Friday, 20 June 2014

Defeated by Dante

Few books send me into a state of aporia. I pride myself on my ability to write intelligently about anything I read. For sure, I don’t practice the real art of criticism, which is the art of teaching the reader to read in a better way, to discover and understand something about a literary text that he did not know or that was fuzzy to him. All I know is putting together a handful of superficial ideas in a cogent manner, without great flashes of perspicacity. But I can write about anything. It’s easier to write about something I like, but sometimes writing about what I detest also yields great results. My negative reviews can be virulent or, the way I prefer them, jocose. But I’m never silenced. But I read The Divine Comedy and I don’t know what to write about it.

I tried to be jocose about it, but the poem’s solemnity defeated me. And I’m trying not to be virulent. I’m just baffled. It’s funny, it’s such a famous poem this was one of those cases I thought I knew everything about it before I read it. Indeed, it’s impossible not to know the gist of the poem, which has kept me amazed for years: the odyssey of a poet, Dante, the author himself, through Inferno and Purgatorio up to Paradiso, where he meets his muse, Beatrice, the dead woman he loved. Guided by Virgil, he crosses rivers and cities and bridges and circles and stairs, and holds many conversations with many figures from the past and mythology. In theory it sounds extraordinary. I read The Divine Comedy and I never expected to dislike it so much. But I try to squeeze something out of it to write but my imagination doesn’t cooperate. Do you know who I admire? I admire Himadri from The Argumentative Old Git. Himadri can write about The Divine Comedy and make it sound remarkable and enthralling.

I have the impression – more of a certainty than a feeling – that I miss several many keys to understand this poem: historical, political, mythological, scientific, theological and literary. Dante and Virgil descend through Inferno and then ascend to Paradiso through Purgatorio, but in fact they’re moving through a patchwork of a fabled landscape built from the total sum of knowledge an erudite man could amass in the 14th century. I don’t understand the allusions, I don’t understand the political war between the Guelph and Ghibelline, I don’t understand what Dante’s life has to do with it. There’s something I’m genuinely interested in knowing: the poem is also autobiographical; was this the West’s first first-person epic poem? The same way Saint Agustine’s Confessions is considered the West’s first autobiography?

Clueless, I read the poem with my mind in a haze, and since I didn’t understand anything my apathy started stretching all perceived flaws out of proportion. First of all, it was the speed of the journey. Every episode seemed too small for many of the figures and their predicaments. There are famous episodes in the poem – Ulysses, Paolo and Francesca, Count Ugolino – but I barely noticed them, they nearly sublime into anonymity, a blink and they were missed. Then the footnotes, no doubt against the commentator’s intention, made me wonder at the pettiness of the mind behind the poem. The Divine Comedy is revenge poetry, according to the innocent footnotes, which constantly inform me that such and such was an enemy of Dante’s faction or betrayed it, so in essence the poet turned hell into a personal menagerie for his enemies. Several others are consigned to hell by Dante under criteria scrutable only to himself. Not only does the poem constantly revel in a pettiness of spirit, a chronic rush to judge others and a penchant for Puritanism and intolerance, it also requires a college degree in Italian medieval history to understand why Dante loathes all these people I have absolutely no reason to detest.

What really impressed me, in a negative way, was the poetry itself. I trudged through the three parts under the impression the poem was almost devoid of poetic elements. I searched for a long time before finding an attention-grabbing metaphor or simile; and the imagery, particularly the descriptions in hell that have inspired the adjective Dantesque, is not as interesting as legend would have me believe. People talk a lot about poetic prose these days, but this was prosaic poetry to me, it has a vulgar, everyday form to it that is full of ugliness. I could pick up any segment, like the final verses of Canto XXVI, Ulysses’ description of a shipwreck:

With these few words I sharpen'd for the voyage
The mind of my associates, that I then
Could scarcely have withheld them.  To the dawn
Our poop we turn'd, and for the witless flight
Made our oars wings, still gaining on the left.
Each star of the' other pole night now beheld,
And ours so low, that from the ocean-floor
It rose not.  Five times re-illum'd, as oft
Vanish'd the light from underneath the moon
Since the deep way we enter'd, when from far
Appear'd a mountain dim, loftiest methought
Of all I e'er beheld.  Joy seiz'd us straight,
But soon to mourning changed.  From the new land
A whirlwind sprung, and at her foremost side
Did strike the vessel.  Thrice it whirl'd her round
With all the waves, the fourth time lifted up
The poop, and sank the prow: so fate decreed:
And over us the booming billow clos'd.

