I thought I’d keep it simple this week, since I don’t have a lot of free time, brain cells, or energy . . . but when the time came to sit down and write a fluff piece on Ogden Nash and his habit of throwing scansion to the winds, I found myself thinking of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy instead.
Go figure . . .
The original title of this poem was simply Comedia and it becomes clear within the first few lines that comedy in the early 1300s didn’t mean belly laughs. In fact, until recently, a literary comedy usually meant that the story would end well or at least without all the main characters dying.
Which is a good thing to know in advance about a work that begins with a man—Dante himself in first person, which was a dramatic and dynamic choice—being chased through the dark woods by fierce beasts before he’s rescued by the great Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro— Virgil^ to you and me—and promptly taken on a safari tour of Hell. For his own good.
This isn’t light reading by any definition. Practically speaking, it weighs in at a whopping 14,232 lines, give or take, and it delves deeply and thoroughly into Christian and Pagan theologies, with side orders of cultural dichotomies, class systems and political commentaries and all sorts of other leaden matters, all wrapped up in symbolic allegory.
And like the Canterbury Tales, few people who aren’t academics, theologians, or hoping to pass World Lit are willing to give it a try. In fact, one might be forgiven for thinking that one of the Circles of Dante’s Inferno is dedicated to the reading and understanding of this specific poem.
Which is totally meta . . . and not outside the realm of possibility.
Even heavy-handed allegories can be tricky creatures to pin down and this poem is so heavy on the symbolic references it was probably slow going even for a highly educated reader born Catholic in fourteenth century Italy—or the thirteenth, really, since it was written in the very early 1300s and this isn’t for kiddies—who has a good chance of understanding the language and all the cultural, religious, and political references—and who, if confused before 1321, could send a missive to Signore Alighieri and ask him what the hell he was going on about in lines 12,117 through 12,124.*
But like the Canterbury Tales, this poem helped establish a standard language —or the standard (Tuscan) dialect, anyway—of an entire country through sheer popularity. It’s been in print for seven hundred years in pretty much every language that bothers with classic literature. And most of you, I suspect, got the circle reference three paragraphs up,** which means it’s been absorbed into the foundations of the world’s literary culture.*** This is another poem full of familiar and even common phrases that weren’t common when the poet wrote them and eventually became part of our recognized, everyday language because everyone thought they were amazing and stole them.
So there’s something going on here besides a five-pound allegoric poem about theology, cue the crickets. Like good writing and a fascinating story, regardless of one’s personal beliefs.
Hear me out:
The bare bones of this poem make up a sort of traveler’s guide to the Afterlife. Virgil takes the narrator through the various levels of Hell, including a brief and harrowing jog through Lucifer’s office, and partway through Purgatory, before Beatrice, the woman of Dante’s dreams—chaste dreams, mind you—appears to take him all the way through heaven to ask questions of several saints and be ushered into God’s presence where all is finally understood as well as it can by still-mortal brain.
Still with me?
The Inferno is the best known section of this poem, and is arguably the most intriguing—or I’d argue it, anyway.
The language is rich, the ambiance thick and humid and brutal, and Dante is in some danger from the creatures meting out the punishments for the specific sins of each circle—which, to Dante’s contemporary audience would have been poetic indeed, pun intended. It’s supposed to be a cautionary tale and a horror story, and it is:
Thus, not by fire, but by the art divine,
Was boiling down below there a dense pitch
Which upon every side the bank belimed.
I saw it, but I did not see within it
Aught but the bubbles that the boiling raised,
And all swell up and resubside compressed.
The while below there fixedly I gazed,
My Leader, crying out: “Beware, beware!”
Drew me unto himself from where I stood.
Then I turned round, as one who is impatient
To see what it behoves him to escape,
And whom a sudden terror doth unman,
Who, while he looks, delays not his departure;
And I beheld behind us a black devil,
Running along upon the crag, approach.
Ah, how ferocious was he in his aspect!
And how he seemed to me in action ruthless,
With open wings and light upon his feet!
His shoulders, which sharp-pointed were and high,
A sinner did encumber with both haunches,
And he held clutched the sinews of the feet.
From off our bridge, he said: “O Malebranche,
Behold one of the elders of Saint Zita;
Plunge him beneath, for I return for others
Unto that town, which is well furnished with them.
All there are barrators, except Bonturo;
No into Yes for money there is changed.”
He hurled him down, and over the hard crag
Turned round, and never was a mastiff loosened
In so much hurry to pursue a thief.
