Goodreads: The Portable Dante
Series: Divine Comedy, Part 1
Published: c. 1308-1320
In this first installment of The Divine Comedy, Dante finds himself lost in a dark wood facing three murderous beasts and unable to escape. But help arrives from heaven and the lady Beatrice requests Virgil to lead Dante on an extraordinary journey through hell, that he might arrive once more to see the stars.
The Inferno has a grotesque reputation. Artists such as Botticelli seem to have delighted in depicting souls in hell naked and contorted, each suffering a punishment uniquely suited to their sins–whirling winds for the lustful, rivers of blood for the violent, lacerations for the schismatics. It is true that Dante’s hell is full of unforgettable images and that they are not pretty. However, when I think of the Inferno, I do not think of ugliness and sin, but rather of beauty.
Dante’s poem and the world he creates in it reflect the order he sees in the world around him. Just as the angels move the spheres and God stands at the center of the universe, so his pen creates an ordered world, meticulously crafted in terza rima, each line interlocking, anticipating. 100 cantos form the entire Comedy; 33 for each of the three books, with an extra at the start to form a sort of prologue. Numbers are important to Dante, who associates three with the Trinity. Thus it is no mistake that he organizes his work so carefully around them.
Dante’s attention to structure does not cause his work to feel formal or stilted, however. His poem burns. Passion fills each line as he takes on apparently everything under the sun–politics, history, mythology, philosophy, and theology. Real people fill his hell, from old friends and acquaintances to characters from Homer or the Bible. He has no problem damning a few popes for eternity or even saying that one man’s soul has arrived for punishment prematurely, while a demon walks around in his body on earth!
Some have taken moments such as this to suggest that Dante is a rebel, unorthodox, perhaps not-so-Catholic-after-all. However, Dante is nothing if not Catholic. He may feel sympathy for some of the sinners, particularly the ones whose sins he shares, but he is just and he punishes these sins. And his commitment to rooting out corruption in the Church simply reveals his love for an institution he knows could be better.
The Inferno, courtesy of its shocking imagery, is the book of the Comedy most familiar to the general public. The really great thing about the Comedy, however, is that it gets better as it goes along. From hell Dante will emerge to see the stars once more, then travel up the mountain of Purgatory and finally through the planetary spheres of heaven. Even greater beauty awaits the reader of Dante.