(Translated by H. F. Cary)

And turn it into a chunk of prose:

700 BC


With these few words I sharpened for the voyage the mind of my associates, that I then could scarcely have withheld them.  To the dawn our poop we turned, and for the witless flight made our oars wings, still gaining on the left.

Each star of the' other pole night now beheld, and ours so low, that from the ocean-floor it rose not.  Five times re-illumed, as oft vanished the light from underneath the moon since the deep way we entered, when from far appeared a mountain dim, loftiest methought of all I ever beheld.  


Joy seized us straight, but soon to mourning changed.  From the new land a whirlwind sprung, and at her foremost side did strike the vessel.  Thrice it whirled her round with all the waves, the fourth time lifted up the poop, and sank the prow: so fate decreed: and over us the booming billow closed.

The language is so technical and common; it’s we did this, we did that, this happened, that happened, and ever so straightforward. Where’s the heightened language? Where are the figures of speech? Where’s the poetry? Now, I know the same can be said easily of Homer’s epics, but at least they had people killing each other, a proven recourse to hiding any book’s flaws. Here’s an example of poetry to me:

Say first—for Heaven hides nothing from thy view,
Nor the deep tract of Hell—say first what cause
Moved our grand parents, in that happy state,
Favoured of Heaven so highly, to fall off
From their Creator, and transgress his will
For one restraint, lords of the World besides.
Who first seduced them to that foul revolt?
  Th' infernal Serpent; he it was whose guile,
Stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived
The mother of mankind, what time his pride
Had cast him out from Heaven, with all his host
Of rebel Angels, by whose aid, aspiring
To set himself in glory above his peers,
He trusted to have equalled the Most High,
If he opposed, and with ambitious aim
Against the throne and monarchy of God,
Raised impious war in Heaven and battle proud,
With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from th' ethereal sky,
With hideous ruin and combustion, down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th' Omnipotent to arms.

This, as everybody knows, is from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. This sounds like poetry; it looks like poetry, it’s weird, it’s convoluted, it has arcane vocabulary, the syntax is all twisty, it’s biblical in tone. Probably I just failed to adjust my mind for what Dante was doing and tried to see him through the perspective of other poets. For all that, I’m not sure I want to read him in the right perspective.


  1. This one can be daunting.

    I do remember that the last lime that I read this I did a fair amount of background reading, for instance on the conflict between the Guelph and Ghibelline and how Dante was involved. I also read the poem itself with a companion book of notes that explained much.

    Of course one could argue that using such accessaries can mar or even ruin such a work.

    1. Brian, my edition had footnotes, to no avail regarding increasing my interest.

  2. I had a wonderful guide for The Divine Comedy when I read it 25 years ago, with heaps of background and infectious enthusiasm (my tutor for this had learned Italian just so she could read Dante in the original). I had an experience quite opposite to yours, marveling at Dante's conceptions and having portions of the original Italian read aloud to me (now that sounds like poetry). I do not think of Dante as especially vengeful, though he obviously did not suffer fools lightly and there's a mischief bordering on malice in his strewing his enemies about the various circles of hell.

    I wonder if the translation you read had anything to do with your negative experience. That passage you quote seems puffed up and stilted. I read John Ciardi and treasured it until it fell to pieces. I have been thinking recently of re-reading this in another translation; now may well be the time.

