Is Dante’s Ulysses a Heroic Figure? (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks


Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.


Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)


How do you interpret Dante’s Ulysses?  Is he a heroic figure or something else?

Is Dante's Ulysses a Heroic Figure?

In Canto XXVI of the Inferno, Dante and Virgil meet the shade of Ulysses, sentenced to eternal torment in the circle of the Deceivers. Ulysses tells how, as an old man, he set sail with a number of his faithful crew, desirous “to know the world and have experience/ of all men’s vices, of all human worth” (Inf. XXVI.98-99). When they reached the Pillars of Hercules, which marked the end of the known world, beyond which no man was allowed to go, Ulysses urged his crew forward with an inspiring speech:

“Consider what you came from: you are Greeks!

You were not born to live like mindless brutes

but to follow paths of knowledge and excellence” (Inf. XXVI.118-120)

The Portable Dante, trans. by Mark Musa

The crew sailed for days, until they saw a mountain in the distance. Then a storm appeared, which took the crew to their deaths.

Dante’s Ulysses is a remarkable figure. His quest for knowledge and adventure is truly inspiring. His words make his story come alive, with himself as the compelling hero of a journey into the unknown. And his desire is one that many readers will recognize in themselves: a thirst to know more, to test the limits of human understanding, to find out the secrets of the universe. As an intellectual, Dante very likely saw himself in Ulysses.

Interestingly, however, Dante has placed Ulysses in hell. He is implicitly condemning Ulysses for attempting to seek out knowledge that was not his to take. The mountain Ulysses saw in the distance before his death is the Mountain of Purgatory, suggesting that somehow Ulysses and his men were unworthy to approach it. Though Ulysses’ account of his final voyage is inspirational, readers must remember that he is in the circle of Deceivers. What Ulysses tells us–and how he tells it– cannot necessarily be trusted.

But Ulysses’ placement in hell does raise an interesting point. Since he is being punished for deception, does that mean that he is actually not in hell as a result of his quest for knowledge? Could the real sin be his deception of his men? He tells Dante and Virgil:

“not sweetness of a son, not reverence

for an aging father, not the debt of love

I owed Penelope to make her happy” (Inf. XXVI.94-6)

The Portable Dante, trans. by Mark Musa

could keep him home. This suggests that his last voyage is not quite as noble as Ulysses makes us feel it to be. It was not just a trip for knowledge. It was also a betrayal of familial ties.

I cannot be sure precisely why Dante placed Ulysses in his hell. Maybe he is condemning the search for unnatural knowledge along with Ulysses’ deception and his desertion of his family. I do know, however, that I can never fail to be moved by Ulysses’ speech. Whether he is right or wrong, his words lift me up, inspiring me to want to be greater than myself. His words echo across the ages, reminding readers: “You were not born to live like mindless brutes/ but to follow paths of excellence and knowledge” (Inf. XXVI.119-120).

All quotes from:

Musa, Mark translator. The Portable Dante. By Dante Alighieri, Penguin, 1995.

Should Readers Sympathize with Dante’s Famous Lovers, Francesca and Paolo?

Classic Remarks


Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.


Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)


Do you think readers should sympathize with Paolo and Francesca in Dante’s Inferno?

Should readers sympathize with Paolo and Francesca in Dante's Inferno?

In Canto V of the Inferno, Dante meets Francesca da Rimini in the circle of hell reserved to the lustful, along with her lover Paolo. There, they are being buffeted about ceaselessly by winds, to punish them for being guided by their passions in life. Dante asks how they came to this fate and Francesca explains how she and Paolo read a book together about Lancelot. Enthralled by the romantic story, they gave in to their own passionate desires. After hearing Francesca’s story, Dante faints in pity.

The meeting with Paolo and Francesca is one of the most famous scenes in Dante’s Inferno, one that has inspired many artistic renderings. Francesca, the only woman to speak in the Inferno, is a gentle-born noble who tells her story eloquently; it is truly difficult to listen and not to feel sorry for her. Does she deserve to be punished for love?

Readers who know more of Francesca’s background than Dante tells will also be aware that Francesca was married off to Giovanni Malatesta, an ill-formed man, in a political match. She ended up falling in love with Giovanni’s younger brother Paolo, and they carried on their adulterous affair until her husband caught them and killed them both. This knowledge makes Francesca seem even more sympathetic. She never asked to married to a man she did not love! She certainly didn’t deserve to die for it!

