparison--what are the boats? What exactly is the point about the bread of angels"? What exactly is the point about Jason and the Argonauts? Is there any connection between these introductory references and the discussion of the moonspots which follows. (By the way, trust Dante: if something seems so irrelevant and gets so much space at such a critical moment in the poem, it must be important!)

3. Dante meets his first saved souls. What mistake does he make when he first sees them? How is this the opposite of the error of Narcissus (16-18)? As the first soul with whom Dante has an extended encounter in this canticle, Piccarda (sister of his old buddy Forese in whose face he can read OMO back in Purgatorio 23) has a priority akin to that of the first souls met in the other canticles, Francesca and Manfred (whose grandmother Constance is here at the end of the canto). At line 41 Dante asks his usual question--who are you and why are you here. In her answer, what other issues get raised that begin to inform us of the attitudes of saved souls? Hint: Dante asks a follow-up question about it (64-66) and she makes a follow-up response (70-87).

4. The Pilgrim has two questions here, the more serious of which has to do with whether souls after death return to a birth planet as Plato had argued (and as Piccarda's "presence" in the moon seems to confirm). What is Beatrice's answer to this question? Please note that it's essential to our enterprise: without it Paradiso could not be represented.

5. The second question in Canto 4 had to do with the relationship of freedom to behavior which has been coerced by violence, and to the answer to be found there Canto 5 adds an extended discussion. This is the moment in the poem which Virgil had hinted at in Purgatorio 18 when he offered to speak about the relationship between love and freedom as far as he could do so aided only by reason , promising that Beatrice would take up the discussion from that point. How does she do this in her discussion over whether one can ever offer compensation for broken vows? This is an interestingly self-referential, metaliterary canto. What is the effect of line 16? Of line 85? Of the canto's last two lines? Especially of line 109, holding out the possibility that he might abandon writing the poem at this point (don't get your hopes up)? At line 85, we move from the Moon to Mercury. How is the transition described?

6. Justinian is the only character Dante meets anywhere in the Commedia who speaks an entire canto. (The whole of canto 6, you will notice, is in quotation marks.) Why would he have this privilege? What is the relationship between his faith and his "high task?" The canto is structured as an answer to Dante's two questions in Canto 5--the familiar ones he has asked throughout the Commedia: who are you and why are you here? After he answers the first of these, Justinian presents an extensive history of the Roman Empire, presented as the history of the eagle symbol, the symbol on the imperial flag called here "the sacred standard" (32), in Italian, the "sacrosanto segno." What is Justinian's (Dante's ?) point in presenting this history? In what terms does Justinian present Romeo at the end of the canto? (Does this representation of Romeo remind you of anyone you've grown to know and love? Does Justinian?)

7. Another question--here asked by Beatrice on Dante's behalf--got raised in Justinian's account of the crucifixion in the previous canto. How can a just vengeance be justly avenged? The problem seems so involved in medieval theology, you're left wondering if it matters? Does it? To Dante's sense of the function or power of poetry? To his vision of history? (Want to guess what Dante scholars have decided?) The canto moves on to a discussion of the necessity of the "Incarnation," the theological term for Jesus' birth as a human being, his taking on of human flesh. Why, according to this canto, is this method selected by God as the way to make amends for the fall? What are the implications for Dante's poetics? (Remember our frequent suggestion that Dante tries to create the way God did. Or is it vice-versa?)

8. The beginning of Canto 8, the introduction to the heaven of Venus, is one of those set pieces that is too easily read over too quickly because the rhetorical high style is nowadays so uncongenial. Read it slowly and pay attention to the distinctions being made. What's at stake in this passage? In the encounter with Charles Martel, what causes his fluctuations of brightness? What's the point of Charles's dual discussion of the harmony of creation (94-112) and the diversity of talents among diverse people (122-148). Any implications for our hero-pilgrim? For our poet?

9. An extension, in some ways of the previous canto(s): what does Folco explain as the cause for their brightness? In lines 103 ff., what, according to Folco, do the souls do in heaven? (Is this the way you have thought medieval Christians thought about heaven--assuming you've ever thought about this?) Same concluding question for this canto as for the previous canto: Any implications for our hero-pilgrim? For our poet?

10. How is the Holy Trinity described in the beginning of the canto? What are you asked to do next, reader? Any connection between you and the Trinity? Why the focus on the inadequacy of Dante's art at this point? Boethius gets special attention in Thomas Aquinas's catalogue. On what terms does he praise him? The sun seems to be the most useful of heavenly bodies to people: we use it for warmth, light, and as a means of measuring the passage of time. Which aspects seem to be particularly focused on in this canto?

11. Read the "romance" of St. Francis and his beloved Lady Poverty carefully. What figurative language particularly characterizes this narrative? How does Thomas characterize the relationship between St. Francis and St. Dominic?

