The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri is a remarkable epic poem that holds a prominent place among the greatest literary works. It takes readers on an unforgettable journey through the agonizing torments of Hell, the challenging ascent of Purgatory, and finally, to Paradise, a realm of profound serenity where universal harmony and eternal salvation prevail.
In Hell, depicted as a vast, funnel-shaped pit with nine concentric circles, the entrance is found through a cave. Each circle represents a different level of sin, with the lower circles indicating more severe transgressions. Situated beneath Jerusalem, the lowest point of Hell marks the precise geographical center of the Earth.
Every circle in Hell is guarded by a spirit from ancient mythology, and within each circle, countless sinners reside. Some sinners share their stories with Dante as he traverses through the depths. The entire journey takes place underground, devoid of sunlight. Dante is exposed to the agonized cries and repugnant stench emanating from the damned souls. Hell serves as the poet’s vivid portrayal of the state of perpetual suffering endured by sinners.
If you’re still undecided about whether to read this book, this review will provide you with a comprehensive overview so that you can determine if it’s worth your time. So, without further delay, let’s delve into it.
Table of Contents
The poet Dante takes an imaginary journey through hell in order to understand the nature of sin.
La divina commedia (The Divine Comedy), a journey of one man’s soul toward union with God, is divided into three parts:
(1) the Inferno (Hell), the region of eternal damnation for those who did not repent their sins before death; (2) the Purgatorio (Purgatory), where the souls who repented their sins are now purging their sinful inclinations before ascending to (3) the Paradiso (Paradise), the site of the pure souls who attain glory in their union with God.
To purge one’s soul of evil, one must first understand evil, and this requires a knowledge of hell. In The Inferno, Dante sends a fictitious traveler, also named Dante, on a voyage through hell, where his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, will take him down through the funnel-shaped pit of hell, consisting of nine concentric circles (i.e., circular rings that have a common center).
When they reach the bottom, they will witness souls suffering from the worst kinds of sin, and they will also see the monstrous devil Lucifer (Satan).
Cantos 1–2 (Dark Wood)
At the midpoint of his life (he is 35 years old), Dante has become lost in a “wood of sin” and cannot find his way out. Confronted with three frightful beasts—a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf—Dante does not know what to do. He is rescued by Virgil, who explains that they must escape the wood by a different path from the one they are now on.
Virgil, a voice of reason, has been sent by Beatrice (the deceased love of Dante’s life), who lives in heaven and who wants Virgil to guide Dante through the underworld of hell so that he will know how to avoid sin.
Canto 3 (The Indifferent)
Passing under the Gate of Hell, Dante is terrified by the inscription over the entrance: “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.” It is the first of many threatening situations where Dante moves forward only because of his faith in Virgil, his poetic inspiration.
All is dark and Dante despairs at the painful shrieks surrounding him. This is the Vestibule of the Indifferent, the “waiting room” for those who never took a stand for or against anything in life. Neither heaven nor hell wants them.
The two poets arrive at the river Acheron, where the demonic boatman Charon ferries thousands of dead souls across the river into hell. After fainting, Dante wakes up to find that an angel has transported him over the water.
Cantos 4–8 (Limbo, Incontinence)
The poets enter the first circle, which is known as Limbo and is inhabited by pagans, whose only sin was to have been born before the time of Christ. Their punishment is to live without salvation.
Next, the travelers enter the region of Incontinence, which contains four circles of sinful souls (often called “shades”) whose sin in life was their lack of self-control: lust; gluttony (overeating); avarice (greed) and prodigality (big spending); wrath (anger) and sullenness (ill humor). Beginning with the second circle—the lustful—and in every circle thereafter, the law of contrapasso, or retribution, is at work.
This means that each type of sin is punished in a way that fits the sin. The circle of lust contains those whose sin involved misdirected or uncontrolled lust.
Dante is deeply moved by the story of Paolo and Francesca, whose lives of adulterous passion have doomed them to being tossed about by hot searing winds. In the third circle, the gluttonous are punished with an eternal storm of cold, filth, snow, hail, and smelly garbage (instead of warm surroundings and delicious food, to which they had been accustomed).
Along with this, they are punished by the incessant barking and clawing of the demon dog Cerberus. Dante sees Ciacco (the “Pig”) in this circle, an acquaintance from Florence who was well known for his gluttony. The misers and spenders, who occupy the fourth circle, spent their lives obsessed with money, an act that the author considers to be a waste of time.
Their punishment is to roll huge weights endlessly around the circle. In the fifth circle of Incontinence, the wrathful and the sullen scratch and bite at each other while sunk in the marshy river Styx. This is punishment for having shown too much or too little anger, an emotion that affects one’s freedom and ability to act rationally.
Cantos 9–10 (Heresy)
The two poets take a boat across the muddy marsh and approach the City of Dis (hell), surrounded by a heavy mist. Here lies the sixth circle, home of the heretics (who rejected Church doctrine).
Their sin was Christian, not universal, so this group contains only a limited number of human souls. Since they corrupted God’s plan through use of their God-given intellect, they are punished by being buried in tombs of fire. One of these sinners is the well-known (in Dante’s day) political leader Farinata, with whom the poet argues about politics.