However, even though Dante’s description of Francesca and Paolo’s fall is sympathetic, readers have to keep in mind several other things that are happening in the text. The first consideration is that Francesca, and not Dante-Poet (the narrator) is telling her story. Of course she wants to sound sympathetic! But can readers trust her account of what it means to be in love? She is, after all, condemned to hell for the sin of lust. Dante-Poet is suggesting, by placing Francesca and Paolo in hell, that they were wrong. Readers should probably think twice about accepting Francesca’s story, and her interpretation of what love is, at face value.

Also interesting in this scene is that Francesca blames a book for bringing about her fall. She calls the book a panderer or go-between. Dante spent his youth writing erotic poetry–much the same stuff that Francesca says lead to her destruction. In this moment, Dante-Poet is reflecting on his own role as an artist, and the power that words hold. He is implicitly blaming himself for potentially leading readers astray with his earlier work. Now, however, in the Comedy, he uses his talents to try to make his readers understand the nature of sin and its ugliness, and how they should reflect on their lives in order to choose good instead of evil.

So are Francesca and Paolo sympathetic? Certainly! Even Dante-Pilgrim (the character our narrator Dante-Poet is writing about) thinks so! But Dante-Poet also suggests that if readers think the pair are sympathetic, there is something wrong with their perspective. They should never feel sympathy for something that is wrong. And that is the great power of Dante’s Comedy. All at once, he makes us feel the contradictions of what it means to be alive, and to be human. We feel sorry for Francesca and Paolo, and perhaps recognize something of ourselves in them, even as we recognize logically that we should not feel sympathetic for adulterers. How do we reconcile the two views? How do we accept our human emotions but also accept that perhaps there is something beyond emotion? That struggle is at the heart of Dante’s Comedy–and a key reason I keep returning to the text.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts and links in the comments below!

How Can Contemporary Readers Approach Dante’s Inferno?

Discussion Post Stars

To some, reading Dante’s Divine Comedy seems a hopeless task.  Written in the 1300s, it conjures up all the (incorrect) stereotypes readers have about the Middle Ages as a time of oppression where no one thought for themselves and everyone blindly accepted the teachings of the Catholic Church.  Of course, in reality lively debate thrived and plenty of non-religious material, including romances that might even celebrate adultery, circulated.  Like today, people were capable of independent thought and the members of a given audience were not likely all  to respond in the exact same way.  There’s no such thing as “people in the Middle Ages thought.”  They all thought different things!

However, other readers worry that the text is dry and dull, a religious tract that harps about sin and guilt and individual responsibility–stuff contemporary individuals aren’t supposed to worry about.  How on earth is someone who doesn’t believe lust is wrong or that gluttony or theft could potentially be worthy of damnation approach such an uncomfortable text?  The answer is the same as with any text–we have to begin by reading generously.

To read the Divine Comedy, we have to understand Dante’s internal logic.  This does not mean we have to agree with his logic or that we have to like everything it says.  It simply means we have to understand why he says what he says before we begin to criticize it.   Here are a few of the issues that trouble contemporary readers in the first part of the Comedy, the Inferno.

Why does Dante put people in hell? That’s mean!

From Dante’s perspective, he didn’t place these individuals in hell and neither did God.  The people had free will so they deliberately chose to separate themselves from God eternally.  To do this, they had to commit a mortal sin, which is distinct from a venial sin.  To commit a mortal sin, there must be grave matter (ex. murdering someone, not stealing an extra cookie from the cookie jar), the individual must understand the matter is grave (younger children or people with mental illnesses are less culpable), and the person must commit the act freely (not under coercion or because of a mental illness). So these aren’t just any people in hell.  They are people who knew they were doing something seriously wrong and separating themselves from God, but they did it anyway.  There are people who committed similar sins in purgatory and heaven, but these individuals repented and asked for forgiveness for hurting God and others.  In other words, by Dante’s logic, the sinners in hell are there because they wanted to be.

Why does Dante put the classical poets and other non-Christians in Limbo?  That’s mean!

First, we have to clarify that Limbo is not hell.  It’s a place distinct from hell and it was suggested as a way to deal with the problem of individuals who may not have committed personal sins or who lead upright lives, but who were not baptized.  The Catholic Church teaches that each soul inherits original sin from the fall of Adam and Eve, and this original sin needs to be removed through baptism for one to be able to enter heaven.   This original sin is different from personal sin, which an individual commits.   However, people were troubled that there might be an infant who died without baptism.  The infant would not have sinned personally, but would still have original sin on their soul.  Is it fair that the infant cannot enter heaven?  And what about individuals who lived before Christ and could not be baptized, through no fault of their own, but might have lead good lives regardless?  Enter the concept of Limbo.

