Few figures in history can rival Dante in terms of theological imagination, particularly within the Divine Comedy. Certainly if any individual in the premodern world could wear the title of theopoet, it would be this medieval Italian who died a political refugee. Yet nearly all contemporary scholarship of the Divine Comedy tends to fall into two categories: on one side, Dante is analyzed for his tryptic rhyming scheme, use of potent simile and other imagistic writing schemes, and for linguistically solidifying the Italian language. On the other side, Dante is considered for his theological and philosophical vision, pairing together Greek figures both mythological and intellectual with Christian themes and truths. In other words, we must pick between Dante the poet and Dante the thinker. The gulf which exists between these two portraits grows wider every year, and while both of these approaches is revealing in its own right, they often fail to consider Dante’s true brilliance in pairing the two together. Theopoetical analysis, based on the field of theopoetics which has blossomed in recent years, can provide insights to Dante’s theological imagination and poesis which are overlooked by other methodologies.
The aim of this paper is to approach Dante’s Divine Comedy through a theopoetical hermeneutic, as inspired by writers such as Rubem Alves, Scott Holland, and Karmen MacKendrick. A theopoetic hermeneutic has three primary aspects: first, it is framed as a dialogical enterprise, inviting all perspectives for further conversation. This format resonates with both Dante’s hopes by writing his Comedy in his Italian dialect, and with the contemporary theological importance alternative and marginal perspectives. Second, a theological hermeneutic will assume a non-propositional orientation of the poem. This allows for a sense of wonder and phenomenological significance within the text. Finally, a theopoetic hermeneutic will take beauty as its heuristic key. Beauty, in turn, will be understood with consideration of Plotinian anthropology of desire and MacKendrick and Alves’ erotic theopoetics. This hermeneutic will help the scholar to understand Dante through the eyes of a theopoet, concerned with drawing out the beauty of orthodox medieval doctrine through a theological imagination, for the benefit of the people.