Dante – Divine Comedy (Inferno)
“Seven centuries after Dante Alighieri wrote La Divina Commedia, it remains one of the most
spectacularly amazing literary masterpieces in any language of any time.
The story of a spiritual journey, The Divine Comedy is essentially an allegory which began on Good
Friday 1300 (when Dante was thirty-five) and lasted for just seven days. It is also a bitter political
polemic, directed against all in authority in Italy at the time, but particularly those in Dante's native
Florence, and also serves as a denouncement of the wealth and corruption of the papacy.
The Divine Comedy embraces the celestial and the terrestrial, the mythological and the historical, the
practical and the ethical. It is a discourse on the role of reason in faith and the individual in society.
The Divine Comedy is a poem in which Dante views himself as a pilgrim, representative of all
mankind, who is led on a journey through the various circles of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. It is
written in three volumes (Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso), each composed of thirty-three cantos
(there is one introductory canto serving as an overview).
Originally written in Italian, The Divine Comedy uses a rhyming scheme known as terza rima, which
was invented by Dante, himself. Many translations attempt to adhere to this rhyming scheme,
however this only confines and constrains the translator in his ability to capture the meaning and
nuance of the original text. Anyone not able to read The Divine Comedy in its original Italian would
be far better off in choosing a blank verse translation.
Dante's first guide is the poet, Virgil, who leads him through Hell and Purgatory. As Dante and
Virgil descend through the ever-deepening circles, they speak with the damned, who are being
punished according to their sins on earth.
Some of these denizens of Hell are mythological, some are historical and some are Florentines who
were Dante's contemporaries.
Within Inferno, the condemned sinners are referred to as "shades." Virgil, himself, is first introduced
as a shade. Although this can be confusing to some readers, the confusion can be easily cleared up
once we realize Dante is employing the image of shades because, in his eyes, dead souls have grown
faint through the absence of God's light.
Once Dante begins to work his way upwards, towards Paradise, Virgil, who is, himself, a resident in
limbo, must take his leave and Dante finds his guide to be Beatrice (Bice Portinari, a woman Dante
met and fell in love with in 1274 and who died in 1290). It is Beatrice who leads Dante on to
Paradiso and his final vision of God.
The name, The Divine Comedy, is derived from two words, comus and oda, which, in their literal
translation mean, "rustic song." Dante, in a letter to a Ghibellinline Captain in Verona, said he was
attempting to separate his work from a pure tragedy (that which begins in tranquility and ends in
sadness, e.g., Romeo and Juliet), from a comedy, which can begin in sadness but, by its very nature,
ends in love, joy or perfection. The term, "divine" was suggested to Dante by Giovanni Boccaccio as
a way of representing the content of the poem and the beauty that it holds.
The Divine Comedy is, without a doubt, one of the greatest masterpieces of world literature. In a
literal sense, it is Dante's own depiction of the state of souls after death, but allegorically, it is so
much more. On this deeper level, the poem investigates mankind's eternal search for salvation in
which he must first descend to the depths of hell before rising to the heights of Paradise.
Dante – Divine Comedy (Inferno)
A lady who knew Italy and the Italian people well, some thirty
years ago, once remarked to the writer that Longfellow must have
lived in every city in that county for almost all the educated
Italians "talk as if they owned him."
And they have certainly a right to a sense of possessing him, to
be proud of him, and to be grateful to him, for the work which he
did for the spread of the knowledge of Italian Literature in the
article in the tenth volume on Dante as a Translator.
* * * * *
The three volumes of "The Divine Comedy" were printed for private
purposes, as will be described later, in 1865-1866 and 1877, but
they were not actually given to the public until the year last
Naturally enough, ever since Longfellow's first visit to Europe
(1826-1829), and no doubt from an earlier date still, he had been
interested in Dante's great work, but though the period of the
incubation of his translation was a long one, the actual time
engaged in it, was as he himself informs us, exactly two years.
The basis of the work with its copious, information and
illuminating notes, expositions and illustrations was his courses
of Lecture on Dante given in many places during many years; in
these Lecture it was his early custom to read in translation, the
whole or parts of the poem chosen for his subject, with his
notes, expositions and illustrations interspersed.__With what
infinite pains and conscientious care the work was done, and how
thoroughly he was penetrated with the thought and expression of
the poet, his Diaries, his Life and his Letters abundantly show,
and the work as it stands is a Masterpiece of scholarly and
sympathetic rendering, interpretation and exposition.
When at last the task of translating, revising and re-revision,
weighing and re-weighing, criticizing and re-criticizing every
phrase, every possible interpretation, and every allusion was
done,--first in the seclusion of his own study, and then with the
sympathetic aid of his friends, Charles Eliot Norton, James
Russell Lowell and others, the work was sent tot he printer in
1864. Ten copies of "The Inferno" were privately printed in 1865
in time for one of them to be sent to Florence for the
celebration of the six hundredth anniversary of Dante's birth.
The seconds volume was printed in the following year in like
manner and the third in the year after. In that year (1867), as
Dante – Divine Comedy (Inferno)
we have already said, the whole work was given to the public as
it is now presented in this edition and substantially as it
appeared in the privately printed copies.
So thoroughly has Longfellow done the work of elucidating his
version of the text of Dante, that there is absolutely nothing
left for other commentators to do.--Every biblical and every
classical allusion is annotated and referenced, every side light
that can possibly be needed is thrown upon the work all through;
and his "footlights of the great comedy" as he himself called his
notes and illustrations are illuminating it for all time.
We have however added to his notes the arguments prefixed to the
Cantos by the Rev. Henry Frances Carey, M,.A., in his well-known
version, and also his chronological view of the age of Dante
under the title of What was happening in the World while Dante
Often have I seen at some cathedral door
A laborer, pausing in the dust and heat,
Lay down his burden, and with reverent feet
Enter, and cross himself, and on the floor
Kneel to repeat his paternoster o'ver;
Far off the noises of the world retreat;
The loud vociferations of the street
become an undistinguishable roar.
So, as I enter her from day to day,
And leave my burden at this minster gate,
Kneeling in prayer, and not ashamed to pray,
The tumult of the time disconsolate
To inarticulate murmurs dies away,
While the eternal ages watch and wait. 1
1 This and the following sonnets were originally
printed in the volume entitled "Voices of the Night."
How strange the sculptures that adorn these towers!
This crowd of statues, in whose folded sleeves
Birds build their nests; while canopied with leaves
Parvis and portal bloom like trellised bowers,
And the vast minster seems a cross of flowers!
But fiends and dragons on the gargoyled eaves