The Divine Comedy Cantica I: Hell by Dante.

Dante con in mano la Divina Commedia (Dante and His Poem) by Domenico di Michelino (1465).
Dante's The Divine Comedy (Divina Comedìa) is one of my all-time favourite pieces of literature and so famous it scarcely needs an introduction. It was written between 1308 and 1321 and consists of three parts or canticas: Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Paradise (Paradiso). Last week I re-read the first part, Hell, for the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril Challenge and I'll no doubt go on to read the rest of it before the year is out. It is such a great and impressive work; I adore it!

The poem begins on the eve before Good Friday, 1300. The poet Dante Alighieri has lost his way in the forest having "left the proper way" or "true path".
But when I had arrived at the foot of a hill
Which formed the far end of that menacing valley
Where fear had already entered into my heart, 
I looked up, and saw the edges of its outline
Already glowing with the rays of the planet
Which shows us the right way on any road.
As he tries to approach it he is held back by three wild beasts in succession: a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf, who represent fraud, violence, and incontinence, reminiscent of Jeremiah 5: 6 -
Wherefore a lion out of the forest shall slay them, and a wolf of the evenings shall spoil them, a leopard shall watch over their cities: every one that goeth out thence shall be torn in pieces: because their transgressions are many, and their backslidings are increased.
The beasts force him to turn back to the wilderness of the valley. There he sees Virgil, who will be his guide through hell and purgatory before they can reach the foot of the hill, which will lead up to heaven (he'll then be lead by Beatrice). Together they reach the Gate of Hell and pass into the Vestibule of Hell which bears the legend "Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here". Charon takes them across the river Acheron (Charon, the ferryman of Hades, also took Aeneas over the river Acheron) and there they begin they journey through the Nine Circles of Hell.

Chart of Hell ( La Carte de l'Enfer) by Sandro Botticelli (1480-90).
The First Circle: Limbo (Canto IV - V)

Limbo consists of those who have not been baptised; it's the home of Virgil, as well as Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan. Dante goes on to see others such as Hector, Aeneas, Electra, Caesar, Socrates, and Plato, and Virgil tells him that this is not necessarily a permanent residence: Christ has appeared before and taken the likes of Noah, Moses, Rachel, Abraham, and David (an event known as the Harrowing of Hell). It is a beautiful place, but essentially a lesser Heaven.

The Second Circle: Lust (Canto V)

Paolo and Francesca by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1867).
Here Hell really begins: Dante writes, "And I came to a part where nothing is luminous". First they see Minos, who judges souls as to where they will be sent before they finally see the Second Circle. Here live the promiscuous and those who have let lust rule over reason. Dante sees Dido, Tristan, Helen of Troy, Paris, Cleopatra, Achilles, and others, and sees them thrown around by hurricane-like winds, against which they are helpless. He learns the story of Francesca da Rimini who fell in love with her husband's brother Paolo.

The Third Circle: Greed (Canto VI)

Here sufferers are tormented by a relentless rain of filth, a circle guarded by Cerberus. He meets Ciacco who talks to Dante about future political strife between the white and black Guelphs (regarding Pope Boniface VIII), however refuses to tell Dante how it is he has sinned.

The Fourth Circle: Avarice (Canto VII)

Here they see Plutus, the Greek god of wealth shouting "Papé Satàn, papé Satàn aleppe!" (why is unknown), in the circle filled with the avaricious and the reckless spenders who have squandered what Fortune has bestowed on them. They are forced for eternity to push heavy wheels of weights, all the while insulting one another and, as they are so filthy, they have essentially lost their identity.

The Fifth Circle: Wrath (Cantos VII - VIII)

Dante and Virgil, rowed by Phlegyas, cross the River Styx. Here they see yet more sinners, the passively aggressive sullen and outright wrathful, including Filippo Argenti, a Florentine politician who allegedly once slapped Dante.

Gate of Lower Hell, or, City of Dis (Cantos VIII - IX)

Dante and Virgil approach the City of Dis:
The the good master said: 'And now, my son,
We approach the city which takes its name from Dis,
With its grave citizens and huge armies.' 
And I: 'Master, I already see its mosques,
Standing quite clearly there within the valley,
Pale red as if they came out of a fire.'
Here he sees Medusa and the Furies, Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone, and the pair are helped by an angel from heaven to gain entrance.

The Sixth Circle: Heretics and Sceptics (Cantos IX - XI)

Having entered the City of Dis they see the first set of sinners, lying and burning alive in open graves, filled with the smell of burning flesh. Dante sees Farinata degli Uberti (an aristocrat and military leader who died in 1264) and Cavalcante de' Cavalcanti (a philosopher), and they talk of Florentine politics. It is said that Emperor Frederick II and Ottaviano degli Ubaldini also lie in the sixth circle of hell, and Dante sees too the tomb of  Pope Anastasius II.

