My favourite moments in The Divine Comedy

I can’t stress enough what a world of difference it made to finally read the Commedia in an updated translation. Because of the difficulty of reading the flowery Elizabethan English in Laurence Binyon’s version, I missed so many details and plot points, and only seemed to come away with a big picture and thematic impression. Mark Musa’s translation meanwhile lays everything out in plain, easy to understand language.

These are some of my fave moments and aspects:

1. The beautiful, memorable opening. Who can’t relate to the feeling of finding oneself in a dark forest, no idea how we got there or lost the way so badly? Some people believe this wasn’t mere metaphor or imaginative inciting event either, but that Dante truly was suicidal, even possibly attempted suicide, at that time in his life.

This theory is later borne out in Canto I of Purgatorio, when Virgil tells Cato:

“This man has not yet seen his final hour,
although so close to it his folly brought him
that little time was left to change his ways.”

2. The beautiful ending. I haven’t been outside to see the stars since lockdown started in March 2020, but when I used to look up at the night sky, I would silently recite those lines to myself.

3. The fact that each canticle ends with the sweet, hopeful word “stars.”

4. Every time Virgil is compared to a father or mother. Dante lost his mother at about five years old, and his father when he was a teenager, so one can only imagine his longing for surrogate parental figures. Even more moving, when Dante turns to Virgil but finds he’s gone in Canto XXX of Purgatorio, the word mamma is used.

5. The flipping of the trope of a man saving a damsel in distress. Beatrice is the one who saves Dante, after a conference with the Virgin Mary and St. Lucia.

6. When Dante throws shade at Virgil in Canto XIV of Inferno by reminding him of a previous failure:

“And I: ‘My master, you who overcame
all opposition (except for those tough demons
who came to meet us at the gate of Dis)….”

This made me laugh out loud!

7. When Dante listens to the Medieval version of a rap battle in Canto XXX of Inferno and is presently scolded by Virgil. He probably was reminded of the poems he and his buddy Forese Donati traded, in which they good-naturedly insult one another’s shortcomings.

8. In the opening of Canto XXII of Inferno, right after devil Malacoda, as Longfellow puts it, “made a trumpet of his rump,” Dante reflects on the various battle cries and jousting calls he’s heard,

“but I never saw cavalry or infantry
or ships that sail by landmarks or by stars
signaled to set off by such strange bugling!”

9. Canto XXXII of Inferno, when Dante goes psycho on Bocca degli Abati as Virgil just stands there without saying anything or even giving a disapproving look. He’s usually Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes on the spot!

10. The fact that Dante rightfully calls out Count Ugolino as a dirtbag while recording the names of his innocent sons and grandsons who were forced to die with him.

11. When Virgil washes Dante’s sooty face with dew at the end of Canto I of Purgatorio, then pulls up a reed to gird his waist. Immediately afterwards, a new reed springs up.

12. The radical rewriting of Limbo to include righteous non-Christian adults. Dante even builds a beautiful castle for these lights of Antiquity and the Golden Age of Islam he so admires.

13. Virgil’s character development. He goes from being the steady voice of reason and totally in charge (except that one time he failed!) in Inferno to making more and more mistakes and not knowing what to do in Purgatorio.

14. Canto IX of Purgatorio. It’s jam-packed with beauty, drama, and emotion. This is also the canto where we finally enter Purgatory proper.

15. The surprising inclusion of gay men in Purgatory. Dante’s views on homosexuality are a lot more nuanced and sympathetic than one would expect from that era.

16. Virgil’s final words to Dante, “I crown and mitre you lord of yourself!”

17. Canto XXV of Paradiso, where Dante poignantly imagines returning to Firenze in triumph after his poem wins over the thugs who exiled him, and being crowned with laurels by the font where he was baptised.

18. The end of Canto XIV of Paradiso, where Dante apologises for describing a hymn as the most beautiful thing he’s experienced, since he hasn’t looked at Beatrice yet in this sphere!

19. When Pope Nicholas III mistakes Dante for the evil Pope Boniface VIII in Canto XIX of Inferno, expressing surprise he’s there early.

