"'The Divine Comedy' begins in a shadowed forest on Good Friday in the year 1300. It proceeds on a journey that, in its intense recreation of the depths and the heights of human experience, has become the key with which Western civilization has sought to unlock the mystery of its own identity. Allen Mandelbaum's astonishingly Dantean translation, which captures so much of the life of the original, renders whole for us the masterpiece that genius whom our greatest poets have recognized as a central model for all poets. This Everyman's edition -- containing in one volume all three cantos, 'Inferno,' 'Purgatorio,' and 'Paradiso' -- includes an introduction by Nobel Prize-winning poet Eugenio Montale, a chronology, notes, and a bibliography. Also included are forty-two drawings selected from Botticelli's marvelous late-fifteenth century series of illustrations." ***"An epic poem in which the poet describes his spiritual journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise -- guided first by the poet Virgil and then by his beloved Beatrice -- which results in a purification of his religious faith."
And certainly Hell is what stays most vividly in my mind. I remember still loving the Purgatorio--it's the most human and relatable somehow of the poems and Paradise has its beauties. But I remember the people of Hell best. There's Virgil of course, who must remain in limbo for eternity because he wasn't a Christian. There's Francesca di Rimini and her lover, for their adultery forever condemned to be flung about in an eternal wind so that even Dante pities them. And that, of course, is the flip side of this. Dante's poem embodies the orthodox Roman Catholic Christianity of the 1300s and might give even Christians today pause. Even though I don't count myself a Christian, I get the appeal of hell. In fact, I can remember exactly when I understood it. When once upon a time I felt betrayed, and knew there was no recourse. The person involved would never get their comeuppance upon this Earth. How nice I thought, if there really was a God and a Hell to redress the balance. The virtue of any Hell therefore is justice. These are the words Dante tells us are at hell's entrance.
THROUGH ME THE WAY INTO THE SUFFERING CITY,
THROUGH ME THE WAY TO THE ETERNAL PAIN,
THROUGH ME THE WAY THAT RUNS AMONG THE LOST.
JUSTICE URGED ON MY HIGH ARTIFICER;
MY MAKER WAS DIVINE AUTHORITY,
THE HIGHEST WISDOM, AND THE PRIMAL LOVE.
BEFORE ME NOTHING BUT ETERNAL THINGS
WERE MADE, AND I ENDURE ETERNALLY.
ABANDON EVERY HOPE, WHO ENTER HERE.
It's hard to see Dante's vision matching the orthodox doctrine as just however, even when I might agree a particular transgression deserves punishment. Never mind the virtuous and good in limbo because they weren't Christians or unbaptized or in hell because they committed suicide or were homosexual. And poor Cassio and Brutus, condemned to the lowest circle because they conspired to kill a tyrant who was destroying their republic. My biggest problem with hell is that it is eternal. Take all the worst tyrants who murdered millions, make them suffer not only the length of the lifetimes of their victims but all the years they might have had, I doubt if you add it up it comes to the age of the Earth--never mind eternity. Justice taken to extremes is not justice--it's vindictiveness and sadism. Something impossible for me to equate with "the primal love."
Yet I loved this work so much upon my first read (I read the Dorothy Sayers translation) I went out and bought two other versions. One by Allen Mandelbaum (primarily because it was a dual language book with the Italian on one page facing the English translation) and a hardcover version translated by Charles Eliot Norton. Finally, before writing up my review and inspired by Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club, I got reacquainted by finding Longfellow's translation online. Of all of them, I greatly prefer Mandelbaum's translation. The others try to keep the rhyming and rhythm of the original and this means a sometimes tortured syntax and use of archaic words and the result is forced and often obscure, making the work much harder to read than it should be.
This review is based on the Everyman's Library edition of the Divine Comedy, which includes the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. It is translated by Allen Mandelbaum. I found the translation pleasurable to read, and it shows through some of Dante's poetry. Having heard readings of it in its original language, I can hardly imagine any translation really capturing its poetic brilliance, but such is the challenge facing all translations of poetry. While I cannot compare it with other translations, I did find this one an enjoyable experience to read.
This edition also contains extensive end notes throughout. Unless one is steeped in the theology and history, this work would be impenetrable without these notes. Dante is constantly alluding to individuals of historical note (often only within his context), the political rivalry between the Black and White Guelphs plays an important role and the work is rife with symbolism (beyond the obvious punishments detailed in the Inferno!). Further, and most importantly, Dante is engaged with the philosophical and theological debates of the day, and he tries to defend certain positions in this work. I would have been lost without the notes here. Indeed, one of the most rewarding things about reading the poem is learning about the history and philosophical/theological context. Reading an edition without extensive notes not only makes the text more difficult to understand for a modern reader, but deprives one of one of the most rewarding experiences in reading it.
The Inferno is the most famous of the three books, and it is no small wonder why. Dante's depiction of the levels of hell is riveting and powerful. The imagery throughout is engrossing. It is interesting, however, that Dante recognizes that his abilities to describe, in imagistic terms, what he observes diminish as he rises through Pugatory and Heaven. He consistently invokes higher and higher deities to help him match these sights poetically. Yet, taken in the imagery of the poem, none of the works is more immediately powerful than the Inferno.
