Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 13 – the hidden passage

Some of the fair things that heaven bears. Starry sky above Tre Cime di Lavaredo. Photo by _大面, Wikimedia Commons

We are out of hell, but still close to the centre of the earth and it is still dark. Through the blackness, Dante can hear the trickling of a stream:

The hidden passage that connects Inferno and Purgatorio is one of Dante’s masterstrokes, entirely his own invention. It conveys the idea that there is, after all, an escape route from hell and damnation, that we human beings need not be stuck in our habitual, limited selves, possessed by our faults, but can shake them off and so begin to change and develop. As well as depicting the next life, Dante’s hell, purgatory and paradise are allegories of this life.

The way is long and hard, but the faintest glimmers of hope start to return as the two poets set out, knowing that the chiaro mondo, “the bright world”, is their destination. As ever, Dante follows his reason, in confidence, now, that this will lead him on the right path, towards the spiritual life of learning and love that awaits him in purgatory. With him, we glimpse “through a round opening, some of the fair things that heaven bears”, and then – oh the relief of it! ­­– we emerge from the stuffy darkness of hell “to see again the stars”, the whole glittering canopy of the heavens, in all its vast, silent splendour, in the hour before dawn on Easter Sunday morning.

All three canticas of the Comedy end with the word “stars”. For Dante they represent all that we aspire to, the beauty and truth of the divine order that lies beyond the sordid turmoil of our world. As our own dear Oscar Wilde put it, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Now that we can see the stars again, we can start to hope again. Join me next in exploring the opening canto of Purgatorio, the cantica of redemption.

Genius line:
E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle. No comment needed! It’s just… well, genius!