Another Shout Out to Dante

Three More Reasons to Read the Divine Comedy

Allow me to join my voice to Peter Biles, who recently recommended here at Salvo Dante’s Divine Comedy. If you have not read his post, please do so, and take his advice. Read Dante. You will find it one of the most exhausting, frustrating, confusing, and rewarding experiences of your entire life. It will make you want to turn around and read it again, if only to see if you understood anything the first time through. Someone once quipped, when you have finished reading the Divine Comedy, you are now ready to read the Divine Comedy. And it is true.

But to encourage you on that difficult, though wonderful journey, I would like to offer three reasons to take the plunge, three reasons to strap on some thick-soled boots and follow Virgil and Dante as they descend the funnel shaped rings of Hell and climb the steep slopes of Purgatory; to persevere through the dense medieval theology of Paradise, as Beatrice takes every opportunity she can to lecture Dante; and to finally stand with the pilgrim before the Beatific Vision of God Himself and be transformed forever. I have now made that journey many times and can say with confidence that it is well worth the effort.

Reason #1 — The poetry is beautiful and profound. Of course, as English speakers, the entrancing cadences of Dante’s Italian is lost on most of us. But even a halfway decent translation captures the striking imagery and the epic similes that propel the narrative forward. For instance, in Canto 20 of the Inferno, Dante and Virgil his guide see the fortune tellers and soothsayers. These “prophets” have spent their whole lives straining their eyes into the future, trying to discern providence beyond what was rightfully theirs to see. As a result of having strained so hard to see ahead, their heads are completely twisted round, so that they now must walk backwards, with their chins resting on their upper backs. The privilege of looking ahead has been taken away from them. At the other end of Dante’s pilgrimage, in Canto 23 of the Paradiso, the souls in glory are pictured as a vast field of lanterns dancing, kindled only by the Sun that is the shining substance of Jesus, awaiting with joy and song their resurrected bodies. Dante’s wealth of images are rich and instructive, each one helping us to think deeply about the nature of creation, the will of God, and our own journey toward (or away from) Him.

Reason #2 — CS Lewis once wrote an essay called, “On the Reading of Old Books,” in which he famously talked about how every age can lose itself in its own outlook and view of the world. Without taking the proper measures, we can assume that we have the truth, while all other ages are simply wrong. But there are mistakes we cannot see, and there are valuable declarations of truth from the ages that we ignore to our peril. The only cure, Lewis says, is

to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.

The Divine Comedy, completed 700 years ago, certainly qualifies as an old book. It will make you take a fresh look at your assumptions and unite you in new way to your brothers and sisters in Christ who lived and died in faith, centuries before you were born.

Reason #3 — Finally, though much more could certainly be said, the Divine Comedy presents the thoughts and convictions of a mind that saw clearly, and articulated beautifully, how all of the created cosmos is oriented around the love of God. Only man, in his sin, rejects the music of the spheres that harmonizes the heavens and the earth in praise of their Maker. In Hell, we see how the love of God, reflected in fallen human nature, is distorted and confused; we see the consequences of loving a good thing too much, or a good thing too little, or of loving the wrong thing entirely. We see, at the lowest point in all the universe, the impotent and disgusting figure of Satan, drooling idiotically, having forever trapped himself in a lake of ice created by his own hatred and renunciation of God’s love. In Purgatory, we learn with Dante how to change our habits, and orient our own feeble loves in ways that strengthen and encourage obedience and hope. In Purgatory, we do not find souls screaming in pain, but rather singing from a more fully realized love – eager to grow, eager to climb, eager to reach, as they must – the blessedness of God’s presence. And it is that blessed presence that we find in Paradise, permeating every inch of that realm. In Paradise, we discover what it means to rest in the good and perfect will of God, in the purposes He has for each of us, having discovered that “in His will is our peace.” Here is joy and hope and beauty like you have never tasted.

And yes, by that “here” I mean both Dante’s experience of Paradise, and our own potential experience of Dante. We live in an age that values the quick and easy, over the long and difficult. We are a disposable culture, slow to put time into something that doesn't result in an immediate return. And it is true — diving into Dante will mean an investment, both of time and intellectual energy. But remember this, it is almost always the endeavor that takes the most effort, the most commitment, the most perseverance that produces the deepest and longest lasting satisfaction. Furthermore, it is that kind of endeavor that, more often than not, transforms our lives forever.

So, I too encourage you, read the Comedy. It is a goal that should rise to the top of everyone’s bucket list. And, as Mr. Biles pointed out, there are numerous resources available to help you along the way. 100 Days of Dante is an excellent place to start. That said, there is also a place for simply picking it up and undauntedly diving in. If you should choose to do so, I would encourage you not to worry about all the mythological and historical names. Don't worry about the Guelph/Ghibelline divide (a factional political divide of Dante’s time and place). Don't worry about those theological points that you might not agree with. Simply receive it as you would the glorious presence of a Gothic cathedral, or an inspiring performance of Bach, or the rich contemplation of a Rembrandt. With patience and a good will, it becomes its own reward.

(MA Humanities) is a poet and translator living in the DFW metroplex with his wife and son. His new blank verse translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, as well as accompanying reader’s guides, are available at dantepoem.com.

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