Dante's Commedia, or Divine Comedy, is his most well-known work, an epic poem comprising three volumes: the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradisio. and within the Commedia, the Inferno is generally the most widely read (not least because of its disturbing depictions of Hell and its inhabitants). Yet Dante's other work is also worthy of attention; not only can it illuminate much of the Commedia, it is praiseworthy and influential in its own right.
One of Dante's earliest works is his La Vita Nova (The New Life). Made up of both poetry and prose, it is a sort of autobiography focusing on Dante's tragic love affair with Beatrice. Much of what we know about Dante comes from this poem, although the poetic and self-authored nature of the work puts some of Dante's narrative into question. Still, the work is a fascinating look into Dante as a figure and as a poet. The narrative weaves almost seamlessly into the poetry; for example, after having a dream about Beatrice, Dante inserts a poem in which he describes that dream:
Joyous, Love seemed to me, holding my heart
within his hand, and in his arms he had
my lady, loosely wrapped in folds, asleep.
He woke her then, and gently fed to her
the burned heart; she ate it, terrified.
And then I saw him disappear in tears.
Such dreams will reappear in the Purgatorio, and the visionary quality of this poem reveals how even early in his career—in 1294, when the Vita Nova was published—Dante was a poet skilled in depicting complex and suggestive images.
Written sometime between 1304 and 1307, the Convivio is similarly written in prose and poetry, but the sections are considerably less interwoven. The Convivio demonstrates Dante's wide learning and seems to have been influenced by his experiences in exile, where his criticisms of the economic and political situation in Italy became more acute.
Yet another important work is Dante's De Vulgare Eloquentia (On Eloquence in the Vernacular). Written in exile, this Latin treatise was never finished. Yet its contents, even if incomplete, are substantive, and they reveal Dante's surprisingly nuanced view of linguistics. Noting the historical and geographic changes which vernacular speech undergoes, Dante writes about his belief in the need for a vernacular language that is common to all Italians, rather than based in a single city or territory. This, he writes, will have both political and aesthetic benefits, and the essay as a whole may reveal why Dante so persistently wrote his poetry in a particularly general and wide-reaching Italian vernacular.
Yet even these three are only a few of many; Dante also wrote sonnets, treatises, and eclogues, all of which are of interest to any fan of Dante's work.