• Keith Mathison

Dante's Inferno, I


Since November 2019, I have been working through a list of the greatest works of literature beginning with Homer's Iliad. I have just made it to Dante’s Divine Comedy. This is one of the works on my list that I’ve read before, and I’ve been looking forward to reading it again. This time, I’m reading the verse translation by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander because although I do not speak Italian, I like having the Italian and English on facing pages. I'll explain why momentarily.

Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) wrote other works, including the Vita Nuova, a love poem with a theological twist, but his life’s greatest achievement is The Divine Comedy, a work he wrote while exiled from his home in Florence. This work too has a theological point (more than one), and it is this element that will be my primary focus. Several authors have suggested that Dante’s main purpose in his work is to awaken readers to the fact that, like him, they too are in exile, only an exile more significant than political exile. They are exiled from God and need redemption. Dante addresses this by describing his journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.


Many classic and medieval works of literature involve a hero on a journey, quest, or pilgrimage. We see this in Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid. We see in it medieval Arthurian romances. We see it too in Dante's Divine Comedy, which involves the poet Virgil himself as Dante's guide through the underworld. Unlike some of the journeys in classical literature, in the Divine Comedy, the goal or object of the hero's quest is not an earthly goal, whether home or treasure (or a damsel in distress). The ultimate goal is God. In this way, Dante's quest echoes biblical themes.


Dante’s Divine Comedy is widely recognized, and rightly so, as one of the greatest works of Western literature. The Comedy contains 100 canti or “songs.” Each canto is divided into several pages of three-line stanzas. The rhyme scheme that Dante uses is brilliant. The final words of the first and third line of each stanza rhyme. The final word of the second line in each stanza rhymes with the first and third line of the following stanza. The rhyme structure, then, looks like this:

A

B

A

B

C

B

C

D

C

And so on throughout the poem. This is what is inevitably lost in translation, but until and unless I learn Italian, translation will have to do. This is why I enjoy having the Italian and English on facing pages. It allows me to view the rhyme scheme and get an idea of its auditory beauty, even though I don't speak the language.


Because of the significance and beauty of Dante’s work, my hope is to discuss it in a series of blog posts as I read it again. I am not an expert on Dante or the Divine Comedy. I am approaching the work as a theologian who is an appreciative admirer of Dante's poetic skill. I do differ from Dante on some theological issues. I am a Christian in the Reformed tradition. Dante was Roman Catholic. There are, therefore, obvious theological differences. The most obvious concerns the very existence of Purgatory. In spite of the differences, I believe there are "big-picture" ideas in his work that all believers can find helpful.


I do not believe the theological differences ought prevent Reformed believers from looking for the true, the good, and the beautiful in this poem any more than they prevent one from looking for the same in Tolkien's completely fictional world. More care is required, of course, but care should be exercised in any endeavor. I believe good literature reveals the true, the good, and the beautiful. Because these are metaphysical principles, when we succeed in finding them, we succeed in finding something real. The effort and care required, therefore, are well worth it.

Inferno I

The number of canti in each book of the Divine Comedy indicates that Dante intended the first canto as introductory. There are 34 canti in the Inferno, 33 in the Purgatorio, and 33 in the Paradiso. Structurally, then, the first canto in the Inferno stands out. In terms of the geography of the poem, an argument can also be made for seeing both canto 1 and canto 2 as “introductory” because Dante does not enter the borders of hell until canto 3.

Dante begins the first canto by subtly drawing the reader into the poem by switching from the third to the first person pronoun.

Midway in the journey of our life

I came to myself in a dark wood,

For the straight way was lost.

These words set the stage for what follows by describing a scene reminiscent of a nightmare in which one finds oneself lost at night in a forest. It describes the spiritual lostness of Dante and the reader. The sense of danger that Dante evokes is palpable:

Ah, how hard it is to tell

the nature of that wood, savage, dense, and harsh—

the very thought of it renews my fear!

Although Dante's fear is rekindled, he faces it for a very specific reason:


It is so bitter death is hardly more so.

But to set forth the good I found

I will recount the other things I saw.


Here, Dante explains why he is telling this story. It is in order "to set forth the good" that he ultimately found. Setting forth this good will involve recounting the fearful things he saw on his journey.


Several stanzas later he drives the sense of fear and danger even deeper into our minds:

And as one who, with laboring breath,

has escaped from the deep to the shore

turns and looks back at the perilous waters,

so my mind, still in flight,

turned back to look once more upon the pass

no mortal being ever left alive.

Having almost drowned in the Pacific Ocean while surfing many years ago, I know this feeling of narrowly escaping death in the sea.

Dante’s fear is calmed only when he makes his way to the foot of a hill and sees the light of the sun at the top. But he is unable to climb because he is approached by a leopard, a hungry lion, and an even hungrier skin-and-bones wolf one after the other.


After the leopard appears, Dante tells us the time of day and introduces a key theme:


It was the hour of morning,

when the sun mounts with those stars

that shone with it when God's own love


first set in motion those fair things,

so that, despite that beast with gaudy fur,

I still could hope for good encouraged.


In Inferno 2, we will see this same divine love that set in motion the entire universe also set in motion the events that will lead to Dante being led on this journey. As we will see, God's love is central to the Divine Comedy.


The hungry wolf drives Dante back down the base of the hill into the darkness. It is at this moment that Dante encounters a figure that leaves him unsure whether it is a man or a ghost. He pleads for mercy and help and discovers that the one with whom he speaks is the great classical poet Virgil. Virgil asks him why he does not ascend the hill, and Dante points out the wolf. Virgil then speaks:

‘It is another path that you must follow,’

He answered when he saw me weeping,

‘if you would flee this wild and savage place.’

Virgil explains that the wolf’s hunger is never satisfied. Once she kills and devours a man, she is hungrier than she was before. But one is coming (a hound) who will destroy the wolf, send her back to hell, and save Italy.

Virgil then tells the poet that he will guide him and lead him from there “through an eternal place.”

Where you shall hear despairing cries

And see those ancient souls in pain

As they bewail their second death.

Virgil is going to lead Dante through hell. Then Dante will see purgatory, but he will need a new guide to lead him on that part of his journey. Dante then agrees to follow Virgil on this journey and asks Virgil to lead him so that he may see St. Peter’s gates. Thus ends canto 1.

In this introductory canto, Dante describes the experience of one who was spiritually lost but has found the good. Now he wants to set forth to his readers the good he found. As we will see, finding the good is directly connected to the love of God. The nightmarish landscape Dante describes in the opening canto is intended to make the reader uneasy. His language and the vivid, horrific descriptions of what he sees here and what he sees after he enters hell are intended to wake his readers from their spiritual sleep. He will soon be showing them what their future holds if they do not awaken.

Public Domain image by Gustave Doré

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