If you are friends with an aspiring writer, here’s a tip: don’t make them angry. They will hold grudges, wait for your death, and write you into their next poetry masterpiece, resulting in your ultimate defamation as a homosexual (just ask Ser Brunetto Latino).
So goes Dante’s The Inferno, the first book of the Divine Comedy (interestingly, the ‘Divine’ bit was added way after the poet died) and translated by John Ciarcdi in 1954. Set in Italy in 1300, this is an epic, lyrical poem that follows Dante as he navigates his way through Hell to get to Paradise. As you do.
The plot is this: Dante finds himself lost in the Dark Wood of Error (otherwise known as Worldliness, because to be worldly is very wrong indeed). Luckily, he spots a handy Mount of Joy, which will get him back on the True Way (and no, I’m not being sarcastic – these are the actual names). Unluckily, three monsters try to eat him. But Virgil (yes, the ancient and very dead poet) finds him and tells him that he has been sent on an exciting quest by a divine being to lead Dante away from Error. To do so, Dante must go down through Hell (this book), go up through Purgatory (The Purgatorio), and finally reach the Light of God in The Paradiso.
Needless to say, the entire thing is an allegory. The real-life-Dante got alarmingly close to denouncing religion when he got obsessed with pagan philosophy. In a time where the Catholicism was the centre of the universe (literally), Dante was understandably a tad frightened of his writings, and created the Divine Comedy. These three poems are an attempt to reconcile Human Reason (through the character Virgil) with religion, focusing on the self-limitations of the former. Or something.
The result? I definitely liked it. Dante used minimal words, simple vernacular (unheard of for such a popular poem of his time), and matched his narrative style to the situation he was describing – the deeper Dante went into Hell, the coarser his account was. In fact, after being subjected to the flowery exposition of Victorian novels, reading Dante – who could have rewritten said Victorian novels in one-eighths their size – was like watching someone you don’t like being pooped by a bird. Simple, satisfying, and beautiful.
Reading about a Middle Ages Catholic representation of Hell was pretty fascinating, especially as I’d never read a book that covered the subject matter in such detail. Plenty of writers alluded to Hell, for sure, but they were content to leave it in our imaginations as simply the worst possible place we could think of. Dante, however, raised an eyebrow at such quaint ideas, picked up a quill, and dashed off the minutiae of hell in one readable poem!
There are nine circles of Hell; stacked on top of each other like a funnel, with a different class of sinner in each. Punishments are delivered in varying degrees within each circle, using a mix of irony and symbolism: the eighth circle houses thieves, whose punishment was to painfully transform into different reptiles until they stole another thief’s human body, which would consequently get purloined off them.
In each circle, Dante spoke with famous historic persons, the majority being Italian with some Ancient Greeks and Romans thrown in for good measure. Aristotle and Horace, for example, are in limbo (before the first circle of Hell) because Christianity had not reached them during their life. Which is supremely unfair, and they should really convince their gods to show the Catholic god that he is not the only all-powerful one on the block. Nevertheless, real-life-Dante makes the wise decision to focus more on the who’s who in Hell than the actual punishments, avoiding the poem from coming across as a gory homage to the Catholic Church.
My one tiny, tiny issue is with Dante’s lack of modesty (no, he’s not naked, get your minds out of the gutter). He likes to name-drop other poets throughout history as a preclude to how awesome (and so much better than those poets’ own attempts, bless them for trying) the following description of _____ will be. Not to mention the fact that he made himself the character of his own story; one who is being given divine aid to get into Paradise. Sheesh.
Dante: you get kudos. Shakespeare: eat your heart out.