If one wanted to make sense of the references in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the first book to start with would be the Bible. Biblical characters, themes and allusions are woven throughout the three parts of Dante’s great work.
Although much of western literature once included biblical allusions, literature has changed. Today’s fiction is more likely to draw on feature films and comic books than the Bible. Much of what I consider to be the literature of the Bible is unfamiliar to many people. (MIT has an online course that some of you might find interesting)
In this post, I’d like to draw your attention to one book from the Hebrew Bible and one passage from the New Testament, solely for the purpose of enjoying their words. I’m not interested in questions of interpretation with these passages. I’m simply asking readers to approach the texts as pieces of literature and see what they think of them.
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth–for thy love is better than wine.
Thine ointments have a goodly fragrance; thy name is as ointment poured forth; therefore do the maidens love thee.
Draw me, we will run after thee; the king hath brought me into his chambers; we will be glad and rejoice in thee, we will find thy love more fragrant than wine! sincerely do they love thee….
“Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thine eyes are as doves.
Behold, thou art fair, my beloved, yea, pleasant; also our couch is leafy.”
Song of Songs 3:1-5
“By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth; I sought him, but I found him not.
‘I will rise now, and go about the city, in the streets and in the broad ways, I will seek him whom my soul loveth.’ I sought him, but I found him not.
The watchmen that go about the city found me: ‘Saw ye him whom my soul loveth?’
Scarce had I passed from them, when I found him whom my soul loveth: I held him, and would not let him go, until I had brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me.
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles, and by the hinds of the field, that ye awaken not, nor stir up love, until it please.’”
Song of Songs 4: 1- 7
Song of Songs 4: 1- 7
Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thine eyes are as doves behind thy veil; thy hair is as a flock of goats, that trail down from mount Gilead.
Thy teeth are like a flock of ewes all shaped alike, which are come up from the washing; whereof all are paired, and none faileth among them.
Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy mouth is comely; thy temples are like a pomegranate split open behind thy veil.
Thy neck is like the tower of David builded with turrets, whereon there hang a thousand shields, all the armour of the mighty men.
Thy two breasts are like two fawns that are twins of a gazelle, which feed among the lilies.
Until the day breathe, and the shadows flee away, I will get me to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense.
Thou art all fair, my love; and there is no spot in thee.
As a piece of literature, the verses quoted above seem to fall into the category of erotic poetry. There’s a sweetness to the descriptions of the lovers’ interactions, which is coupled with a tremendous desire and an appreciation of physical beauty.
Notice how the voice shifts from the female lover to the male beloved in the last two verses of the first passage, and again in the third passage. The female lover extols the virtues of her beloved and describes her longing for him. In the third passage, the male beloved describes the beauty of his female love. We’re treated to an insight into ancient views of beauty in the analogies he uses for her appearance. (I’ll leave you to your own inferences as to what the mountain and the hill refer to.)
I welcome you to share your thoughts in the comments below.
The second passage I’d like to draw your attention to is the parable of the prodigal son from the Gospel according to St. Luke 15: 11-32. This text is important within the context of “Gabriel’s Inferno” and Dante’s Divine Comedy in that both works explore aspects of forgiveness, love and redemption. Here is the text from the Bible:
And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
I don’t think that one needs to be religious in order to be moved by this story. Anyone who has ever disappointed his or her family, or felt alone and abandoned can surely relate to the despair of the prodigal. The prodigal’s longing for his home is another important image, contrasting sharply with his disgust with himself.
The forgiveness and welcome communicated by the father is something that provides hope and inspiration, despite the jealousy and condemnation manifested by the son of constancy.
Sex, love, faith, hope, redemption, sin, virtue …. all of these concepts are presented in the literature of the Bible, providing inspiration for their presentation in other literary works throughout history.
All the best and thanks for reading,