Inferno ~ The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri

The Inferno DanteNel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, ché la diritta via era smarrita.” (Midway in life’s journey I strayed from the path and became lost in a dark wood.)

And so begins Dante Alighieri’s 14th century magnum opus, The Divine Comedy, which includes the books Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, telling of his travels through the depths of Hell and the mountain of Purgatory to discover the bliss of the Heavenly realms.

I attempted to review Inferno after my second read of it, yet never was able to put my thoughts together.  This time I was determined but without much more inspiration, however I believe I discovered why this poem is so difficult to review.  In essence, it is not only a poem; it is a story, it is history; it’s a science; it is a theological treatise, it is a creation.  As in the other two books, there are so many allusions and so many connections that Dante interweaves into them that, as modern readers, we become a little lost in a dark wood.  It’s like looking at a puzzle and having to see all the pieces individually before you can see the whole.  Without a knowledge of Italian, we can struggle; without a knowledge of medieval scientific theory, we can struggle, without a knowledge of Catholicism we can struggle.  But in spite of some of these challenges in this magnificent work, we can still see some of the pictures that Dante painted for us with bold strokes of artistic creativity.

“Midway in life’s journey I strayed from the path and became lost in a dark wood.”

The first part of the poem implies a sleepiness, as if Dante became intoxicated with the world and lost himself in the material aspects of it, forgetting the spiritual realms.  He is soon met by the poet Virgil, Dante’s poetic hero and now guide who will represent Human Reason in their journey through the Nine Circles of Hell.

Dante's Inferno Map

It’s so difficult to review this poem because there is so much encapsulated within it.  So instead I’ll touch on some topics that captured my interest during this third read.

Dante Inferno Paolo Francesca

Bury Art Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

GLUTTONY VS. LUST

It was a surprise to me that lust is in the second circle, right after limbo.  Dante seems to think it’s the least egregious sin that man can have.  In fact, gluttony is in the third circle, being seen as worse in that it can cause a man to behave as a beast.  Is this because lust is a distortion of love, and of course, LOVE is who takes Dante to Paradise in the form of Beatrice?  Any thoughts on this topic would be most welcome!

Inferno Dante Doré

The Heretics Trapped in Flaming Tombs ~ Gustave Doré

THE FORGOTTEN

While in Dante’s culture, family and class and connections are important, many of these sinners in Hell just want to be forgotten.  In effect, they have chosen death and any connection to life or anything living is something that they not only reject but almost seems unnatural.  Given that these souls are human beings, their plight can tug at Dante’s compassion and many times Virgil has to reprimand him for his displays of sympathy.  However Dante learns to recognize some of his faults and sins in theirs and they assist in his growing wisdom.

Inferno Dante Doré

The Simoniacs Buried Upside Down ~ Gustave Doré

GUELPHS & GHIBELLINES

Given that Dante was part of the White Guelph party, you would think he would exhibit some partisanism towards his own party and ideas.  Not so.  He treats White Guelphs, Black Guelphs and Ghibellines the same, focussing only on their behaviour and views.  His placing and explanations make a greater commentary on not just the divisions between the Guelphs and Gibellines (or Guelphs and Guelphs) but the casualties that come from political turmoil and its effect not just on people, but society as a whole. Factionalism is a destroyer of peace and an attack against community.

 

FORGIVENESS & REPENTANCE

Often the soul in Hell was there not necessarily for what he did, but his refusal to take responsibility for his actions. They would not admit their guilt and ask for forgiveness.  These souls would often blame someone else for their actions.  It emphasizes how important self-examination is and a letting go of pride to allow us to admit our errors and harmful decisions.  It’s obvious the souls in Hell never learned this act of repentance and I felt Dante was emphasizing the importance of confession.

Inferno Dante Doré

The Poets Emerging on Easter Sunday ~ Gustave Doré

In Hell, what the sinners don’t say is as important as what they do.  And when they do speak their views can be as twisted and warped as the place they inhabit. Dante incorporates the landscape into his narrative in an enormously effective way and the reader is not only appalled by the punishments of these sinners but the bleak surroundings in which they inhabit.

Now on to Purgatorio where the Terraces are the same as the Circles in Hell, a curious structure.  How can souls have the same sins yet some go to Hell and some to Purgatory, a place with punishments yet with the certainly of reaching Heavenly perfection?

Have you read Inferno or any other part of Dante’s The Divine Comedy?  If so, what was your experience?  I’d love to know!  And for another taste of Dante, if you’ve never read his Vita Nuova, I highly recommend it.  It’s wonderful!

Translation by John Ciardi

29 thoughts on “Inferno ~ The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri

  1. I liked reading this poem, but it was not easy to read. I have a hard time with poetry. Dore’s illustrations helped a lot.

    • I find a particular translation can make it more clear and easier to read but usually an easier translation strays from the original too much for me. So I have to work at it. Don’t you just LOVE Doré’s engravings?!!