Limbo has never been official Catholic Church teaching.  However, it seemed a clever way to deal with the dilemma of good, but unbaptized, individuals.  So Dante places classical figures he admires in Limbo because he does not want to place them in hell to suffer eternal punishment.  The souls in Dante’s Limbo do suffer because they know they will never be in God with heaven.  However, otherwise they are allowed to roam freely, to have intellectual conversations, etc.  Dante’s placing these souls in Limbo is, for him, a sign of respect and a sort of kindness.  He knows he can’t put them in heaven, but he’s not going to put them in hell, either.

Why does Dante condemn Paolo and Francesca for loving each other?  That’s mean!

Dante would not have understood Paolo and Francesca, the famous lovers from Canto V of the Inferno, as having loved each other.  Love works for the good of the other person, but what Paolo and Francesca did was not to seek the good of each other.  Rather, they fell prey to their passions.  Francesca, though married to Paolo’s brother, slept with Paolo–they committed adultery.  They are in hell, not for love, but for lust, meaning they used each other to satisfy their physical desires.

Francesca and Paolo come across to readers as very sympathetic because Francesca tells her own story.  She is a noble woman, courteous, well-spoken.  But she’s also a damned soul and her account of her sin isn’t supposed to be taken at face value by readers.  Dante-Pilgrim, the character in the poem, may feel sympathy for her, too, but he’s also just started his journey through hell and he’s been assigned to take this journey specifically because he’s in a bad spiritual state and not too great at recognizing the true nature of sin.  Dante-Poet, the man writing the Comedy, puts the lovers in hell because he’s already finished the journey and has come to understand the nature of sin.  Dante-Poet does not sympathize as much with Francesca and Paolo’s lust.

A closer look at the text can help us decipher Dante’s stance on this matter.  Take note who is speaking while you reading Canto V.  It is Francesca who keeps repeating the word “amor” or “love” in her account of her sin.  Dante, however, refers to the “disio” or “desire” that lead Francesca and Paolo into hell (Inf  V.113).  We have to make a distinction between what Francesca would like her auditors to believe and what Dante-Poet thinks of the matter.  The character does not necessarily speak for the author.


For Dante, it all comes back to free will.  Individuals are able to choose right or wrong, charity or a lack of charity, and then they must bear the consequences.  This does not mean Dante condemns anyone who commits a sin.  If you read on, you’ll see previously lustful souls purging themselves in purgatory or rejoicing in heaven.  You’ll see men who committed heinous crimes on their way to heaven, too.  While people are living, they always have the option to repent.  But Dante doesn’t want to sugar coat sin for his readers.  He wants them to come on his journey and recognize the nature of sin and its consequences, too, so they can reorient themselves towards God.

Readers don’t need to believe in God, to be Catholic, or to believe in sin to pick up the Divine Comedy or to engage with the questions it raises.  But we do need to know why Dante does what he does and to understand his logic before criticizing it.

Krysta 64

Classic Remarks: Is Dante’s Divine Comedy Still Relevant Today?

Classic Remarks

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.  Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating!  This week’s prompt is:

What relevance does a medieval text like The Divine Comedy have for readers today?

Dante’s Divine Comedy can seem intimidating and antiquated to contemporary readers.  A lengthy poem in three books narrating Dante’s physical journey through hell, purgatory, heaven, as well as his spiritual journey from sympathy with sin to a recognition of the wisdom and love of God, the Divine Comedy does not immediately strike many as interesting.  Indeed, its concern with the spiritual state of its protagonist and Dante’s belief that individuals have free will and can commit wrong are troubling to many who believe that truth is relative and that they cannot sin.  Distaste for the Catholicism that Dante embraces also causes some readers to want to give Dante as wide a berth as possible.