The Seventh Circle: Violence (Cantos XII - XVII)

The Seventh Circle is divided into three:
1. Violence against neighbours: Tyrants such as Alexander the Great and Attila, King of the Huns, who dwell in a river of boiling blood and fire (the River Phlegethon).
2. Violence against self: the suicidal such as Pietro della Vigna (an Italian diplomat), who are turned into trees (a forest called the Wood of the Suicides) that are fed upon by the Harpies.
3. Violence against God, art, and nature: blasphemers, usurers, and sodomites ("sin of Sodom"). Here the terrain is desert-like and flames fall like snow flakes on the naked sinners. Dante meets Capaneus, one of the Seven Against Thebes.
The Abyss (Canto XVII)

From the seventh circle they must cross an abyss to the eighth, and they're helped by Geryon, a monster representing Fraud. There they also see Iacopo Rusticucci and others, and they talk more of Florence.

The Eighth Circle: Fraud (Cantos XVIII - XXX)

The Eighth Circle of Hell, called the Malebolge ("evil ditches) is divided into ten chasms or ditches:
First Chasm: Panderers and seducers, such as Jason, are marched and whipped by devils for eternity.
Second Chasm: Flatterers such as Thaïs who argue amongst themselves in a mire of excrement.
Third Chasm: Simonaics (those who sell favours pertaining to the church) such as Simon Magus who are hung upside down with their feet burning.
Fourth Chasm: Futurologists (Sorcerers) such as Tiresias have their heads twisted around and walk backwards, blinded by their own tears.
Fifth Chasm: Corrupt politicians who are guarded by the Malebranche (demons) and stand in burning pitch.
Sixth Chasm: Hypocrites such as Caiaphas forced to wear robes of lead.
Seventh Chasm: Thieves, who are left in a pit filled with biting reptiles.
Eighth Chasm: Counsellors of Fraud such as Ulysses and Diomedes.
Ninth Chasm: Instigators of scandal and schism; sinners include Muhammad, who, Dante says, caused a schism within Christianity.
Tenth Chasm: Liars such as Alchemists or perjurers, who suffer continuously with diseases.
The pit of Cocytus (Canto XXXI)

Having left the Eighth Circle of Hell Virgil and Dante approach the Ninth, crossing first the Pit of Cocytus, guarded by giants such as Nimrod, Aloadae, the Hekatonkheires, and Antaeus. It is Antaeus who lowers them into the final circle of Hell.

The Ninth Circle: Treachery (Cantos XXXII - XXXIV)

The Ninth Circle of Hell, on a frozen lake called Cocytus, is divided into four zones:
First ZoneCaïna, named after Cain, and including traitors to their family. They are submerged up to their necks in the ice.Second Zone: Antenora, named after Antenor who betrayed Troy to the Greeks. They too are submerged up to their necks but they cannot move their necks and must suffer the icy blasts.Third Zone: Ptolomaea, named after Ptolemy who killed his father-in-law and sons having invited them to a banquet. Their tears freeze: they cannot even gain the relief of crying.Fourth Zone: Judecca, named after Judas Iscariot. The sinners' bodies lie distorted underneath the ice, rendering them unable to move.
Centre-point of the Earth (Canto XXXIV)

Here is Lucifer himself with three faces, trapped in the ice, and devouring Brutus, Cassius, and Judas Iscariot.

From here the poets leave hell and return to the surface. As each of the canticas end they emerge and see the stars (sometimes translated as "The poets leave Hell and again behold the stars", which is where my blog title comes from).

It is, as I've said, one of my favourite works, and I'm looking forward to re-reading Purgatory in the coming weeks. When I finish my re-read I'll say more on the book as a whole. Until then, here are some gifs of the 1911 film L'Inferno directed by Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, and Giuseppe De Liguoro.


  1. Very impressive! Great images! Which translation did you read? I remember reading the Ciardi in school, but many others are available out there. I think Longfellow also did one. Dante's Divine Comedy is such a startling late medieval, Catholic view of things; a reader who makes it through the Inferno section is tempted (to pun intended) never to sin again!

    1. I read the CH Sisson translation: I *think* I might prefer Dorothy Sayers for Inferno, but it's been a while since I read that one. And yes, I was contemplating my own shortcomings when I was reading it and making several vows not to do certain things ever again!

  2. my dad read it before he passed... he was impressed with it. it's a bit beyond me, i think, not having the education to appreciate it... Dorothy Sayers has a version also...

    1. Well I wouldn't say I had the education either - I know I was missing a lot. A crash course on Medieval politics in Florence would have helped greatly! Still I managed enough to love it, and truly I don't think it's beyond you at all :)

  3. Dante is neat stuff all right. Last year my mom and my daughter read it together, two cantos a week with discussion. They had a great time. (I went to work, sigh.)

    1. That's a good way of doing it - I've been meaning to read it slower, but I get so into it I don't want to put it down. I bet they got so much out of it that way, I should try it slower some time... :)

  4. Mudpuddle (or anyone) - try John Sinclair's version which 1) is in prose and 2) comes with superb canto by canto commentary. Sinclair's Inferno is not beyond you.

    1. Harold Bloom also recommends Sinclair.

    2. thank you, Tom. i'll give it a shot if i can find the Sinclair...


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