Dan Brown’s Inferno was released this week. I picked it up not because I think of Brown as a wonderful writer (I don’t) but because I am a huge fan of Dante’s. I first read the Divine Comedy as a freshman in college. Even though I was only 18, his opening line spoke to me.
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
What college freshman doesn’t feel lost? Over the years I never got over my experience with the Italian poet’s haunting tale of sorrow and redemption. I have a small collection of translations; so far I’ve read seven. Gustave Dore’s etchings of Dante’s poem are some of my favorite pieces of artwork. So I thought this would be an opportune time to do another series of lists.
The Father of Italian Language
Dante Alighieri was an Italian poet and philosopher best known for the epic poem The Divine Comedy. The poem is broken into three “books or sections,” each representing one of the three tiers of the Christian afterlife: purgatory, heaven, and hell. This poem is considered the greatest work of Italian literature. Dante is thought of as the father of modern Italian. The poem is labeled a ‘comedy” because he penned it in the “low” Italian language, not the “high” Latin language as was the norm of the day. Works penned in the language of the masses were considered “comedies”. Dante was the first to pen a serious poem in a native language.
The Divine Comedy is an allegory of human life presented as a visionary trip through the Christian afterlife, written as a warning to a corrupt society to steer itself to the path of righteousness: “to remove those living in this life from the state of misery, and lead them to the state of felicity.” The Roman poet Virgil guides Dante through hell and purgatory. Virgil, being condemned to purgatory cannot guide Dante in heaven so Dante’s life long love interest, Beatrice guides him through heaven.
Who the heck is Beatrice anyway?
We know of Beatrice Portinari because of Dante’s obsession with her. The two met when Beatrice was nine and Dante ten. Beatrice became an object of inspiration (obsession) for years afterward. Dante says they did not formally meet again until nine years later, (nine will be an important number in poem) although Dante saw Beatrice around Florence but never had the nerve to speak to her. During their second meeting Beatrice greeted Dante as she walked by. This apparently sent him over the moon as judged by the words he wrote later:
“The hope of her admirable greeting abolished in me all enmity and I was
possessed by a flame of charity, and if anyone had asked me a question I would have
said only Love! with a countenance full of humility”
Beatrice died in 1290 at the age of 25. Dante never did forget her. His first work “La Vita Nouva (The New Life) is a series of love poems to an unnamed “Blessed Lady”. In the Divine Comedy, Beatrice is the named blessed lady who takes pity on Dante and begs Virgil to help him. It is through Beatrice that God finally graces Dante.
Why did Dante write the poem?
The writing of The Comedy was greatly influenced by the politics of late-thirteenth-century Florence. The struggle for power in Florence was a reflection of a crisis that affected all of Italy, and, in fact, most of Europe, from the twelfth century to the fourteenth century—the struggle between church and state for temporal authority. The main representative of the church was the pope, while the main representative of the state was the Holy Roman Emperor. The last truly powerful Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, died in 1250, and by Dante’s time, the Guelphs were in power in Florence. By 1290, however, the Guelphs had divided into two factions: the Whites (Dante’s party), who supported the independence of Florence from strict papal control, and the Blacks, who were willing to work with the pope in order to restore their power. Under the direction of Pope Boniface VIII, the Blacks gained control of Florence in 1301. Dante, as a visible and influential leader of the Whites, was exiled within a year. The pope, as well as a multitude of other characters from Florentine politics, has a place in the Hell that Dante depicts in Inferno—and not a pleasant one.* From Sparksnotes.
Dante’s journey into the after life lasts from the night before Good Friday to the Wednesday after Easter in the spring of 1300
There are nine levels of hell: Limbo- virtuous Pagans.. Lascivious. Gluttons. Avaricious and Spendthrifts. Wrathful. Heretics. Violent. Fraudulent. Treacherous. Satan is found in the ninth circle, eating traitors.
Hell is not always hot. In the poem Hell has a river of boiling blood for people guilty of bloodshed, tombs of fire for heretics, and a desert of fire for the blasphemers, usurers and homosexuals. The lustful are blown about by strong winds, while the gluttons in are punished in sleet and muck. In the lowest circle Satan himself is waist high encased in ice.
Hell is full of real people Dante knew plus some famous Greeks, Romans and Biblical figures along with mythical creatures. Each shade that Dante meets and questions is named as someone he knows. The early readers of Dante would have been familiar with most, if not all of them. The difficulty for modern readers is that these people were contemporaries of Dante. It is the punishment not the person that we need to concern ourselves with.
Hell is gated. The most famous of all Dante’s quotes “Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here”, is found above the gate.
There are three rivers and one lake in Hell: 1. Acheron on which all souls have to cross into Hell. 2. Styx in which the wrathful souls are submerged 3.Phlegethon the river of blood in which those violent against others are boiling. 4. Cocytus: the iced lake of the lower level where we find Satan frozen in the middle.
No one can agree on which translations are the best, yet it often said Longfellow’s offers the best prose. Personally I found his translation a little dry. My favorite three are:
Mary Jo Bang.
If you have never had the nerve to pick up the poem I would suggest you start with Bang’s as hers is written in modern English and she peppers the poem with pop culture references. It may not be “high brow” but at least you will have a good understanding of the poem’s meaning.
I have left a lot of information out and for this I apologize. There is so much to talk about, the symbolism, the encounters and stories of the damned, that I could go on and on! If you want to know more or have questions, leave me a comment. I will be happy to be your guide through the Inferno.