It seems nothing short of a miracle that I emerged a passionate Dantephile from my first reading of the Commedia in 2004, since my translation, while very good on its own merits, wasn’t the most ideal for a newbie. Because of the speed at which I read, the lack of supplementary notes and essays, the fact that I didn’t read many of the footnotes after returning to the book following a frustrated hiatus of several months, and the fact that I had to mentally translate the flowery Elizabethan language into modern English, there were many things I never understood.
It was a big picture story for me, about a beautiful, poignant unrequited love and the very relatable theme of having to sink to the lowest, saddest, most hopeless point possible before starting to gradually rise up through happier, more hopeful, more beautiful places and ultimately emerge a better person, back on track with one’s life and faith.
And of course, being only 24 years old, my prefrontal cortex wasn’t quite finished developing yet. Thus, my inability to grasp a lot of nuances and exercise emotional control in my negative reactions to things which didn’t agree with my own personal beliefs.
The importance of a good translation cannot be stressed enough! There are over 100 to choose from, but not all are created equal. Unless you’re VERY familiar and comfortable with flowery Elizabethan language, faux-archaisms, and poetic diction and contractions (e.g., maketh, havest, wouldst, wast, wert, doth, dost, thee, thine, ye, thou, o’er, e’er, cometh, lovest), chances are you’ll find that style very distracting and annoying when stretched over 14,233 lines. Many people still regard Longfellow’s 1867 translation as one of the finest, but it’s not ideal for a newbie on account of the language.
Unless you’re doing a lot of outside study, it’s a good idea to choose an edition with copious notes and essays, not just footnotes explaining historical and theological references. Many editions also have illustrations showing the geography of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.
And speaking of footnotes, I wouldn’t recommend interrupting your reading by constantly looking down at them. That was a big problem for me when I began reading the Commedia in late 2003, and a reason I ridiculously originally only gave it 4.5 stars. But most people don’t have a wealth of knowledge about Medieval Italian history, Catholic theology, Classical Antiquity, and Dante’s personal life. So what is to be done?
1. Read through the footnotes before reading each canto.
2. Read the footnotes after each canto.
3. Glance down at the most important footnotes as you’re reading, but not in the middle of a sentence.
4. Read the footnotes afterwards, then go back through and read the canto again.
5. Reread the canto and this time read the footnotes as you go along.
Think of it as listening to a song referencing or inspired by actual events or people in the artist’s life. Sure, knowing about these personal details can enhance your enjoyment and understanding, but you shouldn’t need to know about them to like the song and grasp the bigger picture.
This isn’t the kind of book you can race through and understand everything. Many people have been reading the Commedia for decades and still find new details or insights every time. There are also some references and details we may never understand the true meaning of. Just take it one canto at a time instead of forcing yourself to power-read it within a week or month.
A lot of people (esp. ones who only read Inferno) come away with really shallow, superficial, silly interpretations. First and foremost is one I too once bought into, that Dante was getting revenge on his enemies by putting them in Hell. But how can you get revenge on people who are already dead, through their friends and families reading it?
I’ve also seen the ridiculous claims (always from the “Hurr, durr, I was forced to read this in school and hated it!” crowd) that it was the product of drugs, mental illness, or insanity. Are they projecting their own issues, or are they truly admitting they can’t understand complex, sophisticated literature?
I highly recommend doing some outside study as you’re reading. In my next post, I’ll share some of the sources I’ve used (YouTube channels, academic websites, books, etc.). They’ve made me aware of a lot of things I wouldn’t have otherwise picked up on or paid much attention to.
Above all, don’t think of it as a long revenge fantasy, a boring Medieval history lesson, or a stern theological lecture. Many books from the Middle Ages are intrinsically wedded to that era, but the Commedia transcends time and feels remarkably relevant and modern over 700 years later.