Born Dante Alighieri in the spring of 1265 in Florence, Italy, he was known familiarly as Dante. His family was noble, but not wealthy, and Dante received the education accorded to gentlemen, studying poetry, philosophy, and theology. His first major work was Il Vita Nuova, The New Life. This brief collection of 31 poems, held together by a narrative sequence, celebrates the virtue and honor of Beatrice, Dante's ideal of beauty and purity. Beatrice was modeled after Bice di Folco Portinari, a beautiful woman Dante had met when he was nine years old and had worshipped from afar in spite of his own arranged marriage to Gemma Donati. Il Vita Nuova has a secure place in literary history: its vernacular language and mix of poetry with prose were new; and it serves as an introduction to Dante's masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, in which Beatrice figures prominently. The Divine Comedy is Dante's vision of the afterlife, broken into a trilogy of the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Dante is given a guided tour of hell and purgatory by Virgil, the pagan Roman poet whom Dante greatly admired and imitated, and of heaven by Beatrice. The Inferno shows the souls who have been condemned to eternal torment, and included here are not only mythical and historical evil-doers, but Dante's enemies. The Purgatory reveals how souls who are not irreversibly sinful learn to be good through a spiritual purification. And The Paradise depicts further development of the just as they approach God. The Divine Comedy has been influential from Dante's day into modern times. The poem has endured not just because of its beauty and significance, but also because of its richness and piety as well as its occasionally humorous and vulgar treatment of the afterlife. In addition to his writing, Dante was active in politics. In 1302, after two years as a priore, or governor of Florence, he was exiled because of his support for the white guelfi, a moderate political party of which he was a member. After extensive travels, he stayed in Ravenna in 1319, completing The Divine Comedy there, until his death in 1321.
Poet W. S. Merwin (William Stanley Merwin) was born on September 30, 1927 in New York City. He attended Princeton University. He has authored over fifteen books of poetry and some of those titles include "The River Sound" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), which was named a New York Times notable book of the year; "The Vixen" (1996), which won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize; "The Carrier of Ladders" (1970), which won the Pulitzer Prize; and "A Mask for Janus" (1952), which was selected by W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Merwin won a second Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for The Shadow of Sirius (published in 2008). He has also published books of translation, which include Dante's Purgatorio, numerous plays and books of prose. Some of Merwin's honors include the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry, the Bollingen Prize, the Governor's Award for Literature of the State of Hawaii, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the PEN Translation Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, the first Tanning Prize and a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers' Award. He also received fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation and a Ford Foundation Grant. He is a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets and received a five-year term as judge of the Yale Series of Younger Poets.