Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 17 | Summary

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Summary

After a moment's hesitation, Dante asks Cacciaguida about the misfortunes he will face when he returns to Earth. The future, Cacciaguida cautions, is not yet written in stone and thus cannot be predicted with perfect accuracy. Nonetheless, he prophesies Dante will be exiled from Florence and forced to rely on the kindness of strangers. He will, however, find "refuge" in the generosity of a "great Lombard" (Can Grande della Scala, 1291–1329). Dante resolves to bear his future sufferings bravely, but he worries reporting his visions accurately will make him unpopular. Revealing who is in Hell and who is in Heaven, he observes, "will leave in many mouths an acid taste." Cacciaguida counsels him to tell his story clearly and without fear of reprisal, leaving posterity to judge its merits. He tells him to stick to his own principles and tell the truth of what has led him to his present condition. The future will bring what they can only foretell and hope for, not actually bring about.

Analysis

This is not the first time Dante has "foretold" his own exile in the Divine Comedy. The poem is set during the week of Easter in the year 1300 but was completed circa 1320, giving Dante two decades' worth of events he could "predict." This device—foretelling a future that has already come—is not an attempt to trick the reader into crediting Dante with prophetic powers. He knows we, reading the poem after 1320, will know better and realize the literary form he is adopting of "predicting" something that has already occurred. Doing so has the extra value of understanding the past and present without venturing into prophecy other than expressing strong views and wishes for human betterment in the future based in some way on the lessons of Dante's own experiences that he chooses to set in a time to come. Moreover, given his concern with fame and posterity, Dante at least hopes his poem will be read centuries after his death. Those readers, presumably, will be even harder to fool about the timeline.

Why, then, does Dante include such gestures in his poem? One reason is the sense of historicity they impart. Throughout the Comedy, but particularly in Paradise, Dante is traveling outside the normal times and spaces of earthly human life. In the Inferno and Purgatory, he at least offers some clues as to time of day and his location on (or within) Earth. In Paradise, however, such clues are almost entirely lacking. But by peopling Heaven with recognizable real-life figures and having them discuss real-life events, Dante anchors his poem in recognizable time and makes it relatable to earthbound readers. The Divine Comedy takes place after 1290 because Beatrice has died; it takes place before 1303 because Boniface VIII is still on the papal throne. Allusions like these cause the poem, abstract and dreamy as it sometimes is, to "snap back" into a precise historical frame of reference, always with the awareness that the poet is writing his epic long after the events he is describing and still within the same arena of struggles for power of Church and state, whether in Rome or nearer by in Florence.

Even more acutely, allusions to Dante's impending exile help to situate the event within the unfolding drama of his own life. They give the Divine Comedy a definite, terrestrial purpose: not just to save Dante from despair at Beatrice's death but to steel him against his own "future" suffering. Such references can also keep the joys of Paradise from seeming too cloying—otherwise a real danger in a poem of such length. By knowing the sorrow and struggle awaiting Dante on Earth that will lead him to write the Commedia they are reading centuries and centuries later, readers can appreciate his experiences in Heaven as poignantly short-lived.
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