Reading Dante

So I’m back with Dante, reading his famous ‘Divine Comedy’.Dante

About six years ago I started the work, reading through the Inferno (about hell), and getting about a quarter of the way into the Purgatorio (about purgatory). I have no memory of the reasons why I stopped reading. I don’t think I actually quit, I think I just fizzled out.

Well, I’m back, and yesterday I passed the point in the Purgatorio where I fizzled out. And I am really enjoying Dante.

The big picture of the work is of Dante the Pilgrim (an artistic creation of Dante the Poet) being taken on a guided tour of the afterlife – Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Such a tour can’t be taken without a guide, and for the Inferno and most of the Purgatorio Dante’s guide is Virgil, author of the Aeneid and Dante’s poetic hero, a ‘virtuous pagan’ who lives in Limbo, not Hell proper, because he did not have the chance to respond in life to the Christian revelation.

Apparently Dante himself pointed out that the ‘Comedy’ could be taken on both literal and allegorical levels. Taken literally, as I said, it is a journey through the afterlife. In Hell, Dante and Virgil explore the various ‘circles’ in which difficult classifications of sinners are punished, moving further and further down until they reach the centre of the earth where they find the figure of Lucifer himself, frozen in the ice (yes, to Dante the centre of the earth is cold, not hot). They then climb out to the other hemisphere of Earth and begin to climb the steep mountain of Purgatory, where, after a short time spent in ‘antepurgatory’, the place where sinners wait to begin their necessary cleansing, they ascend through seven ‘circles’ in which people are cleansed successively from each of the seven deadly sins before entering the earthly paradise, the garden of Eden, at the top of the mountain. (I say nothing about the Paradiso because I haven’t gotten that far yet.)

But at another level, the allegorical, the work describes the progress of the work of God in the lives of living human beings on earth. And at the moment (I’m at about Canto XIV of the Purgatorio) there are three things stand out for me about that . First (and I won’t go into specifics), in the Inferno the punishments sinners experience are related to their besetting sins and in fact tend to be not so much punishments as the natural negative consequences of the choices they have made. In other words, sin is itself its own punishment. That seems to me to be a remarkable insight (not unique to Dante, of course, but remarkable nonetheless).

Second, Dante assumes (along with many other medieval authors) that sins are basically disordered loves. Our fault is not that we don’t love, but that we love the wrong things, and in the wrong way. Dante would not have believed that ‘love is enough’; it needs to be the right kind of love, and directed toward the right object(s).

Third, the movement through Purgatory (which I assume to be about the beginning of the work of God’s grace in the life of a Christian) moves in an orderly fashion through the seven deadly sins, beginning with the deadliest (pride), and moving on through the other six. In other words, it isn’t a haphazard thing. Progress means learning to grow out of these deadly sins, and it can’t be short-circuited; if we don’t deal with them (or, if we don’t let God deal with them in us), we can’t move forward.

This is a progress report. I feel in my bones that I’m not going to fizzle out this time. Meanwhile, as Dante sometimes has pilgrims in Purgatory asking the folks on earth for their prayers, so I could use the prayers of my readers as I keep going!

Technical details: I’m using Mark Musa’s excellent blank verse translation; his introductions and detailed notes on each canto are very helpful. Here are the links on Amazon:




I was first attracted to Dante by reading the blog of my dear departed friend Joe Walker; his notes on Dante are excellent.

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