12. St. Francis had been presented as a lover. How is St. Dominic presented? Pay specific attention to the figurative language which St. Bonaventure uses in Canto 12.

Paradiso 13-17

One of the phenomena we've been tracking throughout the semester has been the way the Commedia seems to become a self-contained world: reading the text prepares you to read the text. As we approach the mid-point of the final canticle, we finally have presented some of the principles which seem to underlie the poem as a whole.

13-14. These cantos are like some others that we've encountered in the Commedia: they seem to be filler, here separating the presentation of the two circles of writer/thinkers from the dramatic encounter with Cacciaguida in Mars. Are there ways in which these cantos tell us something about Dante's attitudes toward literature? About the specific literary enterprise which he has undertaken? What do we learn here about divine justice?

15-16. In Cantos 15-16, how does Dante shape our attitude toward the city that has exiled him? What is the difference between Florence in the good old days, when Cacciaguida was alive, and in Dante's day?

17. Perhaps the most important of these is the exchange with Cacciaguida in Canto 17. Staged as a prediction of events in the future (from the fictional time of 1300), it is more of a life-review (from ca. 1320), in which the encounter of Dante and Cacciaguida seems more like one between Pilgrim and Poet. As such, it gives us some specific hints about how Dante saw his own life and how he wants us to interpret it.

In the first of his lengthy speeches (37-92), Cacciaguida clarifies for Dante how he will live as an exile; in the second speech (124-142), how he should write as a poet of exile. Are there parallels between the two presentations. What role is played by the references to classical mythology, such as Phaeton and Hippolytus? What is the Pilgrim's attitude toward time? What kind of imagery does he use to talk about time? What is Cacciaguida's attitude toward time? What kind of imagery does he use? What is Dante's attitude toward his former allies?

Paradiso 18-22

Paradiso 18-22 take us fairly quickly from Mars to Jupiter to Saturn and on to the fixed stars, from Cacciaguida to the outer reaches of the visible universe. Throughout these cantos, I'd ask you to pay particular attention to two interrelated topics: speculation about judgment (divine judgment most obviously, but Dante's, as well), and the ongoing speculation about the nature of, and function of, art (poetry, language, narrative).

A. We've already seen suggestions that divine justice cannot be comprehended in human terms (see the end of Canto 13, for example), but this section of the poem is where the question is re-opened with particular force: through the status of the man born on the banks of the Indus in Canto 19 and through he salvation of Trajan and especially of Ripheus in Canto 20. The question--which we are told has for long plagued Dante--expresses in terms of geographical distance, what the poem otherwise presents as chronological distance: the problem as we are made to feel it in the poem is not the man born on the banks of the Indus, but Virgil. Do these cantos open the door for Virgil's salvation? Or open it only to shut it again? (Think of the problems Ripheus raises.)

B. Be alert to the many representations of this text's self-consciousness about literature and its own literariness. For openers, consider the way question 1 tests the central premise of the whole Commedia: if no one can presume to understand diving justice, on what terms can Dante assign people to eternal pigeonholes? Is Dante here raising what his readers are likely to feel uneasy about in the poem? Does he resolve the problem?

Think about other ways Dante represents problems of representation. Saved souls shape themselves into mosaic letters and then convert the last letter into a series of two symbols, "segni," the second of which, the imperial eagle, sings "cantos" and converses with Dante. Throughout these cantos, there are images of shaping and painting and storytelling and mirroring and figuring. God is frequently described as an artist and Dante seems almost to invoke his birth sign, Gemini, as the source of his genius (22.115). Track the implications of this type of reference (and don't forget the glance back through the heavens at the end of 22).

C. A corollary: both A and B imply a stance toward time, toward history. The kinds of questions raised in these cantos by such figures as Cacciaguida, Peter Damian, and Benedict, and by the Eagle's presentation of the souls who comprise its eye, all examine the importance of human action in our world. Can we begin to formulate a Dantesque vision of the relationship between time and eternity?

Paradiso 23-29

This may be, for twentieth-century American readers, the strangest portion of this entire strange poem. At the end of Canto 22, Dante had entered the fixed stars, looking back through the heavens down to Earth, described as "the little threshing floor which makes us so fierce." In 27, as he leaves the stars, he looks down at the Earth once again, and once again it is called "this little threshing floor" (27.85). In between come the cantos in which Dante arrives (23) and then one each (24-26) in which Dante is examined by Saints Peter, James, and John, the three major Apostles--the followers of Jesus in the Gospels--on the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, after which he discusses with Adam the language originally used in Eden. Perhaps this last exchange is a good clue about how to approach this part of the poem: much of it, despite its theological feel, seems to be about questions of literature and language. (Remember that cantos 24-26 in Inferno and Purgatorio both seem to be about the nature of poetry.)