20. The occasional breaking of the fourth wall to directly address both present and future readers. From the very first line, we’re made to feel like active participants in this journey, not passive observers. Dante doesn’t say “In the middle of the journey of my life” or of life in general, but our life.

21. Dante’s tender farewell prayer to Beatrice in Canto XXXI of ParadisoIt gives me goosebumps and moves me almost to tears.

22. The inclusion of a number of women who would otherwise be forgotten by history. Not only that, Dante gives them moral agency to tell their own stories, and shows sympathy for victims of domestic violence instead of taking their abusers’ side. While there are a couple of comments both in the Commedia and other of his works which are undeniably sexist, they pale in comparison to everything else.

23. When Virgil talks Dante through the wall of fire around the Earthly Paradise at the top of Mount Purgatory, encouraging him with visions of Beatrice waiting on the other side.

24. The dramatic midway point of Canto XVI of Purgatorio, when Dante clings to Virgil for protection as they go through a blinding cloud of smoke.

25. The constant blending of Classical Antiquity with Christian theology. Despite being a devout Catholic, Dante continually shows great respect and love for the world which came before, and struggles with the teaching that only baptised Christians can attain Paradise. Righteous people come in all creeds, no matter what the Medieval Church believed.

How to read The Divine Comedy

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.

Gay men in The Divine Comedy

When I first read the Commedia at 24, I wasn’t exactly happy to see gay men depicted in Hell. But now that my prefrontal cortex is fully developed, and because I’ve done a lot of supplemental study, I’m able to see this aspect of the poem in a markedly different light. Dante’s views on homosexuality are quite nuanced and sympathetic for someone born in 1265.

Yes, he does depict his dear teacher and mentor Brunetto Latini in the Third Ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell, where so-called sodomites are punished, but this part of Hell more generally is for those who’ve been violent against Nature, God, and art. Some modern scholars believe the real reason Brunetto shows up there is because he was violent against his native tongue by writing a book (Li Livres dou Trésor) in French. While Dante himself wrote a number of books in Latin, that was Europe’s lingua franca. It would be some centuries until French eclipsed Latin in that regard.

Panel about monkey from the bestiary section of Li Livres dou Trésor

Other scholars feel Brunetto was placed there to show how even the greatest of people may be guilty of private sins (whatever they may be). After all, Brunetto is treated more lovingly and respectfully than almost anyone else in Inferno (apart from Virgil), and there was an obvious bond of love and intellectual kinship between Dante and Brunetto in real life. Brunetto is also the only person in Inferno with whom Dante uses voi, the formal form of you.

In recent years, a love poem some believe Brunetto sent to poet Bondie Dietaiuti was discovered, but the intent may be open to interpretation. After all, many close friends in bygone eras expressed their love for one another (both physically and in words) in ways that suggest romantic or sexual feelings to modern people, but weren’t seen as such historically, let alone considered in that way by the friends themselves.

For obvious reasons, it’s often difficult to definitively prove historical figures were gay or lesbian, and Brunetto is no exception. We have nothing but this poem (whatever its true intentions), rumours of the time, and his inclusion in a part of Hell which punishes more than just so-called sodomites.

We also need to be careful about applying modern definitions and concepts to historical figures. Of course gays, lesbians, and bisexuals have always existed, but our modern conception of sexual orientation is relatively recent. E.g., many adult men slept with teen boys in Ancient Greece because that was held as an important coming-of-age ritual, education, and mentorship, not because they considered themselves same-sex attracted.

Even the very word “homosexual” didn’t exist till 1869. The word “sodomite” was used because of a false connection with the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. In contrast, the Jewish teaching has always been very clear that their sin was lack of hospitality and had nothing to do with sexual behaviour.

But wait, there’s more!

In the very next canto, Dante meets three more so-called sodomites, who are also fellow Florentines, Jacopo Rusticucci, Guido Guerra, and Tegghiaio Aldobrandini. After they introduce themselves, Dante says:

“If I could have been sheltered from the fire,
I would have thrown myself below with them,
and I think my guide would have allowed me to;

but, as I knew I would be burnt and seared,
my fear won over my first good intention
that made me want to put my arms around them.

