The Inferno by Dante Alighieri

The Inferno – Dante Alighieri
Translated by John Ciardi
Signet Classics, 2009 (written by Dante between 1308-1320)
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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri
The Inferno – Dante Alighieri // Signet Classics 2009

I finished reading the Inferno by Dante Alighieri last weekend. I’m glad I dropped my rating system, because I wouldn’t have a clue how to rate this book. I had contradictory reactions to the book, at times I loved it and couldn’t get enough and at times I didn’t have a clue what I was reading. Overall though, I didn’t expect to enjoy reading The Inferno as much as I did. After all, a description of hell means misery at every turn:

“Wherever I turn away from grief I turn to grief again”

But Dante managed to make reading about misery interesting, mostly because there’s a whole worldview and critique of his times interspersed between his descriptions of the different circles of hell.

It may come as no surprise that Dante’s worldview is exactly what I loved about reading this book. I am a history student at heart and while reading I often wondered why we hadn’t read Dante for our class on the Middle Ages. It feels special to read a work by someone from the Middle Ages and recognise so much of what you have been taught about the period. I knew about the political strife in the Italian cities, but reading Dante prophesy his own exile from Florence through the people he meets in Hell makes it more real. I knew about the importance of the lady Fortuna at the time, but seeing her referred to so often still felt like a confirmation of what my teachers have told me. And of course I knew about the criticism of the church and its practises at the time, but I never realised that people were voicing their opinions this strongly:

“These tonsured wraiths of greed were priests indeed
And popes and cardinals, for it is in these
The weed of avarice sows its rankest seed.”

Dante is outright cruel to those he disagrees with: his political enemies and pope Boniface VIII. But Dante feels pity for a lot of those who are in hell as well.  One of the scenes that I thought was most touching is his treatment of the Ancient poets and philosophers that he clearly admirers, but who are trapped in hell (even though only the outer circle, or the place that is not quite hell yet) nonetheless, because they weren’t Christians.

I am sure I missed a lot of details about Dante’s worldview and some of the parts in which he gives long explanations of them were hard for me to read. Sure there is an introduction to each Canto and there are notes at the end of it and they explained a lot of what Dante was trying to say, but nevertheless I often felt I didn’t quite understand. I think this is one of those books that would benefit a lot from being read in class. Maybe someday I will find a class taught on Dante, because I would like to know more. And I certainly plan to read Purgatorio and Paradiso someday. However, I am not sure if I will be able to finish them this summer in order to complete Richard’s read along.

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22 responses to “The Inferno by Dante Alighieri

  1. I’m glad you’ve stopped rating! I think you will feel liberated. May an enormous sense of well being flow throughout your literary experiences. Only read a bit of Dante myself, different translation. Liked it.

  2. I think I like Dante best as a poet rather than a philosopher, the whole canto V (the one that talks about Paolo e Francesca) is probably my favorite in the whole Inferno.
    Anyway I spent five years taking Dante as a subject and I never read the whole thing, congrats on the effort!

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  4. This was one of my favorite texts to read and discuss in college.

  5. Wow! Congratulations on finishing this book. You are reading some seriously heavy things, very impressive. Sounds like you got a lot out of it too. I will have to read it at some point. Maybe. :)

  6. I loved this when I read it in college! It helped that I had a class devoted to it, so that for weeks we had both lectures and small-classroom discussion on it. It was one of my favorites that I read and I’ve been thinking I might do a reread at some point!

  7. This book scares me. It is something I feel I should read, but I have the idea that this would be very difficult for me to understand and would require an informed person to study it with. Perhaps, like you, I’ve try to find a class one day.

  8. I just finished this one (for Richard’s read-along) and I struggled with rating it as well. It’s just such an intense book. I loved the writing, but struggled with wanting to pick it up to read. I do wish I could read Italian, because I think this is one of those books that would be even better in its native language. Great review.

  9. This book daunts me in every sense of the word. I am so afraid to read it! Maybe a read-a-long is just the thing for me, and now I know a Middle Ages scholar who can help me along! ;-)

    Glad you liked it, and you wrote a great review!

  10. Wow, that´s quite an achievement, congrats! :) I´ve never been brave enough to pick this one up but I hope to, eventually :)

  11. I must report that I read the whole of the Divine Comedy for a class, with a superb teacher who adored Dante, and understanding it did not cause me to love it better. I really hated it, actually. :/

  12. I really loved this book! I’ve read it in English and Italian. The book is very intense and sometimes quite difficult to understand, but it is very much worth the effort! Great review.

  13. Inferno and the Divine Comedy have been on my reading list so your review helps. I read part of something by Dante in class so long ago I don’t remember anything.

  14. i have never picked up this book as it scares me alittle but sometimes i ned a challenge and i have surely just been inspired to take one

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  15. How lucky for you that you had all the Middle Ages history as a reference point! I’ve had a good bit of Renaissance-era history, but not much as far as Middle Ages. It definitely would be helpful with Inferno.

    I agree, it is one of those books (I’m sure all of The Divine Comedy actually) that would be well-served by a class, as long as the professor didn’t over-do all the background and context. (I’ve had that happen. Instead of enjoying the book more or understanding it better, I just got sick of it.) There’s so much to this one though, so much that’s hard to get in one go. I think this is one of those books that is an excellent candidate for a re-read.

  16. I read this part of the trilogy in high school, and really enjoyed it (as much as one can). I was lucky to read it with a class, but I also think a lot of stuff went over my head. I feel that the more you know about Dante’s contemporaries of the period, the better able you are to understand the book (as he puts a lot of people who were still alive in Hell, doesn’t he?). I think if I were to reread it, I would also find Dante himself fascinating, about how he imagines Hell to be.

  17. I’m impressed you managed to read The Inferno at the same time as doing all the required reading for your studies, and writing essays and whatnot. This sounds like a nice translation, or transposition :). The one I read years ago was as dry as dust!

  18. I just actually started reading this and haven’t got to finish it. Reading your article motivate me to read more of it as well as other classical books. :)

  19. Yay! So glad you enjoyed it. Now that I have started to revisit books in the original French perhaps I should try my hand at a couple of cantos and see if my medieval Italian is still within the nether reaches of my brain!

  20. I’ve been meaning to read this for a long time too! I’ve got it on my e-reader but somehow I always seem to be reading a ‘proper’ book instead… But yes, The Divine Comedy is daunting so I’ll be taking baby steps towards it. But it sounds like it is something that will be enlightening and that in reading it maybe you will see/understand a lot of references in the literature that came afterwards.

  21. Iris, thanks so much for reading along with us–and I’m glad to hear you enjoyed Inferno more than you’d expected! Like you and a few others, I was also intrigued by Dante’s literary affection for the ancients. How he esteemed them more as worthy predecessors than Christian writers (all the pagan poets, for example) at the same time that he judged them unworthy by religious standards. Creates an interesting dynamic in the poem, I think. Anyway, I hope you’ll continue with the other two-thirds of the poem if you have time–and it was nice to discover your blog through the readalong. Cheers!

  22. Pingback: Dante Alighieri - Het Inferno | Blogaholics

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