Allen Mandelbaum, Translator
Bantam Classic, 1980
Finishing Inferno, I have the feeling of completing something quite satisfying. I say this not for the feeling of success (or relief) that may come with finishing a challenging read, but because of the story itself—despite the endless references to people, places, and events better known to Dante’s contemporaries than to 21st century readers, it still manages to engage, to draw in, especially in the closing cantos. It also leaves a slight dangling end—Dante leaving Hell and about to enter Purgatory—and I suddenly find myself with a stronger desire to read the middle book of the trio than I heretofore have had—the “what happens next?” effect.
As I was reading this past week, one thought that kept running through my mind was how grounded in time and place Inferno is. Most of the sinners Dante encounters as he journeys through the circles of Hell are his (recent) contemporaries, although some are from the writings of Virgil and Ovid, among others. The historical events mentioned are similarly mostly contemporary to Dante. Doubtless his 14th century readers would have understood who and what these people were without needing quite as much reliance on end notes as I. I began to wonder just why it is that we still read The Divine Comedy—it seems to belong to Late Medieval/Early Renaissance Florence more than to today. And yet, who these people and what these events were, in reality, are ultimately only tangential to the story Dante is telling: that of his descent through Hell. Although I faithfully flipped to each end note as I met a new character I did not recognize—not out of a sense of obligation, but because I couldn’t seem to help myself—it is not their names or their personal earthly histories that I remember, but the punishments for their sins. Whatever else Dante may have been as a writer, he was certainly very inventive, and I am not sure I will forget some of his imagery easily.
Although I am not a reader who often really notices the great passages, the words themselves, it was Dante’s words—and imagery—that drew me in here. Usually, I find myself so engaged with the story, that I fail to notice the structure of it. Reading an epic poem like this, however, sometimes redirects my thoughts, as what is being said is not always straightforward, but requires a slow reading and rereading. I particularly enjoyed the following:
As many as the fireflies the peasant
(while resting on a hillside in the season
when he who lights the world least hides his face),
just when the fly gives way to the mosquito,
sees glimmering below, down in the valley,
there where perhaps he gathers grapes and tills—
so many were the flames that glittered in
the eighth abyss; I made this out as soon
as I had come to where one sees the bottom.
Even as he who was avenged by bears
saw, as it left, Elijah’s chariot—
its horses rearing, rising right to heaven—
when he could not keep track of it except
by watching one lone flame in its ascent,
just like a little cloud that climbs on high:
so, through the gullet of that ditch, each flame
must make its way; no flame displays its prey,
though every flame has carried off a sinner.
(Canto XXVI, 25-42)
Although perhaps not one of the more memorable passages of the poem, I love this extended simile, the drawing out of the words as Dante takes his time letting us know that there are a lot of sinners in this circle.
Nor was Dante limited to his poetic devices. The stories, the punishments, the histories could, at times be quite compelling even without the poetic form. (I admit, however, that in some of the earlier circles, I was not as interested in the sinners or their penalties, as at times it seemed more that Dante was revenging himself upon his enemies than writing the greatest Italian epic.) Certainly, the tale of Ugolino in Canto XXXIII is gut-wrenching, and so powerful, it almost takes away some from the final horrors of Judecca. (Granted, Ugolino has the powers of speech still, while these final sinners do not.)
I was also intrigued by the way Dante combined the mythologies of Classical Antiquity with Christian traditions. Not only are some of the sinners he encounters figures from these stories, but some of the structure of Hell seems based upon these old stories as well. It is Charon, from the Aeneid, who transports Dante and his guide Virgil across the Acheron. The rivers in Dante’s Hell—Acheron, Styx, Phlegethon, and Cocytus—all make appearances in the Aeneid as well. I find it interesting that in this way Dante seemingly legitimizes these ancient stories. Doubtless his clear adulation of Virgil comes into play here, but I wonder if it also prefigures the rising interest in the Classics of the coming Renaissance.
I read Inferno both as part of Richard’s readalong, and also for my own Personal Great Books challenge. This was certainly a “great” book to begin my search for an answer to what makes a book great—in my musings over it, it is not hard for me to agree that it is indeed one of the classics, and deserves to still be read. Better yet, after 34 cantos of Dante, I really want to read Virgil’s Aeneid now.