The first thing to do, I kept telling myself, is just sit down and read it. No one has read The Divine Comedy in one sitting, of course. To tell you the truth, I've never met anyone who's read it at all. My advisor in grad school, a professor of Italian history, once said to me, "No one reads The Divine Comedy anymore." At the time, I wasn't in a position to dispute the point.
Yet I've always wanted to read the Comedy. This has not been a persistent, nagging dream but a vague and fleeting aspiration, resurfacing only at times when I'd come across a translation—I've purchased a few over the years—sitting high up or low down on a shelf here at home. Spotting it, I would ponder whether to get rid of it and decide not to. I hadn't given up hope.
Sure, I got my feet wet a few times. I accompanied Dante and Virgil to Limbo and beyond more than once, but on each occasion I was soon brought up short by the incessant references—classical and parochial, political and theological—and the awkward rhyming. Another thing bothered me, too. Dante seemed so cock-sure about everything, parsing out subtle degrees of torment to his political opponents based of the gravity of their transgressions.
But last fall a book in a remainder catalog caught my eye: Dante in Love by A. N. Wilson. The catalog description is so good I'm going to reproduce it here:
[The author] here offers a glittering study of an artist and his world, with an eye toward readers who take it on faith that Dante's Divine Comedy is one of the great works of literature without having actually gotten through it. Wilson provides an understanding of medieval Florence, without which it is impossible to comprehend the meaning of this complex work, he argues. Wilson also explores Dante's preoccupations with classical mythology, numerology, and the great Christian philosophers, which inform every line of the Comedy, and explains the enigma of the man who never wrote about the mother of his children, yet immortalized the mysterious Beatrice.
The phrase "without having actually gotten through it" struck a chord. I ordered the book, but by the time it arrived I'd lost interest again, and it soon vanished into the shelves.
And then, one gray and vacant day in early January when I had nothing much to do, I spotted Wilson's book again and started reading.
The book might better have been titled: Dante—Love, Poetry, Art, Politics, and Religion. Wilson seems to have a handle on every aspect of Dante's world, and he tells a good story. I retained only a small portion of the material, no doubt, but it gave me a rough idea of the pertinent landscape, and knowing that the book existed, to be referred to if I ever needed clarification of Dante's text, made it much easier to finally forge ahead.
The French theologian Etienne Gilson remarks in the introduction of one of his book's about Dante that the Comedy is a "joy to read." I didn't find that to be the case. But Gilson read it in the Italian, whereas I had to make use of translations differing widely from one another. Always in the back of my mind was the thought: This doesn't have much flow. I'll bet some other translation is better.
The earliest of the translations I had within reach was a blank verse version by Lawrence Grant White (1948). This version never grabbed me in the slightest, and I made use of it mostly for the Dore illustrations, which are so literally rendered they're almost comical.
I read the Inferno in the Robert Pinsky translation (1994). I got to the eleventh canto before I noticed that it rhymes. I'm not sure whether that's good or bad, but once I'd noticed the rhyming, it slowed me up for a while.
I read the Purgatorio in the Ciardi translation (1957). Ciardi keeps Dante's terza rima scheme but skips the middle rhyme, which loosens up the language. The three-line stanzas made it easier to pause and consider what was being described, and I also liked the book's organization. Each canto starts with a brief editorial summary of the action and concludes with a few pages of detailed notes, so the reader, in effect, hears the same story three times. In the process, perhaps a little more of it sinks in.
I read the Paradiso in the Clive James translation, which is in rhymed quatrains. It has no explanatory apparatus of any kind, but it was the only one I could get at the library. Though James's wife is a Dante scholar, I believe James wanted to write a "page-turner" and was reluctant to interrupt the momentum of the narrative with scholarly encumbrances.
Here is the opening of Canto 23 of the Inferno, in each version. Canto 22 ended with a piece of wild combat between some flying demons and some lost souls who in life were grafters. The "we" is Dante and his guide, the Roman poet Virgil.
Wordless, alone, without an escort, we
Went on. One walked behind the one ahead
As minor friars do. Insistently
My thoughts were driven by these scenes of dread
To Aesop’s fable of the frog that tricked
The mouse into the stream and dived to drown
The mouse but when the mouse splashed the kite picked
The frog for its next meal and hurried down,
And both tales, for what happened at the start
And end, were just the same, the one aligned
With the other, and fear doubled in my heart
just as the stories echoed in my mind.
Lawrence Grant White:
Silent, alone and unaccompanied
We went our way, he first and I behind,
As Friars Minor go upon the road.
The brawl that I had seen reminded me
Of Aesop’s fable, where he tells the tale
About the frog and the unlucky mouse.
At once and now are no more nearly like
Than one is to the other, for they match
From first to last —as a keen mind can see.
As one idea will blossom from another,
So, out of that, another thought arose,
Which served but to intensify my fear.