— Inferno – Canto XXI
A little later on, we’re told that flesh hooks are used by the devils to keep the sinners under. A ‘barrator,” by the way, is one who swindles, cheats, and harasses others in order to sway a legal matter. Dante didn’t like them much. But you should see what happens to those who commit violence against others.
The next section, Purgatorio, is an exploration of the motivation to commit crimes or sins.^^ These are the personal sins—the Seven Deadlies, the ones that, Virgil implies, result from loving unsuitable things to excess. But since personal motivations and desires can be changed this is more of a lengthy pit stop instead of eternal damnation. Things are, so to speak, looking up, and the imagery becomes cleaner and brighter with each step:
I saw upon its right wing wheeled about
The glorious host returning with the sun
And with the sevenfold flames upon their faces.
As underneath its shields, to save itself,
A squadron turns, and with its banner wheels,
Before the whole thereof can change its front,
That soldiery of the celestial kingdom
Which marched in the advance had wholly passed us
Before the chariot had turned its pole.
Then to the wheels the maidens turned themselves,
And the Griffin moved his burden benedight,^^^
But so that not a feather of him fluttered.
The lady fair who drew me through the ford
Followed with Statius and myself the wheel
Which made its orbit with the lesser arc.
So passing through the lofty forest, vacant
By fault of her who in the serpent trusted,
Angelic music made our steps keep time.
— Purgatorio – Canto XXXII
And then there’s Paradiso, which is pretty much what you’d expect . . . except for the science. The higher Dante climbs and the closer he presumably gets to figuring out Life, the Universe, and Everything, the more the expressions depend on pure thought and the more . . . mathematical the metaphors become. I’m serious— solid scientific facts are sprinkled throughout this section—including a probable reference to one that had Galileo in hot water some time later—and right at the end of the poem, when the narrator is in the very presence of the Creator, we’re given this:
As the geometrician, who endeavours
To square the circle, and discovers not,
By taking thought, the principle he wants,
Even such was I at that new apparition;
I wished to see how the image to the circle
Conformed itself, and how it there finds place;
But my own wings were not enough for this,
Had it not been that then my mind there smote
A flash of lightning, wherein came its wish.
Here vigour failed the lofty fantasy:
But now was turning my desire and will,
Even as a wheel that equally is moved,
The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.
— Paradiso – Canto XXXIII
So here’s the deal—there’s a lot in this poem that personally makes me grumble. I don’t agree with the basic interpretation of Hell°; it’s a really, really long poem in a non-Germanic language that I have to read from a translation,°° which means I can’t effectively check the original°°°; and except for one small devil making a “trumpet of his rump,” there isn’t a whole lot of humor.
But you know . . . take away the theological bludgeon, and what you have here is a man trying to find his way—on several levels, because that’s what allegories do—and describing his personal journey in language and imagery that reflects that journey.
So it isn’t a light work, but I believe that it’s worth reading lightly, as an adventure tale and as a sometimes scathing commentary on what Dante Alighieri thought about the state of his world near the end of his life.
And if that doesn’t convince you to give it a try, think about this: Dante may be led through Heaven by his ideal woman, but it’s a poet who guides him safely through Hell.
*Sorry, made ’em up. I’d look, but the lines in my copy aren’t numbered and not even for you marvelous people will I count that far to see where I’d land. If your copy is numbered, feel free to let me know.
**If you didn’t catch it, go read more of everything, because this work is referenced everywhere.
*** And part of our artistic culture as well, since a lot of people have attempted to create Dante’s words in visual form over the centuries. Some of the results are extremely . . . odd . . . and I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the imagery in this poem isn’t supposed to be translated into the visual outside our own imaginations. Especially when it comes to making the Circles of Hell look like a Roman condominium. I’m just sayin’
^He wrote the Aeneid, which should be credential enough. It would have to Dante’s first readers—the Aeneid leads up to the founding of Rome and was considered The Poem, much like the Divine Comedy is today. So Dante made a good choice, there.
^^Does anyone else hear George Carlin saying, “You gotta wanna!”
^^^Which can mean blessed or clockwise, depending. I like that.
° Without getting too much into it, the part that annoys me is in canto twenty, when Dante weeps for the tortured, and a scornful Virgil rips him a new one, telling him to save his pity for the worthy. But while I don’t personally agree with his argument or the whole damned for eternity thing, it’s a magnificent rant delivered very well.
°°Interpreting the original Canterbury Tales is a walk in the park in comparison. My Italian is comprised mostly of musical notations, food, and stock phrases I’ve picked up from The Godfather and Oscar. My French is better than my Italian, which is sad.
°°°Like y’all didn’t know I was a humongous nerd. Please.