However, embracing or agreeing with Catholicism is not a perquisite to reading and appreciating Dante’s work.  At its heart, the Divine Comedy is about free will and the choices individuals, societies, and institutions make.  It is concerned with questions such as what the role of an artist is, how love and lust are distinguished, and how far an individual should pursue knowledge.  And it fearlessly engages troubling questions such as whether upright individuals who were not baptized should go to hell, how individuals who are kind and serve their city might still damn themselves, and the confusing nature of God’s mercy, which allows an excommunicated murderer like Manfred to be in purgatory on his way to heaven and the pagan Ripheus to be in paradise, but keeps Virgil in Limbo.  Dante’s struggles with the nature of choice, the seeming unfairness of life, and the attraction to behaviors that he understands to be wrong, are struggles contemporary readers still face.

Plus, the Divine Comedy is just great entertainment.  It is highly political, leveling criticism at the corruption of Florence and boldly chastising the Church for its greed.  Dante places familiar figures in his world, cheekily assigning his personal enemy Pope Boniface VIII to hell for simony, but also allowing readers to see and interact with other famous names from history and literature.  His imagination is stunning and though most readers focus on his inventive punishments in hell and the contrapassos (the punishments fitting the crimes), the terraces of purgatory are also richly drawn.  And the journey through paradise is a rather trippy adventure that has Dante travelling through the spheres, meeting the just rulers in Jupiter (who arrange themselves in aerial patterns much like marching bands today during sports events), being questioned by St. Peter about the faith, and approaching God Himself.

Dante’s ideas are far from outdated.  Rather, Dante engages with the puzzles and the problems that continue to engage readers today.  From concern about political corruption to musings on the nature of love, Dante restlessly probes the underpinnings of his world, seeking to understand them.  His restless mind and his devotion to seeking truth can continue to speak to and inspire us.

Did you write a post this week?  Leave your link in the comments!

Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri, Translated by Mark Musa


Goodreads: Purgatorio
Series: Divine Comedy #2
Source: Purchased
Published: 1985


Having emerged from hell to see the stars, Virgil and Dante continue on through purgatory.  There Dante witnesses the souls who delight in the punishments that purify them and allow them to see the face of God.


I have always been a little disappointed that most people only read Dante’s Inferno because I think the books increase in beauty as they go along.  Furthermore, only reading the Inferno gives some readers the impression that Dante delights in gore and in sending people to hell.  Maybe he does a little–Pope Boniface VIII sure receives no mercy from him–but Dante is also interested in divine justice, free will, charity, and the glory of God.  It’s hard to receive a well-rounded understanding of Dante’s understanding of these concepts when readers are stuck feeling miffed that Dante is being oh-so-judgmental and damning them for things many readers wouldn’t even call a sin these days.

Reading Purgatorio can help reveal more about Dante’s beliefs, however, as it shows souls guilty of the same sins for which some are burning in hell–but the souls here are on their way to heaven.  The difference?  These souls repented before they died.  The souls in hell knew they were committing a mortal sin and separating themselves from God, but they did not care.  They, in Dante’s view, chose their own destiny.  The souls in purgatory chose differently, allowing for what I think is the most beautiful moment in the trilogy–Manfred’s smile.

Manfred, you see, was an apparently utterly horrible person who killed a few family members during his lifetime as he sought to gain political power.  Most people wouldn’t expect to see him on his way to heaven and possible a good many people wouldn’t want to see him going to heaven.  But divine mercy knows no bounds and Manfred, who was excommunicated by the Church, tells Dante that “The church’s curse is not the final word,/ for Everlasting Love may still return,/ if hope reveals the slightest hint of green” (Purg. III.133-35). Talk about a powerful moment.

This moment also reveals another aspect that makes Dante so lively, so complicated, so perplexing, so alive.  Even though I have met some readers who have cast Dante as a curmudgeonly and apparently stupid (I know, I know) follower of the Church who can’t think for himself but blindly follows whatever the Church says, Dante is actually always questioning his own faith.  He’s grappling with the same problems readers are.  If these sinners are so sympathetic, why are they in hell?  If this guy was saved, why wasn’t the other guy?  How can it be that my favorite poet ever, Virgil, is stuck in Limbo just because he has the misfortune to be born before Christ?  Is any of this fair?  I don’t understand.  It’s true that Dante ultimately tends to confirm the wisdom of the Church, even if he doesn’t understand it and even if he doesn’t seem to like it, but he isn’t blindly content with it.  And he’s confident enough to believe he can question his faith and that, if it’s true, it will stand up to the test.

So cast aside your preconceptions of who Dante is and what he wrote.  The complexity, daring, beauty, and imagination of his work may surprise you.

