“Nel 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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