Silent, apart, and unattended we went
as Minor Friars go when they walk abroad,
one following the other. The incident
recalled the fable of the Mouse and the Frog
that Aesop tells. For compared attentively
point by point, "pig" is no closer to "hog"
than the one case to the other. And as one thought
springs from another, so the comparison
gave birth to a new concern, at which I caught
my breath in fear...
Silent, alone, sans escort, with one behind
And one before, as Friars Minor use,
We journeyed. The present fracas turned my mind
To Aesop’s fable of the frog and mouse:
Now and this moment are not more similar
Than did the tale resemble the newer case,
If one is conscientious to compare
Their ends and their beginnings. Then, as one thought
Springs from the one before it, this now bore
Another which redoubled my terror...
None of them, perhaps, makes for an easy read. It becomes necessary, time and again, to pause and envision what's really going on.
The gist of the Comedy, as you probably know, is this: Dante finds himself in a dark wood, lost and uncertain where to go. He'd like to climb the hill in front of him (the hill of joy, evidently) but his way is blocked by three fierce beasts—symbols, perhaps, for various faults such as avarice, greed, and sloth, though we don't need to worry ourselves about that.
Suddenly a man appears, offering to lead him by another path. This shady fellow turns out to be Dante's literary hero, the roman poet Virgil. Virgil has been dead for some 1300 years, so his appearance comes as something of a shock to Dante.
Virgil offers to lead Dante out of his treacherous and depressing situation by another route. But as the two descend, Dante begins to lose heart and regret his decision. When he expresses his fears to Virgil, the poet tries to encourage him by revealing why he showed up:
"To ease your burden of fear. I will disclose
Why I came here, and what I heard that compelled
Me first to feel compassion for you: it was
A lady’s voice that called me where I dwelled In
Limbo—a lady so blessed and fairly featured
I prayed her to command me. Her eyes out-jeweled
The stars in splendor...
This woman is Dante's old flame, Beatrice, with whom readers in Dante's time would already have been familiar through his earlier works. She's worried about him:
... my friend—
No friend of Fortune—has found his way impeded
On the barren slope, and fear has turned him round.
I fear he may be already lost, unaided:
So far astray, I’ve come from Heaven too late.
Go now, with your fair speech and what is needed
To save him: offer the help you have to give
Before he is lost, and I will be consoled.
I am Beatrice, come from where I crave
To be again, who ask this. As love has willed.
So have I spoken. And when I return
Before my Lord. He will hear your praises told.
Thus most of the elements that will drive the narrative of the Comedy are in place. Dante will journey with Virgil through Hell and Purgatory, meeting a variety of characters from myth and history along the way, pagan and Christian, ancient and contemporary. And as the two poets approach Paradise, Virgil will step aside (not being a Christian) to let Beatrice herself takes over the tour.
A few of the episodes in the Comedy, mostly from the Inferno, are distinctive enough to have risen above the hurly-burly of the text to become, like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, elements of our broader cultural heritage—fodder for pub quiz questions, if you will. The adulterous lovers Paola and Francesca; the desperately hungry Ugolino, locked in a tower and his children; Ulysses abandoning his wife and child in Ithaca to sail out through the Pillars of Hercules in a tireless quest for adventure and learning: these are perhaps the most famous.
Though the landscapes are imaginary and the tale is pure fiction, Dante does his best to describe the terrain he and Virgil are traversing, level by level. In hell, the footing can be dangerous, the stench all but unbearable. Climbing the mountain of Purgatory through various canyons and crevasses is a considerable challenge, and here Virgil doesn't seem to know the way forward very well. Paradise is a strange place with blinding orbs, and Dante seems to be as interested in its construction as in its moral tenor. Like Hell and Purgatory, Heaven, in Dante's view, is made up of many levels containing souls with varying degrees of merit, arranged hierarchically. Evidently, some souls are more "saved" than others.
While he's journeying through the cosmos, the ever-curious Dante is naturally interested to know more about the strange things he's seeing, and most of one canto is devoted to Beatrice's explanation of what causes the Man in the Moon to appear on the surface of a perfect orb.
Dante is also deeply interested in the history not only of Florence and Italy but of the world. Most of one canto is devote to the Emperor Constantine, now in heaven, rehearsing the history of Rome, and in another he gets an earful from the law-giving Emperor Justinian. Naturally he runs into St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis. Modern readers will have a more difficult time getting a grip on the various popes and emperors whom Dante feels it necessary to meet up with and pass judgment on.
And what about Beatrice, whose name has become synonymous with the elusive feminine divine?
Her aura lingers over the entire enterprise, and scholars have debated the question exhaustively whether the woman Dante refers to and longs for in the Comedy is actually Beatrice Portinari, with whom Dante was smitten at the age of nine, or simply a symbol for theology, divine love, or some other concept.
This seems rather silly to me. Beatrice's signal quality throughout the Comedy is her gaze, sometimes enchanting, sometimes blinding. Virgil himself fell immediately under its spell, as the passage quoted above indicates. Her eyes out-jeweled the stars in splendor. Beatrice's voice is also compelling. These are not qualities we commonly associate with a concept or a symbol.
