Dante’s Inferno: Part One (Summer Poetry Challenge)

NB: this is the first of my posts for the Summer Poetry Challenge sponsored by Ted at bookeywookey (head over to his blog to see the list of other participants in his sidebar). I do not pretend to know much of anything about poetry. In fact, I joined this challenge precisely because I do not read enough poetry and it’s something I’d like to change. So I apologize in advance if what I have to say about the poems is overly banal.



There are any number of translations and editions of the Inferno, but I decided to go with two versions: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 19th-century translation and a modern version by Robert and Jean Hollander. I’ll write another post about the translations, but I really liked the idea of reading the Longfellow translation: it was the version that was popular amongst U.S. readers in the 19th century, and there was something about the historical context of this version that appealed to me. Moreover, the Longfellow edition has wonderful images by Gustave Dore, some of which I’ll try and include in the posts (the one above is Dante entering the dark wood at the beginning of the poem).

There is so much to say about The Inferno that I don’t know quite where to begin. So let’s just start with the beginning shall we? The poem begins with Dante arriving at a cross-roads in his life (something of a mid-life crisis):

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What is this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.

Dante tries to climb “Mount Delectable,” but finds his way blocked, first by a panther, then a lion, and finally, a she-wolf:

And lo! almost where the ascent began,
A panther light and swift exceedingly,
Which with a spotted skin was covered o’er!

And never moved she from before my face,
Nay, rather did impede so much my way,
That many times I to return had turned.

At first in motion set those beauteous things;
So were to me occasion of good hope,
The variegated skin of that wild beast,

The hour of time, and the delicious season;
But not so much, that did not give me fear
A lion’s aspect which appeared to me.

He seemed as if against me he were coming
With head uplifted, and with ravenous hunger,
So that it seemed the air was afraid of him;

And a she-wolf, that with all hungerings
Seemed to be laden in her meagreness,
and many folk has caused to live forlorn!

She brought upon me so much heaviness,
With the affright that from her aspect came,
That I the hope relinquished of the height.

Forced to face the path through the darkened forest, Dante calls on help and the shade of Virgil appears to guide him. Sent by Beatrice (Dante’s first youthful love and muse, who resides in heaven), Virgil promises to guide Dante through Hell and Purgatory, leaving Beatrice to guide him through Heaven. Gathering his inner strength, Dante turns to Virgil and prepares to follow him:

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.

A few words before I end this first post: Dante was revolutionary in writing himself into his poem, so it needs to be remembered that Dante the poet has already been through the journey that Dante the pilgrim is about to make. Moreover, Dante populated Hell with people that he knew in real life, including the father of one of his friends, and Pope Boniface VIII, Dante’s political opponent (Dante wrote The Divine Comedy while in exile from Florence). Boniface was not actually dead yet, but apparently he was so corrupt that his soul took up residence in Hell long before his body followed suit. As a recovering Catholic myself, I can say that Dante’s vision of Hell is fascinating and often quite heretical–perhaps that’s why I like it so much.

While I find Longfellow’s translation to be clunky in parts, it resonates with me (but more on that in another post). I have to say, however, that notes are essential for a greater understanding of the poem. There are so many references to politics and artists that I would not have caught if it wasn’t for the notes. But so far, I am quite enjoying my trip to Lucifer’s lair, if only because I do it vicariously through Dante.

Tomorrow: We enter Hell’s first circle! I can’t pretend to do Dante’s epic justice, but hopefully I can provide enough glimpses to convince people to (re)read it…

8 responses to this post.

  1. Hi. When I try and subscribe to your new feed for bloglines–it keeps giving me the feed for the comments only–not the posts. Any idea how to fix this? It’s very strange, and I have tried several times to subscribe.


  2. Do you use Firefox as a browser? Because there’s a little RSS link in the address bar that might work and if you have bloglines set up as your browser’s RSS feed thingy of choice it should add it. Let me play a bit though, because bloglines did something crazy to me too…


  3. Danielle–I tried subscribing myself to my blog and the first time it didn’t work and said there was an error, but the next time it did. I have no idea what bloglines is up to! Google Reader might not have trouble–I’m currently using both because bloglines has been a little crazy lately (updating randomly, missing new posts, etc).


  4. It sounds very interesting to read Longfellow’s translation — you get both Dante, and also the 19C version of Dante.


  5. Dorothy: you’ve hit the nail on the head. That’s exactly why I think I’m enjoying Longfellow’s version–it’s a window into 19th-century conceptions of Dante and his vision of hell that I find so intriguing. Plus, the modern translation felt too, well, glib, for lack of a better word. For some reason the rather stilted nature of Longfellow’s translation appealed…


  6. I can understand the appeal of more “stilted” translations. I always find the overly modernised versions of the older epic works glib, like you said, and lacking mythic appeal. (No sense of age to thing either.) Your post was a lot of fun to read and I’m looking forward to the rest! It’s one of those books one means to read but may conceivably never get to.

    Dore did some wonderful illustrations for Paradise Lost, as well. His work for Don Quixote was more disappointing for me.


  7. Imani: I have to say, I doubt I would ever have made my way to Dante without the poetry challenge! And I’ll have to look for the Dore illustrations for Paradise Lost, as I quite enjoy his renderings of Hell.


  8. Очень полезно


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