What I love about Dante is how he doesn't invoke the Muses, unlike Homer, or Virgil, and that he goes straight to the heart of the matter, and straight in to the poem, i.e. "In the midway of this our mortal life, I found me in a gloomy wood, astray, gone from the path direct". In the middle of his life Dante is lost in a dark wood, the man he most admires, a fellow poet, takes him by the hand and leads him through hell and purgatory, but when they reach the entry for Paradise, Virgil must give way to Beatrice, love is greater than wisdom, Dante's love for Beatrice, his desire for wisdom, what follows is exquisite poetry, and both Botticelli and Dali make an effort to capture the genius that resides there, as words, Virgil's trade, and Dante's, cede to inner knowing, as they ascend, then transcend, life, and reach beyond star and sun into the vast blue. TS Eliot wrote that Dante and Shakespeare "divide the world between them-there is no third." But is it exquisite poetry in English translation? I very much doubt it. The 1970s Penguin verse translation I read by Mark Susa was rubbish. Now I listened to an Audiobook with a translation by Robert Pinsky. Think I'll take T.S. Eliot's advice: use a prose translation if you must but learn Italian if you're serious about getting anything out of Dante's poetry (Portuguese and Italian both came from the same mold, Latin, but they're two very different languages).
Dante is unafraid to sing the praises of the great Virgil "That well-spring from which such copious floods of eloquence have issued", nor the other greats of Latin verse, such as Ovid and Lucan. Likewise, Milton's description of "Death grinn'd horrible, a ghastly smile" in "Paradise Lost" is borrowed from Dante's description of Minos in Canto V of Inferno "There Minos stands, grinning with ghastly features". Virgil had been acceptable throughout the Middle Ages although his works were usually glossed with the alibi that they prefigured Christianity in variously dubious ways.....
Virgil did write a Messianic Eclogue ("Now, a great new age is coming", etc.), but that could be about Augustus. It was hijacked by the Christians, but then, too, was something known as the Sortes Vergilianae, which was the deployment of Virgil in the same way as the Bible. The pagan bits were, however, glossed over, or excised.
I have often wondered why the great writers such as Joyce, Beckett, Eliot, etc. were so enthralled with Dante. I recall in "Damned to Fame" Beckett's biography the author James Knowlson mentioning Sam read "The Divine Comedy" in its original language and this volume was one of his most treasured possessions. I have read The Comedy many years ago (not really rolling in the aisles). Dante while including some Popes in the circles (but not all) must have been popular with some of the religious firebrands who feel his description (XI in particular) of the circles as "damned"...including those who were fraudsters, flatters, "...set their honest as pawn, ...such vile scum as these!" I recall thinking if these are all in Hell then Heaven must be a pretty sparsely populated spot! Is Dante's poetry that good to attract all the admiration... it certainly can't be the moral of his tale? But I guess the same could be said of some of Milton's works, another firebrand if one was to judge form his content.
I'm not the most theologically accurate of persons. I'm still learning a lot from my Friend João Cláudio. As far as I'm aware, it is not the greatness of the act it is the attitude which one has towards it which matters. The most terrible of sins can be forgiven, through the merits of Jesus Christ, if repented. Heaven may have greater sinners in it than hell does but only hell has unrepentant sinners.
Bottom-Line: Anyone who thinks that Dante didn't believe in forgiveness or grace hasn't understood the first thing about the Comedy, or about medieval catholic theology in general (I'm catholic; so I'm probably biased). The narrator's vision is the result of pure, undeserved grace which brings him through hell and purgatory to the vision of God, causing him to be reconcilled to God - and to the memory of Beatrice. The point about the people in Hell is that they refused forgiveness and grace. Unlike later thinkers (such as Calvin) Dante held that God always responded to people who wanted forgiveness, and "Purgatory" and "Paradise" are full of people who did dreadful things, some of them only repenting at the moment of death. It's essentially a long narrative about love, not about torture and damnation.
NB: Apparently, hell has three rooms: one is full of fire, the other full of ice and the other full of shit. Of course, most people choose the room of shit because you at least get to stand there with a warm cup of coffee under your nose. That is until coffee break is over and it is back on your heads.