“In the middle of our life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood.”
So begins one of the most celebrated and difficult poems ever written, Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” a more than 14,000-line epic on the soul’s journey through the afterlife. The tension between the pronouns says it all: Although the “I” belongs to Dante, who died in 1321, his journey is also part of “our life.” We will all find ourselves in a dark wood one day, the lines suggest.
That day came six years ago for me, when my pregnant wife, Katherine, died suddenly in a car accident. Forty-five minutes before her death, she delivered our daughter, Isabel, a miracle of health rescued by emergency cesarean. I had left the house that morning at 8:30 to teach a class; by noon, I was a father and a widower.
A few days later, I found myself standing in a cemetery outside Detroit in the cold rain, watching as my wife’s body was returned to the earth close to where she was born. The words for the emotions I had known till then — pain, sadness, suffering — no longer made sense, as a feeling of cosmic, paralyzing sorrow washed over me. My personal loss felt almost beside the point: A young woman who had been bursting with life was now no more. I could feel part of me going down with Katherine’s coffin. It was the last communion I would ever have with her, and I have never felt so unbearably connected to the rhythms of the universe. But I was on forbidden ground. Like all other mortals, I would have to return to the planet earth of grief. An hour with the angels is about all we can take.
Soon after, I went for a walk in the upstate New York village where Katherine and I had been living. I ran into the priest who had assisted at my college’s memorial service.
“You’re in hell,” she said to me.
I immediately thought of Dante, the author I had devoted much of my career to teaching and writing about. After a charmed youth as a leading poet and politician in Florence, Dante was sentenced to exile while on a diplomatic mission. In those first years, Dante wandered around Tuscany, desperately seeking to return to his beloved city. He met with fellow exiles, plotted military action, connived with former enemies — anything to get home. But he never saw Florence again. His words on the experience would become a mantra to me:
“You will leave behind everything you love / most dearly, and this is the arrow / the bow of exile first lets fly.”
Nothing better captured how I felt the four years I spent struggling to find my way out of the dark wood of grief and mourning.
And yet Dante could write “The Divine Comedy” only because of his exile, when he accepted once and for all that he would never return to Florence. Before 1302, the year of his expulsion, he had been a fine lyric poet and an impressive scholar. But he had yet to find his voice. Only in exile did he gain the heaven’s-eye view of human life, detached from all earthly allegiances, that enabled him to speak of the soul.
At the beginning of “The Divine Comedy,” just as he finds himself lost in the “selva oscura” — the dark wood — Dante sees a shade in the distance It’s his favorite author, the Latin poet Virgil, author of “The Aeneid,” a pagan adrift in the Christian afterworld. By way of greeting, Dante tells Virgil that it was his “lungo studio e grande amore” — his long study and great love — that led him to the ancient poet.
Virgil becomes Dante’s teacher on ethics, willpower and the cyclical nature of human mortality — illustrated by his metaphor of the souls in hell bunched up like “fallen leaves.” Virgil is his guide through the dark wood, just as “The Aeneid” gave Dante the tools he needed to curb his grief over losing Florence.
“The Divine Comedy” didn’t rescue me after Katherine’s death. That fell to the love of my family and friends, my passion for teaching and writing, the support of colleagues and students, and above all the gift of my daughter. But I would not have been able to make my way without Dante. In a time of soul-crunching loneliness — I was surrounded everywhere by love, but such is grief — his words helped me refuse to surrender.
After years of studying him, parsing his lines and decoding his themes, I finally heard his voice. At the beginning of Paradiso 25, he bares his soul:
Should it ever happen that this sacred poem,
to which both heaven and earth have set hand,
so that it has made me lean for many years,
should overcome the cruelty that bars me
from the fair sheepfold where I slept as a lamb,
an enemy to the wolves at war with it …
I still lived and worked and socialized in the same places and with the same people after my wife’s death as before. And yet I felt that her death exiled me from what had been my life. Dante’s words gave me the language to understand my own profound sense of displacement. More important, it transformed this anguished state into a beautiful image.
After Katherine died, I obsessed for the first time over whether we have a soul, a part of us that outlives our body. The miracle of “The Divine Comedy” is not that it answers this question, but that it inspires us to explore it, with lungo studio e grande amore, long study and great love.