I have been wanting to read Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy for some time, but have always been too busy to begin. However, after learning of Pope Francis’ high valuation of the poem, I knew that I could no longer delay.
Through his writings, Dante, is a man who invites us to regain the path of our human journey and the hope to once again see the bright horizon where shines the full dignity of the human person.
Happily, I have found the poem to be much more understandable and enlightening than I had envisioned. Despite its Medieval nature, the poem ignites the deadened imagination and reminds the reader of the undeniable human desire for God.
Dante’s Divine Comedy begins with Inferno, which describes the principle character’s journey through hell. I began Inferno near the beginning of Lent and have found it to be an excellent aide to Lenten preparations for confession. Journeying through the various rings of hell, and the corresponding human sins, invites the reader to make an interior journey into the depth of one’s own soul.
Dante’s punishments are carefully crafted to reflect the underlying nature of unholy human behaviors. The vivid images compel the reader to determine if one’s current state of being corresponds to the state of the punished sinners.
For example, Dante’s pilgrim encounters a group of souls who lived their life with no real purpose. They were too cowardly, or too lazy, to devote themselves completely to God or even to adamantly resist Him. As the pilgrim watches, he sees a blank banner go by:
And all behind that flag in a long file
so numerous a host of people ran,
I had not thought death had unmade so many....
These worthless wretches who had never lived
were pricked to motion now perpetually
by flies and wasps that stung their naked limbs... (Canto 3;55-57,64-66)
This passage invites the reader to ponder: Do I run after nothing in this life? Do I fail to be internally motivated? Must I always be pricked or prodded by someone/something? Have I given myself completely and passionately to God? Am I content to remain in the middle between holiness and worldliness? Do I have courage?
With even this small passage Dante captures the imagination and masterfully probes the depths of the human soul. Beginning Dante’s Divine Comedy has been a wonderful experience and I highly recommend the work to any Catholic.
Certainly, people who find Truth revealed best through poetry or literature will undoubtedly benefit from reading the Comedy. However, the poem is intended to be accessible to everyone. You may only need the right resources to feel comfortable (see list below).
You can certainly begin the Divine Comedy at any time, but now is the perfect time to use the Inferno to help you make a good confession before Easter. Join Dante on his journey through the darkest parts of the human soul, but don’t stop there. Follow Dante through Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradisio (Heaven) to discover why you should not settle for the banalities of our modern culture, but should (as my pastor often reminds us) always increase your desire for the Infinite.
Suggestions for Beginning Dante
Free College Course
Be sure to check out the FREE online course offered by Wyoming Catholic College. The course is given in three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Each part offers several lectures that examine small sections of the poem.
This is a truly valuable resource for anyone wishing to read Dante. I have found it to be an excellent aide to both understanding and enjoying the poem.
If you choose to use the course offered by Wyoming Catholic College you may want to read the translation by Robert and Jean Hollander. The professor uses this translation. Robert Hollander is a Dante scholar and his edition is said to have very good notes.
Finding a Translation for You
Some people stop reading Dante because the translation they have chosen does not work for them. Be sure to read through a portion of a couple translations before choosing. You can do this at a bookstore or use the “look inside” feature online.
After reading a few passages, I chose a translation by Anthony Esolen because I found his style to be more straightforward than Hollander’s.