Inferno by Dante Alighieri (translated by Robert and Jean Hollander)
Inferno is the first part, of Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy, which is followed by Purgatorio and Paradiso. It describes Dante’s journey through Hell, guided by Roman poet Virgil. It isn’t precisely clear why Dante is appointed to this journey – only that he is appointed by divine will, and Virgil is his guide, presumably because Virgil, now only a shade, has made the journey himself, and is much revered by Dante.
Hell is described as nine circles. Less serious crimes are punished less severely in the higher levels and as Virgil and Dante descend they discover more heinous criminals and greater punishment culminating in the ninth level, the lowest pit of Hell, where they encounter infamous traitors Judas, Brutus, and Cassius, who are tormented by the chief of traitors Satan himself.
It’s grim reading.
At the very outset, before entering the netherworld Dante writes…
In middle of the journey of our days
I found that I was in a darksome wood
The right road lost and vanished in the maze.
I particularly like this, as he uses first person singular “I”, after previously using the plural “our”. I believe this signifies both an individual and collective conscious and conscience.
As they prepare to enter the Gates of Hell, Dante sees the fearsome sign…
THROUGH ME THE WAY TO THE CITY OF WOE,
THROUGH ME THE WAY TO ETERNAL PAIN,
THROUGH ME THE WAY AMONG THE LOST.
JUSTICE MOVED MY MAKER ON HIGH.
DIVINE POWER MADE ME,
WISDOM SUPREME, AND PRIMAL LOVE.
BEFORE ME NOTHING WAS BUT THINGS ETERNAL,
AND I ENDURE ETERNALLY.
ABANDON ALL HOPE, YOU WHO ENTER HERE.
Each level of Hell is guarded a different demon. They challenge Dante’s right as a living soul to enter, until they are rebuked by Virgil…
Hinder not his destined journey.
It is so willed where will and power are one,
and ask no more.
And with that, they are suffered to pass.
In the early going, Dante feels pity for the souls he sees, but Virgil reminds him that the souls all enjoyed free will and a season to repent. Or, as one commentator put it…
…the time for mercy is here in this world, while in the world to come it is time only for justice. ~ Guido da Pisa
One of the more striking things about the punishment meted out, whether to the lustful or gluttons, violent or blasphemers, hypocrites or thieves, was that the punishment fit the crime. They were punished by their own vices.
As Hollander put it…
What they did above, they do below…
Or as the narrative describes…
And she to me: “There is no greater sorrow
than to recall our time of joy
in wretchedness – and this your teacher knows.
How many now above who think themselves
great kings will lie here in the mud, like swine,
leaving behind nothing but ill repute!
Every evil deed despised in Heaven
has as its end injustice. Each such end
harms someone else through either force or fraud.
Then my leader [Virgil] spoke with a vehemence
I had not heard him use before: “O, Capaneus,
because your pride remains unquenched
you suffer greater punishment.
In your own anger lies your agony,
a fitting torment for your rage.”
It was, as I said a grim, but fascinating read.
I often had to remind myself: Dante’s Inferno is literature, not Christian doctrine. And although there are a great many particulars on which I disagree quite strongly with Dante’s conception, there is a profound theme that I believe is true…
God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. Galatians 6:7
A word about this translation. I can only imagine that translating poetry is a tremendous challenge. I am not qualified to comment on the quality of this translation, but I can say I found it quite accessible, and I think the team makes good sense: Dante scholar Robert Hollander and his poet wife Jean Hollander. My unscholarly opinion: they did a marvelous job of maintaining the great power and terrible beauty of the message.
Finally, when I read Shakespeare, I keep watch for those little sayings of the Bard’s that have passed into modern English vernacular, such as Neither here nor there or Mum’s the word. I noted such a saying by Dante in Inferno. Virgil tells Dante he has not seen enough yet to form some opinion. Virgil’s words are (keep in mind the circles of Hell)
…you have not come full circle
Ironically, this saying, is misattributed to Shakespeare as he uses it in King Lear.