I guess it’s too late to warn you. Your resolutions are already likely in full swing. In 2014, I’m going to ___________! You’re committed, you’re purposeful and you have not yet reached that point where you think meh, I really don’t feel like ____________ing today.
On January 1, 2012 I brashly declared a resolution to re-read one book of The Divine Comedy each year. How literary of me, right? No question that this is a worthy goal, and certainly a manageable one – at 400 pages, including notes, one should be able to zing through The Inferno in a week, or two, if you’re really studying it.
But there are always other books to be read concomitantly, and I chose a too-ambitious project of reading several translations together at once to better understand the differences among them. And thus, midway through the journey you might say I found myself within a dark wood. Because by the end of 2012, I was but halfway through Hell.
But, like Dante himself, I plodded on through ring after ring of Hades, finally completing my task in December, 2013. It was less a triumphant moment than the need to get the infernal stack of books off the dining room table that we use once a year for Christmas dinner. But I did it, although I must admit that by the time I finished, I felt like I’d been through, well, Hell.
Regular readers of this blog may be surprised to learn that I get multiple “hits” each day on my Divine Comedy entries. If you came here today to be entertained by chickens, or see more holiday family photos (surely you are sick of those!) you’ll have to, so to speak, go to Hell instead. Because that’s where we are headed.
The first time around, I read the Dorothy Sayres translation of The Inferno, which doesn’t seem to get that much love these days, but I thought it held up fairly well against this latest reading of five other translations, which I read simultaneously. They included, from my least-liked to favorite:
Translator: The Reverend Henry Francis Cary, with illustrations by William Blake. Published 1931
Translator: Charles Eliot Norton, with illustrations by Botticelli. Published 1955, a limited edition of 300 copies.
Translator: Thomas G. Bergin, with illustrations by Leonard Baskin. Published 1969.
Translator: Allen Mandelbaum, with illustrations by Barry Moser. Published 1980.
Lastly and best of the best is the wondrous achievement from Robert and Jean Hollander. If you are going to read only one translation of The Inferno it should be this one. The verse is – dare I say – divine – and the notes are brilliant. Published in 2002. No illustrations but the Hollanders paint as vivid a picture of Hell as you could ask for.
The differences in the translations can be minor, and yet just a phrase differently put can tilt the reader’s understanding, as here in the famous line from Canto III:
Norton: “Leave every hope, ye who enter!”
Bergin: “Bid hope farewell, all ye who enter here”
Mandelbaum: “Abandon every hope, who enter here.”
Hollander: “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.”
The Hollanders reminded me, in the notes for Canto V, that Dante had not read Homer, whose work only became available in Latin translation much later in the 14th century. So he wasn’t carrying around copies of The Iliad and The Odyssey as fodder for the many and varied classical allusions with which The Inferno is peppered. But he knew his Virgil, who, of course, traverses Hell along with him as teacher, mentor and companion. And so should we, as I realized part way through my reading. The Aeneid is truly a prerequisite for The Divine Comedy and it is, by the way, also a joy to read. I recommend the Fagles translation.
Whether or not you believe in the concept of Hell, Dante serves up many reminders of how we might better spend our time here on this planet. In Canto V, the adulterous Francesca Rimini tells Dante “There is no greater sorrow than thinking back upon a happy time in misery” (Mandelbaum)
and you may want to make note of the fact that there is a circle of Hell reserved specifically for The Sullen:
“Son, now see the souls of those whom anger has defeated;
and I should also have you know for certain that underneath
the water there are souls who sigh and make this plain of water bubble…
Wedged in the slime, they say; ‘We had been sullen’…”
In Canto 7, Dante plaintively asks: “Why must our own sinning waste us so?” and in Canto XII observes “O blind cupidity and insane anger, which goad us on so much in our short life, then steep us in such grief eternally!” Food for thought, isn’t it?
The Inferno is the most-read of the three volumes of The Divine Comedy likely because of the images evoked therein, this one in Canto IX, for instance:
…”three hellish, blood-stained Furies; they had the limbs and shape of women,
their waists encircled by green hydras. Thin serpents and horned snakes entwined, in place of hair, their savage brows.”
And yet, among the horrors, there are, surprisingly, a few laughs. In Canto XVIII, the “Flatterers” or “panderers and seducers” in the Eighth Circle of Hell are depicted as being covered in excrement – literally shitheads!
The Hollanders wryly amuse the reader in Canto XII where, in their notes on the origins of the Minotaur, they describe it as “half man and half bull, conceived by the sexually venturesome Pasiphae with a bull, when she placed herself in a wooden replica of a cow in order to enjoy a bovine embrace.” I know I’m easily amused; the euphemistic “bovine embrace” made me actually laugh out loud.
And then, of course there is Canto XXI, where the demons guarding the Barrators (those who engaged in graft) plunged in boiling pitch communicated with one another in a unique manner. Norton most delicately puts it like this: “He had made a trumpet of his rump”. Mandelbaum just puts it out there as “And he had made a trumpet of his ass.” And Bergin wins for most creativity here, describing the demon as “emitting from his arse a bugle blast.”
I emerged from my second reading of The Inferno to realize that I had only just scratched the surface of this work. Scholars will spend an entire career studying one or just a few aspects of Dante’s work, which weaves classical literature, history, politics and spirituality throughout a dazzling narrative. The Divine Comedy was written in the fourteenth century, but has flourished ever since in popular culture. Dan Brown capitalized on it in his latest book, which he dared to entitle Inferno and the first episode of the sixth season of Mad Men slyly foreshadowed events to come by showing a sulky Don Draper lounging on the beach with a copy of Dante’s Inferno in hand.
Dante is alive, well and as gloriously relevant today as he was in the 1300’s. If you’re looking for a resolution to keep you busy this year and possibly into the next, consider joining me on my next Dante journey – I’ve emerged from Hell and am bound straight for Purgatory.