5 starsKrysta 64

Dante’s Inferno Isn’t What You Think It Is


5 Things You Didn't Know about Dante's Inferno

Dante’s poetic masterpiece can seem intimidating, preventing  many a reader from picking it up.  Even so, it has entered our cultural consciousness and it can feel like we know Dante even if we have never read him.  But not everything you may have heard about Dante is true.


Beatrice Isn’t Really Dante’s Lover.

According to the Vita Nuova, Dante first sees Beatrice when the two are nine.  She is dressed in crimson, the color of charity.  From that moment she becomes for Dante a physical sign of divine love, always pointing Dante towards the greatest good, God Himself.  The two are never involved romantically and are, in fact, married to two different individuals.  After Beatrice’s early death (cause unknown), Dante resolves in the Vita Nuova to write no more until he can write something worthy of Beatrice, the blessed one.  That work would become the Divine Comedy.

Beatrice Doesn’t Lead Dante Through Hell.

Beatrice’s role in the Inferno is to descend from heaven to ask Virgil to leave his place in Limbo and lead Dante through hell so that he may understand the true nature of sin and repent.  Beatrice will not appear again until the end of the Purgatorio, just in time to answer some of Dante’s questions and guide him through heaven in the Paradiso.

The Inferno Isn’t All About Gruesome Punishments.

The Divine Comedy is an intricate work that mirrors the order of God’s universe.  The whole work contains 100 cantos–33 for each book plus an extra one to serve as an introduction to the Inferno.  Each canto is written in terza rima, a complex rhyme scheme that goes aba bcb cdc, etc.  Dante is very interested in using his creation to reflect God’s work and his poem is an extended look at divine justice, divine charity and mercy, and the nature of free will.  His work is full of philosophical and theological musings, as well as moving histories of the people who populate his hell.  Even though pop culture focuses on the gore and horror, there is a lot more going on in his work.

Dante Sometimes Struggles with Catholic Teaching.

In Canto V, Dante meets the lovers Paolo and Francesca, who had an adulterous affair and now suffer eternally for their lust by being buffetted by winds.  He feels so much sympathy for them (and perhaps some guilt over his own role encouraging lust through his older love poems) that he faints.  This is just one moment in which Dante seems to struggle with the teachings of the Church, sympathizing with sins he himself might be guilty of.

In other moments, he questions why his models such as Virgil and the other virtuous pagans must suffer in Limbo by being separated eternally from God.  They lead upright lives, but, because they were born before Christ, they could not be baptized and go to heaven.  It all seems so unfair!  Far from accepting whatever the Catholic Church says without any thought, Dante reveals a questioning and curious mind, one that modern readers can relate to.

You Don’t Need to Know Everything About Everything to Understand the Inferno.

Theology, science, politics, history, classical writers, Italian poets.  The allusions throughout Dante’s work can sometimes feel overwhelming.  However, you don’t need to understand everything about European history and politics to follow the trajectory of the poem.  If you get a translation with a few good footnotes, you’re on your way.

Krysta 64

Inferno by Dante Alighieri, Trans. by Mary Jo Bang

Inferno Mary Jo BangINFORMATION

Goodreads: Inferno
Series: Divine Comedy #1
Source: Library
Published: 2012


Lost in a dark wood, Dante receives the gift of being guided by Virgil through hell, that he may see the effects of sin and transform his own life.  But in Mary Jo Bang’s take, Dante’s original allusions and metaphors are changed to speak to the modern reader.


Mary Jo Bang’s reasoning for a new translation makes sense when she explains it.  “I wanted to…create an English-language version of the Inferno that would adhere to the original but would seem neither remote in time nor elevated in diction,” she writes in the introduction.  “I thought one way to do that would be to allow the poem to speak with intimacy about the world we live in: the postmodern, post 9/11, Internet-ubiquitous present.”  So far, so good.  She wants to make an old book come alive for those who might think an old, religious work too boring or dry.  But then she explains her method.

To appeal to a modern audience, Bang changes the allusions, references, and metaphors.  She explains, for example, that “few of us use bows and arrows, so when a boat comes across the pond of  Styx ‘faster than an arrow,’ the comparison can feel alien and trapped in the distant past.  But an Ultimate Aero, one of the fastest production cars in the world…that’s an arrow that feels one with our culture…”   And you can see all the assumptions that come into play.  Modern readers just don’t know what these arrow-things are.  Or maybe they just can’t relate to something that they have never seen in real life.  Saying “like an arrow” doesn’t mean fast to a modern reader.  Referring to an Aero does.

