As a brief St. Valentine's Day greeting, I want to encourage y'all to pick up Dante this year. But why Dante—grim, vengeful medieval poet, the "great master of the disgusting" according to one 19th century poet—and why on the most romantic day of the year?
Poet of love
While he's most famous now for Inferno, that book represents only the first third of his masterpiece, the Commedia, or Divine Comedy. So if you've ever been assigned the Inferno by itself or simply read it on your own (in which case, well done!), you've only read a third of his vision of love.
Yes, love. Dante's Comedy has as its theme all kinds of love. His love of his hometown, Florence, from which he was exiled in 1302, is a poignant strain throughout, and the wicked so memorably punished in hell, we are reminded often, sinned because they loved the wrong thing or loved a good thing in the wrong way. Paolo and Francesca, adulterers punished together in the circle of the lustful, shift the blame for their sin to a bawdy love poem. And the mover and focus of much of Dante's journey is his famous beloved, Beatrice.
That's just a sampling. Love, as a theme, as a plot point, as a subject of conversation and debate, is present throughout. But all of these loves are subordinate to and—if rightly ordered—derive their ultimate meaning from "the love that moves the sun and other stars," the love of God.
It's God's love for a fallen man that dispatches Beatrice—on behalf of St. Lucy, on behalf of the Virgin Mary, on behalf of God— to Dante as he wanders lost in sin at the beginning of Inferno. It's love that created Hell—a thought that makes moderns squirm—and love that sends sinners there and keeps them there. And it's love that changes and saves Dante, and grants him, in the last passage of the book, a vision of God himself.
Dante's Comedy is the story of salvation, which means that it's the story of love.
So enjoy your chocolate (Lord knows I already have), enjoy time with your beloved, and celebrate love and the relationships that give us human creatures meaning, but consider as well the source of all love. And give Dante a shot. I think you'll be glad you did.
Happy St. Valentine's Day!
My favorite translation for pleasure reading is that by Anthony Esolen, available from Modern Library, but I've read and enjoyed many other good ones, including Mark Musa's heavily annotated one for Penguin Classics and Allen Mandelbaum's excellent but underappreciated translation for Bantam Classics. These are all readable, affordable, and easy to find. Enjoy!