The Divine Comedy, (in Italian "Comedia" or "Commedia", later christened "Divina" by Giovanni Boccaccio), written by Dante Alighieri between 1307 and his death in 1321, is widely considered the greatest epic poem of Italian literature, and one of the greatest of world literature.
It is composed of three canticas, Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise), composed respectively of 34, 33, and 33 cantos. The verse scheme used, terza rima, is the hendecasyllable, with the lines composing tercets according to the rhyme scheme ABA BCB CDC...
The poet tells in the first person his travel through the three realms of the dead, lasting during Holy Week in the spring of 1300. His guide through Hell and Purgatory is the Latin poet Virgil. Virgil guides the Pilgrim Dante through the nine circles of Hell, to Lucifer himself. The two then ascend out of the undergloom to the Mountain of Purgatory on the far side of the world (in Dante's time, it was believed that Hell existed underneath Jerusalem). From there, Virgil guides The Pilgrim through the seven terraces of Purgatory, which ends at the summit: The Garden of Eden. However, as Virgil was assigned to Limbo, the first circle of Hell, he is prohibited entrance to Paradise. Beatrice, a redemptrix and mediatrix, who was based on Bice Portinari, a girl whom Dante loved in his childhood but who died in her youth, assumes the role of guide through Paradise. Beatrice guides The Pilgrim through the nine spheres of Heaven, until Dante comes face-to-face with God himself, and is granted understanding of the Divine and of human nature.
The Divine Comedy is a highly symbolic poem. Each canto can contain many alternate meanings. The structure of the poem is likewise quite complex, with mathematical patterns arching throughout the work. But what has made the poem as great as it is are the particularly human qualities of the work: Dante's skillful delineation of the characters he encounters in hell, purgatory and paradise, his bitter denunciations of Florence and Italian politics, and his powerful poetic imagination.
The work was not always so well-regarded, however: after being recognized as a masterpiece in the first centuries after its publication, the work was largely ignored during the Enlightenment, only to be "rediscovered" by the romantic writers of the nineteenth century. Modern authors as disparate as William Blake, T.S. Eliot and James Joyce have drawn on it for inspiration; modern poets, such as Seamus Heaney and William Merwin, have given us powerful translations of it.