And then I spoke: ‘Repulsion, no, but grief
for your condition spread throughout my heart
(and years will pass before it fades away)….'”

At first glance, this doesn’t seem any different than his sympathy for other people he’s encountered, like Francesca da Rimini and Ciacco dell’Anguillaia. But when he takes pity on someone, it’s because their conduct reminds him of his own behaviour. E.g., he’s so moved by Francesca’s story of indulging forbidden love because he himself loved a woman who wasn’t his wife, a married woman no less.

An essay in the Durling-Martinez translation (considered by many to be the current gold standard) suggests this is Dante’s way of admitting he’s had sexual desires for other men, but fought not to satisfy this curiosity.

In stark contrast to most other depictions of Hell in that era, and indeed into the modern era, there are no sexualised tortures (of either women or men) in Inferno. The closest we get is the scene of thief Agnèl being turned into a snake in Canto XXV.

Then something very curious happens in Canto XXVI of Purgatorio, on the Seventh Terrace. Here, where the lustful purify themselves, are equal numbers of gay and straight men. Everyone in Purgatory is guaranteed eventual entrance to Paradise, so Dante clearly didn’t think homosexuality or bisexuality were truly a sin. In fact, many of the souls in Purgatory committed similar acts to those punished in Hell. The difference is that souls in Purgatory admit their wrong instead of dying without remorse or blaming other people.

There’s also a distinction between the motivation and manifestation of these same acts. E.g., souls in the Second Circle of Hell conducted illicit love affairs, but people on the Seventh Terrace of Purgatory just loved too intensely and didn’t channel their natural sexual desires (for the same or opposite sex) through the best channels. It’s not about the act itself, but how one chooses to pursue it, and why.

Given the attitudes of his era, Dante could’ve easily left gay men out of Purgatory, meted out sexual tortures to the ones in Hell (which would’ve been entirely in line with contrapasso, a punishment reminding the souls of their sins), and castigated them as perverts, deviants, degenerates, etc. Yet he treats them with great respect and even feels sympathy for them.

The Divine Comedy in translation

As of 2021, Dante’s magnum opus has been translated into English (both in full and part) over 100 times, in a variety of styles (terza rima, blank verse in iambic pentameter, prose, dummy terza rima, quatrains, Spenserian stanzas, blank terzine, irregular rhymes, and many more). These translations, from 1782 till today, also come with a range of linguistic choices.

But which one would you feel most comfortable reading?

The best-known and most popular translations seem to be:

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1867)
Charles Eliot Norton (1901–02)
Laurence Binyon (1933–43)
Thomas G. Bergin (1948–54)
Dorothy Sayers (1949–62; translation completed by Barbara Reynolds after Ms. Sayers’s 1957 death)
John Ciardi (1954, 1961, 1970)
Mark Musa (1971, 1981, 1984)
Charles S. Singleton (1970–91)
Allen Mandelbaum (1980–84)
C.H. Sisson (1981)
Peter Dale (1996)
Robert Durling and Ronald Martinez (1997, 2004, 2013) (considered by many to be the current gold standard)
Robert and Jean Hollander (2000–07)
Anthony Esolen (2002–04)
Robin Kirkpatrick (2006–07)
Clive James (2013)

There are also some popular standalones, like Robert Pinsky’s Inferno (1995) and W.S. Merwin’s Purgatorio (2000).

One thing you have to contend with in many older translations, like the above-pictured Longfellow, are faux-archaisms, poetic diction, obsolete words, and Elizabethan language. This was a huge problem for me when I read Laurence Binyon’s translation, since I was constantly mentally translating it to modern English.

I would NOT recommend a translation in this style if it’s your first reading, unless you’re extremely familiar with that type of language. It’s one thing if you’re only reading a short poem, but stretched out over 14,233 lines, it can feel very distracting, and you may pay more attention to the dated language than the actual content. I missed quite a few things the first time around for that very reason!

