Quick set of questions for my gentle readers (I assume you’re all fairly mild-mannered, but maybe I am wrong. Any members of Genghis's Golden Horde reading this?) - If you were to describe hell how would you do it? How would you structure hell? Who would you put in in? How would you punish them? If you’re Dante Alighieri, you’d give hell a crazy, intricate structure from off the top of your head and people it with tons of historical/mythological/
literary figures (and your own political opponents, of course!) and make an epic poem for the ages out of it.
Ah, Dante’s Inferno. Who wouldn’t find this plot fascinating: Sinful poet descends to hell and is given a personal tour by Virgil. Sound morbid? Well, The Inferno is morbid in spots, but that’s not the whole story. This poem is philosophical, grotesque, poignant, and even humorous, but never boring. What really sets this piece apart from other medieval poems is the first person narration - Dante makes himself the main character. The result is an intimate journey through the nine circles of hell, and it feels like you’re along for the ride. I really loved the personal encounters Dante had (which range from political adversaries to mythological beasts)- they’re alternately horrifying, heartbreaking, and hilarious. Dante’s rich characterizations make this poem's characters' seem so human. The Inferno is also amusing in a morbid, ironic way. The punishments are so fitting (I sincerely hope I am not the only person who has laughed at the punishment for the misers and spendthrifts in the Fourth Circle. Hehe It made me giggle in class), plus it’s fun to see where Dante puts someone. Achilles from The Iliad gets banished to the Second Circle. Hmm…I would have put him in the fifth circle for being sullen, but it’s Dante’s hell and Dante's rules. Don’t let any of this fool you though - The Inferno is also a serious reflection on sin, punishment, and redemption. My fellow poetry geeks take note as well: The structure of this poem is superb. Dante broke this down mathematically: 33 cantos (plus prologue), with 33 tercets (3 line stanzas) per canto, with 33 syllables per tercet. As a wannabe poet, I am impressed with how complex this poem's structure is (and I am feeling a bit inferior)!
The Inferno is a great read, but it is really complex, so I suggest using the Allan Mandlebaum translation. Mandlebaum’s poetry is suitably lyrical but not at all daunting. Plus, use an annotated version. This poem is full of allusions to historical, mythological, Biblical, literary, and contemporary characters (at least Dante’s contemporaries). You may not understand what’s going on if you don’t understand who he’s talking to.
So pack your bags, my friends! Dante’s Inferno is an epic poetic journey that descends to the icy depths of hell (Yep, it's icy down there) and manages to be beautiful, entertaining, and philosophical as well. Maybe Virgil will give us the VIP tour. We just won’t stay past lunchtime..if you don't mind.
Next Week: I am going to blog on Simon Montefiore’s Sashenka. This is an amazing contemporary historical novel about the Russian Revolution. I have waited for a year, A YEAR, to get my hands on this book. I was finally able to read it this weekend and can’t wait to share it!