Book Review: Dante’s Divine Comedy (Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso)

One of the points that the late scholar Allan Bloom used to make is that Americans are no longer impacted by great books. Music, other cultural influences, yes, but books? I would have to confess that, much of the time, that was the case for me, too. But in the spring of my junior year in prep school, a dormmate’s textbook contained something that made an immediate impact, one that literally altered the course of my life at a time when an alteration was certainly in order.

That “something” was an abridged version of Dorothy Sayers’ translation of Dante’s Inferno, the first third of what has come to be known as the Divine Comedy. Dante himself only referred to it as a Comedy; the “Divine” characterisation was added later. What I read whetted my appetite for more, but Sayers’ translation is archaising and difficult. So when the time came to acquire the entire work, I turned to the American poet John Ciardi’s translation, still widely regarded as the best.

The Divine Comedy is a long poem whose narrative describes what amounts to the poet’s tour of the afterlife. Set around Easter 1300, it is divided into three parts: the Inferno (Hell,) which he visits first with his guide, the Roman poet Virgil. Readers of the Aeneid will quickly recognise that one of Dante’s objectives is to pick up where Virgil left off in Aeneas’ visit to the underworld, an objective he succeeds in handily. The second part is the Purgatorio (Purgatory,) where Virgil continues to accompany Dante through the places where souls do penance after death until they reach the Terrestrial Paradise, at which point the poet is handed off to Beatrice, an acquaintance from his youth who leads him into the third and last part of the poem/journey, the Paradiso (Paradise.) The poem ends with his vision of God.

Beyond the tripartite division the poem is divided into 100 cantos; the Inferno has 34, the other two parts 33. If the Inferno‘s Canto I can be considered an introduction, then each part has the same number of cantos. Each canto is written in a form referred to as terza rima, where every three lines rhymes. Getting that rhyming scheme from Italian into English has been one of the major challenges of every translator of the work. Ciardi’s solution was to only rhyme the first and last lines, which works reasonably well.

That brief overview of the poem brings up what is probably the poem’s greatest asset: it is structured with an attention to detail. That structure to some extent overwhelms the fact that Dante moves in a Ptolemaic universe and a Scholastic intellectual framework. Dante uses not only what he says to make his point, but the location of the speech or action as well. Dante also displays acute powers of observation, up to and including detailed description of how his senses work. His abilities in this regard make his visualisation of that which was either beyond the technology of his time (which required flight, for example) or beyond physical representation (much of what he saw in Paradise) credible.

That kind of structure is a large part of the poem’s reputation as complex. But that complexity is on a multi-level basis. It’s one of those things that makes several readings of the poem rewarding. The Divine Comedy is justly described as allegorical, but the symbolic and metaphorical also enter into the picture as well. Dante believes in the objective reality of the places he visits in the poem, but he also believes that the afterlife and this one are two parts of a single continuum. He uses the world of the afterlife to comment on the state of this one, and specifically of the Italy of his own time, a significant and intriguing place whose historical relevance has been obscured by the Renaissance.

Dante’s voyage is in the afterlife, and this brings up the spiritual component of the Divine Comedy. Dante’s whole scheme can be (as usual in his case) in three parts. The Inferno can be seen as the recognition of sin, and he can vividly see both the perpetrators and the consequences of that sin. The Purgatorio is the repentance of that sin, which those who are there are in the process of doing. Finally the Paradiso is the benefit of living in Christ. This process isn’t an exclusively Catholic one, but one which is universal with all types of Christianity. It’s also interesting to note—and it’s something that doubtless gives Evangelical and secularist alike heartburn—that Virgil, representing human reason, manages to get Dante through most of the Comedy until he hands off the author to Beatrice, representing divine revelation. (It’s also interesting to note that Beatrice, who guides Dante to the Empyrean, and Matilda, who takes the role of a priest by essentially baptising Dante in the Lethe, are both female, which gives opponents of women’s ordination heartburn.)

