created 14th century Dante Alighieri
translated © 2002 Anthony Esolen
If Dante’s Inferno is to be believed, Hell is mostly populated by Italians. The first piece in the Divine Comedy, Inferno takes the reader down into the depths of the infernal abyss, through ring after ring of the damned. Fire is the exception, not the rule down here; Hell is a vast geography of misery. The ground is rocky and steep, the air filled with cold and lashing rain, or noxious fumes. The reader, taking Dante’s place as he wanders off the straight roads of life into the wilderness, is guided through Hell in safety by Virgil — the greatest of all classical poets.
Inferno contains two things in abundance: classical allusions and Italian politics. The world of the Inferno is peopled by characters, beasts, and places that draw on the rich vocabulary of the classical tradition. We see here not only the ‘virtuous pagans’ hanging around a medieval version of the Asphodel Plains, denied entry into paradise but not damned either, but more than a few heroes of the canon. Odysseus is here, condemned as a liar — and so is Brutus, a traitor in the gnawing maw of an angry devil. My original intent was to read the Inferno as part of a series of medieval history and medieval literature — and considering the amount of Florentine politics here, that may have been helpful. Dante can’t so much as move without tripping over a corrupt pope, an exposed friend, or some hapless Florentine giving a dire warning about impending civil war. (And I do mean tripping — people are stuck into the ground head first, or trapped in a frozen river with only their heads exposed..) The ranks of the traitors are especially Italian-rich. A little familiarity with medieval cosmology helps in understanding the text — the idea that the universe is a series of spheres, each level nesting inside the other. Dante also displays an intriguing imagination, creating poetic punishments. (Schismatics who create division within the church or society are themselves divided with an axe to the head.) At the bottom of the pit is a frozen wasteland, with the greatest of traitors entrapped by darkness and ice. The artic winds that create the ice are created by Satan’s wings, constantly beating in his eternal attempt to rise.
When the year’s young in season,
and the spray washes the sun beams in Aquarius
and the nights dwindle south toward half a day
When the frost paints a copy on the ground
of her white sister’s snowy image, but
Her feather’s sharpness doesn’t last for long […] (Canto 24)
Esolen errs on the side of accuracy rather than rhyme with his translation, but he does achieve a certain lyric quality and uses footnotes judiciously, creating a text neither confusing nor cluttered. Esolen’s appendices are unusually rich, containing textually similar lines from The Aenid, text from the non-canonical “Vision of St. Paul”, which describes different degrees of punishments for sinners, and theological writings from Aquinas and Boniface that would have informed Dante’s view. More extensive notes follow the end of Canto XXXIV, but of course that’s not the end of the story — it continues on the mount of Purgatory.