Books

Book Review: The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

The Divine ComedyTitle: The Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia)
Author: Dante Alighieri
Translator: C. H. Sisson
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics
Date: 2008 (1320)
Genre: Poetry / Religious Philosophy
Summary: This single volume, blank verse translation of The Divine Comedy includes an introduction, maps of Dante’s Italy, Hell, Purgatory, Geocentric Universe, and political panorama of the thirteenth and early fourteenth century, diagrams and notes providing the reader with invaluable guidance. Described as the “fifth gospel” because of its evangelical purpose, this spiritual autobiography creates a world in which reason and faith have transformed moral and social chaos into order. It is one of the most important works in the literature of Western Europe and is considered the greatest poem of the European Middle Ages.


I feel like I should preface this by saying that I am a huge nerd who is far too interested in medieval and early modern religion so there’s a good chance I’ll go on a tangent about that at some point.

Divina Commedia first edThe Divine Comedy is a long narrative poem which explores Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven from the perspective of the author, Dante. It’s actually a first-person narrative where Dante imagines his own journey to salvation.

The poem begins on the night of Maundy Thursday in 1300 and Dante is thirty-five years old, which is half of the biblical lifespan of 70. He’s lost in a dark wood trying to find the right path to salvation. The dark wood is an allegory for sin and salvation is symbolised by the sun behind the mountain. Dante is eventually rescued by Virgil, an ancient Roman poet, who guides him into the underworld. Dante was inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid, which I’d highly recommend reading, and I love that Virgil acts as his guide through hell.

The Inferno represents the Christian soul seeing sin for what it really is. Each of the nine circles of Hell represents different sins, from the unbaptized and ‘worthy pagans’ who reside in the first level to the traitors who reside in the pit of Cocytus. I love that gossips or ‘scandalmongers’ are considered worse, and therefore reside closer to Satan, than those who commit violent crimes against other humans or themselves. There’s nothing worse than a gossiper, except traitors and Satan.

Purgatorio represents the repentant Christian life and, in this middle section of the poem, Dante climbs up the Mount of Purgatory. This isn’t limbo, limbo is the first circle of Hell, and Purgatory was sometimes considered as a physical plane between Hell and Heaven. There are seven terraces of Purgatory which correspond with the seven deadly sins. Dante makes a distinction here between the actions of humans which land them in hell and the motivations of sin (aka, the seven deadly sins). Purgatory is about temptation, not action. It’s so interesting.

Dante and Beatrice speak to Piccarda and ConstanceParadiso, the final section of the poem, represents the soul’s ascension to God and it is depicted as concentric spheres surrounding the Earth. I really enjoyed Paradiso, mainly because Dante and Beatrice meet so many people that Dante clearly admired, but I also loved how Dante represented the planets and other astronomical objects. For example, within the Sun Dante meets the souls of people he thought illuminated the world intellectually. Y’know, because the Sun illuminates the Earth. So, he met the likes of Thomas Aquinas, King Solomon, Bede, and Orosius. They’re all famous figures religious figures, the majority of them are Catholic (since Protestantism didn’t exist yet), which makes sense since this poem is one giant religious allegory.

Inferno will always be my favourite section of the poem but I really loved Paradisio. I hadn’t read it before but I loved the imagery that Dante used and I just enjoyed reading it. One of my favourite sections of the poem actually comes from canto XXVII (27) of Paradisio:

And this heaven has no other location
Than the divine mind, in which is lit up
The love which turns it and the power it rains down.

Light and love contain it in one circle,
As it contains the others; and this surround
Is understood only by him who is round about it.

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There are a few things I liked about this specific edition. Firstly, it’s an all-in-one volume which means that I didn’t have to buy three separate books for the different sections. It does make the book difficult to travel with but I really liked that the Inferno wasn’t separated from its subsequent sections.

Dante gazes at Mount PurgatorySecondly, I really liked the translation in this edition even though it switches the verse structure. Divina Commedia was originally in terza rima, which is a rhyming verse stanza form that consists of an interlocking three-line rhyme scheme. Dante was actually the first one to use it. The poem was also hendecasyllabic (lines of eleven syllables) which is a throwback to the structure of Ancient Greek and Latin poetry. However, this edition is in blank verse because that’s better suited to the English language. I’d love to read a translation that stuck to Dante’s original structure, especially as terza rima was fairly common in English Renaissance and English Romantic poetry, but this particular edition makes the poem feel more natural to a native English speaker.

Finally, I loved that it included maps, illustrations/diagrams, and a timeline. At the front of the book, before the actual poem but after the rather useful introduction, there’s a series of timelines, maps, and other illustrations. One of these is a diagram on Dante’s Hell, which explains the different sections and shows Satan at the centre of the Earth. There are corresponding diagrams for both Purgatory and Paradise later in the book. I loved these, and they’re probably in other editions too, but I’m a sucker for maps and illustrations in classic books.

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If you haven’t read the Divine Comedy then I’d highly recommend it. It is rather intimidating in its size and subject matter but I really do think that it’s worth it. The entire poem is a masterpiece, a work of art that should be appreciated and admired. I’d definitely recommend this particular edition to those who want an English translation.

(Wordery | OUP | Goodreads)


Images:
1. Title page of the first printed edition of Divina Commedia (Foligno: 1472) – Available in the BEIC digital library 
2. Dante and Beatrice speak to Piccarda and Constance by Philipp Veit (1817-1827) – The Yorck Project ()
3. Allegorical Portrait of Dante by Anon. (late 16th century)   

Read as part of the Classics Club Challenge. This post does not contain affiliate links.

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16 thoughts on “Book Review: The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

  1. The Divine Comedy, in it’s entirety, has been one of my favorites since I read it in high school. My translation was by John Ciardi, but was also in blank verse and had copious footnotes – on my own it would have been impossible to catch all the contemporary and Classical allusions Dante snuck in. It also led to me picking up Ovid’s Metamorphosis and Machiavelli’s The Prince. It’s one of those infinite texts that always has more to show you. Thanks for the post, I really enjoyed it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This edition had endnotes (which I hate) but I didn’t use them much so it wasn’t much of an issue. I know that I’ll be able to read this again and again and never get tired of it because, like you said, there are so many alllusions to other texts and events. It’s a wonderful poem 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a brilliant poem and I wish I’d read the final two sections sooner. It had such an impact of English Renaissance literature too and I’ll be searching for references to the poem in my other reading from this era.

      I’ve read Paradise Lost multiple times (the joys of being a Renaissance Lit student) but I’ve never actually read Paradise Regained. I should read that at some point 🙂

      Like

  2. I didn’t know Dante was the first to use that rhyming verse stanza form. I’ve heard of The Divine Comedy of course, but never read it and admittedly knew very little about it, so this is really interesting – a little unusual, but interesting! Great write-up xx

    Liked by 1 person

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