Reading Dante’s Inferno

Mother Culture selection for July 2016 and February 2017

This introduction is taken from Poetics & Progym III, the upcoming level of Language Arts for Upper School from Cottage Press. The Divine Comedy is the primary literature selection for Poetics & Progym III.

The Divine Comedy comprises three canticas: Inferno (Hell)Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise). Each cantica contains thirty-three cantos, with the first canto of Inferno serving as an introduction to the entire Comedy.

Portrait of Dante, by Sandro Botticelli, 1495

Although Dante called his work Commedia (Comedy), Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) dubbed it Divine; thus it has been ever since the Divinia Commedia, or the Divine Comedy. The Comedy is an epic poem, drawing heavily and purposefully from Homer and Virgil. Indeed, Dante peoples his Comedy with character after character from those two classic ancient epics, not the least of which is the Poet’s guide through Hell and part of Purgatory, Virgil himself.

In the original Italian, Dante employs the poetic form of terza rima, with three line stanzas (tercets). The rhyme scheme in terza rima is interlocking: ABA BCB CDC DED. The particular version we recommend for your reading in Dante is translated by Dorothy Sayers, in part because she keeps to Dante’s original terza rima in her translation.

How I got into it I cannot say, [A]
Because I was so heavy and full of sleep [B]
When first I stumbled from the narrow way; [A]

But when at last I stood beneath a steep [B]
Hill’s side, which closed that valley’s wandering maze [C]
Whose dread had pierced me to the heart-root deep [B]

Then I looked up, and saw the mornings rays [C]
Mantle its shoulder from that planet bright [D]
Which guides men’s feet aright on all their ways. [C]

The number 3 is not insignificant to Dante’s medieval mindset, as you can see from the number of canticas, the number of cantos, and the poetic form. There are other numbers that are significant as well. If you are interested, do a little research on Dante’s numbers.

Dante calls his poem a comedy. Our contemporary definition of comedy is not what he has in mind, but rather, Dante defines it for us himself, in a letter to ” the great and most victorious lord, Lord Can Grande della Scala, Vicar General of the Principate of the Holy Roman Emperor in the town of Verona and the municipality of Vicenza”:

. . . you need to know that comedy comes from komos (village) and oda, which means song, whence comedy sort of means country song. And comedy is sort of a kind of poetic narration, different from all others. It differs, therefore, from the tragedy, in matter by the fact that tragedy in the beginning is admirable and quiet, in the end or final exit it is smelly and horrible; and it gets its name because of this from tragos, which means goat, and oda, sort of like goat-song, that is, smelly like a goat . . . But comedy begins with
harshness in some thing, whereas its matter ends in a good way . . . They differ also in the way of speaking: the tragedy is elevated and sublime, the comedy loose and humble, as Horace tells us in his Poetria . . . And from this it is obvious that the present work is called comedy. And if we look at the matter, in the beginning it is horrible and smelly, because Inferno; in the end it is good, desirable and graceful, for it is Paradiso; as to the manner of speaking, it is easy and
humble, because it is in the vulgar tongue, in which also women communicate. And thus is is obvious why it is called Comedy.

And lest you think that a reading of the Inferno must needs be depressing and dark, hearken to the eloquent words of Dr. Anthony Esolen from the introduction to his translation:

The Inferno is not, finally, a poem about wickedness and punishment, but about beauty and love: the terrible beauty of God which should arouse in man the most ardent love,
and the ruin of beauty which the soul becomes when it turns that love elsewhere.

Version Notes

My favorite translation is by Dorothy Sayers; I love her masterful marriage of faithful literary translation with Dante’s chosen poetic form of terza rima. Her introduction and notes at the end of each canto are helpful, but never intrusive. There is also a new translation by the Hollanders written in blank verse, which looks interesting. The footnotes are exhaustive. For comparison, read the text of the first pages of both in the Amazon “Look Inside” preview. If you can afford—$$-wise and time-wise—two translations, it might be fun to use both.