23. For a canto that takes place so far above our world, it's worth noting how dominated the canto is by specific earthly imagery from the world of nature: the mother bird awaiting dawn; the moon shining on a starry night; the sun-shower breaking through the clouds to illuminate a field of flowers; the hungry baby stretching its arms toward its mother at nursing time. What is it that each of the four images helps to describe? In 23.54 ff., we find what Robert Hollander has called Dante's "non-invocation." What kinds of observations does the Poet make in lines 54-69. Are there other places where the poem seems to be commenting about the nature of poets or of poetry?

24. How are the souls in this heaven manifested to Dante? How is St. Peter described (be specific here) in lines 19-24? How is water imagery used in this canto? What does it have to do with poetry? Read through the questions and answers in Dante's exam on faith. Do any of them engage questions about the nature of poetry?

25. What is the relationship between poetry and exile in this canto? (You can start with lines 1-12, but don't react too hastily.) How many references can you find to exile and pilgrimage in the canto? What does the water imagery imply about poetry, specifically in the exam on hope? (Remember that hope as a theological virtue means something more than the modern English word, something like "expectation" of salvation.) How is St. John introduced at the end of the canto? Through what specific textual allusions? Why does Dante go temporarily blind?

26. In his discussion with Bonagiunta, as you'll recall, Dante said that what characterized his poetry was how closely he followed after "Love." How does this canto redefine the nature of Love? What are the questions exchanged with Adam? What was the nature of language in the garden? What is the relationship of language to exile?

27. Why is this the point at which St. Peter chooses to issue his condemnation of the contemporary papacy? What is the relationship of this indictment to the Pilgrim's condemnation of Nicholas III back in Inferno 19? In lines 88 ff., Dante moves on to the Prime Mover. How does this transition occur? How is time described at the end of the canto?

28. Angels are hard to take seriously for most modern readers of the poem. For Dante, these figures are pure disembodied spirits--like human souls in one way, but never intended to be united to bodies. They also, as groups, serve as the controlling intelligences of each the nine heavens that circle the earth. What's at stake in the dispute over which orders of angels control which heavens?

29. This is a canto completely dominated by Beatrice: she reads the questions from Dante's mind and then answers them. The first has to do with angels--where, when, how--and Beatrice's answers deal with God's motive in creating. Does this suggest something about the nature of Dante's creation? What is the point of the discussion of the three-stringed bow? What do the terms act and potentiality have to do with the discussion about angels? Here's a good final exam question: "true or false, angels have no memory. Explain your answer." What is the relationship between love and knowledge according to the end of this canto?

Paradiso 30-33: Home, Sweet Home

30. Bull's-eye! This is where Dante's flight through the heavens has been headed--the port in the Sea of Being, to recall Paradiso 1's imagery, to which the human soul naturally tends. In this canto, Dante seems to Christianize the idea from Plato's Cave analogy of a "Sun" beyond our earthly sun, as symbol of the Good, the source of Being, which is simultaneously the origin and the goal of things, as well as the principle by which things can be known. This is a canto dominated by gradations of light. What special problems do these ideas create for poetry? How does the "ineffability topos" (use it three times and it's yours) work in lines 19-33)? How does the river become the rose? As a parallel to Virgil's valedictory in Purgatorio 27, Beatrice here ends Paradiso 30 with her final words in the poem. Are they a surprise?

31. This is a canto that presents a variety of pilgrimage images as an analogy for the arrival in heaven. Are they all the same or is some sense of incremental repetition at work here (i.e., does each example add something new to the overall vision)?

32. "The Petrification of the Rose" as a Dante-teacher friend of mine has called this: of all the accommodations to human limitations in the poem, this has to be one of the weirdest. Why? What is the relationship of this architectural structure (outside of time) to time (during which these people all earned their season tickets)? What is the effect of ending the canto with a colon?

33. It's silly to trivialize this canto with questions that seek specific answers, but I don't mind being silly. (Or trivial--you've noticed?) How does the prayer of St. Bernard with which the canto begins touch the beginning of the poem (Inferno 1-2)? Lots of summing up going on here: how does the book image work in 85-93? How about that final seafaring reference that follows (94-99)? The Paradiso essay online talks about the stages through which the Pilgrim's vision goes as he looks directly at God. A few of the large overriding questions: Does the looking of the Pilgrim change God (as happened for example, with the Siren)? The final visions are of God as Trinity and then of the Incarnation--Jesus' dual nature, simultaneously fully divine and fully human. (Don't ask. Miracles are supposed to not make sense. That's the definition of miracle.) How are these final visions of the Pilgrim central to the poem's vision?

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