Canto 11 (The Pit)
From this point on, the travelers descend into lower hell—an even worse section—with its foul stench that rises up beyond the fiery tombs of Dis. As they pause to get used to it, Virgil explains that the souls in upper hell have committed sins that were not harmful to others, but that the souls whom they will meet in lower hell—the violent, fraudulent ones—are more evil.
Cantos 12–17 (Violence)
The seventh circle is the realm of Violence and is subdivided into three categories: violence against neighbors (murder, theft); violence against oneself (suicide); violence against God (blasphemy, disrespect) or against Nature (sodomy) and Art (moneylenders; those who practice the “art” of lending money at exorbitant rates).
Along the riverbank, Dante sees the guardian Minotaur (half-man, half-bull) and the Centaurs (half-men, half-horses), violent creatures armed with arrows. Immersed in this river of boiling blood (the Phlegethon) are the tyrants and murderers (violence against neighbors).
Chiron, leader of the Centaurs (and teacher of Achilles, the Greek hero in Homer’s Iliad), appoints Nessus to navigate the poets across to a ford over the river, where they enter a dark forest, the second ring of the seventh circle.
This is the dwelling of the suicides, who have turned into thick, brutish trees whose branches are continually torn off by giant Harpies (half-women, half-birds). When Dante breaks one of the branches, it bleeds.
The tree tells Dante that he had once been Pier delle Vigne, a loyal minister to the Emperor Frederick II, who lost Frederick’s favor when malicious court gossip ruined his good reputation. Rather than endure the false accusations, delle Vigne committed suicide.
He asks Dante to tell the truth about his loyalty when Dante returns to earth. Also in this region are the squanderers, people who had destroyed themselves by wasting their possessions and who are now naked men, attacked by vicious hounds.
Passing through a hot desert in which burning sparks rain down everywhere, the poets meet the blasphemers (represented by Capaneus), the sodomites (represented by Ser Brunetto Latini, a scholar who was probably Dante’s teacher), and the usurers (moneylenders).
Cantos 18–30 (Fraud)
Dante and Virgil leave the seventh circle of Violence, and mount the back of the winged monster Geryon, the guardian of the eighth circle—Fraud. On arriving there, they scramble down the rocky terrain of deceit, and meet whores, monks, popes, thieves, and counterfeiters—all punished equally without regard for their rank on earth.
The eighth circle, known as the Malebolge, or evil pit, is the dwelling of those who committed fraud against strangers: seducers and panderers (tormented by horned demons); flatterers (submerged in excrement); simoniacs (buyers and sellers of church offices—these shades now find themselves suspended head down in rocky holes); astrologers and magicians (with their heads turned backward); barrators (guilty of barratry, a fraud by a master or crew at the expense of a ship’s owner or cargo—these souls are plunged into boiling tar); hypocrites (who wear caps of lead); thieves (attacked by snakes); evil counselors (burned by flaming clothes); sowers of disharmony and scandal (perpetually wounded by a devil with a sword); and falsifiers (who endlessly scratch scabs on their bodies).
God loathes fraud more than violence because fraud involves a misuse of human reason. But the worst type of fraud—and the one that God loathes the most—is fraud against one’s family or benefactors. This sin is punished in the last circle.
Cantos 31–34 (Traitors and Lucifer)
Though it is almost dark, Dante sees what he believes to be towers, but which are actually giants in the center of hell’s pit. This is the ninth circle, realm of the traitors who lie frozen in ice.
Some can move and speak, but others are frozen solid.
Their sins have deprived them of speech, a basic human trait that other sinners have retained. Dante sees the spirit of the traitor Count Ugolino of Pisa, gnawing on the skull of the Archbishop Ruggieri, who had caused Ugolino to die of starvation in prison.
Dante realizes the seriousness of their sins, and no longer feels pity, only anger and disdain. He understands that these punishments are an essential part of God’s plan for justice in the universe. Immobile in the center of the ninth circle, as far away as possible from God, is the monstrous three-headed Lucifer.
A perversion of the Trinity, he chews in his three mouths the worst sinners of history—Brutus and Cassius, who betrayed the emperor Julius Caesar, and Judas, who betrayed Jesus. Upon seeing Lucifer, the travelers climb up through the earth and emerge on the shore of the mountain of purgatory, toward hope.
1. Meticulous Translation and Historical Context
Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy” is a masterpiece that stands the test of time, and one of the things I appreciate about it is John Ciardi’s meticulous translation. Ciardi’s version captures the essence of the Tuscan dialect, which later evolved into the Italian language. The attention to detail in the translation is commendable, and it allows readers to delve into the linguistic richness of Dante’s work.
Furthermore, understanding the historical context is crucial to fully appreciate the book. Dante wrote during the 14th Century, a tumultuous period in Western history. The world around him was in chaos, and he skillfully weaves his observations and reflections into the narrative. Without some knowledge of the time and place in which Dante lived, readers may find themselves confused or bored. I recommend reading “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century” to gain a deeper understanding of the historical backdrop.