Reading Helps

As always, just enjoy reading the Inferno as a fascinating story first and foremost. The ideas below for a close reading of this book build on the principles and practices detailed in my post on High School Humanities. The master aim of literature study should be to read and delight in the story. Keep these reading helps in their rightful place as servant to that master.

Background and Context

Find out a bit about Dante’s life and times. Dante’s life straddled the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance era. Athough generally considered as belonging to the late Middle Ages, scholars do debate whether to classify him as a medieval author or a Renaissance author, or perhaps a bit of both. The brief article linked below by Dr. Grant provides a good overview of the philosophical and cultural climate which gave birth to Dante’s epic, along with a corrective counterpoint to the prevailing “wisdom” which tends to disparage the Middle Ages—a.k.a. Christendom—and aggrandize the Renaissance.

As you read, keep in mind that this is a work of imagination, not a work of theology. Dante is showing us the horror of love wrongly ordered; he means to sober us and deter us from descending into the darkness and despair that ultimately results from our refusal to love the only true Good.

Read the section in Sayers’ introduction to Hell on interpreting and understanding this work in both the literal and allegorical sense (pages 9-20 in my edition). She quotes more of Dante’ s letter to della Scala, where he summarizes its interpretation thus:

The subject of he whole work, then, taken merely in the literal sense is “the state of the soul straightforwardly affirmed,” for the development of the whole work hinges on and about that. But if, indeed, the work is taken allegorically, its subject is: “Man, as by good or ill deserts, in the exercise of his free choice, he becomes liable to rewarding or punishing Justice.”

Commonplace Book Entries

(Read my series of posts on Commonplace Books here.)  Always read with a pen in hand! Mark possible passages for commonplacing at a future time. Of course, commonplacing favorite passages as you read should be a regular habit. 

Copy passages from the Inferno that

  • demonstrate apt punishments for particular sins
  • reveal Hell as a creation of the most holy God and, therefore, good
  • spark your interest, remind you of something else, or bring up questions in your mind
  • delight you – especially figures of speech and eloquent turns of phrase
  • point you to the good, the true, and the beautiful

Reflections As You Read

In addition to the general reading journal options, there are a few specific Reading Journal assignments that may be helpful. This is not meant to be a deep analysis. Use this kind of guided journaling only as a way to enhance enjoyment of the story!

  • Note the ways in which Dante portrays himself as an historical figure, rooted in his particular space and time.
  • Note the sins Dante highlights, and fitting nature of the punishments he imagines. Does the punishment reflect the nature of the sin or the consequences of the sin?
  • Note the persons Dante places in hell. Choose several persons, and reflect on both the literal and allegorical meaning of the representation Dante gives.
  • How and why is Hell a good creation of God? How does Dante come to understand this? How does this challenge and refine your own thinking about Hell?
  • How does Dante represent all of mankind—how do you see yourself in Dante? Begin with the three previous journal entries. How are your thinking and actions rooted in your own particular time and space? How are you personally warned or encouraged by the sins and punishments portrayed? How can both the literal and allegorical sense of particular persons and their particular sins help you see yourself and others more clearly?

Connections and the Great Conversation

Write a response to the reading and community discussion. What did you find most interesting (or odd, or convicting…)? Are there any common themes or ideas that you saw in your reading here and other books you have read? Are there any common themes or ideas from your Bible reading or recent sermons you have heard? Always be on the lookout for references to earlier or contemporaneous authors, ideas, and events—the ongoing Great Conversation.

  • If you have read the Aeneid, list several reasons why would Dante choose Virgil to be his guide through Hell and Purgatory?
  • Reflect on some of the literary and historical persons that Dante places in Hell. Are there any surprises based on your reading of other literature?

Links Worth A Look

Mother Culture Community

Mother Culture Community is an online fellowship of Christian classical home educators and other reading mothers (and aunts, and sisters, and grandmothers, and daughters), sponsored by The Reading Mother. Our mission is inspire our students in the pursuit of a life well‐read. We believe our own pursuit of a life well‐read is the best place to start.

Drawings for Dante´s Divine Comedy by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)