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  • Jun 17, 2005
Pros: Photographic, outstanding writing and rhyming. Truly hellish.

Cons: Its use by televangelists to get people to hate different people than them.

The Bottom Line: Even the most religious nutcases won't want to read this to their kids. It may cause real nightmares in many.

In the mind of Dante, there are nine circles of Hell. People don’t take that very seriously these days. That’s because there’s another, tenth circle of Hell that’s so vile, terrible, and downright evil, Dante just couldn’t bring himself to write about it. However, anyone who’s ever had a hangover which involved throwing up has experienced this tenth circle.

Today on World’s Greatest Poetry and Descriptions of Hell, Baron Samedi will be killing two birds with one stone by talking about Dante Alighieri’s famous poem, The Inferno. (As if you couldn’t guess.) For those unfamiliar with this epic poem, The Inferno is actually the first poem in a bigger epic by Dante known as The Divine Comedy. While The Divine Comedy is comprised of three poems - The Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso - which chronicle the journey of a character through the three afterlife realms known as Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, people are often ignorant or altogether unaware of the last two. It’s the first part, The Inferno, that receives by far the most attention from literary buffs, critics, psychoanalysts, horror story fans, and televangelists. And why not? The graphic descriptions of Hell seen in The Inferno would be a gold mine for for anyone in a psychiatric profession, and good horror stories about Hell told by Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are a great way to both get a**es into seats and be sure they pay up, big time.

One more thing before I really get started: I don’t play the specific translation game - it’s a big waste of my time. I want to review the story, not some egghead’s English footnotes of it. I’m an American; I see the English language, and I read it. If you’re French, get a French translation. If you’re Italian, read The Inferno in its original language. To me, there’s no such thing as a superior translation, so if the story sucks, then it sucks, and that’s that.

Unfortunately, the story of The Inferno sucks. That’s my bold opinion. In actuality, The Inferno could probably be called the first piece of overblown horror ever brought into the world. I mean that in the sense of there not being anything wrong with it, per se - The Inferno just reads like the story part was hastily thrown in at the last second to string the special effects along, the special effects in the case being the poetic visions of Dante’s Hell. The Inferno’s story begins with the main character, Dante (no, not the one from Devil May Cry), straying from the True Way and getting himself lost in the Dark Wood of Error. Soon as he realizes it, he tries to use the sun to guide himself to the Mountain of Joy, but three animals block his path: A lion, a leopard, and a she-wolf. Each of these animals represents one of the three big sins which are punished in Hell: Malice and fraud, violence and ambition, and incontinence. Fortunately, a great poet of the past, Virgil, shows up to guide Dante back to the True Way. However, for some reason that either wasn’t there or I couldn’t decipher, a direct ascent past the three animals is impossible, so Virgil and Dante have to take the long way. The long way just happens to involve a path through all nine levels of Hell.

I am the way into the city of woe.
I am the way to a forsaken people.
I am the way into eternal sorrow.

Sacred justice moved my architect.
I was raised here by divine omnipotence,
primordial love and ultimate intellect.

Only those elements time cannot wear
were made before me, and beyond time I stand.
Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

Those words are written on the gates of Hell, and they don’t feel like so much of part of a storyline as they do a grim warning to the reader. The graphically beautiful descriptions of the horrendous torture of Hell leap out seven centuries after the original publication of The Inferno. It’s easy to see why the priests of the early 1300s were able to keep people in line by reading it. Dante, like Bram Stoker and his legendary take on vampires, didn’t invent Hell. He merely redefined it. As priests read it, artists gave up their time-worn Quranically inspired Hellfire visions (and yes, I do believe - as I have a lot of reason to - that the common renderings of Hell were inspired by the Quran and not the Bible) to paint Dante’s Hell.

Throughout The Inferno, Dante uses a lot of metaphor to indicate that what people do in this life will decide how they’re punished in the hereafter. Dante’s Hell is a real jungle - and I mean that statement to be taken literally in the second round of the seventh circle, which Dante calls The Wood of the Suicides because he turns people who committed suicide into trees that bleed when their branches are broken. Dante sees Hell as one giant funnel at the top of the Earth, with nine descending circles, each for a worse sin and with a worse punishment than the last. At the very top of Hell is the river Acheron, which leads to the first circle, reserved for the virtuous pagans of the world - those who basically had no religion but lived a near-saintly life even so. The area is called Limbo, and the only “punishment” there is a lack of hope. Otherwise, the place ain’t that bad - glows with the light of reason, no torture or anything. The ninth circle of Hell is known as Cocytus, and it’s currently where all the Boston Red Sox fans in Hell are, because it’s frozen solid. Hell is divided into an upper section for those who are guilty of sins of incontinence, and lower sections for those guilty of malice and fraud and violence and ambition. The halves are divided at the gates of the City of Dis - the entrance to the sixth circle.