Another thing to keep in mind when reading a translation by someone who was/is a poet in his/her own right, like Longfellow or Sayers, is that you’re not just reading Dante, you’re reading that translator’s poetry. They inevitably put their own creative spin on it, beyond just word choices and form.

Talk about night and day! Reading Mark Musa’s translation, pictured above, was almost like reading it for the very first time all over again, since it’s in plain English and not gut-loaded with words like havest, thine, doth, thy, ye, maketh, wouldst, wert, and e’er! I could actually focus on the details, not just the big picture. While there are some things he doesn’t translate accurately, I’ll take that any day over an edition trying to make Dante sound like the King James Bible.

And speaking of accurate translation, there can be such a thing as too nitpicky and word-by-word. Some people have criticised the Hollanders’ translation for this reason. Being too literal and exact all the time can result in stilted, dry language, just as being too poetic and using lots of faux-archaisms can obscure the meaning and sound confusing.

Sometimes a less than accurate rendering of a word or phrase, or a creative interpretation of it, is better at conveying its emotional or visual intention.

I highly recommend a translation with the original Italian on facing pages. It’s nice to compare, and if you’re interested in learning the language, it’s a great way to get some personally meaningful immersion. While it’s similar to reading The Canterbury Tales in Medieval English, you can understand a lot.

And if you already know some Italian, or a similar language like Spanish or Latin, you can gauge the accuracy of translation. There will be some words and phrases which were obviously rendered totally differently.

Many older translations use euphemisms for coarse language, leave it out entirely, or indicate it with a long dash. The lower we go in Hell, the earthier the language becomes. If you look at the original Italian, you won’t find words like filthy, rump, make wind, and excrement!

Although it is kind of funny how, when Agnèl the thief is being turned into a snake, the phrase “the member man conceals” is used. In the words of The Rap Critic, “Don’t you think it’s a bit late to start censoring yourself?”

It’s best to find a translation with lots of explanatory notes and supplementary essays, not just footnotes and intro summaries to each canto. My first translation lacked this, and since I wasn’t doing any outside study, it made it even harder for me to understand a lot of important details.

I put most trust in translations by scholars of Dante studies, Italian language and literature, Medieval history, and similar fields. Mere English professors and poets tend not to have the kind of depth required for a great translation and supplemental material. Their notes tend to be rather inadequate, even if the translation itself is pretty good.

Anthony Esolen also makes homophobic comments in his notes, in comparison to how Dante’s view of homosexuality is much more nuanced and sympathetic.

The consensus among most modern Dante scholars seems to be that terza rima is too complex to accurately reproduce in English. Sure many translators have done it, and made it sound nice, but there are necessarily taken liberties to ensure everything rhymes. E.g., words and phrases are inserted which appear nowhere in the original text, lines are put in a different order, word order is switched, forced rhyme schemes are employed.

The only times Dante’s terza rima works in English is when he rhymes Christ with itself, and in manna-Anna-Hosanna.

Blank verse in iambic pentameter and prose tend to read best. John Ciardi’s dummy terza rima translation is also highly-regarded.

Don’t make the mistake of just grabbing the first or cheapest translation you see at the bookstore or library. Compare and contrast a few to see which reads best for you, and which has the best supplementary material. It’s also nice to find an edition with Gustave Doré’s famous woodcuts.

This isn’t a one and done book. Many people have multiple translations, since they all bring something different to the story. If you read it years ago in a really old or bad translation, there’s no time like the present to experience this amazing otherworldly journey with a more modern edition.

Religious minorities in The Divine Comedy

Despite my love of The Divine Comedy after reading it for the first time at age 24, I nevertheless managed to come away with a rather shallow, surface reading of many things. I blame my translation, the speed at which I read, and my lack of supplementary study materials. There’s also the uncomfortable fact that my cognitive development wasn’t quite finished, and so I was incapable of thinking like a complete adult about certain things.

One of those things was non-Christians automatically going to Limbo.

Historically, Limbo was seen as a holding-pen for the righteous people of the Bible until Jesus scooped them up during the Harrowing of Hell and took them to Paradise. Thereafter, it was designated for unbaptized babies.

