Led by Virgil, the poet is taken down into the depths and shown the seven layers of Hell and those doomed to suffer eternal torment for vices exhibited and sins committed on earth. The 'Inferno' is the first part of the 'Divine Comedy' which continues the journey through Purgatory and Paradise.
any cowardice has to die now.
We've arrived where I told you,
where you'd see spirits in agony,
losers of the intelligence's good.'
My second excursion into hell this year (my first was by way of Yasutaka Tsutsui). I never realized there were so many Italians and Greeks in that place. This book is kind of a Who's Who of Hell. If I ever find myself lost in a forest (which happens frequently) and Virgil appears and offers to guide me out, I think I'll pass. Virgil takes the long way out, the long and inconvenient way. Virgil is a crazy man... and he's dead. One should never follow Virgil. I hope you understand my repetition and insistence on this matter. Avoid Virgil if you get lost.
Canto 21 was probably one of my favorites. I like the idea of being on a bridge over bubbling hot tar filled with screaming souls that surface like dolphins while having monsters chase me. Yet another reason to avoid Virgil. You shouldn't need to take this path to get out of a forest. It's just not right. Screw what Beatrice has to say about all this. Better still... stay out of forests.
Reading it now, I can't imagine why I didn't get further. This was a translation by Dorothy L. Sayers (first published 1949), and I found it very accessible and easy to read. In her introduction, Sayers explains that she has stuck to the terza rima in which the original was written, sacrificing (she says) a little verbal accuracy in favour of retaining the speed and rhythm. She also explains at some length her approach to the rhyme-scheme and metre, her use of a wide range of English vocabulary including some colloquial phrases, and the ways in which she has tried to preserve the humour and tone of the original. I think that Sayers achieved great success in this: the vocabulary is gloriously rich, ranging from phrases which are positively Shakespearean all the way to the contemporary vernacular, and just about everything in between. The poetry is evocative and flows well, and the various tones and changes of mood are superbly conveyed.
The book has extensive notes on the significant people encountered by the character of Dante in his journey through hell, and on the symbolism and imagery used by Dante the writer, which are not only engaging and well-written but also exceedingly useful. The introduction sets out the historical context in some detail, which is also very helpful: I could have given a detailed history of the Guelfs and Ghibellines ten years ago, but this time I was more than a little reliant on this introductory information to refresh my memory. The diagrams and maps of Dante's hell are also beneficial, as is the glossary of all the characters encountered. Together, the poetry and notes make this a very accessible translation for those who are unused to poetry, unfamiliar with the historical figures, or both.
I found the story (if I can call it that) to be more easily understood than I had expected it to be, and also more entertaining than I had anticipated. I did, however, find that the various circles of hell began to merge together in my mind as in some cases there was either little detail given about them or they were very similar to other circles.
I expected most of the symbolism in the book to pass me by - most symbolism generally does - but between Dante's own explanations and that in the notes I was able to appreciate far more than I expected to, and to overlook much less than I feared. The commentary on the political situation at the time, as well as that on the Church, is very definitely partisan - but is nonetheless insightful.
I have the remainder of the Divine Comedy in the Sayers translation awaiting me on the shelf, and am now very definitely looking forward to reading it.
This particular edition allows the reader to view not only the English translation but the original Italian. Robert Durling also provides extensive notes on each Canto which can illuminate the reader on the deeper meaning and hidden contexts in the work.
All in all it is one of the classics of literature and will continue to be a captivating work about man's greatest question. What happens to us when we die?
I've read the entire Divine Comedy but certainly Hell is what stays most vividly in my mind. 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.
I would not think to quibble with reviewing Dante himself - Dante is a master, and doesn't need my endorsement. I will say, however, that Musa's translation is an exceptionally sensitive one, and his comprehensive notes are an invaluable aid to the reader less familiar with Dante's broad spheres of reference. Musa is clearly a devoted scholar of Dante, and his concern for Dante's original meaning and tone is evident. This is one of the best translations of The Comedia available.
