I recently read The Inferno (the first book in Dante’s Divine Comedy) for the second time. I remain fascinated by and enamored with this enormous poem and its many allegorical and metaphorical layers. This time around, instead of just reading a source translation with notes (in my case John Ciardi’s translation), I surveyed a few books about Dante and his times and read a new adaptation by Marcus Sanders and Sandow Birk. Reading a traditional translation with notes, along side a modern reinterpretation, is interesting because of the different interpretations especially of colloquial language. Combining this with the added context provided by biographical information about Dante’s life and times has given me significantly increased understanding of this complex masterwork. As a result, I think I enjoyed reading the poem more this time than the first time around.
I first read The Divine Comedy about 25 years ago. I enjoy the reading challenge presented by a work of this depth, complexity, and magnitude. There are so many layers to Dante’s poem that a single reading is certainly not enough for most people to pick up on the many layers of meaning. In addition, I feel that I have matured as a reader and refined my analytical abilities over the years. In other words, I have derived the benefit of perspective that years of successes, failures, hardship, and joy provides each and every one of us. I also hope that this second reading can inform my own writing as I observe not only Dante the politician and theologian, but also Dante the brilliant storyteller, the master of historical and literary references, allegory, and metaphor.
Though The Comedy is a challenge to read, it is, at its simplest, a story written in fairly plain language. The difficulty comes in understanding the period vernacular, classical literature references, real life characters, and allegory that are woven through the poem. Most translations have many footnotes that explain the many period references that a modern reader may not understand. I like the translation and notes by John Ciardi, though there are many other options.
Despite the many footnotes, in the forwards and introductions of most translations of this great work, scholars often council readers that the poem is so thick with references to Dante’s life and times that it makes sense to read about Dante and Florence and Italy of the late 1200’s and early 1300’s. Most translations provide a brief history behind the poem, however these are necessarily short and lack the depth one really needs to come to grips with the topic. Over the last few weeks, I have read several books on Dante and his times (I will include a bibliography below) and have found that I better understand the poem and the footnotes. It was also interesting to come to know Dante as a person outside of his master work. The man was one of the greatest minds in history. Not only was he an incredibly accomplished poet (a station and career that, at the time he lived, was held in extremely high regard), he was also a politician and a great orator and dialectician. In fact, according to R. L. W. Lewis, Dante was known to be so ridiculously persuasive that political opponents would often attempt to get him barred from speaking.
Reading about Dante’s life and times has helped me to understand The Comedy as three types of documents in one: a theological cautionary tale, a political document, and a inspirational work.
It is a cautionary tale with a Catholic bias, because, at that time, Catholicism was the primary religion in Europe and much of life in Florence and the surrounds in Italy was regulated by the Catholic church with its strict rules and extensive doctrine. Much of The Inferno and Purgatorio sections of The Divine Comedy are taken up with the sins that people commit and how they are punished. The architecture of Hell and Mount Purgatory are carefully thought out hierarchies of torments (Hell) and penance(Purgatory) for the sinners Dante distributes across these divine places. Dante seems to be telling readers to look at what horrors or penance will be visited upon those who commit certain sins.
It is a political document, because at nearly every turn in his tale Dante is either praising or punishing the politicians, rulers, and church leaders of his time. He sticks those leaders who he thinks have taken advantage of their office, into various levels of hell and mount Purgatory. He is not shy about describing political enemies with scathing enmity and reserving for them the very worst levels of Hell.
Finally, The Comedy strikes me as an inspirational work because Dante is constantly portraying the characters of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven as praising him and predicting that he will be allowed back into Florence (he was permanently exiled in 1302) and be remembered forever. He begins his tale stating that he is lost in life and needs guidance and inspiration to find his way back to grace. He then proceeds to write himself through Hell, up Mount Purgatory, and, finally, on a tour of Heaven. Dante seems to write to inspire himself to rise above his circumstances and achieve redemption. He chooses as his saviors, the two people with the most impact on his life. First, is his favorite author, the one he credits with teaching him the art of poetry, Virgil. Second is his childhood crush and life long love of the heart, Beatrice. We know from history and from Dante’s poem itself, that he dearly wished to be restored to the grace of his beloved Florence. He clearly was looking for restoration via his poetic experiences. And I think that, if we look at what Dante accomplished during his exile (the entire 40,000+ word poem of incredible depth that would become, arguably, the most famous poem ever written) it is an inspirational story.
As I continue to read The Comedy and the various biographies of Dante, it becomes increasingly clear that practically every word written by Dante wrote has meaning secondary to the literal meaning of the words. He achieved this through the use of metaphor, symbolism, and allegory. As a result, there are many layers of meaning in this poem. As meantioned above, one way to experience those many layers, which are often open to a degree of interpretation, is to read more than one translation/interpretation of the work. The relatively recent translation/interpretation/retelling by Marcus Sanders and Sandow Birk is as fun to read as it is illuminating. This new translation attempts a modern interpretation of the text and is quite different than previous translations. It does more than any other translation to bring this enormous poem into the modern era. Dante wrote his poem in the language of the ordinary people, in the common Italian vernacular of his day. Marcus Sanders and Sandow Birk add their own touches, like using the names of contemporary sinners and varnishing the work with our modern day slang and references. (I like to think that Dante would approve of this because he populated his poem with local people and slang from his time.) By reading multiple translations/interpretations simultaneously, I better see the nuances in the way each translation interprets the work, and this has lead me to think more critically about the poem and what it is saying.
I just finished the Inferno and a few books of background (a couple tomes on Dante and his times and one on the actual poem). Next, I will read Purgatorio and Paradiso. I am excited to be learning things about this master work that I missed the first time through. Some people think that one should not reread books or re-watch movies or other media, as there is so much to get through in life. Well, I think, as long as such reacquaintance leads you to greater understanding of the things you are consuming and you feel that you can apply that knowledge and any other gains to aspects of your life, then hell yeah, go ahead and re-read, re-watch, re-experience. I fully admit, that I miss things the first time around. Being a mere mortal, I take some time to learn new things and apply them to my life. The second pass on something as complex and deep as The Comedy is often well worth the effort and time.
Lewis, R. W. B. Dante: a Life. Penguin Books, 2009.
Shaw, Prue. Reading Dante from Here to Eternity. Liveright, 2015.
Sweeney, Jon M. Inventing Hell: Dante, the Bible and Eternal Torment. Jericho Books, 2014.
Luzzi, Joseph. In a Dark Wood: a Memoir of Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love. William Collins, 2016.
Wilson, A.N. Dante in Love. Atlantic, 2011.
Reynolds, Barbara. The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man. I.B. Tauris, 2006.
Parker, Deborah, and Mark Parker. Inferno Revealed: from Dante to Dan Brown. Palgrave MacMillan, 2013.
Alighieri, Dante, and John Ciardi. The Inferno. Signet Books, 2001.
Alighieri, Dante, and John Ciardi. Purgatorio. Modern Library, 1996.
Alighieri, Dante, and John Ciardi. The Paradiso. New American Library, 2009.
Alighieri, Dante, et al. Dantes Inferno. Chronicle Book, 2004.
Birk, Sandow, et al. Dante's Purgatorio. Chronicle Books, 2005.
Alighieri, Dante, et al. Dante's Paradiso. Trillium Press, 2005.