THE DIVINE COMEDY’S INFERNO
While I was rushing downward to the lowland,
Before mine eyes did one present himself,
Who seemed from long-continued silence hoarse.
When I beheld him in the desert vast,
“Have pity on me,” unto him I cried,
“Whiche’er thou art, or shade or real man!”
He answered me: “Not man; man once I was,
And both my parents were of Lombardy,
And Mantuans by country both of them.
‘Sub Julio’ was I born, though it was late,
And lived at Rome under the good Augustus,
During the time of false and lying gods.
A poet was I, and I sang that just
Son of Anchises, who came forth from Troy,
After that Ilion the superb was burned.
But thou, why goest thou back to such annoyance?
Why climb’st thou not the Mount Delectable,
Which is the source and cause of every joy?”
“Now, art thou that Virgilius and that fountain
Which spreads abroad so wide a river of speech?”
I made response to him with bashful forehead.
“O, of the other poets honour and light,
Avail me the long study and great love
That have impelled me to explore thy volume!
Thou art my master, and my author thou,
Thou art alone the one from whom I took
The beautiful style that has done honour to me.
Behold the beast, for which I have turned back;
Do thou protect me from her, famous Sage,
For she doth make my veins and pulses tremble.”
“Thee it behoves to take another road,”
Responded he, when he beheld me weeping,
“If from this savage place thou wouldst escape;
Because this beast, at which thou criest out,
Suffers not any one to pass her way,
But so doth harass him, that she destroys him;
And has a nature so malign and ruthless,
That never doth she glut her greedy will,
And after food is hungrier than before.
Many the animals with whom she weds,
And more they shall be still, until the Greyhound
Comes, who shall make her perish in her pain.
He shall not feed on either earth or pelf,
But upon wisdom, and on love and virtue;
’Twixt Feltro and Feltro shall his nation be;
Of that low Italy shall he be the saviour,
On whose account the maid Camilla died,
Euryalus, Turnus, Nisus, of their wounds;
Through every city shall he hunt her down,
Until he shall have driven her back to Hell,
There from whence envy first did let her loose.
Therefore I think and judge it for thy best
Thou follow me, and I will be thy guide,
And lead thee hence through the eternal place,
Where thou shalt hear the desperate lamentations,
Shalt see the ancient spirits disconsolate,
Who cry out each one for the second death;
And thou shalt see those who contented are
Within the fire, because they hope to come,
Whene’er it may be, to the blessed people;
To whom, then, if thou wishest to ascend,
A soul shall be for that than I more worthy;
With her at my departure I will leave thee;
Because that Emperor, who reigns above,
In that I was rebellious to his law,
Wills that through me none come into his city.
He governs everywhere, and there he reigns;
There is his city and his lofty throne;
O happy he whom thereto he elects!”
And I to him: “Poet, I thee entreat,
By that same God whom thou didst never know,
So that I may escape this woe and worse,
Thou wouldst conduct me there where thou hast said,
That I may see the portal of Saint Peter,
And those thou makest so disconsolate.”
Then he moved on, and I behind him followed.
Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy has so permeated literature and theology that much of what he wrote about the afterlife is though by many to come from the Bible. T.S. Eliot said “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them. There is no third.”
John Mark Reynolds said this in his book, The Great Books Reader:
The best advice I can give is to read quickly the first time. You will know you’re missing more than you’re gaining, but get what you can and then read the selection again. This time, look up some of the unfamiliar people and works. Third time, try reading the lines aloud and let the sound move you. Focus on a single line you want to understand the fourth time through, and read until you understand.
The Comedy is an entire Christian worldview. It isn’t the only possible Christian worldview, because no human book could contain that whole, but it’s a very good one. It combines the best science, theology, poetry, politics, and psychology from the age in which it was written. That means parts of it are wrong, but even where wrong, it stimulated in others the thinking that produced modernity.
The Divine Comedy portrays Dante’s vision of heaven and hell. What is yours?
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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.
D I G D E E P E R
On Anguish and Beauty
How does one begin to praise the greatness of Dante’s Divine Comedy?
It is as wildly various as the flora and fauna that sport across the capitals of an illuminated manuscript.
It is as theologically ordered and precise, in its own way, as the Summa Theologica of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Dante’s leading light in matters of the intellect, the virtues, the church, and the nature of God.
