I knew that Dante’s The Divine Comedy was one of our great European literary canons and it had been on my “to be read one day” list. And, just in the same way that I finally read Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell this summer, I recently read Inferno, the first part of The Divine Comedy, after a series of fortuitious conversations with a theoretical physicist at work.
Our conversation went from mushrooms (it was mushroom picking season) to Dorothy L. Sayers (The documents in the case, the book she wrote with Dr Robert Eustace), to Sayers’s work (not just the Lord Peter Wimsey novels) and then to Dante. Sayers translated Hell and Purgatory and died before she could complete Paradise (her friend Barbara Reynolds finished the job). The physicist I was speaking to offered to lend me a copy of an English-Italian edition, the English text being a prose translation dating from the 1940s. We agreed that verse translations ought be be banned and I went away happy with the book. I tried it and simply could not get into the swing of it, as the English was flat and dull, and I don’t have anywhere near enough Italian to make sense of the original.
So I bought Sayers’s translation, quickly deciding that only bad verse translations ought to be banned and that Sayers was incapable of poor work (if you had not worked this out, I am a big fan of hers.) And I was not disappointed. Although I found some of the vocabulary a little old-fashioned, the rhythm and colour provided by the verses made all the difference. I zipped through the 34 cantos, reading the very helpful intros before each one, and the barest minimum from the notes, to make a little sense of the people encountered and the terrible sins they had committed. Terrific stuff.
Concerning the actual content, I very much enjoyed reading the careful description of the geography of the place, following Dante’s physical and emotional journey, keeping a respectful distance from stern and steady Virgil, and both pitying and recoiling in horror from the writhing, smothered, frozen, itching, burning, deformed tormented souls.
The book was written when the desire to escape hell and reach heaven after death was a major driver in European societies, underpinning much of the economic system (think tithing, rich monasteries etc, the basic deal being “we pay, you pray for us and save us”). Mainstream Christian churches today have completely got rid of the image of grimacing demon with pitchforks in hell or angels, fluffy clouds and harps in heaven. It seems to me that heaven is now a completely abstract notion, a place of your choosing where you can find your loved ones again and meet God/Jesus, according to your fancy. And hell has apparently been dispensed with altogether. I’m not advocating a return to “rule through fear” approach for today’s churches, but I do think that some sort of representation of the consequences of transgression might be no bad thing.