  2. I have not read the original of these, so I am no help to your questions. I have read an abridged children’s version of Divine Comedy, by Joseph Tusiani, w/ my kids many years ago; therefore, your review helps me remember some of the story. I look forward to reading the original of all three, although TWEM only suggests Inferno.

    I agree that it is more than just poetry…but a reflection of Dante’s time of history, science, philosophy, religion, etc. It is a fascinating work and left me a little perplexed why he placed historical people in particular places of hell as he did; it is a bit of a personal reflection of his own opinions, I suppose.

    • On one hand it’s too bad TWEM only recommends Inferno because much of the poem is a comparison between the three, Inferno, Purgatorio & Paradiso, even with cantos matching in their treatment of a subject.

      I spent the first time I read it getting familiar with the historical subjects. This time they were much easier to place. The poem is really something that needs to be read a number of times to appreciate. I think God should have given book-readers extra long lives. 😉

  3. I agree! I think Dante’s being a little easy-going about the lustful, particularly Paolo & Francesca, probably because it’s love at its base, just gone wrong. And he faints, too, right? Maybe it’s a sin he understands all too well.

    I read the Ciardi translation and the Dorothy Sayers translation, and found the Ciardi easier going. I bought the newish Clive James one recently, and was thinking about reading that sometime soon. I have a copy in Italian, too, but that’s a bit more aspirational… 😉

    • The story of Paolo and Francesca is rather romantic. And if anything one should be able to understand their sin because she was betrothed without her say-so to Paolo’s brother who I think was old or deformed or something. So one could understand that they fell in love. HOWEVER, in Hell she is blaming everyone and everything else except their behaviour so I think it was rather apparent why they were there.

      Good memory! He does faint! I’m impressed! 🙂

      I had an Italian professor whose specialty was Dante comment on translations. She had originally said it was untranslatable but she said that Allen Mandelbaum’s translation was the closest to the original and sacrificed the least in form and meaning. However, even though she said Ciardi went off the text, she felt he communicated Dante in a way she thought could never be done. And I must say, I love Ciardi. I always tell myself I’m going to try Mandelbaum but then go back to Ciardi every time. She didn’t particularly like Sayers. Come to think of it, I should do a post on her comments. She had many interesting things to say.

      • That would be an interesting post–you should do it!

        I have the Mandelbaum translation on the shelf, but I’ve never read it. Maybe I should give it a go. Years ago I heard Mandelbaum give a talk, mostly about the Aeneid, and I thought he was pretty interesting and funny as well–his basic thought was poor Vergil never got a chance, with either Dante fans beating him up from one end or Homer fans beating him up from the other. (I would be in the Homer camp myself… 😉 ) But then I read his translation of the Metamorphoses & I wasn’t overwhelmed, so his Dante still sits there…hmm…

        The Sayers is interesting…she does the actual terza rima, but I felt it got a little boring.

        • That’s so neat that you were able to hear Mandelbaum speak! If I remember correctly his translation of Ovid was not considered that great. But his Dante …. well, she (the professor) said he gives a good balance between form and meaning. I haven’t heard about the quality of his Aeneid translation, in fact, I didn’t know he made one. Yikes! Where have I been? 😉

          That’s what she said about Sayers …… in keeping the form, she sacrifices too much meaning.

          • I read his Aeneid but don’t really remember it one way or the other actually. I do think the Aeneid is hard to translate.

            My undergraduate (Rice U. in Houston) at the time had a decent lecture series: I saw Mandelbaum, John Cage, Allen Ginsberg. Probably the best was Czeslaw Milosz.

          • Ginsberg and Milosz! Wow! You were indeed fortunate! I wish I could have seen Richard Lattimore, but of course he was dead before I was even out of grade school. I love his Iliad translation!

            Fitzgerald’s Aeneid I think is still considered the best, although he gets flack for his Homer translations, even from C.S. Lewis! Too funny!

          • I also remember Ginsburg as pretty fun. He read his poems and played a harmonium not very well. John Cage showed up right around the same time. It was two gay countercultural icons in the same week! (I think.) My little undergraduate mind was suitably blown… 😉

            My favorite Aeneid is probably Fagles’ but I do think Virgil is just trickier to bring across.

  4. my dad read this shortly before he croaked… he thought it was mostly about the street wars between the guelphs and the ghibillines… doubt if i’ll ever read it tho, too graphic for me…

    • That’s interesting because that’s what I expected it to be and found it very different. Dante does not take sides in this. Again, he focuses more on the person and you can tell that he’s done with factional politics. Given he was in exile when it wrote this, it’s not surprising. It’s graphic but then it’s not so graphic. Somehow with this poem there is a distance and because of that it’s very readable.

  5. It’s been years since I read this in college and frankly, I don’t remember much more than what’s in popular culture.

    Books like this are meant for readalongs….so if you ever do a fourth read, let me know!!

