It has been said that there are only two real contenders for Best Poet Ever: William Shakespeare, the playwright from the English Renaissance, and Dante Alighieri, the poet from medieval Florence. It has also been said that the great difference between these two is that Shakespeare never made himself a character in his work, and Dante always made himself a character in his. Dante's decision to use his own life as the basis for his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, helps us understand more about the poet. It also helps us better understand ourselves.
Two great muses shaped Dante Alighieri's career: Florence, the Italian city-state of his birth, and Beatrice Portinari, the neighborhood girl who became his lifelong love and inspiration (though they hardly ever spoke). When he lost both of the things he held dear—Beatrice died young and Florence banished him on trumped-up political charges—Dante was forced into that dark psychological place where it seems like everything is lost. Through the Divine Comedy, he found himself again.
Written while he was in exile, Dante's masterpiece is a poetic trilogy starring himself as the main character. Guided by Virgil, the father of all poets, Dante travels metaphorically through the fires of Hell, the cleansing penitence of Purgatory and the glory of Heaven. His poem is an inspiration to anyone who has ever been at the bottom and desperately hoped for a chance to make it all right again. Dante taught us that "with the wisdom of Virgil, the grace of heaven, and every ounce of courage we possess, it is possible to return from hell," wrote one commentator. "Maybe Dante's universe is not so alien after all."1