Initial impressions of Dante’s “Inferno”

It is presumptuous to set out to “review” something such as Dante’s Inferno. Even at best, what one reviews is not so much the poem itself, but one’s reactions to the poem. Entire  books can be written – indeed, have been written – about how this poem, or the larger poem of which this is but the first part, has echoed through the arts and literatures of the Western world through the centuries; it is so permanent a fixture in the culture of the Western world that anything other than scholarly exegesis appears pointless. For what can I, a mere novice to this work, encountering it for the first time (and in translation at that) in my 50s, say anything at all that could possibly be of interest to anyone else?

But that is one of the beauties of the internet: one may make the most vapid and thoughtless statements about the most intricate and complex of works, and it can count as a “review”. During my first forays into the cyberworld all those years ago, it used, I remember, to irritate me to read that Hamlet was not too bad once you sort of got into it, or that Anna Karenina had boring patches that really sucked, or that it was really kind of hard to get into Great Expectations, or identify with any of the characters in Madame Bovary, and so on. Nowadays, such comments tend to amuse me, although I still wonder why people who appear to have so little understanding of what literature is should feel the need to pass judgement on public fora on matters that clearly go far above their heads, and be so utterly lacking in humility as to imagine themselves capable of seeing through works that generations of the finest minds have revered to the point of idolatry.

But now, it seems, I am about to join their ranks: I am about to write what passes on the net as a “review” of a work that, frankly, went over my head, but which has been intensely admired across generations and across cultures by the most refined of tastes and by the most acute of intellects. So yes, Dante’s Inferno really was kind of hard to get into, the boring patches really did suck, it was hard to identify with any of the characters, but, for all that, once you did get into it, it really wasn’t too bad. And if that reads like a poor attempt at satire (which it is), it’s only fair to warn the reader beforehand that what follows is unlikely to be much better. But I did set up this blog to record my thoughts on my reading, and so I might as well get down to it.

The first issue I had to grapple with was how I should take this. Taking it literally was, of course, quite out of the question: indeed, Dante himself used the word “allegory” to describe this poem, although I am not sufficiently knowledgeable about early 14th century Italian culture to know what Dante may have meant by the word. But that still leaves open the question: as a reader in the early 21st century, if I cannot take this work literally, how should I take it? If it is indeed an allegory, what is it an allegory of?

The question remained an open one in the early cantos, in which one is carried along by the sheer vividness of the images: that fearful forest in which the poet is lost half-way through the path of life; the wolf and the lion, and the leopard that allures even as it terrifies; these are all, even at first reading, striking, to say the least. And, famously, the pagan poet Virgil is Dante’s guide. As with every other aspect of this poem, this has been endlessly discussed, but one reason for making Virgil his guide is surely to acknowledge Virgil’s influence. As in Milton’s poetry, the imaginative world of this poem seems at least classical as it is Christian: the Styx, Charon, the Gorgons – all these figures from classical mythology reappear, and the Sixth Book of Virgil’s Aeneid, with its depiction of a journey into the pagan Underworld, never seems too far away.

But somehow, the world medieval Christianity seems more distant to us now than does the classical world. What are we nowadays to make of all these people – many of them real people – assigned by a Christian God to everlasting torment? I think I got a semblance of an answer to this in the famous fifth canto, in which the adulterous Francesca and her lover Paolo, clasped tightly together, whirl aimlessly in the winds. Dante’s reactions are sympathetic: he records that he swoons after hearing Francesca’s story. There is certainly no indication that he approves of the divine punishment meted out to the guilty lovers: and yet, here they are in Hell: no matter how sympathetic Dante may be, God presumably isn’t.

But this does not seem to me so much a critique, nor even a vindication, of God’s judgement: that’s more Milton’s theme than Dante’s. For Francesca’s fate brought to mind another literary adulteress – Emma Bovary: I remembered particularly that scene where she, clasped close in sexual embrace to her lover Léon in a carriage with the blinds drawn down, whirl aimlessly for hour after hour through the streets of Rouen.  And it seemed to me that Dante was depicting in his allegorical manner what Flaubert depicted a few centuries afterwards – the Hell we make for ourselves by our own actions. Sometimes, the Hell we make is made by evil deeds; at other times, as with Francesca da Rimini, or, indeed, with Emma Bovary, the Hell is created by foolishness, by failure to understand things rightly. Some other times, as with Anna Karenina, Hell is created because these people, being who they are, could not do otherwise.

This, I am sure, is far from the only way to read the Inferno. It may not even be the most rewarding way to read it, as it no doubt obscures other equally important approaches. But, at my first reading, it worked for me. Only by relating this poem to literature with which I was already familiar could I make some sense out of it. The sins that have brought these people into this Hell are, to a lesser or greater extent, a betrayal of their potential as humans: Francesca, for instance, did not understand the meaning of love. She speaks the word “amor” often – “amor”, love, has brought her, she says, to this, but, like Flaubert’s Emma, she has but a faint understanding of what the word means. And even out of this is Hell created.

We later meet with characters who have committed deeds far more heinous, but at each instance, they either misunderstood or ignored or pretended not to know the diverse potentials of humanity. I was even reminded at times of Ibsen’s late masterpiece John Gabriel Borkman, in which Ella Rentheim accuses Borkman of that one crime for which, she says, there can be no forgiveness – the killing of love in another person. In their different ways, the inmates of Dante’s Inferno have all killed love – even Francesca, who insists that it was love that had brought her here.

