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 Paradiso. It 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.