Well, I don’t know about most people, but I sure know what an arrow is and what it looks like.  I’ve seen enough movies and Olympic footage that I understand an arrow is fast.  I don’t consider it an antiquated reference beyond my ken.  But you know what is beyond me?  An Aero.  I’d never heard of one before I read this translation.  Even though my modern mind is supposed to allow me to understand it better.

Most of the substitutions in this translation made just as little sense to me.  There are lines rewritten to refer to Shakespeare plays, but I am not not sure what this adds.  Ulysses makes a Star Trek reference.  I guess we’re supposed to relate his intellectual curiosity to space exploration?  Is that really what modern people think of when they think of the limits to human understanding?  I would have thought there would be a reference to more morally grey areas like embryonic stem cell research or weapons manufacturing.

And then there are plenty of allusions I did not even catch because I’d never heard of the works they come from.  Many times when Bang replaces a name or a reference, she includes a footnote because apparently readers will not know there is a reference or what it refers to.  But…if the point is to be more accessible, would that not mean fewer footnotes?  If you are going to replace the names of demons with allusions to Nazis I’ve never heard of (apparently “Barbie” is not a reference to a doll but to a Nazi) and then provide footnotes, would it not make as much sense to leave the original names and footnotes?

And how are we to take this?  Dante is said to admire Ernst and Darwin.  But the action of the story takes place in 1300.  How does he know Ernst and Darwin?  How can he make an allusion to “Barbie?”  Perhaps to wonder is to overthink.

Furthermore, to make the text more accessible, Bang uses a lot of slang, colloquialisms, and informal speech.  Here you have Dante referring to himself as a “sad sack” and Virgil calling someone else a “knucklehead.”  Capanaeus, hurled from the wall at Thebes for blasphemy, is said to have “Humpty Dumptied” off the wall.  Suddenly he has less dignity than I imagine Dante wished to depict him having.

Bang carefully makes sure to translate the famous scenes in a more straight-forward manner, so at least Paolo and Francesca, Count Ugolino, and some of the others are not accidentally turned into a bit of a joke.  Because it really is hard to take the work seriously sometimes.  Dante, lost in a dark wood, says the she-wolf has a “bitch-kitty face.”  Virgil asks why Dante does not “climb the meringue-pie mountain ahead of you?”  Knowing this is an allusion to Gerard Manly Hopkins does not make associating Purgatory with pie less amusing.  At times the work does what Bang wants it to do–it seems lively and modern and not at all stilted.  But so often it’s just so  accidentally funny.

I’ve always read the Mark Musa translation of The Divine Comedy, which gives Dante a sense of dignity that I find more fitting–and that I, incidentally, never found stilted or antiquated.  So reading this as my second translation was a huge jump.  I want to appreciate the work Bang has done, since I do think she might be appealing to an audience that would not normally pick up the Inferno.  But I sometimes wonder, at what cost?

3 starsKrysta 64

The Inferno by Dante Alighieri, Trans. by Mark Musa

Classic Literature Event

Goodreads: The Portable Dante
Series: Divine Comedy, Part 1
Source: Purchased
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.

5 starsKrysta 64

La Vita Nuova by Dante Alighieri, Trans. by Mark Musa


Goodreads: The Portable Dante
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1295


In a combination of poetry and prose, Dante reexamines his approach toward writing and his experience of the courtly love tradition.  This is the work that will lead him toward an understanding of what Beatrice means in his life and prepare the way for The Divine Comedy.


Before Dante lost himself in a dark wood, he had another life-changing crisis–or so we are to believe from the Vita Nuova.  In this book, composed of both poetry and prose, after the fashion of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Dante examines the value of his life’s work, interspersing poems from his past in a prose frame that comments upon and reinterprets them; while he once seems to have been tempted by the ideal of courtly love celebrated by other poets, he begins here to turn from that ideal and to focus on the meaning of Beatrice–or divine revelation or love.  Through a severe self-reflection, Dante reimagines himself as a poet and promises to write of Beatrice “that which has never been written of any other woman” (Musa 649).

In his introduction to The Portable Dante, Musa suggests that most of Dante’s poems are, in fact, not that great–or at least that other poets of the time were superior to him.  Perhaps this is true; I am not sure how well one can judge from a translation.  However, I admit that I do not find the majority of Dante’s poems particularly compelling–they seem to vary from the very straightforward to the extremely obscure.  Why is Beatrice eating your heart, Dante?   This is weird.

