Dante, the Inferno, and me

Christ’s Descent into Hell, Style of Hieronymus Bosch, Netherlandish, 1550-60. ( Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Christ’s Descent into Hell, Style of Hieronymus Bosch, Netherlandish, 1550-60. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

All those ‘great’ films you haven’t bothered with (Citizen Kane, Patch Adams etc), are matched by the much harder challenge of great books that you haven’t opened. In truth, The Knife has been a keen reader all his life so far, but it took me to my 40’s before I really tackled Dickens, Homer, Tolstoy and the rest. Nobody even pretends to have read them usually, until middle age is an established fact.

One book which retains a certain ‘cool’ value though, mainly because of its title and associated spin offs, is Dante’s Inferno, basically best thought of by its less often used English title, Hell. Plenty of people will claim familiarity with all the buzz words: ‘circles of hell‘, ‘abandon hope’ etc. Don’t take this as proof of having read it.

The thing is though, this is a truly magnificent book for very many reasons, but don’t expect an easy ride when you start out. The language can be awkward, the big themes/sins can seem quaint to our ‘sophisticated’ 21st century mindsets (sodomy anyone?), and first time round, it’s almost essential to have a guide, in the form of good footnotes. Unless of course, you’re already au fait with Florentine 14th century bitching and points scoring.

Much of it is a form of high level gossip and retribution, with sin – very specific sins – humanity, morality, fear, regret (a lot of regret) and so on all thrown in. Strangely, in a way, God doesn’t feature in person , and Satan is essentially a failure.

The Knife first read it in the archaic Cary translation, whilst in Tenerife, of all places, though strangely appropriate. That was a difficult read, albeit offset by having Gustave Dore’s brilliant echt engravings. But that is at the heart of this post: as with all foreign language works, which translation assumes huge importance, and with the Inferno, there’s a lot of them (see here for just a few)


So I keep reading them, and here’s the take on four very different ones.

Hollander is a straight prose version, with the Italian original on the opposite page. He keeps the three line format (terza rima), but without the rhymes. The footnotes are probably the best that I’ve read, and the all important flavour of the work is pretty much spot on. The translator is totally immersed in Dante, and is a key part of the magnificent Princeton Dante Project.

Clive James, who I reckon is a brilliant poet, has completed a labour of love translating the whole of the Divine Comedy, and retaining the rhymes – although in a slightly different way to Dante – and doing without any footnotes, by incorporating whatever explanations seem to be needed within his text. A tall order, and only partially successful, in that you have to focus more than with the others. Best read in conjunction with someone like Hollander, but really, an amazing achievement. The rhyming thing is tough because Italian is full of ‘i’ and ‘o’ vowel endings, making it easy for Dante, but in English there’s nothing like as much choice, which lead to some fairly dodgy early translational efforts. James loves this poem though, and his introduction is an erudite and sharp reflection on the poem and his project. He’s an ill man, and it must be very satisfying to have completed such an epic and innovative slog before it’s all over. Reading the reviews is fascinating (such as 1, 2, 3) as they tell you a lot about the whole issue of translation, poetry and Dante’s uniqueness, as well as how prissy some reviewers can get.

Steve Ellis‘s is a great introduction, retaining some of the necessary intrigue, with just enough footnote work to guide you. It’s prose, with an allegedly northern English style, which I didn’t notice, reads beautifully. Writing complex compact themes with simplicity and concision is no mean feat, but that’s what Ellis achieves.

Sanders and Birk produced a real oddity, with Dante’s entire Divine Comedy rendered into straight LA dude prose. Like Clive James, they keep all the explanations in the text, and update a lot of the baddies. So, while medieval popes still take a hit, in the lists of people culpable of similar offences you’ll find US presidents, TV stars and references to contemporary events. Mostly though it’s played pretty straight, and the device of explaining as they go along works very well.  A noble effort, with illustrations like Robert Crumb channelled through Dore.

If  I was to recommend one version (from my experience so far) for the new-to-Dante reader who may be wondering what’s the fuss about a 700 year old poem suffused with traditional Christianity, then I would go for Hollander, with Ellis as back up.

One of The Knife’s regular amusements in considering the high culture of what we can still call Christendom, is the despairing efforts of atheists and non-believers in trying to claim great works of art for their own, devoid of the originator’s religious sensibilities. For example, here is the author of a book endearingly entitled The Good Atheist, on Beethoven’s religious meisterwerk, his Missa Solemnis:

His most ostensibly religious piece was the Missa Solemnis which was a hymn to deism, and evokes the ideal not of humanity managing to qualify for entrance into a distant heaven above, but..”of a sovereign humanity in ultimate concord  here on earth” 

Well, nice try, but not what the piece actually states, however much you like the music but reject the sentiments. Poor old Bach suffers from the same hasty judgements. Likewise Dante. If you happen to share Dante’s completely orthodox Catholic faith, then the whole Divine Comedy has infinitely greater depth and meaning. What’s more, the 700 year gap seems irrelevant, everything comes up completely fresh and biting. To quote the late historian J Rufus Fears:

The lessons of history endure, because human nature never changed. All the human emotions, are the same today as in Egypt of the pharaohs or China in the time of Confucius: Love, hate, ambition, the lust for power, kindness, generosity, and inhumanity. The good and bad of human nature is simply poured into new vehicles created by science and technology.

So Dante really is ‘contemporary forever’. While Purgatory and Paradise make up the rest of the Divine Comedy, it’s the Inferno that continues to seduce readers and translators alike with its bruising, reeking  journey of horrors, warnings and promises fulfilled. Its enduring popularity really is extraordinary when you consider the usual cultural priorities of 21st century civilization **. Next up in the reading list is Durling (prose), Pinsky (verse) and Ciardi (verse).

And, as you get older, these things seem to get more relevant.


**See Rod Dreher’s very fine recent piece on this.


The second circle of Hell: Lust. In Lego.
The second circle of Hell: Lust.
In Lego. (by Mihai Mihu)



2 thoughts on “Dante, the Inferno, and me

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s