Yet in Dante’s vision, we only find adults. Not a single baby or child appears, though he later affirms his belief in this second purpose of Limbo.

In Limbo reside all the lights of Antiquity, like Homer, Euclid, Julius Caesar, Lucan, Ovid, Horace, Diogenes, Galen, Ptolemy, Aristotle, and Hippocrates. There are also three Muslims, Sultan Saladin (who was renowned for his righteousness and magnanimity of character), Avicenna, and Averroës. Dante learnt about the latter two from his dear mentor Brunetto Latini, who got translations of their books while he was exiled in Spain.

Though as of 1300, the year the Commedia is set, Dante had only published one book, he’s nevertheless invited to join the noble school of Homer, Ovid, Horace, Lucan, and Virgil, and warmly welcomed as one of their own. The inclusion of Homer is particularly poignant, since Dante couldn’t read Greek. His love and respect of Homer was based on his reputation and partial Latin translations.

Dante also builds a beautiful castle for the souls in Limbo, and doesn’t subject them to any torments. They’re also the only people in Hell who wear clothes.

Through the entire poem, Dante struggles with the then-mainstream teaching that only baptized Christians can attain Paradise, no matter how righteous they were, even if they lived in a place where no one has ever heard of that religion, or if they lived before Jesus. He’s particularly upset about this because that means his belovèd Virgil will never leave Limbo.

He also says, in Paradiso, that it’s better to be an observant, committed Jew than an insincere, unrighteous Christian, and asks why Jesus’s death needs to be avenged (i.e., in the form of Church-sponsored antisemitism) when Christian doctrine teaches the Crucifixion was necessary.

This is one of those places where having supplementary study material is so important, since I didn’t interpret those passages that way at all in 2004. All I saw were a few comments that seemed like antisemitic jibes, and the deicide accusation really made me angry, since that’s the core of 2,000+ years of antisemitism and ultimately culminated in the Shoah.

BUT!

Dante also believed other things we now know to be completely false, like the Donation of Constantine, that Cleopatra was a promiscuous harlot and not a serious ruler, that Pope Anastasius II was a heretic, and that Prophet Mohammad was originally a Christian and therefore a schismatic. That didn’t make him ignorant or bigoted, just a product of the Middle Ages. He had no reason to doubt the inaccurate history he was taught, since there were no counterexamples.

Dante diverges from popular antisemitic tropes and propaganda of his era by making all his usurers Christians. His own father was a moneylender, and so were many of his friends and acquaintances. In fact, there are no Jews in Hell at all except Judas and Caiaphas. Everyone else Dante encounters are Christians, so-called pagans, and a few Muslims.

Given how almost all popular depictions of Hell into the modern era featured grotesquely stereotyped Jews, it’s remarkable how Dante refrained from that.

Immanuel ben Solomon of Rome, a contemporary of Dante who was also possibly his friend, was so inspired by the Commedia, he wrote a Hebrew poem patterned on it.

Dante was greatly influenced by Classical Antiquity, and constantly blends it with Christian theology and his own imagination in Inferno. There are many “pagans” who show up outside of Limbo, and they’re all punished for their respective sins instead of condemned merely for not being Christians. E.g., Tiresias is with the soothsayers; Achilles is with the lustful; Ulysses/Odysseus (seen above in the William Blake painting) is punished for leading his men on an impossible voyage; and Capaneus (seen below) is punished with the blasphemers because he said Zeus couldn’t stop him from invading Thebes.

Dante also makes Cato the guardian of Purgatory, despite not being Christian (and a suicide to boot), and saves three other “pagans,” Statius, Trajan, and Ripheus the Trojan. Statius, his second-favorite writer, joins him and Virgil as they’re leaving the Fifth Terrace of Purgatory and accompanies them until the Earthly Paradise.

Ripheus and Trajan appear as lights in the eyebrow of a beautiful eagle composed of souls in Paradise. They were made Christians through God’s Divine grace.

Given the prevailing attitudes in Medieval Europe, Dante could’ve done a lot worse than making a beautiful castle for righteous non-Christians, saving a few of his favorites, and protesting the teaching that only Christians can attain Paradise.