“At some deep level, poetry and physics are similar endeavors,” writes Mark A. Peterson, a mathematician and science historian. Both the poet and the scientist use the tools of their craft—words, numbers—to discover core truths about the nature and shape of the universe and humanity’s place in it. Dante’s lengthy poem, The Divine Comedy, an imaginative journey through the afterlife of hell, purgatory, and heaven, has circulated widely and continuously since the early fourteenth century, shortly after Dante’s death. The poem contains the sum of knowledge in Dante’s day, in all fields of inquiry, and remains relevant today as a passionate record of humankind’s attempt to define and understand existence. Moreover, after over six hundred years, and hundreds of translations, Dante remains ahead of his time in his pioneering use of poetic techniques and scientific thinking. “Dante’s universe . . . is almost unbelievably apt and accurate,” Peterson says.
In his youth, in Florence, Italy, in the mid to late thirteenth century, Dante practiced the lyric poetry that flourished in Provence beginning with the work of William of Poitou (1071-1127). The Provencal tradition celebrated melancholy love: generally, a poet sang the praises of his unattainable lady. By the time Dante penned his mature works, Vita Nuova and The Divine Comedy, he had expanded and transcended the Provencal tradition by equating earthly and spiritual love (Beatrice, his unattainable lady, becomes his soul’s savior and his guide to the afterlife) and by including politics and natural philosophy in his work.
The Comedy’s poetic structure, invented by Dante, ingeniously builds upon a rhyme scheme and canto arrangement based on the number three (a “divine” number, suggesting the Holy Trinity). The poet James Merrill once said, “No verse form moves so wonderfully. Each tercet’s first and third line rhyme with the middle one of the preceding set, and enclose the new rhyme-sound of the next, the way a scull outstrips the twin, already dissolving oarstrokes that propel it. As rhymes interlock throughout a canto, so do incidents and images throughout the poem.” It is no coincidence that Dante’s oar-like rhythms depict the universe as a vast ocean through which the God-hungry pilgrim must move.
The American poet W. S. Merwin, who once translated Dante’s Purgatorio into English, noted the way Dante combined poetic innovation with narrative sophistication: “There was [in the Comedy] . . . first of all, Dante the narrator. And there was Dante, the man living and suffering in time, and at once we can see that there is a distinction, a division, between them. And then there was . . . Dante the representation of Everyman . . . of a philosophical position, a political allegiance—the list is indeterminate. Sometimes he seems to be all of them at once.”
Dante’s bold approach to poetics and narrative structure is matched, in the poem, by his pioneering scientific vision. Before Dante, no one had ever described the universe the way he did: it “is both geometrical and precise, and totally surprising,” Peterson notes. From its edge, near the end of Paradiso, Dante the pilgrim glances back at the Earth and up toward God, simultaneously, toward the center and the circumference all at once, upending Euclidean geometry and predicting the curved space that Einstein’s theories of relativity would firmly establish six centuries later. Dante “invented a new topological space,” Peterson writes. “If this imaginative feat had been recognized in his own time . . . Dante would today be considered . . . one of the great creative mathematicians of all time.”
Dante understood that the poet and the scientist share a problem: that is, finding a language to represent what lies beyond representation (such a vocabulary often depends on contrast, light and dark, for which the celestial realm is tailor-made). In The Divine Comedy, he pioneered approaches to this problem, through his spectacular poetic craft and his scientific thought-experiments. We are, all of us, still living in the universe he created.
Tracy Daugherty is distinguished professor of English and creative writing emeritus at Oregon State University and the author of several acclaimed literary books, including the New York Times best-selling The Last LoveSong: A Biography of Joan Didion. Daugherty’s work has appeared in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the Paris Review, and McSweeney’s.