I suppose this should not have taken me quite so aback as it did, because the student who presented me with this revelation was in my World Literature I survey. We read selections from the Hebrew Bible, written by writers claimed to have been divinely inspired; we also read selections from the Qur’an, according to the book itself dictated by Allah to Mohammed. So perhaps my student felt it necessary to make a distinction between those texts written by (or dictated or revealed to) entities who did not actually have a “lifetime,” and those written by flesh-and-blood creatures while they still walked the earth.
Dante’s masterpiece describes an extensive journey the narrator/poet makes through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise in the company of the Roman poet Virgil. Where did he get the ideas he portrays by way of this allegorical trek? He doesn’t say: unlike Coleridge explaining “Kublai Khan,” he makes no claims of an interrupted opium dream; unlike Julian of Norwich, he doesn’t attribute his interpretation of God’s will to visits from Jesus during an illness; unlike John Bunyan, he doesn’t even say the story came to him in a regular dream. Simply, the narrator finds himself midway on the road of life, lost in a gloomy wood; Virgil comes along, and they go on their adventure. Out-of-body experience?
Wherever he got his ideas, we can be pretty sure Dante wrote them down while still alive.
I probably asked for this. When they write commentaries on passages from assigned readings in their Journals, my students are required to note title, author, culture, and when written. This student doesn’t seem to have spent any time with the textbook’s introductory materials at all. Culture from which this text comes? He says Roman. Okay, now, Virgil was in fact Roman. And Dante lived in Italy. But Dante was a Florentine, not a Roman; and he certainly did not live during the Roman Empire, which is what we generally mean when we refer to the Roman culture. Given this sketchy notion of “where,” why should I have been surprised by a sketchy notion of “when”? Why look up the date? In fact The Comedy was written during his political exile from Florence; by 1317 “Inferno” had been published. When the other pieces of the poem were written is uncertain, but “Paradiso” was probably published after his death in 1321 at age 56.
Perhaps my student actually did take a look at the introduction and got the notion that Dante did some of his writing after death too. But if so, he confidently asserts that The Divine Comedy was not among those writings.
And I have to say I’m glad. The idea of literature coming to us from beyond the grave is unsettling, to say the least.
But since we’re fairly certain that every writer who wrote did so while alive (even those who were writing from spiritual direction), we generally don’t take the time to note the fact. My student’s taking the trouble to do so suggests that he felt it worthy of remark. That’s almost as unsettling as ghostly composition—composing while decomposing, as it were…