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