At the opening of the poem, Dante awakes to find himself lost in a dark wood. Unable to leave the valley, he is greeted by the shade of Virgil, who tells him that he has been sent by Mary and Dante's dearly departed Beatrice to guide Dante through Hell, Purgatory, and eventually to the highest parts of Heaven. Although Dante is initially reluctant to go, he eventually follows Virgil down into the mouth of Hell.
While the idea of reading such a long old poem seems daunting, the language and imagery that Dante uses makes it as compelling and fresh as if it were written yesterday. It is, first and foremost, a journey, and the sights the pilgrim sees on his journey to the bottom of Hell are described in vivid and sometimes gross detail. Hell is a very physical place, full of bodies and bodily functions, and Dante doe snot skimp on the imagery. But as often as his language is crude, it is at times stunningly beautiful. There were similes that absolutely stopped me in my tracks with their perfection and beauty. If you want to read the Inferno for the first time, read it like a novel. Jump in, enjoy the story, gawk at the imagery, and stop to relish the beautiful passages.
Just as Dante the pilgrim takes Virgil as his guide through Hell, Dante the poet uses Virgil as a poetic guide in his attempt to write an epic that encompasses religion, politics, history, and the human experience. In each circle, Dante meets a new group of sinners who are in Hell for different reasons. The first thing to note about the damned is that they seem to be mostly from Florence. Seriously, sometimes I think Dante wrote this just so he could shove everyone he didn't like into the fiery pit. But in all seriousness, Dante's goal wasn't just to describe the afterlife, he was also trying to describe life on earth. By putting people from Florence in Hell or Heaven, Dante was commenting on what was happening in Italy at the time. Most important for Dante was the corruption he saw in the church, so there are entire cantos of the Inferno devoted to religious leaders, especially Popes, and especially Boniface, who was Pope at the time Dante was writing.
The other thing to note about the damned is how relatable they are, at least in the beginning. When you meet Paolo and Francesca in Canto V and listen to Francesca's story, you can't help but be drawn in and pity her. Dante the pilgrim pitied her too, and swoons (again, seriously, he spends like the first 10 cantos swooning left and right) due to his empathy for them. Again and again the pilgrim pities the damned, but as the canticle goes on this happens less and less. By the end of the canticle he has stopped pitying the shades at all, and instead feels that their damnation is deserved. Why did Dante the poet make the pilgrim transforming such a way? Just as the description of Hell also serves as a description of Earth and of the nature of the human soul, the pilgrim's journey through the afterlife mirrors the soul's journey from the dark wood of sin and error to enlightenment and salvation. Dante is at first taken in by the sinners because he is not wise enough to see through their excuses. He is too much like them to do anything other than pity them. As he goes through Hell, he learns more and shakes off the darkness of the wood, so that by the time he gets to the bottom he no longer pities the damned. Still, even in the lowest circles, the shades are all deeply human, and their stories of how they ended up in Hell are incredibly compelling.
Dante the poet shows again and again how similar the pilgrim and the damned really are. He constantly explores sins that he could have committed or paths that he could have taken, exposing his own weaknesses and confronting what would have been his fate if Beatrice and Mary had not sent Virgil to save him. I think it speaks to his bravery as a poet that he insisted on exposing not just the weaknesses in society, but also the weaknesses in his own character.
Dante the poet is also brave, I think, for tackling some very serious theological, political, and psychological issues. When Dante the pilgrim walks through the gate of Hell, the inscription on the gate says that the gate and Hell itself were made by "the primal love" of God. Here, Dante tackles one of the greatest theological questions; how can a just and loving God permit something as awful as Hell? While the real answer doesn't come until the Paradiso, Dante was brave to put that question in such stark and paradoxical terms.
Dante's constant indictments of the political and religious leaders of his day show bravery, intelligence, and a good degree of anger on his part. Before writing the Inferno, Dante had been exiled from his home city of Florence for being on the wrong side of a political scuffle. He was never able to return home, and his anger at the partisanship that caused his exile mixed with his longing for his home make the political themes of the poem emotionally charged and interesting to the reader, even now.
