ALL those who have studied Dante's great poem as poetry--a class which includes at least a respectable minority among his readers--must I fancy have at one time or another asked themselves two questions: first, Why did he call it a Comedy? and secondly, In what sense is that name rationally or poetically applicable to it? And all who have asked themselves the questions must have found some little difficulty in answering the first, and a great deal in answering the second.
Byron in 1821 writes, with his usual incisive swiftness and lucid common sense, that there are in poetry "compositions which belong to no class at all. Where is Dante? His poem is not an epic: then what is it? He himself calls it a divine Comedy; and why? This is more than all his thousand commentators have been able to explain." How far Byron had looked into the "thousand commentators" is a question which need not be pressed. He could not have gone far into them without knowing that the substantive, without the adjective, was Dante's own title; nor, probably, had he ever read Dante's own explanation of it. But these are details; Byron's question " What is it?" is what matters: and the answer to it, so far as an answer can be given, involves an enquiry of no little interest, which affects the definition of poetry itself as well as that of the formal "classes" or subdivisions of poetry.
To the first of the two questions, why Dante called the poem a Comedy, we have Dante's own answer, in