Okay, blame me as well for all the quoting of Dante I do on here, which is probably what put the idea into his head. So now you are going to be afflicted with what is most definitely not a reasoned work of considered literary criticism, so beware and be warned.
Why do you love Dante? Jeff asked me. And I have to answer, like all love, I don’t know why, I just do.
It happened way back when dinosaurs walked the earth and I was a fourteen year old schoolgirl in a convent school in a small town in south-east Ireland. In the classrooms, there was the detritus of past times with old bookcases bearing on their dusty shelves various long outdated volumes, from old textbooks to novels to ‘classics’ to improving literature of days gone by. Nobody, as far as I could tell, ever touched them. It wasn’t exactly forbidden, just that no-one much cared for what used to be the hit novels of the 1930s or odd volumes of the 1912 “ Encyclopedia Brittanica”.
No one, except me. I was (still am) an undiscriminating and voracious reader, and had by this time read my way through the children’s section of our small local branch library (you had to be at least sixteen to qualify to join the adult section). I fell on these quaint relics like a hyena scavenging after a lion and spent my break-time and lunch-time reading my way through the wreckage. That was the first time I encountered Shakespeare, before we officially did one of his plays for the English curriculum, and I was expecting it to be dull, obscure, difficult and dusty, if not downright boring (because the impression I had gotten was that Shakespeare wrote in verse, and all the verse we had done to date was just like that – and may I digress here to say, whoever made the teaching of poetry to young children that kind of an experience, I hope Cerberus is gnawing his entrails in Tartarus).
Instead, I had bells in my head. No, that’s not a metaphor. I thought Shakespeare would be obscure, and instead he used the same kind of words my granny did (the play was “Hamlet”, the footnotes gravely explained that when the text spoke of “walking abroad” it did not mean overseas as in current usage but rather outside, out of doors, and I didn’t need that explained because everyone where I came from would say of someone that ‘so-and-so was abroad in the yard’ when asked for a location). The words were striking against one another, chiming off one another, and I had bells in my head (and a sense of outrage that anyone would have given me the impression that Shakespeare was dull, of all things!)
Then came Dante. The Divine Comedy, in the Boehm edition of the Reverend Henry Cary’s 1814 translation. That started me off on reading as many versions as I could get my hands on, but still after all these years, I remember this one nearly the best, because it was the first.
And an unusual choice, at that. The Reverend Cary was of Anglo-Irish descent, a minister in the Church of England, and fairly evidently staunchly Protestant – to the point where, when translating the following
“In high heaven a blessed dame
Besides, who mourns with such effectual grief
That hindrance, which I send thee to remove,
That God’s stern judgment to her will inclines.
To Lucia calling, her she thus bespake:
“Now doth thy faithful servant need thy aid
And I commend him to thee.”
His endnotes render it that the “blessed dame” signifies “The divine mercy” and “Lucia” is “The enlightening grace of heaven”. So far, so good for an allegory, you may say, except that every single commentator since the poem was first read are in agreement that the “blessed dame” is the Blessed Virgin Mary and Lucia is exactly who she is represented to be – St. Lucy.
God bless the dear man, it was down to him that Dante was popularized (or rather, re-popularized) for the English-speaking world, thanks to Coleridge’s enthusiasm for Cary’s work in a lecture to the Royal Institution in 1819. So even though he was so Low-Church that he pretty much had to close his eyes to the overt Papism in the work (seriously, you have to be fairly determined to miss the point when, in a poem written by a Roman Catholic before the Reformation, you render a heavenly woman with intercessory power with God not as Mary but as a personification of mercy) he was obviously taken enough with its power and with a sense of its importance as a work of world literature to translate not just the Inferno (which failed on first publication) but the Purgatorio and Paradiso as well at his own expense.
Since then, everyone from Longfellow to Dorothy Sayers to Robert Hollander (the most recent translation) has had a go; the verse has been rendered in all metres and styles, there have been prose versions, there is even a 2010 Electronic Arts video game which is very loosely based on the “Inferno.”
Personally, I like the Hollander version but I can honestly say that every different translation I’ve tried has had good points and has added to my understanding of the poem. But why do I like the poem?
Well, firstly, it’s chock-full of everything including the kitchen sink. For a SF/Fantasy/Horror/genre fiction fan, it does read in parts like an early attempt at a fantasy novel. It’s got folklore, politics, cutting-edge (for the day) science, current affairs, gossip, mythology, religion, and good old-fashioned getting your own back at your enemies. Everyone has an idea of the “Inferno” but that’s as far as most people get, and it would be a shame to stop there. The “Purgatorio” may be a sticking-point if you don’t share that theology, and the “Paradiso” is hardest to get through: by comparison with the guts’n’gore action of the “Inferno” and the human interaction of the “Purgatorio”, the “Paradiso” has an awful lot of lecturing, scientific as well as moral, by Beatrice – mediaeval thought-experiments may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But it’s worth it, it’s definitely worth it; the poem is a unity and stopping at the first third gives a completely wrong impression (Dante as bitter exile indulging his grudges on his political enemies, or Dante as forerunner of the Romantic poets – see the varying interpretations of the Paolo and Francesca episode in the Circle of the Lustful, even Dante-as-proto Protestant, as some 19th century English-language commentators wished him to be, on the grounds of all the abuse he gives to Popes both in general and in named particular). Speaking only for myself, reading and re-reading it over the years, I find myself not so fascinated by the “Inferno” anymore, but constantly captured by the “Purgatorio” and finding new depths in the “Paradiso.”