Lastly, Dante shows both bravery and a great deal of literary skill in his treatment of Virgil. Virgil is Dante's guide through Hell and, later, Purgatory. He leads Dante every step of the way, teaching him like a father would, protecting him from daemons and even carrying him on his back at one point. It is clear that Dante admires Virgil, and in some ways the poem is like a love song to him. Virgil, living before Christ, was obviously not Christian, so Dante's choice of Virgil as a guide through the Christian afterlife is really quite extraordinary. It shows that wisdom can be attained from the ancient world, and that the light of human reason, which Virgil represents, is necessary for the attainment of enlightenment and salvation. Dante believed strongly that reason and faith were not opposites, but partners, and his choice of Virgil as a guide is a perfect illustration of that principle.
But, despite Dante's love of Virgil, Virgil is, to me, one of the most tragic characters in literature. Virgil, as a pagan, cannot go to Heaven. He resides in Limbo, the first circle of Hell, home of the virtuous pagans. There, he and the other shades (including Homer, Plato, and others) receive no punishment except for their constant yearning for Heaven and the knowledge that they will never see the light of God. Virgil, at the request of Mary and Beatrice, leads Dante toward a salvation that he can never have. Human reason can only lead a soul so far; to understand the mysteries of Heaven one has to rely on faith and theology. Virgil's fate is the great tragedy of this otherwise comic poem, and the knowledge of that fate haunts the first two canticles. And while it makes sense thematically and in terms of the plot, Dante makes you love Virgil so much that his departure in the Purgatorio never really feels fair. I still miss him.
The Inferno is a long and complex poem, filled with vivid imagery, vast psychological depth, scathing social commentary, and deep theological questions. It is also a journey, a real adventure in a way, and a pleasure to read. Though the real fulfillment of Dante's themes does not come until the Paradiso, the Inferno is well worth reading on its own. Even if you don't go on to read the other two canticles, reading The Inferno is time well spent.
With the famous words above Dante begins The Inferno, the first section of his Divine Comedy. Rereading this poem reminded me of the greatness of Dante's creation. As T. S. Eliot observed, "Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them, there is no third."("Dante" in Selected Essays of T. S. Eliot) While I would add Proust as a third, whether you agree with Eliot or not, Dante is magnificent in his ability to imagine the breadth and depth of humanity. In the Inferno the details are impressed on the reader through Dante's exceptional visual poetry. Whether the translation maintains the terza rima or not this comes through. Thus the poetry is relatively easy to read even though many of the allusions may escape the average reader. One gains from rereading the opportunity to deepen the understanding of the allusions and the images, the symbols and the subtle nuances of meaning that make this poem great. Further discussion with a group of serious readers adds to one's understanding, especially for a non-Catholic like myself.
I look forward to further reading of Dante, for just as with other great books this one continues to yield new treasures.
To me this book represents the worst of Christianity: eternal torment, eternal torture, and no mercy. It’s all cruel retribution, without pity. I fail to see how these sentiments are Christ-like even within the dogma of the religion, and I fail to see why anyone would ever view this as representative of an enlightened faith that should be aspired to.
If you are inclined to read it this is a great edition – lots of annotation, illustrations, and a fresh translation … but I don’t recommend it.
-The Divine Comedy-, Hell; Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers,
Penguin Classics, 1949. 346 pp.
Other reviewers have spoken to the perceived weaknesses
and problems with this particular translation and
volume, with Ms. Sayers' "Introduction" and "Notes."
Perhaps one should be warned before entering its portals,
as constructed by Ms. Sayers, that this is not an "easy"
Hell to assimilate.
Yet, at the beginning of her "Introduction," she presents
the offering in an inviting fashion: "The ideal way of
reading -The Divine Comedy- would be to start at the first
line and go straight through to the end, surrendering to
the vigour of the story-telling and the swift movement
of the verse, and not bothering about any historical
allusions or theological explanatios which do not occur
in the text itself. That is how Dante himself tackles
Some readers may not find Ms. Sayers' translation to be
one that lends itself to "swift movement of the verse."
The value here, however, is the wealth of information
provided in both the "Introduction", the Notes, and
in the map drawings which clearly help the mind's eye
understand the "lay-out" of Hell as depicted by Dante.