But this adventure isn’t simply otherworldly, as Dante also gives vent to his ideas of secular government and the church. In Dante’s time the Papacy reached its apogee in terms of political power, both in Italy and elsewhere. The Papal States (a problem not completely solved until Mussolini and the Pope made the Lateran Treaty) had secular as well as spiritual objectives, and the popes of Dante’s time weren’t shy about playing politics. Dante believed that the church’s primary mission was spiritual and the state/monarchy’s role was primarily secular order, that the two complemented each other, and that the two should stick to their respective roles. That was revolutionary in Dante’s time; he spends a great deal of time denouncing the corruption in the church that came with the state of affairs of his time.

That leads one to consider Dante’s Roman Catholicism. For me personally, one of the results of reading the Comedy was a serious consideration of the Catholic Church, which I actually joined within a year. I was impressed with Dante’s unified vision of the physical and spiritual worlds, and of the way in which he could view the world in terms that were both intellectually and spiritually satisfying. Dante also tackles many of those basic issues of life and divine justice that concern any thoughtful Christian as they concerned Dante.

Dante integrates both the science and theology of his day, as did most of his contemporaries. That goes for classical paganism too, in a way that goes far beyond what even the Fathers of the Church—who saw it as a competitor—would have done. Dante’s reliance on Scholastic theology, and particularly on St. Thomas Aquinas, keeps him on an even keel. It was not an obvious choice: Aquinas was controversial in his lifetime, and the adulation that Catholics and their church have given him was only beginning when Dante wrote the Comedy. That choice led to spend a lot of time in Aquinas, which had two important benefits: its rigidly logical structure is a good way to learn how to think (something that benefited Dante immensely as he wrote the poem,) and Aquinas’ (and Dante’s) view of God was and is higher than what one encounters in many “full gospel” circles and elsewhere.

Dante is sure that salvation comes through the Church. But in many ways Dante isn’t as “churchy” as those who have come after him. The Church has numerous faults, and Dante isn’t shy about detailing and denouncing them. Moreover Dante’s presentation of the afterlife was in itself a reminder that the Church, for its holding of the keys, wasn’t the final arbiter of who ended up where. In addition to the numerous clerics and popes we meet in the Inferno, the first ledge of the mountain of Purgatory was that of the contumacious, i.e., those who died excommunicated but repented.

Unfortunately the Roman Catholic Church I joined wasn’t up to Dante’s standard in many ways. It was surely shorn of the political power it had in the Middle Ages; that was especially evident in living in the Old Confederacy, where Roman Catholicism is in most places a small minority. What bothered me the most was that Roman Catholicism revels too much in mediocrity, especially in what it expects out of its people. Dante’s integrated vision of life, for all of the criticisms that can be levelled against it, is a statement that we can’t be intellectually honest and compartmentalise our Christianity. But Roman Catholicism, too fearful of the effects of enthusiasm amongst the faithful, is too often content with allowing its people to drift along rather than challenging them. And that, unfortunately, isn’t restricted to Roman Catholicism either.

Ciardi’s translation is up to its reputation, as easy to understand as is possible with one who writes as compactly as Dante does. It has aged more gracefully than many other translations of ancient and mediaeval works of its era, which suffer from archaising tendencies or are too deferential to the sensibilities of the time. The notes are generally good and helpful. Sometimes he misses a Biblical reference and the notes of the Paradiso show signs of what I would call “humanistic crabbiness,” but without the notes most readers would be lost.

It’s one of those supreme ironies of life that a signer of the Humanist Manifesto (which Ciardi was) would translate a work that reinforced at least one of its readers’ theism. My guess is that secularists of our day will not allow such things to happen again, if given the chance. Dante, however, depicts a universe moved by God’s love and shaped by the free will which its Creator endowed us with, and as long as people have enough sense to see that this is an improvement over the alternative, the Divine Comedy will have more that just a place in the “canon” of literature.

Note: in addition to Ciardi’s translation and notes, the following books were very useful in writing this review:

  • Lamm, R.C., Cross, N.M., and Turk, R.H. The Search for Personal Freedom. Seventh Edition. Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1984. (It was an earlier edition of this work where I first read the Divine Comedy.)
  • Orlandi, E., Dir. Les Géants: Dante Alighieri. Paris: Paris-Match: Pierre-Charron, 1970.

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