The Divine Comedy

Dante Alighieri

Cover of The Divine Comedy

Rank: A-
No. Times Read: 1
Last Read: Spring, 1997 to Fall, 2009

Author Name: Dante Alighieri

Review: Well, that was a heck of a decade (plus two)!

Yeah, laugh it up. It took me twelve years to finish Dante’s lousy Divine Comedy. In my defense, though, at least I know that the book is The Divine Comedy, and not “The Inferno”. Durn kids don’t know who wrote what when! I’ve even borne witness to someone who asked who “Dante’s Inferno” was by (as if that was the title!). Hypocrites, all of them! Dante’s “Inferno”… Yeah, I read that. And oh yeah: I read the rest of the damn book, too. I’d never read part of a book and think I’d read the whole thing.

Now that that’s out of the way, let me explain why I don’t deserve any credit for reading this book.

First, the edition I read is the first ever English translation of The Divine Comedy done by Henry Francis Cary. It was done over a period of nine years (meaning that, yes, it took me longer to read it than it took him to translate it), from 1805 to 1814. So about 200 years ago. English, she has changed since then, me seemeth, and so I must confess that there were many times that I was completely lost, and basically zoned out.

Additionally (though I think this is a point in its favor), my edition has copious endnotes. If a canto is about three pages (nice big print, lots of whitespace), then there are usually about two pages of endnotes (teeny, tiny print, covering up most of the page with little whitespace). I read all the notes, of course (because you have to with this thing), so I could usually only read one canto in a sitting—and only stand about one sitting every two to three months.

Now, it’s true that I’ve got a fantastic memory, but even so, it was hard to maintain a connected mental narrative in my reading. So, yeah, I probably didn’t give this one a fair shake.

Oh, but hey! You may want to know what this one is about, huh? Reviewing Skillz: I has dem.

The Divine Comedy is one of the most famous works of literature ever. It’s considered by many to be the greatest epic poem ever written. It’s about a fictional version of the author (Dante), who, one fine day, is running through the forest away from these three beasties, when he comes upon his favorite poet: Virgil. Virgil then takes him on a trip through Hell and Purgatory, ultimately giving him over to Beatrice, who takes him to Heaven, and then punts him back down to Earth.

If you’ve heard of The Divine Comedy, you probably knew that much. If you haven’t read it and are considering reading it, though, let me share some of my experiences with you to help you decide if it’s right for you (and when talking about The Divine Comedy, I really think deciding whether it’s right for one is the best way to conceptualize it).

In order to properly understand The Divine Comedy, you need to know a lot of Italian (and medieval and ancient) history. It, of course, is inadvisable to read a copy without notes, but even the notes aren’t going to be enough. I mean, this thing is just impossible to read! I’ve opened the book just now to a random page and found a fine illustrative example:

                 Where is good Lizio? where
Manardi, Traversaro, and Carpigna?
O bastard slips of old Romagna’s line!
When in Bologna the low artisan,
And in Faenza yon Bernardin sprouts,
A gentle cyon from ignoble stem.

And he goes on to mention even more names. All the names are explained in the notes (e.g. “Bernardin di Fosco, a man of low origin but great talents, who governed Pisa in 1249”), but you either have to read the notes first, memorize them, then read the canto, or interrupt your reading every time you see a name to check the notes. Or, of course, you could do what I did: Read the canto, then read the notes at the end, and try to relive the reading once you’ve read the notes.

The problem is that Dante’s audience would probably know most of this stuff on sight (like Bernardin). They’d place the reference and know why it was being used. In order to read the text fluidly, that’s what one has to do, because the entire book simply drowns in cultural and literary references—more than any other epic poem I’ve read.

To the extent that one can get around all this, it is possible to enjoy the book, in spots. I recommend getting some translation other than the one I read, because the language will likely be a little more fluid, but even so, there are some wonderful passages. Of course, there are a number in Hell, as you’ve probably heard, but the first meeting with Beatrice in Purgatory is a wonderful bit of poetry. In addition, one of the more exciting passages I found was the end in Heaven, where fictional Dante predicts that he would be banished from Florence for writing The Divine Comedy (in fact, he’d already been banished for other reasons).

Overall, though, given the magnificent structure of the work, and the quality of the poetry in Italian, I have to wonder if it’s worthwhile to read The Divine Comedy in translation. I think it suffers from translation more than many older works I’ve read. I simply don’t think I can recommend it. I certainly can’t recommend my translation, but I wonder how any translation can possibly be as musical as the Italian is supposed to be. Read with caution.

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