The Inferno is the most popular canticle of Dante’s Divine Comedy. So fascinating is the imagery and the fast pace of the narrative that this poem reads more like a novel. This is because of Dante’s essential economy. Unlike so many epic poets, he wastes little time on lengthy embellishments and ornate flourishes. Nevertheless, he packs layer upon layer of physical, emotional and theological meaning into each canto.
Granted that the old Italian clannish pride and outraged honor, and details about forgotten political squabbles, is occasionally exasperating. Yet it is this eye for realistic detail that, on the whole, serves the poem so well. Nor is Dante is humble about his talents. But if we do not share all the vices of that age we also lack some of the virtues. Belloc summed up this older mentality rather well: “There is indeed a certain ideal man who remains impassive, through virtue… but nine times out of ten when men do not resent insult, humiliation and loss it is through some lack of substance in them, a flabbiness which is often obviously cowardice.” Dante’s world is not our world, yet his spiritual experience is timeless.
How should we approach such a poem? T. S. Eliot, in his essay on the Divine Comedy, says that too much prior knowledge about a work can dampen one’s reading enjoyment. Yet Eliot insists on the need to understand to some extent the philosophical background of Dante’s culture. Fortunately in an expert translation like John Ciardi’s (Signet Classics) there is helpful annotation so that the attentive novice can follow the poem with unspoiled freshness. “What is surprising about the poetry of Dante,” says Eliot, “is that it is, in one sense, extremely easy to read. It is a test… that genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” This is because Dante is a painter of word images. “Speech varies,” notes Eliot, “but our eyes are all the same.” The visions of the poem are memorable to young readers, even before they see Gustave Doré’s remarkable engravings.
I will end, appropriately enough, with the closing lines of The Inferno—which I find so full of hope and beauty—as Virgil and Dante leave the center of Hell, which is also the center of the earth. Up till now the poet has been moving downward, but as he leaves Satan and the City of Dis behind, he is suddenly ascending toward Mount Purgatory, the theme of the next canticle:
My Guide and I crossed over and began
to mount that little known and lightless road
to ascend into the shining world again.
He first, I second, without thought of rest
we climbed the dark until we reached the point
where a round opening brought in the sight of the blest
and beauteous shining of the Heavenly cars.
And we walked out once more beneath the Stars.