    1. Scott, the English excerpt I use is merely for illustration, obviously I read it in Portuguese.

    2. D'oh! Of course. I should have guessed that.

  3. Like Scott, I was wondering about translation issues. Given the chance, the one I'd like to try is the Hollander translation.

  4. It's the ugliness of the translation. Dante should be read in Italian. It does sound like poetry then.

    1. Perhaps, yes, even though the Portuguese translation is highly regarded and the translator, a poet himself, spent a lot of time on it.

  5. Having just taken a look at that passage in the Ciaran Carson translation, I'm even more convinced that at least part of your problem with Dante is the translation. "Methought"? And look for instance at the line, "Each star of th' other pole night now beheld." Ulysses is talking about a gale forcing his ship across the equator such that he begins to perceive the constellations of the southern sky, which would, of course, come into view gradually. Even if one is at the South Pole on a stunningly clear night, it is physically impossible see "each star of th' other pole."

    Freud might also have had something to say about the repetition of the word "poop."

  6. Maybe Dante should be read in Italian, but that ain't gonna happen with me. I've read Inferno several times, the other two less - Longfellow sounds like poetry, Laurence Binyon sounds like poetry. John Sinclair and Charles Singleton do not sound like poetry, sine they are prose translations, yet they are highly readable and useful for their clarity.

    The revenge aspect is commonly discussed in Dante criticism, and is often seen as an ethical problem with the book. You, Miguel, are far from alone there.

    What did you think of the Classical-Christian merger? I would guess that a reader of The Lusiads would find that interesting.

    1. Oh, Tom, I'm honoured, you interrupted your French vacations to comment on my blog!

      The revenge aspect is commonly discussed in Dante criticism, and is often seen as an ethical problem with the book. You, Miguel, are far from alone there.

      Ah, well, I guess that counts as a point in my favour then; good to know I'm sharing wavelenghts with Dante scholars.

      What did you think of the Classical-Christian merger?

      It made sense to me, it was one of aspects I found least reprehensible about the poem; I think writers should show off their erudition, even if most of it goes over my head. I guess it was the thing to do at the time. It's always interesting, this tension, the fascination with Antiquity but trying to fit the pagan square in the Catholic hole.

      The good thing is that soon I'll have read enough epic poems to make a Top 10!

    2. France is not, sadly, until mid-July. This was a little US vacation.

      I didn't mention, I guess, but I find the revenge theme ethically troubling as well. And not just that. I have doubts about the central heresy of the poem, the sanctification or perhaps even deification of Beatrice. But I suppose that theme moves towards the background information that I have the most trouble with, all of the stuff borrowed from Aquinas. The philosophy, my usual weakness.

      I am eager to see the Epic Top 10. Genuinely eager - I love those things.

    3. France is not, sadly, until mid-July. This was a little US vacation.

      Ah, that must be my anxiety...

      I have doubts about the central heresy of the poem, the sanctification or perhaps even deification of Beatrice.

      Oh, why? By the way I arrived at Paradiso I was barely paying attention anymore, but what doubts do you have about Beatrice?

      The epic top 10 - hm, perhaps one day, but I still have a few major ones to read: Chaucer, Ariosto, etc...

    4. What do I mean, that is a good question. I wonder how private the meaning of Beatrice is, really, how understandable it is. A common question with this kind of visionary gnostic writing, as with Blake - how far can I really follow the writer? But the imaginative power of the work comes from the same inscrutable source, so I am not complaining, just puzzling, always puzzling.

      I am not, in temperament, a visionary or a gnostic, however fascinating I find the best examples.

    5. Too private? Don't you think Dante was just playing to the new conventions of sacred love as invented by Petrarch and imitated throughout the Renaissance? Although perhaps Dante did take the whole female = God thing to new, cryptic, creepy extremities.

