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Three Ways To Descend Into Dante’s Inferno

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Penguin Classics' edition of Inferno features an embossed cover. Get it here.

Dante Aligheri’s Divine Comedy, and in particular its opening section, the Inferno, is one of the most influential pieces of literature ever written. It’s so influential that it’s hard even to describe its influence, but here goes.

The Divine Comedy was written at the end of the thirteenth century, at a time when most European poets and scholars wrote in Latin. Many of the intellectuals of the day even thought that it might not actually be possible to have profound thoughts in Italian, English or the other vernacular languages of Europe.

Dante thought differently. By composing his Comedìa in his native Tuscan dialect rather than Latin, Dante not only established Tuscan as the formal Italian language but also legitimised Italian as a language of poetry, philosophy and theology. That’s why Dante has been called ‘the father of the Italian language,’ and he might just as well be called the father of European vernacular literature. He showed the way for other writers to prove that all the everyday European languages—from Portuguese to Dutch—were just as capable of profound thought and beautiful poetry as Latin.

That’s pretty influential by anybody’s standards, but I am not even nearly done here.

The three sections of the Divine Comedy constitute a tour of the afterlife, beginning with the Inferno (Hell) before ascending to Purgatory and finally Paradise. As well as a literal journey through the sulphurous lakes and pearly gates, the Comedy is also a metaphorical journey, of the soul towards God. It begins, in one of literature’s most famous openings, ‘Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita,’ that is, ‘in the middle of the journey of our life.’ The poet is lost in a dark wood, and he’s frightened. As the poem unfolds, he begins to discover his place in Creation, and turn haltingly towards his Creator. Without Dante’s fusion of the theology of Thomas Aquinas, Church doctrine about the afterlife and his own poetic vision, the history of European spirituality would be unimaginably different.

And if that weren’t enough, Dante also gave us literature’s most complete and vivid rendering of Hell. The Inferno lies behind almost every subsequent depiction of eternal damnation. Artists from William Blake to Salvador Dali have illustrated Dante’s words, and writers who have drawn directly on the Inferno’s vision of the afterlife include Milton, Jorge Luis Borges and, er, Dan Brown.

Last but certainly not least, The Divine Comedy is also—and still, after all these centuries—a unique and moving reading experience. You will not be the same once you have accompanied Dante through the gates inscribed ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’ (yup, it was Dante who came up with that).

All the same, it’s a book-length medieval poem, featuring quite a bit of theology, thirteen-century Italian politics and horrific torture, so it’s a good idea to ease yourself into it. With that end in mind, here are three ways to sidle up to the gates of Hell.

Dante's Inferno

The California artist Sandow Birk began his career reimagining famous history paintings—The Raft of the Medusa, Washington Crossing the Delaware—as surfing spectacles. That’s right. Surfing. As in, ‘That’s gnarly, bro.’

For his Inferno, Birk has teamed up with the surf journalist Marcus Sanders to produce a vision of Hell that looks a lot like Los Angeles. Demons carry signs that read ‘Homeless veteran,’ and Dante’s spectral hellhounds have become pitbulls. The text stays pretty close to the original, but Dante’s ornate terza rima rhyme scheme has been translated into an accessible American vernacular (which is the kind of thing Dante would approve of). That famous opening line reads: 

About halfway through the course of my pathetic life…

It’s a great introduction to Dante’s poem, and in its own right a powerful vision of modernity’s soullessness.

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Dante's Inferno

So broad and deep a well is Dante’s poem that no two adaptations of it are even remotely alike. The Northern Irish poet Philip Terry has transposed the action of the Inferno to the University of Essex, where Terry writes and teaches. His damned are students who lost their way, and his guide to Hell is the university’s former writer-in-residence Ted Berrigan.

Believe it or not, Terry’s Inferno is still very faithful to the original. He has revived Dante’s three-line stanzas, and follows the events of the Inferno line for line. His up-to-date political references make it easy to see how satirical Dante’s poem is, and the blending of otherworldly terror with everyday detail accurately captures Dante’s sublime vision.

The opening line is a winner: 

Trevor had not reached the bridge by B&Q…

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The Amber Spyglass

If you’re still thinking, hang on, I need more of a run up to this, then Pullman’s book is for you. The Amber Spyglass is the third volume of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Often categorised as YA, the story of Lyra and her fate in a parallel universe is more than profound enough to engage any adult reader.

His Dark Materials draws deeply on literary history—references to Milton and Blake abound—but The Amber Spyglass owes Dante more than anyone (after all, so did Milton and Blake). Perhaps more importantly, Pullman’s epic story of parallel universes and a political turmoil that reaches all the way to Heaven is a great introduction to the allegorical spirit of Dante’s work. Like Dante, Pullman imagines a cosmic phantasmagoria in order to answer a very personal question: how should we live?

Pullman doesn’t stick to Dante as closely as the other writers on this list, but his opening line has echoes of Aligheri’s path through a dark wood:

In a valley shaded with rhododendrons, close to the snow line, where a stream milky with melt-water splashed and where doves and linnets flew among the immense pines, lay a cave, half-hidden by the crag above and the stiff heavy leaves that clustered below.

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For Dante fans and would-be Dante fans in Dublin, another portal to Hell will open on September 27th. The Italian Institute of Culture is hosting the launch of Dante and the Seven Deadly Sins, a critical look at the Divine Comedy through the lens of the seven biggies (I can’t remember what they are but I think I committed most of them at breakfast). It’ll be a wonderful chance to hear about Dante’s masterpiece from people who’ve spent their careers studying it. Don’t miss it.

I'm a copywriter based in Dublin. Bookwitting about literary fiction, mostly.

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