One of the most interesting aspects of the poem is how Dante rises to meet this challenge. While in the Inferno, Dante is able to describe all manner of punishment and pain, his descriptions of heaven often turn on the blinding nature of its beauty. Its beauty is such that his eyes fail, and the correspondingly imaginative nature of his poetry falls short. He compensates by revealing the beauty of his heaven in other ways. Most notably is that he does so by showing how the divine nature of heaven can meet all of his questions and intellectual challenges. The joy and beauty of heaven is revealed in its ability to provide rational coherence. While I may be over-intellectualizing Dante here (I am no scholar of this material), it was the intellectual nature of his work that really struck me.
One final portion of the work that I found particularly moving is that Dante is a human being observing what he does, and this comes through in his emotions and questions most of all. Though he recognizes that the punishments of hell must be just (because they are divine justice), he pities those who suffer them. I wrestled with the same questions, and the reader cannot help but feel sympathy for these souls as Dante describes their punishments. Dante is our guide through these questions, and even if I as a reader am less than satisfied with the answers Dante comes with, he struggles with them. It is not merely a description and celebration of the divine, but rather a real struggle to understand it, and reconcile it to our own conception of justice and the world. This makes the work an interactive intellectual exercise, one works on the same problems that Dante does.
The general outline is well-enough known: Dante has a vision (on Easter weekend, 1300) in which he visits Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. (The vision frame is external to the poem itself; the Dante inside the poem is the dreamer from the very beginning.) He is guided through the first two realms (well, all of Hell and most of Purgatory) by Virgil, and through the rest of Purgatory and all of Heaven by Beatrice, the focus of his early work La Vita Nuova. He begins in a dark wood, "selva oscura" and ends with the beatific vision of the union of the Christian Trinity and the Aristotelian unmoved mover: "l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle".
On its way he maintains a multi-level allegory, fills it with an encyclopaedia of his day's science, history, and theology, carries out an extended argument regarding the (sad) politics of his day and of his beloved Florence, from which he was an exile, and does so in verse which stays at high level of virtuosity throughout. It's the sort of thing that writers like Alanus de Insulis tried in a less ambitious way and failed (well, failed by comparison: who except specialists reads the De Planctu Naturae these days?).
There is no equivalent achievement, and very few at the same level. This would get six stars if they were available.
But still, it's a good read, so 4 stars.
Perhaps this was not the best choice of a book to read at the gym. That decision was certainly not helped by the fact that the eBook version I read had no footnotes.
I'd read the Inferno before, but never Purgatorio or Paradiso, and I was a little disappointed that the physicality I admired so much in the first part was slowly phased out as the poem went on. I suppose Dante was making a point about the difference between the physical world and his relationship to god, but what was so impressive about the Inferno was how he charged a discussion of ideas and morality with a concrete dimension. He made the abstract real.
This was carried over into Purgatorio, although to a lesser extent, but a significant portion of Paradiso seemed to be about his inability to fully render his experience. This seemed to me to be a structural flaw, as we are suddenly asked to once again perceive abstract concepts in an abstract way, and it seems a huge let down.
Or maybe I just needed footnotes to explain it to me.
Two events in Dante's own life greatly influenced this final work of his -- his banishment from Florence and the death of his first love, Beatrice. The poem is structured in three sections each with 33 cantos consisting of three line groups. Together with the introduction, there are 10 cantos. Ciardi's translation is both more understandable and appealing to me.
I should note that I was often bored; Purgatorio and Paradiso have all of the structured tedium with much less of the eyebrow raising depravity. For mostly that reason, I almost gave Dante's masterwork a four (as if it matters what I think), but I find my head too full of ideas, images, and lines to consider rating the epic anything less than a five.
the neologism "trasumanar" in canto 1 of Paradiso (to go beyond the human). Why did Dante coin this new word? At this time in his day.
Some of the metaphors sound somehow mixed or even wrong: In the Tuscan, "nel lago del cor m'era durata". Does the "hardening lake of my heart" prefigure the revelation at the end of the Inferno that its deepest pit is frozen? Is the not-burning, a pious reader surprise?
As for the actual book itself - well, it's the Divine Comedy. It's amazing. The Inferno is my favorite of the three, with the sheer of joy of Paradiso bumping it up to second. Purgatorio is the last of the three, because it drags a bit more than the other two. I wish I could go back and read this with a literature class or something, so that I could catch all the allusions and references - not being an Italian contemporary of his leaves quite a bit of the book stuck in obscurity, but I imagine that's easy remedied with a competent Virgil of your own to guide you through it.
Truly a masterpiece.
I have now read the Divine Comedy twice, and hope to read it at least once more -- if you read it you will see that it is the execution of perfection. Besides being about good and evil, and how one can salvage one's life by embracing the former while eschewing the latter, you will marvel at the structure of these three canticles. Dante leaves few loose ends. There are surprises, witticisms, and rapture.