I’ve never shed a tear for any of the damned in Hell, but Purgatory has me in floods every time. And Dante, I think, intends that. He doesn’t represent himself as perfect; Virgil scolds him several times in the “Inferno” and he admits frankly on the Mountain of Purgatory that he expects to spend a lot of time on the Terrace of the Proud after death.
There’s also a lot of humour in the poem, in unexpected places; in the “Paradiso,” when describing the Fourth Heaven, the Sphere of the Sun, where the Theologians hold court, he lists out twenty-four of the greatest intellects and deepest thinkers of the time – and amongst other descriptions, compares their movement in the heavens to the movements of a clock striking the hour going “ting-ting”. The mental image of these heavy-weight thinkers crossed with a little gilt carriage-clock (something like this?) just makes me laugh.
Also, for us skiffy fans, Dante is a fan-boy himself. The Divine Comedy (particularly the “Inferno”) could be described as fan-fiction, complete with Authorial Self-Insertion, Cross-overs and Real Person Fiction. Dante loves Virgil with all his heart, and that love comes through in the depiction of Virgil, who is interpreted as Reason (in some commentaries) but is much more than a stock allegorical figure going through the motions.
The only other work that matches up with the Divine Comedy is Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and its sequel, “Paradise Regained” (but come on, who reads the second part? I did, and I vaguely remember it deals with the temptations of Jesus by Satan during the forty days’ fasting in the desert, but apart from that, there are no memorable scenes that come to mind). I submit that, although it is a marvel of the use of the English language, I feel that it falls short. (I also have to admit here to personal bias; as an Irish Catholic, I am not really going to give a fair shake to a Puritan poet who was a friend of Oliver Cromwell, now am I?)
Milton is dealing with a different problem, if we take at face value what he says is the purpose of the poem: “To justify God’s ways to man”. I do wonder how much the 17th century poem is a response to the 14th century one; there are odd little echoes – both start off in Hell, both deal with events in Heaven, both incorporate Scripture, mythology, politics and culture – and again, deliberate differences. Obviously, Milton has no time for anything like Purgatory so that whole section is missing. And since we’re dealing with the Fall of Man, then the souls of the Blessed in Heaven are not there yet. Milton also does a very daring thing, in that not alone does he show Lucifer and the other devils speaking and setting out their side of the story, he enters into the councils of the Trinity where God the Father and Jesus are speaking before and during the War in Heaven – and I have to say, a lot of critical opinion thinks that the Devil gets all the best lines; as William Blake put in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”:
The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.
And writing in fetters is exactly how it strikes me when he’s writing of divinity; the war in Heaven is a strangely physical war, with angels and devils lined up in armies and exchanging blows with super-weapons, like an episode of some mecha anime. Or when Raphael visits Adam and Eve to fore-warn them, and sits down to supper with them – again, a very physical representation of an angel.
Well, there are the two great oppositions in poetry: the Catholic system in Dante (and as I keep saying, I get all my theology out of the Divine Comedy) and the Protestant in Milton – or am I assuming too much to say the Protestant, and not a Protestant system? That’s another part of the question. But for me, Dante wins, even though he’s the last of the Mediaevals and Milton is one of the vanguard of the Enlightenment. Both Milton and Dante move up from Hell to Earth; both deal with reference to a small area on Earth (Florence for Dante, Eden for Milton) and both give us a look into Heaven. But Milton comes down from Heaven and Dante moves up, and that, I think, makes all the difference. Dante is writing a contemporary account (the politics and concerns of the day) and Milton is casting a timeless history, yet strangely Dante has much to say to us today whereas Milton’s stately figures are static and frozen. Milton and Dante both use the “Aeneid” as a model, but though Milton’s language is beautiful, it is a marmoreal beauty, a Latin-inflected, Classical-influenced, classicizing version of English, while Dante was writing in the common tongue that the Jacks and Jills of Florence could read and had a huge influence on making the vernacular ‘respectable’.
Listen, if you want a good overview of the Catholic notion of Hell (including the old hypothesis of Limbo), Purgatory, Heaven, saints, intercessory prayer, and the like, then you still can’t do much better than Dante. And if you can read the “Purgatorio” without at least once having your conscience pricked about a pet sin or bad habit, then you’re going to fly straight up to the Empyrean and the White Rose of the Blessed when you die, unlike the rest of us fallible mortals who’ll be (if we’re lucky) making the rounds of the terraces of Mount Purgatory with Dante.
To sum up, what Chaucer said still holds true:
Whoso wol here it in a lenger wise,
Redeth the grete poete of Ytaille
That highte Dant, for he kan al devyse
Fro point to point, nat o word wol he faille.
(“Monk’s Tale”, The Canterbury Tales)