Hello again everyone, and welcome to the first of a series of reviews on The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. This past spring I took a class on Dant...moreHello again everyone, and welcome to the first of a series of reviews on The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. This past spring I took a class on Dante in which we read the entirety of The Commedia. After taking some time to think and digest this massive poem, I think I am finally ready to write my review. I will write one review for each canticle, starting with The Inferno, Dante's trip through Hell.
At the opening of the canticle, Dante awakes to find himself lost in a dark wood. Unable to leave the valley, he is greeted by the shade of Virgil, who tells him that he has been sent by Mary and Dante's dearly departed Beatrice to guide Dante through Hell, Purgatory, and eventually to the highest parts of Heaven. Although Dante is initially reluctant to go, he eventually follows Virgil down into the mouth of Hell.
While the idea of reading such a long old poem seems daunting, the language and imagery that Dante uses makes it as compelling and fresh as if it were written yesterday. It is, first and foremost, a journey, and the sights the pilgrim sees on his journey to the bottom of Hell are described in vivid and sometimes gross detail. Hell is a very physical place, full of bodies and bodily functions, and Dante doe snot skimp on the imagery. But as often as his language is crude, it is at times stunningly beautiful. There were similes that absolutely stopped me in my tracks with their perfection and beauty. If you want to read the Inferno for the first time, read it like a novel. Jump in, enjoy the story, gawk at the imagery, and stop to relish the beautiful passages.
Just as Dante the pilgrim takes Virgil as his guide through Hell, Dante the poet uses Virgil as a poetic guide in his attempt to write an epic that encompasses religion, politics, history, and the human experience. In each circle, Dante meets a new group of sinners who are in Hell for different reasons. The first thing to note about the damned is that they seem to be mostly from Florence. Seriously, sometimes I think Dante wrote this just so he could shove everyone he didn't like into the fiery pit. But in all seriousness, Dante's goal wasn't just to describe the afterlife, he was also trying to describe life on earth. By putting people from Florence in Hell or Heaven, Dante was commenting on what was happening in Italy at the time. Most important for Dante was the corruption he saw in the church, so there are entire cantos of the Inferno devoted to religious leaders, especially Popes, and especially Boniface, who was Pope at the time Dante was writing.
The other thing to note about the damned is how relatable they are, at least in the beginning. When you meet Paolo and Francesca in Canto V and listen to Francesca's story, you can't help but be drawn in and pity her. Dante the pilgrim pitied her too, and swoons (again, seriously, he spends like the first 10 cantos swooning left and right) due to his empathy for them. Again and again the pilgrim pities the damned, but as the canticle goes on this happens less and less. By the end of the canticle he has stopped pitying the shades at all, and instead feels that their damnation is deserved. Why did Dante the poet make the pilgrim transforming such a way? Just as the description of Hell also serves as a description of Earth and of the nature of the human soul, the pilgrim's journey through the afterlife mirrors the soul's journey from the dark wood of sin and error to enlightenment and salvation. Dante is at first taken in by the sinners because he is not wise enough to see through their excuses. He is too much like them to do anything other than pity them. As he goes through Hell, he learns more and shakes off the darkness of the wood, so that by the time he gets to the bottom he no longer pities the damned. Still, even in the lowest circles, the shades are all deeply human, and their stories of how they ended up in Hell are incredibly compelling.
Dante the poet shows again and again how similar the pilgrim and the damned really are. He constantly explores sins that he could have committed or paths that he could have taken, exposing his own weaknesses and confronting what would have been his fate if Beatrice and Mary had not sent Virgil to save him. I think it speaks to his bravery as a poet that he insisted on exposing not just the weaknesses in society, but also the weaknesses in his own character.
Dante the poet is also brave, I think, for tackling some very serious theological, political, and psychological issues. When Dante the pilgrim walks through the gate of Hell, the inscription on the gate says that the gate and Hell itself were made by "the primal love" of God. Here, Dante tackles one of the greatest theological questions; how can a just and loving God permit something as awful as Hell? While the real answer doesn't come until the Paradiso, Dante was brave to put that question in such stark and paradoxical terms.
Dante's constant indictments of the political and religious leaders of his day show bravery, intelligence, and a good degree of anger on his part. Before writing the Inferno, Dante had been exiled from his home city of Florence for being on the wrong side of a political scuffle. He was never able to return home, and his anger at the partisanship that caused his exile mixed with his longing for his home make the political themes of the poem emotionally charged and interesting to the reader, even now.
Lastly, Dante shows both bravery and a great deal of literary skill in his treatment of Virgil. Virgil is Dante's guide through Hell and, later, Purgatory. He leads Dante every step of the way, teaching him like a father would, protecting him from daemons and even carrying him on his back at one point. It is clear that Dante admires Virgil, and in some ways the poem is like a love song to him. Virgil, living before Christ, was obviously not Christian, so Dante's choice of Virgil as a guide through the Christian afterlife is really quite extraordinary. It shows that wisdom can be attained from the ancient world, and that the light of human reason, which Virgil represents, is necessary for the attainment of enlightenment and salvation. Dante believed strongly that reason and faith were not opposites, but partners, and his choice of Virgil as a guide is a perfect illustration of that principle.
