Here is no abiding city,” reads the Letter to the Hebrews. In 1302, Dante Alighieri was about thirty years old, active in the vicious politics of Florence, but on the wrong side. While he was away on diplomatic business in Rome, the victorious party, in a bitter coup d’état, took the opportunity to exile him from Florence, the city of his birth and the place of his lifelong desire, his “abiding city.” On pain of death he was required to pay an unjust fine, which he couldn’t do because the wherewithal to pay it—his home and property—had already been confiscated. Thereafter for nineteen years, Dante lived as an embittered exile, wandering around northern Italy wherever he could find patrons—in Lucca, Verona, and finally Ravenna—and until the day he died in 1321, his home was “nowhere,” for nowhere else could replace his Florence.
It was from that “nowhere” that in 1308 Dante began to write the poem that he called, simply, “Comedy.” He completed it in 1320 and died the next year, an exile to the end. He was buried in Ravenna, and, despite all the efforts on the part of the Florentines to bring him home, he remains in Ravenna to this day.
Affecting Dante no less intimately was another experience of alienation, another homelessness, that of his native Italian language. It too was abroad in Italy, likewise having “no home.” It was the tongue of a place that was not yet a nation, its people not yet a people, and Dante’s Tuscan vernacular was but one dialect among many. With lovely irony he wrote in his essay De vulgari eloquentia, a Latin prose work on the superior merits for the lyric poet of his native Italian vernacular, that just as he himself is homeless, so too is the language of his birth, the speech he calls the lingua che chiami mamma o babbo, that idiom in which an infant first learns to call upon “mummy and daddy.” In truth, he complains, there is no shared community of which his native Italian is the vernacular: it is indeed a courtly language, but it lacks a court, “it has left its scent in every city but has made its home in none.” Either way, whether as to his language or to his politics, Dante is a poet of exile. Perhaps he is the greatest writer in a genre of homelessness that seems to be the natural and spontaneous idiom of the poet. Poets may indeed write letters home, but they send them only from abroad.
From exile, then, Dante began his Comedy, composed in extraordinarily disciplined vernacular poetic forms. It is a work that in good part invents the poetic language in which it is written, the language of an Italy that will not exist in unified political reality for another 550 years. In his search for a poetic home, he struggles against the rootlessness of intellect that results from his domestic displacement. For intellect too needs a social world in which to be at home. And if his exile is a political and literary reality, it also has a deeper theological meaning. The Comedy is not just a writing composed in exile; exile determines the form of its writing. And as the exiled Dante is a vagrant, so is his theology: the Comedy is the cry from the heart of an uprooted soul in search of an “abiding city.” It is the poetry and theology of that search.
Where will the peregrinations of the homeless Dante take him? First, they will take him to Hell. The Comedy’s journey begins in uncertainty, confusion. Before it has even started, he fears where it might lead, and he protests, “Why me? What business of mine is this?” For as the Comedy begins, Dante, “at a mid-point on life’s journey,” is lost on a bare and nameless mountain and threatened by three wild beasts: a lion, a leopard, and a she-wolf. They represent some three vices or other (commentators differ as to which) and they threaten Dante because, lost and without bearings, his is the absolute vulnerability of a person who is faced with pure choice, as it were, “out of nothing.” For on that bare mountain there are no givens that he can count on to stabilize and direct his search. Dante is no hero, unsurprisingly, for he lacks even that minimal sense of self that would ground any possible choices.
He is not in Hell. Not yet. The condemned in Hell are not, like Dante, lost for want of bearings. Hell is home to the ultimate choosers, who think that the ultimate truth is an ultimate choice. But Dante understands that in Hell there are no journeys, no forks in the road, indeed no roads at all, no route maps, only the endlessness of repetitive circles, which, being circles, lead nowhere. Dante, by contrast, has a journey ahead of him, and a journey needs an itinerary and a landscape it will track through. He may not yet have discovered the map of that journey, but there is one, and there is a starting point, and he discovers that any step taken along that route will lead him through Hell, like it or not, from beginning to end. And he recoils: “This is madness” he protests, and it takes the interventions of a pagan Roman poet, Virgil, moved by St. Lucy and ultimately the Virgin Mary herself responding to Beatrice’s prayers, to persuade him to take even a first step forward into Hell.