There’s a clear division in the punishments of upper and lower Hell. The punishments in upper Hell are basically for those who commit more, well, Christian sins. Granted, wind sweeping you all over the place and eternal rock-pushing don’t exactly sound like fun, but they would probably be better than being buried in a tube in the ground, with my legs sticking out and my feet on fire. The higher-level punishments in lower Hell are pretty bad when they start - a heated desert with fire rain, among others. Then comes the Malebolge - the eighth circle. At this point, you start to wonder if the author was bullied as a child or something. He gets very creative here, and comes up with some unique, sick, and many may argue perverted methods of eternal punishment. The Malebolge is ten rounds long, comprised of ten seperate ditches, each with a terrifying punishment involving physical torture and, more often than not, the infliction of a LOT of pain. It’s easily the longest section of The Inferno, and it can get repetitive. After that, Dante takes us through Cocytus, an arctic-chilled circle reserved for the very worst traitors of all - those treacherous to their kin, their country, their guests or hosts, and their masters are all frozen solid by ice. In the very center of Hell are the four greatest traitors history has ever known - Cassius, Brutus, and Judas are the first three (I’m sure Benedict Arnold would have been there too if America had been founded in Dante’s time), all of whom are being literally chewed by religion’s ultimate traitor, Satan. Eventually Dante and Virgil climb down the fur of Satan himself, cross the Earth’s center of gravity, and re-emrge from the hole just before the dawn of Easter morning.

It becomes clear early in The Inferno that Dante was making big political statements when he wrote it. Many political figures show up in the depths of Hell, including a number of popes. Famous corrupt people are mentioned by name, and Dante even lobs an insult or two at a rival poet of his. He even puts some of his influences into Hell - it’s almost as if Dante was a very early hip hopper making a shout-out to an influence in a record. It’s no secret that Dante considered a lot of popes to be corrupt, and he got to a point where he predicted a tomb in Hell being prepared for one who was still alive when The Inferno was written. He didn’t think highly of Muslims either, as shown by Muhammad’s cameo among the sowers of religious discord in the ninth ditch of the Malebolge, in which he’s forced to walk around split open with his internal organs dragging on the ground behind him.

I wondered, while reading The Inferno, if Dante meant it to be taken literally. For such a Christian thing, Dante certainly worked in a lot of Greek legends and beliefs. The rivers Acheron and Styx are right out of the legends, as are Minos and a large number of monsters, including the centaurs and minotaurs. Greek heroes like Ulysses and Jason are among the damned, and Homer and Aristotle are perched at the top of the funnel in Limbo.

Either way, the writing is extremely photographic, and also just plain graphic. The s-word is present in at least one place. But the rhyme scheme is quite good: The Inferno’s lines are grouped in threes, with the end of the first line always rhyming with the end of the third line.

Stephen King, step back. You’re a brilliant author, and an outstanding writer. But when it comes to being just plain scary, you have nothing on Dante and his vision of the place of evil. As for you, Dante, I'd like Purgatorio and Paradiso to be more available to the public.


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review by . November 20, 2009
This was required reading for a graduate course in medieval history. This is a great translation, Norton editions have great articles to help explain the works. Dante Alighieri's (1265-1321) "Devine Comedy" weaved together aspects of biblical and classical Greek literary traditions to produce one of the most important works of not only medieval literature, but also one of the great literary works of Western civilization. The full impact of this 14,000-line poem divided into 100 cantos and three …
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This Norton Critical Edition of Dante’s masterpiece is based on Michael Palma’s verse translation, which is acclaimed for its elegant rendering of Dante’s triple-rhyme scheme into contemporary English.Richard Wilbur praises Palma’s translation as “accurate as to sense, fully rhymed, and easy, as a rule, in its movement through the tercets. Readers will find it admirably clear and readable.” The text is accompanied by detailed explanatory annotations. Also included in this edition are an illuminating introduction by Giuseppe Mazzotta, a Translator’s Note, The Plan of Dante’s Hell, and six maps and illustrations. “Criticism” provides twelve interpretations by, among others, John Freccero, Robert M. Durling, Alison Cornish, Teodolinda Barolini, Giuseppe Mazzotta, and Robert Hollander. A Chronology and Selected Bibliography are also included.
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ISBN-10: 039397796X
ISBN-13: 978-0393977967
Author: Dante Alighieri
Genre: Literature & Fiction
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
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