    6. I think if anything the reverse, that Petrarch perhaps helped later writers tame the weirdness of Dante.

    7. Oh you're right, for some reason I was under the impression Petrarch preceded Dante.

  7. Now you have me re-reading Inferno. I'm struck again by the creativity of many of Dante's conceptions - the avaricious condemned to push giant weights around at one another, for example - and his humor, which is not inconsequential. There are some grimly funny moments of black humor in Inferno - Farinata and Cavalcanti's father peeping up out of their tombs like Nagg and Nell in Beckett's End Game, for instance. I find Dante's vengefulness to be tempered by this humor; he's always aware of his inferno as a poetic conception, one that allows him license to do, with his imagination, some rather nasty things with his enemies, like Francois Villon in his Testament. Then again, while the vengeance elements are hardly surprising given the clannish, tribal feuds of 13th century Italy, I suppose one might well have a problem with the intricate moral categorization that Dante makes of his fellow human beings.

    1. Villon, that's a great example. Or counter-example. I'm not sure.

  8. Miguel, I was actually thinking about rereading The Divine Comedy this summer for a while because I got so much out of it the last time around. Can vouch for the Pinsky, the Merwin, and the Hollanders' translations of the three parts of the poem respectively if you ever decide to give it a go in English. I found plenty of poetry, of figures of speech, in the poem so I'm not sure where to begin "disagreeing" with your reaction, but I'd caution anybody against writing this off as a revenge poem (not that I see anything wrong with that in and of itself) given that Paradiso is so different in its aspirations than Inferno as just one example. Sorry you didn't enjoy your experience, though.

    1. Richard, it's clear I'm the only one who didn't like this poem. Perhaps it really was an unfortunate translation.

  9. First of all, thank you for the very flattering mention. However - and keep this under your hat! - I was defeated by Dante also!

    I read only the Inferno, in Robin Kirkpatrick's translation. It's a dual language edition, and I frequently found myself reading the original, just to get a feel for Dante's verbal music. That helped. But it still left me puzzled.

    My starting point, I guess, was Shakespearean. In "Macbeth", the two protagonists create an inferno for themselves while still on earth. The punishments that they had unwittingly contrived for themselves by their earthly crimes bind them, even here, on this earth. Could this, I wondered, be a way into the Inferno? As a 21st century person, I do not believe in the reality of Hell, and neither do I think I could suspend my disbelief on the matter. But what if I saw these infernal punishments as a sort of metaphor for the Hell people create for themselves, the Hell they inhabit even while alive? Lady Macbeth had called for darkness to envelop her; but by the end, entrapped in her own living hell, she cries out in an infernal agony: "Hell is murky!" This is the Hell she has made for herself. Can the various punishments meted out in Dante's poem be seen in this manner? - as metaphors for what people do to their own souls?

    Now, I am sure this is a very inadequate way of reading Dante, but I couldn't really see any other means of entry. And it meant also that i didn't really need to care too much about the politics of Dante's time. They were of passing interest, sure: I did read the copious notes. But they weren't, for me at any rate, of central importance. I tried to focus on the idea of the hell that people make for themselves right here, on this earth.

    I tried to take what I could out of it. It wasn't, perhaps, a lot. It's now some two years since I read it, and I notice that I haven't yet gone on to the Purgatorio or the Paradiso. Well, I guess one can't appreciate everything that is worth appreciating. But the poem is such a major literary landmark, I did feel, and still feel, that I ought to know at least *something* about it, and take from it what I can. but in much of it - most of it - I am as puzzled as you are.

    1. Himadri, thanks for sharing that story! I'm glad to know I wasn't the only one who struggled with Dante.

  10. This discussion is giving me the urge to read not Dante but Erich Auerbach.

    1. My good man, I don't know what you're talking about!

    2. For some other means of entry, see the Dante chapter ("Farinata and Cavalcante") of Mimesis (1946), or the earlier book, which I have not read, but now I am tempted, Dante: Poet of the Secular World (1929).

      For Auerbach, Dante is almost the inventor of modernity, the gateway between Then and Now.

    3. Oh, Mimesis, I have that one on my long list of literary criticism books to read before I die!