Imagine your most vivid picture of hell. Are there “great flakes of flame” and “horned demons with enormous lashes”, or do you see “a lake so frozen it seem[s] to be made of glass” and “a thousand faces discolored by the cold”? Dante Alighieri’s Inferno encompasses both these visions and more. The first book of his three-part epic poetry cycle begins in a mysterious, unknown wood and continues along the path through hell, spanning nine circles of varying degrees. Dante is guided by the poet Virgil through the entire structure of hell, witnessing the punishment of friends and enemies, figures famous and infamous.
Although some of Dante’s 14th-century references are lost on the modern reader, explanatory notes provide some help in this regard. Some names and stories have faded, other souls whom Dante encounters are still very much remembered in our times: you have probably heard of Judas Iscariot or of Achilles, condemned to the ninth and second circles, respectively, but probably aren’t as well acquainted with Pope Nicholas III, whom Dante places in the eighth circle for corruption of the church. But both known and unknown add to the reading experience. Notes on forgotten characters provide an intriguing level of detail and a historical glimpse into the moment of the poem’s creation, while familiar names and faces allow the reader to connect with the author and audience of this admittedly very old poem.
The horror story element comes largely from the horrifying creativity of the punishments of Hell: some disgusting, some painful, some psychologically twisted (for example, the punishment of the fortune-tellers, condemned to walk backwards with their heads having been reversed on their bodies). Another point of interest specific to the modern reader is comparing this conception of hell to that of present-day popular culture: for example, while Dante’s hell does include the now-standard fire and brimstone, the deepest circle where the worst of traitors suffer is frozen in ice and darkness. This discrepancy and change over time is interesting from an academic perspective, but also makes the poem more engaging, as the experiences of Dante’s hellish journey remain startling and fresh. The style of the Inferno also contributes to a surprisingly gripping reading experience. Even in translation, the poetic rhythm of the work makes the at times dense language move naturally and quickly. The flow of sentences between short stanzas makes the entire journey feel continuous, as if the reader is walking with Dante and Virgil along the winding roads of hell.
While Dante’s Inferno is challenging and requires focus and attention to footnotes, the combination of historical perspective with still-relevant shock makes reading this epic poem worthwhile.
Reviewed by Caroline G. ’18