In A Nutshell
Paradiso is like the top layer of a triple-layer literary sundae.
That's because Paradiso is Dante's third poem in a trilogy that spans his journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio) and Heaven (Paradiso). To finish our sundae analogy, reading the whole of Dante's three-part Divine Comedy is like eating a sundae with a hellish base of raw sewage and maggots, a purgatorial midsection that is kind of "meh" (Lean Cuisine, maybe) and then finishing with the foods of paradise: strawberries and chocolate and cream from cows that are given daily Swedish massages.
Just so we're clear, though, we're just talking about the imagery of these Divine Comedy triplets—the reading experience throughout is stupendous and the language is delicious.
Published sometime in the year 1307-08, Paradiso relates Dante's journey through the last of the Divine Realms: Paradise. Yes; this is Dante the author writing about Dante the character roaming around heaven.
In comparison to the first two cantiche of the Divine Comedy, Paradiso focuses much more on theological doctrine than on plot or politics. C'mon: who needs plot or politics when you have the music of the spheres and angels?
Dante truly believed that his Divine Comedy was revolutionary; it was an undertaking which no man had ever attempted before. As a partially educational narrative, Dante thought that his readers actually became morally better by reading his work. In Paradiso, then, he warns his readers that only few will be worthy (i.e., skillful and morally pure) enough to read to the end.
So the theological discussions in Paradiso are a tests to weed out weaker readers in the hopes that only the best, like Dante, will stick around long enough to see God in the end. If that sounds like a big ol' running of the gauntlet: it is. And if the Divine Comedy as a whole makes Dante sound like a brilliant madman: he was.
But we at Shmoop think that you don't need to rely solely on mad reading skillz and moral purity to love Paradiso. You just need to enjoy sumptuous descriptions of joy, light and blinding beauty... as well as a really bizarre Medieval understanding of the solar system.
Why Should I Care?
Shh... the amazing Paradiso is still something of a secret.
Many people think Inferno is the most interesting part of the Divine Comedy because it has such (awesome) gruesome imagery. Many think Purgatorio is the most readable part because the mountain of Purgatory seems to resemble life on earth. But the most accomplished part of the Divine Comedy—the part that Dante himself was most proud of—is Paradiso.
He flat-out calls it the most difficult literary feat that anyone had ever attempted, an opinion seconded by the 20th Century poetry heavyweight T.S. Eliot, who once wrote that, "The last canto of the Paradiso is to my thinking the highest point that poetry has ever reached or ever can reach."
Eliot’s praise goes slightly over the top... but not much. You don’t have to be a Christian or a student of theology to marvel at Dante’s ability to take language and make it do whatever he wants. To prove we’re not just hyperventilating ourselves into a tizzy here, we’re going to give you five reasons why this epic poem is so fun to read.
This poem is not, we repeat, not just Christian theology in verse form. Large parts of it read like sheer Sci-Fi fantasy, some Native American spiritual vision, or just plain hallucination. Canto XXX, for example, reminds us of the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” with its “tangerine trees and marmalade skies.”
In that canto, Dante sees a river of light surrounded by banks with flowers that look like precious gems shooting out sparks. He learns that this whole spectacle is just a shadow of reality.
Dante had no problem tweaking or completely re-writing the rules of the religious system he inherited. There are surprises all over the place. For example, how about the serious intellectuals and theologians in Canto XI who suddenly start singing and dancing in a circle like a game of “Ring Around the Rosie.”
Or consider Cunizza da Romano from the Sphere of Venus. She made it to Heaven despite taking several different lovers throughout her life. Most surprising of all, there’s a pagan in Christian Heaven! Ripheus, one of the heroes of Ancient Troy, shows up in the Sphere of Jupiter as a representative of justice. He secretly converted to Christianity before Christ was even born.
Dante saw the world like a cinematographer or, if you want to get old-fashioned about it, like a painter. When you’re staring at a 60-foot screen watching Imperator Furiosa dodge fire tornadoes in Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s easy to be bowled over by the huge images in front of you.
Poets have a much harder time producing jaw-dropping visual effects, but we think Dante pulls it off as well as any writer we've read. Check out the end of Canto XXII, when the Pilgrim looks back on all the planets he has seen, finally settling on a view of our own blue planet, “The little patch of earth that makes us here so fierce.”
Most great literature is born out of national tragedies, natural catastrophes, failed romances, social upheaval... the list goes on and on. Dante, of course, gets a lot of mileage out of these things in the first two canticles of the Divine Comedy. But Paradiso is the only interesting book we know of that’s entirely about happy people.
Much of the drama surrounds the question of how to represent people in increasingly powerful states of ecstasy. Like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it allows us to explore an amazing, fantastic place we’d all like to go—without having to worry about falling into a chocolate river.
Right from the start, Dante admits that he’s in totally uncharted waters. Literally, he says, “The seas I sail were never sailed before.” He will settle for nothing less than completely changing your soul. We’re talking about the most elaborately planned poem ever written, from the precise number of cantos (33, to symbolize the power of the Holy Trinity) to the fact that he ends each canticle on the same word, “stars.”
In the last canto, he even tries to depict the light of God before his vision fails and he enters God’s orbit for all of eternity.
So, Shmoopers: forget about pearly gates and a bunch of bored-looking people sitting on clouds. Dante gives us a Heaven that’s worthy of the name.