We meet with all sorts of evil here. Shakespeare’s Macbeth had been happy to “skip the life to come”: he had been concerned only with “here, but here, upon this bank and shoal of time”. Lady Macbeth too had been concerned with “here, but here”: she had desired so complete a darkness to descend upon the earth that even her knife should not see the wound it makes. But by the time the play ends, they are both in Hell: existence for Macbeth is a meaningless tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, this bank and shoal of time no more than a futile eternity, with each day undifferentiated from the day that had preceded it, or the day that will follow; and Lady Macbeth, who had called upon darkness to envelop the world, has to have a light always about her, for her Hell, as she knows, is “murky”. To experience this play is not to take satisfaction of two wicked characters getting their come-uppance: rather, it is to share in the overwhelming horror of the Hell these humans have made. And it is this same sense of overwhelming horror one finds in the Inferno in its most sombre passages. It is the Hell we create when we fail to understand what we, as humans, may be.

Reading over that last paragraph, that final sentence strikes me as too schematic a summary of a work of great complexity. However, complexity cannot be grasped in its entirety – at least, not at first reading; so simplification, sadly, is inevitable. But how can such simplification account for those many passages of crude, knockabout humour and comic-strip horrors that are also apparent here? I wish I knew. For Dante’s Inferno isn’t always sombre, and if some parts make us laugh, it may be reasonable to infer that Dante intended us to laugh.

But if the Hell we make for ourselves is the Hell that comes about when we betray our human potential, then how do we account for the famous Canto of Ulysses? In Canto 26, we meet the great hero of Homer’s Odyssey, and who is also, suitably transformed, the hero of Joyce’s Ulysses. But unlike the other classical figures, he is not in Limbo: he is in Hell. Why? His lines are some of the most magnificent in all literature, and, in a famous chapter in If This is a Man, Primo Levi’s account of his experiences in Auschwitz, Levi relates how, even in the midst of the very real Hell which he had inhabited, these lines had suddenly seemed to him the most important thing in the world:

  “O frati”, dissi “che per cento milia
perigli siete giunti a l’occidente,
a questa tanto picciola vigilia

d’i nostri sensi ch’è del rimanente
non vogliate negar l’esperïenza,
di retro al sol, del mondo sanza gente.

Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza”.

   “Brothers”, I said, “a hundred thousand
perils have you passed and reached the Occident.
for us, so little time remains to keep

   the vigils of our living sense. Do not
deny your will to win experience,
behind the sun, of worlds where no man dwells.

   hold clear in your thought your seed and origin.
You were not made  to live as mindless brutes,
but go in search of virtue and true knowledge.”

(Translated by Robin Kirkpatrick)

This is the voice of the questing Faust, of Prometheus. It is not hard to see why a passage such as this should have made so great an impact on the Romantics. Here is the origin of one of Tennyson’s most splendid poems, but Tennyson’s view of Ulysses was unambiguously admiring: Dante’s isn’t. His Ulysses, after all, is in Hell.

It is not, I think, that Dante does not see the glory or the heroism of Ulysses’ striving:  were that the case, he couldn’t have given Ulysses lines so magnificent and so heroic. But Dante also knows that Ulysses, in his heroic striving, has broken bonds that should be precious:

né dolcezza di figlio, né la pieta
del vecchio padre, né ‘l debito amore
lo qual dovea Penelopè far lieta,

vincer potero dentro a me l’ardore…

   … no tenderness for son, no duty owed
To ageing fatherhood, no love that should
Have brought my wife Penelope delight, 

   Could overcome in me my long desire… 

(Translated by Robin Kirkpatrick)

This image of the man who sacrifices all for his striving towards an ideal is also familiar to us: he may be heroic, as is Ibsen’s Brand, or Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People; but he is also dangerous. By the time this figure appears in The Wild Duck, he is Gregers Werle, a fanatic, a man who is, perhaps, mentally unstable. And all these aspects are in Dante’s Ulysses: the striving is heroic, magnificent, but, as Ibsen was to know, even that can create its own Hell.

In the final canto, Dante and Virgil come face to face with the Devil himself. But this is not, I think, the climactic section of the poem. The Devil here is not like Milton’s Satan: there is nothing about this figure that intrigues of fascinates. Later generations could speak of Milton being on the Devil’s side without knowing it, but such a comment could not be made about Dante. To Dante, evil is unremarkable – mere brute, lumpen stupidity, lacking in any feature that may, even superficially, be considered attractive. The climactic point of Inferno had, I think, come in the previous canto, with its grotesque picture of Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri in the frozen lake, the former gnawing for all eternity into the latter’s brain. Such an image may be so grotesque as to appear comic, but it there isn’t a trace here even of black comedy, any more than there is of fascination. For Dante, evil wasn’t fascinating: it was merely nauseating, disgusting, a perversion of all that humans are capable of  being.


Given my very limited acquaintance with a work one could spend one’s entire life studying, I really don’t know that I can give anything more than a record of some initial impressions. Having come to this work relatively late in life, I doubt I’ll ever get to know it as well as I should. Certainly, there was much at this first reading that I found puzzling, that went way over my head. But one has to live with that: one can’t give everything the attention they deserve. In the meantime I think I’ll give Dante a bit of a rest before moving on to the Purgatorio. No doubt, there will be much there also that will go over my head, but perhaps a little learning need not be so a dangerous thing when one is aware of how little that learning is!

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