Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy) by Dante Alighieri
Written in 1320, first printed in 1472
Carlyle-Okey-Wicksteed Unabridged Translation
Genre: Narrative poem, Italian literature
“In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost.”
Arguably one of the most influential pieces of long-form poetry in the Western world, The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri is an intimidating and enriching tome. After an introduction that gives historical context about the author and the poem itself, the reader is thrust back into the world of 14th century Italy. This allegorical poem is split into three sections: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso; as Dante climbs through Hell up to Purgatory before his ascension to Heaven, he likewise travels from sin into reconciliation through purgation, and finally redemption in paradise.
The poem begins with Dante approaching a mountain where he is turned away by a leopard, a lion, and a wolf (oh my?). The spirit of the poet Virgil appears and offers to take Dante by a safer, albeit longer, path; he was sent by the saint Beatrice to lead Dante through the different levels of the afterlife. With this new guide and a sense of higher purpose, Dante begins his journey.
Inferno: Dante follows Virgil through the circles of Hell and sees the punishments visited upon sinners. Some punishments are simply terrible (i.e. raining fire and being tormented by demons) while others are utterly gruesome. One man is cut open from chin to crotch with his entrails exposed and sagging; the man’s uncle follows him around in guilt as his own punishment. Hell is shown through intense description and imagery with each level becoming more disturbing than the last.
Purgatorio: Dante and Virgil travel past Satan and the world inverts, bringing them to face the mountain of Purgatory. The pair head towards the mountain and are challenged by a guardian who believes they are souls that escaped from Hell. Dante is able to pass the guardian and meets more souls in his travels, though they are in different circumstances than those he met before; some were violently murdered but pled for forgiveness in their final moments, while others put off their faith and are now forced to climb the mountain. Dante must purge his own sins before moving into the Garden of Eden where Virgil takes his leave. It is important to note that there is a drastic change in tone from Inferno; Purgatorio is much more hopeful and contains lyrical passages of poetic description.
Paradiso: Dante now follows Beatrice and ascends from his physical body into the stars. Though Dante experiences different levels in heaven, he is told that all souls are at the same state of bliss; the levels symbolize the spiritual state of those within. He eventually reaches Peter, James, and John and is tested on the meaning of faith, hope, and love respectively. He passes and is given a vision of God which he is unable to share (or so he says…selfish), finishing the poem with the statement that God is love.
After the introduction of this edition, there are essays that lay out the organization and arguments about Inferno. I admit I skipped these and wasn’t too lost since these sections are comprised of scholarly articles and opinions that add to the context of the work and aren’t necessary to appreciate the poem. Each section is divided up into cantos and each canto has a short summary before the actual verse of the poem; footnotes are included at the end of each canto and these helped quite a bit for some more esoteric references, but be warned: the ratio of footnotes per canto is very high. The story also contains a who’s who of mythological and historical figures from Western culture that Dante encounters along his journey which will make any enthusiast feel like they’re on a literary Easter egg hunt.
This edition uses three different translations: Inferno is translated by John Aitken Carlyle, Purgatorio is translated by Thomas Okey, and Paradiso is translated by Philip H. Wicksteed (told you I would try harder in the future!). The first two use a similar voice and language, but the third is ironically the most difficult (unless you think actively trying harder to read is equivalent to paradise). The language is archaic and difficult to discern and there is far less description since Dante and Beatrice have ascended the physical plane; the final section also contains much more dialogue and explanation of the infallibility of God and his domain. That being said, all of the language is a bit antiquated since they use words such as hither, wherefore, and thither; this causes the reader to translate the work into modern terms as they read for better understanding.
I initially began to read The Divine Comedy after graduating high school and only made it through the first 10 cantos of Inferno before giving up; I may not have tried at all if I had known it would take a college education emphasizing literary analysis for me to finally make it the whole way through. The experience of reading this poem isn’t unlike that which Dante experiences; there are differing levels of difficulty in the text itself and the reader has been changed by the end if for no other reason than having accomplished the task of reaching the end. For a literature nerd such as myself, this was a daunting story to read and one that was a bit of a slog at times. That being said, it is easy to understand the immense influence that this piece of writing has had on Western culture. Any student of popular culture will notice many contemporary references to Dante’s magnum opus, and this is a testament to the lasting effect of The Divine Comedy.
Verdict: 3 ascents anointed from above out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of Western literature, people who enjoy long poems, Italian literature enthusiasts, those who like poetic verse, and those who read with patience and determination.
Not recommended for: People who played the video game Dante’s Inferno, people who think that a comedy is simply a funny story, those who have short attention spans and don’t enjoy reading verse, or me in 2010.