It is as delightful as a romance with Lancelot and Guenevere, as terrifying as the apocalypse of John, and as wondrous as the seraphic vision that came to Saint Francis and marked him with the marks of Christ.
What moment in all of literature can surpass the profound anguish of an Ugolino who looks into the faces of his children, all prisoners on his account, and all, with him, about to starve to death, and who says, in a few stunning words, “I did not weep, I had so turned to stone”?
But then, what moment can surpass the wonder of Piccarda, who has become more human precisely because she has immersed herself in the divine Love? “In His will is our peace,” says she.
If we say it’s hard to find a single human moment, or a single one of the wonders of God as made manifest to man, that does not find its place in Dante’s poem, we say no more than the truth, and yet we still fail to grasp the excellence here. For it’s one thing to find these moments—to find, in the excerpt above, the grim blasphemy of sinners who wish, far more than that they had never been born, that their parents and the whole human race and the time and place of their begetting had never existed; a universal curse. Or to find the paradox that love, that sweetest of desires, had brought disaster and condemnation—as Francesca the gentle-spoken adulteress says, “Love led us to one death.”
What astonishes more than all is to find all these things ordered in an artistic, philosophical, and theological whole, so that Virgil’s encounter with Beatrice is meant to anticipate Dante’s encounter with Francesca, and then with other lovers and indeed other writers of love poetry in the Purgatory, before the pilgrim poet finally meets Beatrice herself; she in turn leads him to Paradise, where he will enjoy at the last a vision of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
Such an achievement in poetry had no precedent.
Dante could have done as Milton would do, centuries later, and adapt the meter, narrative techniques, and epic apparatus of Virgil’s Aeneid to his own language. He did not.
He could have written in the style of the romancers of his own day, like the prodigious and remarkably original Chrétien de Troyes. He did not.
The Divine Comedy is of its own kind, even as it gathers to itself all the Christian and classical learning Dante had inherited. It’s as if a man should study all the paintings of the dramatic Caravaggio and the brooding Rembrandt, and then, inspired by them, compose the Saint Matthew Passion—when, to boot, nothing of that sort had ever been composed before, and nothing quite of that sort would ever be composed again.
All of this is to insist that when we read Dante, even in the few cantos above, we bring to our reading more than the habits we have acquired in reading other poets. We must read as composers, as sculptors, as architects, as theologians.
Take, for example, the appearance of Beatrice to Virgil. We understand the necessity of the conversation. Dante the pilgrim is having second thoughts about entering hell—naturally. But instead of giving him an eminently practical reason for trusting him, as, for instance, that if Dante remains in the dark wilderness he will be lost for certain, but if he accompanies Virgil he at least has a chance, the Roman poet becomes for him and for us a courtly lover, swept into obedient service by a vision of a beautiful woman such as had no counterpart in anything he had ever written.
Now, if we conclude that this is just a fine quirk of poetic adaptation, we miss the deep humanity and theology both. Dante expects us to think—that is the object of reason—and to begin to see—that is the object of the intellect. This is, after all, the same Virgil who has just revealed to Dante that he will never enjoy the sight of God, and who has burst into an exclamation of longing and hopelessness: “Happy the man He chooses for His house!” That is the man who now tells Dante he has seen Beatrice, and, even before she gives her name, indeed before she speaks a word, “begged her for the grace of a command.” The ancient pagan is a man like all men, made to be fulfilled only by the vision of holiness itself, the vision of God.
I hope, then, dear reader, that you will not approach this poem as if it were a mere artistic artifact. Such would be to sin against any work of truly great art, but it would be all the more disordered in the case of Dante. That is because Dante himself summons us to a deeper engagement with the world of man and the being and goodness of God.
If we were present on that dread day, under the blank staring of the Mediterranean sun, when, amid those who loved Him and those who plotted His destruction, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, would we confine our thoughts to the picturesque scene, or to the eloquence of the Master? No, we would long to look upon the reality itself. The only human thing to do, the only rational thing, would be to press beyond the human, in love. We would—or at least we should—take upon ourselves the ultimate task of our poet: to seek the face of God.
Anthony Esolen, PhD, is a professor of Literature at Providence College and a senior editor of Touchstone magazine. In addition to authoring several books, he is well-known for his translations of classical works of literature, including Dante’s Divine Comedy.
John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).