On the other hand, there is nothing especially "romantic" about the interest Beatrice takes in Dante. It was Saint Lucia, not Beatrice, who noticed Dante's quandary and urged Beatrice to lend him a hand, for old time's sake.
... Lucy, the foe
Of every cruelty, found me where I sat
With Rachel of old, and urged me: “Beatrice, true
Glory of God, can you not come to the aid
Of one who had such love for you he rose
Above the common crowd? Do you not heed
The pity of his cries? And do your eyes
Not see death near him, in a flood the ocean
Itself can boast no power to surpass?”
When Beatrice is escorting Dante through Paradise, explaining things, she often treats him dismissively. There are times, in fact, when she comes across as more than a little stuck on herself, as in this passage.
“If, in the warmth of love, I manifest
more of my radiance than the world can see,
rendering your eyes unequal to the test,
do not be amazed. These are the radiancies
of the perfected vision that sees the good
and step by step moves nearer what it sees.
Not wanting to seem vain, perhaps, Beatrice then tosses a backhanded compliment Dante's way:
Well do I see how the Eternal Ray,
which, once seen, kindles love forevermore,
already shines on you. If on your way
some other thing seduce your love, my brother,
it can only be a trace, misunderstood,
of this, which you see shining through the other.
Dante can be a little vain himself, as in this passage, where he addresses the reader:
O you who in your wish to hear these things
have followed thus far in your little skiffs
the wake of my great ship that sails and sings,
turn back and make your way to your own coast.
Do not commit yourself to the main deep,
for, losing me, all may perhaps be lost.
My course is set for an uncharted sea.
Minerva fills my sail. Apollo steers.
And nine new Muses point the Pole for me.
It's fair to say that while Beatrice isn't a symbol for anything, the Eternal Ray beams through her more than most. And eventually Dante catches on to the enormous love energy coursing, not only through Beatrice but through the universe itself.
Contemplating His Son with that Third Essence
of Love breathed forth forever by Them both,
the omnipotent and ineffable First Presence
created all that moves in mind and space
with such perfection that to look upon it
is to be seized by love of the Maker’s grace.
Therefore, reader, raise your eyes across the starry sphere.
Turn with me to that point at which one motion and another cross,
and there begin to savor your delight in the Creator’s art,
which he so loves that it is fixed forever in His sight.
And what about the poetry itself? When you're grappling simply to comprehend what's being said, it's hard to appreciate the lyricism line by line. Then again, I more than occasionally found myself abandoning efforts to catch Dante's intended meaning, giving myself over to the music.
Cosi la neve al sol si disigilla
Cosi al vento nelle foglie lievi
Si perdea la sentenza di Sibilla.
The Italian scholar Nicola Chiaromonte begins an essay with this passage, remarking: "Many will recognize these lines, 64-66 of Canto XXXIII of the Paradiso."
Many in Italy, perhaps, though somehow I doubt it.
So does the snow unseal itself in the sun,
So in the wind on the light leaves
The Sibyl’s utterance was lost.
They sound good, even in English. But when Chiaromonte sets himself the task of uncovering the grounds for their "emotional and magical power" he finds a merely sensual or aesthetic explanation inadequate.
Why? Returning to specifics of the tercet, he writes:
"Let us note its combination of natural facts—the snow, the sun, the melting of snow—with an image borrowed from the Aeneid, the Sibyl and her leaves lost in the wind. Such a combination is both typically Dantesque and characteristically medieval; but the precise placement of this pair in the poem is an essential cause of the emotion it stirs. Outside that context and apart from the struggle to express the inexpressible ... the impact of the image would be feeble. It is as impossible to abstract it from its place in the final canto as from its cultural context.
But the combined force of Dante's literary technique and his remarkable grasp of politics, science and history as they were then understood is still not enough.
Poetry, in order to be recognizable, must, after all, have reference to something beyond its natural and historic roots—something the poet shares with other men, contemporary or future. It must refer to a common reality, an enduring one, and one communicable in language even though language can do no more than point to it.
And what is the common reality that Dante so admirably captures?
The poet in his most inspired moments testifies to the ineradicable freedom of rapport between man and his world; and in so doing he refers us to a free, firm, and inexpressible reality that, though independent of his beliefs or premises, is yet the very thing that levels him to the common condition and allows his “frenzy” to become communication. And thus Dante, when most intent on expressing the absoluteness of the "eternal light,” gives us one of the most beautiful of all images of a totally different absolute: the absolute of transience and of mortality.
I couldn't have said it better myself; what it all means, exactly, I'm not sure. But my feeble and intermittent assault on the Comedy has convinced me that there's a good deal more to absorb within its pages than I've managed to do in my initial pass through that bizarre landscape.
The other day I ordered the Mandelbaum translation of the Comedy. Some people consider it the best modern version. We'll see. But having once accompanied Dante and his various guides from one end of the scheme to the other, I'll feel more comfortable lingering with this or that canto, trying to figure out what's really going on.