2. A Unique Blend of Satire and Theological Exploration
“The Divine Comedy” is a relentless and satirical pseudo-theological exposition. Dante’s depiction of the afterlife is both fascinating and terrifying. He cleverly uses satire to criticize and condemn his contemporaries, placing them in various levels of damnation. However, it’s important to note that the book shouldn’t be mistaken as a definitive theological work or a representation of Christianity. Dante’s intentions were to create a nightmarish vision that would provoke thought and reflection, rather than providing a literal depiction of the Christian faith.
One of the intriguing aspects of Ciardi’s translation is his annotations. These annotations add an entertaining layer to the reading experience, as readers can explore the backstories of the characters Dante encounters. Many of these characters are obscure figures who have little historical significance beyond being mentioned by Dante. The annotations serve as a guide, providing additional context and allowing readers to engage more deeply with the narrative.
3. Complexity and Allegorical Richness
“The Divine Comedy” is a complex work that requires patience and attention, but the rewards are worth it. Dante’s allegorical journey takes readers through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Heaven (Paradiso), guided by various characters such as Virgil and Beatrice. Each part of the book offers profound insights into human nature, spirituality, and the human perception of life and the afterlife.
What sets Ciardi’s translation apart is the abundance of footnotes accompanying each canto. These footnotes are invaluable for readers who may not be well-versed in Greek mythology, Christian theology, or thirteenth-century Italian politics. They provide guidance and explanations for the references and allusions made by Dante, adding depth to the reading experience.
1. Overwhelming Endnotes
One of the aspects that bothered me about John Ciardi’s translation of “The Divine Comedy” is the extensive use of endnotes. While I appreciate the effort to provide additional context and explanations, I found that some of the endnotes went into unnecessary detail on minor points. Instead of concise and informative notes, there were lengthy biographies of historical figures or excessive astronomical and zodiacal explanations. This abundance of information disrupted the flow of reading and made it difficult to focus on the poem itself.
On the other hand, there were instances where the endnotes fell short. As someone trained in classics, I could catch the subtle intertextual references to Vergil and others. However, readers without a similar background may struggle to grasp these allusions, as Ciardi either ignores them or provides superficial treatment in the endnotes. This inconsistency in the level of detail and coverage in the endnotes made it feel like they were geared towards medievalist grad students rather than the average reader.
2. Lack of Comedy
Despite the title, “The Divine Comedy,” the book isn’t as funny as one might expect. I was hoping for a brand of comedy inspired by divine elements, but the humor fell flat for me. The stories were dark, scary, and sometimes even gruesome.
Instead of light-hearted comedy, the book delves into a nightmarish vision of the afterlife, which can be off-putting for readers seeking a more humorous experience. If you’re a humor lover, this might not be the right book for you.
3. Complexity and Challenging Language
“The Divine Comedy” is undoubtedly a complex work, and this complexity presents some challenges. The book requires readers to have a high reading level and a good understanding of various subjects, such as Greek mythology, Christian theology, and thirteenth-century Italian politics. For those who are not already well-versed in these areas, it can be difficult to fully grasp the significance of certain references and allusions made by Dante.
Moreover, Dante’s writing style, although elegant, lacks suspense and humor. While the poem is well-written and intriguing, it may not hold the attention of readers for extended periods. The lengthy descriptions and the absence of suspenseful elements can make it challenging to stay fully engaged throughout the reading experience.
“The Divine Comedy” is undeniably one of the most remarkable books ever written by mankind, particularly in its earlier versions. And when it comes to English translations, this particular rendition is arguably the best. Having read this work three decades ago and revisiting it now, I can attest to its enduring freshness and timeless appeal.
Dante Alighieri’s masterpiece delves deep into the complexities of the human condition, offering profound insights into our spiritual journey through life and our contemplation of the afterlife. Influenced by his personal exile and the political turmoil of his time, Dante expertly weaves together themes of church and state, providing a captivating exploration that has haunted humanity for centuries.
“The Divine Comedy” goes beyond its allegorical richness and reflective nature; it serves as a profound explanation of our human perceptions. It tackles the intricate connections between politics, society, and spirituality, offering an all-encompassing narrative that is seldom found elsewhere. Its impact is reminiscent of other notable works such as “The Union Moujik,” “Paradise Lost,” and “Animal Farm,” which share a similar depth and thought-provoking quality.
One reading of “The Divine Comedy” is not enough to fully grasp its magnitude. It is a book that demands multiple readings, each unveiling new layers of meaning and further enriching the reader’s understanding. It is a testament to the enduring power and intellectual depth of Dante’s masterpiece.
Dante Alighieri, born in 1265 in Florence, Italy, was a remarkable poet and visionary. He wrote extensively in both Latin and Italian, covering a wide range of subjects including philosophy, religion, government, language, and the nature of love. His studies encompassed Roman literature, the Bible, church history, and French and Italian love poetry.
During his youth, Dante developed a deep affection for Beatrice Portinari, whose influence gave rise to his literary creation of Beatrice. Unfortunately, due to political reasons, he was forced into exile from Florence in 1302. As a result, Dante spent his days as a wandering court poet, never to return to his beloved hometown.
Buy The Book: The Divine Comedy: Inferno
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