    • Rats! I read it with another woman on Goodreads and it would have been great to have your insights. It’s not an easy read. But definitely, if I read it again (which I plan to) I’ll let you know! 🙂

  6. I’ve read Inferno many times in several translations. The last two only once for some reason. Inferno is a favorite book, and is absolutely central to my ideas of how literary history works and what literature is.

  7. I’ve only read The Divine Comedy once (part of a readalong some years ago, otherwise I likely would never have gotten around to it) and found it really powerful, although I don’t remember it in great detail. I think it’s a work that benefits well from a good commentary or perhaps as a study course, Dante just packs so much in (and even if you know all the Catholic theological references, there are all those forgotten Tuscans…)

    I read it in the Mandelbaum translation, which I was perfectly content with–and it had end notes, thankfully!, but the real reason I selected the translation was because it had the facing Italian. I managed a stanza in Italian, but it was very, very, very slow going, because my Italian isn’t quite good enough for Dante. A reminder of how difficult the work of translator is!

    One of these days I’ll read it again.

    • Dante’s poetry is dense. Each time I read it I’m beginning to see just how very complex it is. I’m trying to listen to the Great Courses on The Divine Comedy as I go (after I’ve read each book) and while it’s helpful, it’s still not comprehensive.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed Mandelbaum’s translation. I must read it one day but Ciardi is just so delightful.

  8. I’m a sucker for charts… might have to save that one for future reference!

    I read Longfellow’s translation this past Christmas/New Year’s. By the end of it, I felt quite uncultured, because I didn’t care much for it, except Dore’s illustrations. 😛

    Maybe what prevents me from enjoying the books is how specific the allegory is. From Beatrice to the various rulers and celebrities, the characters seem very personal to Dante and his time, and so difficult to connect with.

    And, though the imagery is stunning, as a fantasy take on Christian themes, it’s quite a stretch still… Biblical references to Hell describe fire and darkness, but not (that I can think of) hierarchy as it pertains to humans, or creative, gruesome tortures. That kind of symbolism seems to imply God is cruel like humans can be, and there it goes too far for me.

    I did like Purgatorio the best, even though I don’t believe in Purgatory. It had some of the best imagery, and the feeling of hope was a relief after Inferno. 🙂

    • It might be the translation you read. Ciardi is really delightful and makes it interesting. And apparently he is closest to catching the “flavour” of Dante.

      Ah, but that’s the paradox. I didn’t think he was implying God was cruel at all. It’s not God who has placed these sinners in Hell; the sinners themselves have placed themselves there and their punishments are of their own choosing/making. They reject God and forgiveness, therefore their destinies are their own. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. Have you read it? It’s interesting when we come to Purgatory that the “punishments” are the same (we choose our own) but there is redemption. They have admitted their sins and realize they need forgiveness, something the sinners in Hell never do. The only problem was (if I remember correctly) a person in Purgatory (or perhaps it was Hell) who was only there because he wasn’t given last rites. That didn’t sit right with me.

      While I didn’t “like” per se, the gruesome tortures, I believe they tell us something important. If everytime we lied or cheated or betrayed someone, we had to take a bite out of their flesh, then we would think twice about it. But that’s, in effect, what we’re doing in an abstract sense …. damaging that person in a way. I think Dante’s portrayal, while gross, was an excellent teaching moment! 🙂

      In any case, thanks a bunch for your wonderful comments, Marian. They always get me thinking … 🙂

      • Hm…I need to re-read The Great Divorce; it’s very vague in memory, though I remember the bus.

        Your interpretation makes sense – I appreciate your explanation! I guess, and maybe I was reading the book too literally, I was looking for a sharper distinction between punishment in the present time versus in the afterlife. People do bring on suffering by making bad choices, and that can lead to disparate outcomes and levels of earthly suffering, here-and-now… On the other hand, in the afterlife, the punishment (so far as we can know) is equal for all sins and is of God’s choice, even though people send themselves there via free will.

        I’m not quite sure what is the Catholic view though, such as it influenced Dante, so it could be the theological background which is posing a challenge for me.

        I will definitely seek out a different translation in the future. This might be a case where a more modern rendering would help out. 🙂

  9. Great post! I read The Inferno years ago, and I am not really sure how literally the punishments are meant to be taken. I didn’t read the rest of the Divine Comedy, but it might be a good idea to know more about Dante for when I reread Milton’s Paradise Lost and start reading more of William Blake. (Next year? Maybe.)

    I haven’t seen the Gustave Dore illustrations, but Blake did a set of illustrations of Dante:
    https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/William_Blake#The_Divine_Comedy

    • Yes, I think you’re right …. the punishments aren’t necessarily literal; they are illustrated for effect but again, we choose our own.

      I’m not sure why, but I find Blake’s illustrations disturbing. And I’ve never cared for him since I learned he called Milton part of the devil’s party which I think is a gross misunderstanding of Milton’s Paradise Lost. I love Dore’s engravings though! 💚

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