The value of Ms. Sayer's "Introduction" is its clear
presentation of HER view of Dante, his work, his value,
his meaning, and his emphases.
She concentrates on the Images of Hell and on the Christian
doctrine implicit in the work. This translation is in
keeping with that emphasis, for it is structured,
somewhat restricted, and presents "Dante's" voice
as more attuned to the didactic and lecturing. Even the
voices of the denizens of Hell have the tones of
stern lesson-learning rather than evoking pity for
their failed virtue and blind human proclivities.
The problem with some readers, and some viewers of
Christianity, is trying to reconcile the idea of
stern, unrelenting, eternal Judgment and damnation
for sins with the idea of God's eternal Love, or as
Ms. Sayers translates the second tercet of Dante's
*terza rima* on the lintel of the entrance to Hell:
Justice Moved My Great Maker; God Eternal
Wrought Me: The Power, And The Unsearchably
High Wisdom, And The Primal Love Supernal.
Ms. Sayers will have no human shilly-shallying with
Dante's intent or the purpose of Hell. And that,
though it may appall some readers, is to the good;
for it forces the reader to confront whether or not
he or she accepts or does not the Christian doctrinal
views -- and helps the reader to understand the
serious nature of choosing one's faith and one's
religion, or not.
After each Canto, Ms. Sayers uses the same very
helpful devices for explaining the preceding Canto:
first, she discusses the main Images to be found in
that particular Canto in a very clear, full, doctrinal
way -- and then, she has the numbered notes which
explain allusions and phrases which Dante uses in
For instance, after Canto I, we find: "The Images.
-The Dark Wood- is the image of Sin or Error -- not so
much of any specific act of sin or intellectual perversion
as of that spiritual condition called "hardness of heart",
in which sinfulness has so taken possession of the soul as
to render it incapable of turning to God, or even knowing
which way to turn." Similarly, after Canto III, we find
this note concerning the phrase "the good of intellect":
"In the -Convivio- Dante quotes Aristotle as saying:
'truth is the good of the intellect'. What the lost souls
have lost is not the intellect itself, which still functions
mechanically, but the -good- of the intellect: i.e., the
knowledge of God, who is Truth."
This is an excellent edition for the scope of Ms. Sayers'
medieval scholarship and doctrinal insights. Though it
may be hard sledding for the tender-hearted. There
have always been several ways of seeing the road to
Hell -- in this version, once one strays from the
straight and narrow, there is only the crooked and
pit-full, not pitiful.
-- Robert Kilgore.
I think for a general reader who just wants to know why The Inferno has remained influential this will serve them well. There are plenty of contextualizing notes, a must for just about any translation, which will make understanding why certain people are where they are comprehensible to a contemporary reader.
For study purposes I have my doubts but I have my own favorite translations so am doing more of a comparison than simply an isolated assessment. First, my preferred verse translation is still Ciardi's version (plus, if for study purposes, he translated all of the Comedy not just one book so you don't have to change translations when you leave the Inferno). Part of my favoritism here is likely because it was the third version I had read and the first with a professor who made it come alive for me, so I do want to acknowledge that. Part of it for me is how the translators try to solve the issue of form. Some compromise is necessary to make an English translation and I am not sure there is a right vs a wrong way, they will all fall well short of Dante in Italian. I just think that wrestling with a form closer to Dante's helps students to slow down and do a better close reading while making it too easy to read turns Dante's work into simply a story that can be read quickly and easily. Again, this is personal opinion and preference. The necessary notes will keep the work from being read like a contemporary novel and could, with the right effort from an instructor, keep the reading close. I just have a hard time imagining The Inferno as an easy read and hope not to see this type of translation of Purgatorio or Paradiso since those should be more difficult to grasp in keeping with Dante's apparent intentions.
I would certainly recommend this to general readers who just want to read it and maybe for high school classes that want to get through it with just a few areas of closer reading. I would also recommend instructors look at it and decide if this translation would serve their purposes for what they hope to achieve in their courses. It is a good translation even though I would personally choose not to use it.
Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via Edelweiss.