So I admit I do not read the Vita Nuova because I want to read Dante’s poetry, but because I am fascinated by his ability to reinvent himself.  He wrote his poems before he conceived of the Vita Nuova, but here he fashions them in to a tale of artistic and spiritual awakening, dwelling on the shame he feels by having spent his poetic talents on lesser subjects and having left the pursuit of Beatrice/the divine life for Lady Philosophy.  This is all the more compelling because it seems that after he wrote promising to turn back to heavenly contemplation, he wrote the Convivio, an unfinished encyclopedic work in which he pursues philosophy once more.  Dante was nothing if not a man of contradictions!

Here, however, the focus remains on Beatrice, the woman who was not Dante’s lover as some might believe, but instead the sign he found in a human woman of God’s infinite love.  He recounts here  his first alleged sight of Beatrice when he was nine, the effect of his greeting him, the way in which she inspired goodness in others and left a city desolate when she died.  Dante almost seems to verge on the blasphemous, comparing his lady to Christ, her coming announced by Giovanna–that is, John the Baptist.  And yet Beatrice is so much more to him than an idol or even a crush.  She is something mysterious, almost ineffable–God’s presence on earth, a sign pointing to God.  And yet always herself.

The complexity of the work, both with its tantalizing details–how much is real for Dante and how much is invented for the story of Dante the poet?–and its grappling with issues of human understanding and human life, make it an intriguing read.  Dante is never predictable here, never didactic, never sentatious.  He is a man with an extraordinary mind, probing what is known and what can never be known.  Restless, eager, fearless, he questions everything–and happily invites us along on his journey of self-discovery.

4 starsKrysta 64

Dante in Love by A. N. Wilson


Goodreads: Dante in Love
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 2011


Wilson offers the general reader an introduction to the world of Dante, covering topics ranging from the political and religious scenes of his day to medieval biography, the influence of Beatrice Portinari, and Dante’s lasting legacy.


Wilson begins his work by assuring his audience that they do not need to understand everything about Dante, theology, Florentine politics, and classical literature to approach the Commedia, but that the general reader can and should try to engage with this remarkable poem.  To help them feel more at ease  with Dante, he writes a lively introduction to Dante’s world, organized somewhat thematically, covering such topics as the political landscape, the papacy in politics, and the literature that influenced the Commedia.  His tone is casual and conversational, making it seem as if a good friend has come to discuss his favorite book, rather than overwhelm one with a scholarly work.

This is the fourth time I have read Wilson’s book; I always do so before beginning a reread of The Divine Comedy.  I find Wilson’s style light and his topic engrossing; the weird politics of medieval Europe often prove more strange than anything I have found in a work of fiction.  Reading Wilson’s work proves interesting on its own.  Combining it with The Divine Comedy, however makes it even more powerful.  It makes reading that book feel more comfortable.  It is true one does not need to understand the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, or Boniface VIII, or medieval autobiography, fully to appreciate it–but it definitely makes me appreciate the breadth and power of the poem even more.

Sometimes Wilson seems to promise discussions of topics he never delivers and there a few typos and grammatical errors.  These issues I can overlook. I am more troubled by Wilson’s apparent personal bias against Catholicism, which is subtle but manifests sometimes in asides about the modern Church.  These seem a little out of place in a discussion of Dante; reading an author’s work usually begins by reading generously and sympathetically.  Dante, even though he critiques the Church, remained an orthodox Catholic.  I do expect an author writing about Dante to remain more unbiased.  I will admit, though, that some of Wilson’s other personal asides are pointed and funny, such as his line about divine wrath and Dante’s wrath perhaps being the same thing (in Dante’s mind).

These are minor criticisms.  More importantly, sometimes the whirlwind of politics seems overwhelming even in this accessible volume.  I rather wish Wilson would provide more dates and maybe even a timeline of events so I can keep track of emperors, kings, and popes more easily.  I realize Wilson says one doesn’t need to be an expert in the politics of the day–and I agree.  And yet I still wish I could gain a better grasp of those politics.

Despite these issues, however, I thoroughly enjoy Wilson’s work.  He makes Dane and Dante’s world seem exciting and accessible.  I love The Divine Comedy and anything that encourages more readers to try it is something I can’t help but approve.

4 starsKrysta 64