But, despite Dante's love of Virgil, Virgil is, to me, one of the most tragic characters in literature. Virgil, as a pagan, cannot go to Heaven. He resides in Limbo, the first circle of Hell, home of the virtuous pagans. There, he and the other shades (including Homer, Plato, and others) receive no punishment except for their constant yearning for Heaven and the knowledge that they will never see the light of God. Virgil, at the request of Mary and Beatrice, leads Dante toward a salvation that he can never have. Human reason can only lead a soul so far; to understand the mysteries of Heaven one has to rely on faith and theology. Virgil's fate is the great tragedy of this otherwise comic poem, and we are reminded of it again and again throughout the first two canticles. And while it makes sense thematically and in terms of the plot, Dante makes you love Virgil so much that his departure in the Purgatorio never really feels fair. I still miss him.
The Inferno is a long and complex poem, filled with vivid imagery, vast psychological depth, scathing social commentary, and deep theological questions. It is also a journey, a real adventure in a way, and a pleasure to read. Though the real fulfillment of Dante's themes does not come until the Paradiso, the Inferno is well worth reading on its own. Even if you don't go on to read the other two canticles, reading The Inferno is time well spent.
Rating: 5 stars Recommendations: Read it. Skip the boring parts if you want to, but just read it. (less)
If you looked over the kinds of books I tend to read and review, you might be surprised to learn that I had never read The Odyssey. To be honest with...moreIf you looked over the kinds of books I tend to read and review, you might be surprised to learn that I had never read The Odyssey. To be honest with you, I've always been a little scared by classical literature, so I put off reading this for a long time. But finally I decided to put it on my Classics Club list and tackle the thing once and for all. Now that I'm done, I don't know why I waited for so long to read this wonderful book. The Odyssey is a truly lovely and beautiful poem, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I didn't know a lot about The Odyssey going in to it. I knew it was the story of Odysseus from the time he leaves the Trojan War to the time he arrives home in Ithaca, and I knew about some of the monsters and goddesses he ran into on his journey, but that was about it. Because of this, I was expecting a story filled with action, daring feats, horrible danger, and crafty escapes. While all those things were there, I was surprised at how much of the book takes place in a domestic setting, focusing on things like food, clothes, bedding, and talking. Homer seems to linger over the details of the places that Odysseus visits, giving beautiful detail to the feasting and sacrifices, the fruitfulness of the lords' gardens, the women's talent in weaving, the color of the wine, the comfort of the beds, the beauty of the gold dinnerware, and the hospitality of his hosts. This was probably my biggest surprise while reading The Odyssey, but it also turned out to be my favorite part of the book. The descriptions of these domestic pleasures are all so loving and so beautiful that the reader feels a true love for the comforts of home and understands exactly why Odysseus wants so badly to get back to Ithaca. I wanted nothing more than for Odysseus to get back to Ithaca and experience the joy of being at home again. The care and love that Homer put into those descriptions made even everyday things seem truly lovely, and that warm loving glow was by far my favorite part of the book.
Another thing that surprised me about The Odyssey was how much of the story is given to us after the fact, told by Odysseus to his hosts. I thought this was an interesting device, because it puts the reader in the same place as Odysseus's host. We know who he is, but we're waiting for him to tell us what happened to him. Once we get caught up on the action and Odysseus makes the last leg of his journey and arrives in Ithaca, we see even more of his storytelling skills. He goes into disguise, and makes up stories about who he is and where he's from to many people before he kills the suitors and reveals his identity. These stories seem to be a way of fleshing out Odysseus's character. The fact that he can make up these stories on the spot shows that he is smart and cunning. The way he varies the length of his stories and the details he includes depending on who he's talking to shows how he feels about these people. The degrees to which people believe him and the way they react to his stories serves as a means for character development for them as well. I think the different kinds of stories and storytelling that happen in The Odyssey are incredibly interesting, and I intend to pay closer attention to them next time I read it.
One of my favorite little things about The Odyssey was the emphasis on hospitality and generosity to strangers and travelers. I knew that hospitality was an important part of early Greek culture, but I was constantly struck by the difference between the reception that Odysseus gets and the way we treat strangers in our society. When Odysseus came to a place, he was bathed, given a cloak to wear if he didn't have one, brought to the table, and fed like a member of the family. All this happened before they ever asked him his name or where he was from. When they knew his name and heard his story, they gave him gifts and treasures and helped him to get home. He was always given a warm bed to sleep in and more than enough food to eat, and was treated with respect. I know that this is just a story, but I still found it to be incredibly refreshing. I wish that our society would focus a little more on hospitality and generosity like they do in The Odyssey.
I've heard many people complain that they found The Odyssey boring, with dry descriptions and long stretches where nothing happens. It may just be that I read a better translation than other people (my boyfriend, who has often picked The Odyssey as his favorite book, recommends the Fitzgerald, and I agree) but I didn't have any of these problems. I found the pacing to be very good, with most sections moving on to other sections in a timely and satisfying manner. The ending, when Odysseus and Penelope are finally reunited, is absolute perfection, and I would not have changed a single word of it. The descriptions are vivid, colorful, and utterly lovely in every way. Though I was intimidated by classical literature and afraid of being bored, within the first few chapters The Odyssey had completely won me over. I am glad that I finally read this thoroughly lovely and enjoyable book.