Pope Francis calls for a reading of the Dante Aligheri classic The Divine Comedy as preparation for the Year of Mercy. So Herman Goodden took up the Pope’s challenge. He found it a “hard and demanding slog” but was pleased he did so. Goodden found it made him aware of his inadequacies in taking the full meaning from certain works. A bonus was the “magnificent” engraved plates of Gustave Doré.

My encounter with Dante

  • December 6, 2015

When the 750th birthday of Dante Aligheri (1265-1321) was celebrated in Italy in May, Pope Francis invited Catholics all over the world to take up and read one of the cornerstone works of Western and Christian civilization, The Divine Comedy, as an act of preparation for the extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy which launches Dec. 8.  Francis says Dante “is a prophet of hope, herald of the possibility of redemption, liberation and the profound transformation of every man and woman, of all humanity.”

Citing the imagery of The Divine Comedy in his remarks and concluding with a quote of the final line of the 100th and final canto, Francis said, “We are able to enrich ourselves with (Dante’s) experience in order to cross the many dark forests still scattered on our Earth and to happily complete our pilgrim story, to reach the destination dreamed of and wished for by everyone: ‘The love that moves the sun and other stars.’ ”

Dante’s great poem is a trilogy, growing out of a vision he experienced in his 35th year. The author/ narrator has experienced a crisis of conscience that he is not living his life as he ought to be and, after praying for help and guidance, is taken on a tour of Hell and Purgatory and Heaven over the course of one week.

Through Hell and Purgatory he is guided by the pre-Christian era poet Virgil, whom the narrator esteems as a philosopher who did his best to act in accordance with reason and morality as he was able to discern it from natural law. Being unbaptized, Virgil cannot lead him further and for his tour of Heaven Dante is guided by Beatrice, a devout woman he knew and loved from afar who died young and became for him the personification of divine philosophy enlightened by revelation.

I’d long intended to read The Divine Comedy but an occasional quick scan of its pages always signalled to me, “Not yet.”

This masterwork was situated so far outside my literary comfort zone that I was going to require a passport of some kind to ever get into it. But with a little urging, I stiffened my resolve and took up the Holy Father’s challenge.

As someone who unapologetically uses modern commentaries to assist my comprehension of Shakespeare (who wrote 300 years closer to our own time and did so in English, not Italian), I did what I could to prepare by reading studies and essays on Dante by Don A. Hardon (S.J.), A.N. Wilson, Dorothy L. Sayers, Barbara Reynolds and T.S. Eliot.

These persuaded me that the challenges of faithfully carrying over the sense, the meaning and the imagery of all those terza rima cantos from one language to another (and one era to another) were daunting enough without also requiring my chosen translator to consistently concoct apposite rhymes as well.

I finally settled on the very highly regarded English translation by American professor and scholar of medieval and renaissance studies Anthony Esolen. Chock-ablock with historical notes (which I badly needed) and reproducing the magnificent engraved plates of 19th-century illustrator Gustave Doré (my long enjoyment of these was greatly magnified by finally reading what inspired them), Esolen’s three volumes — Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise — were sequentially published in sturdy hardback volumes for Random House’s Modern Library series from 2002-04.

Over the centuries Inferno is the volume that has been most generally read. From the sign posted over the gates of Hades (“Abandon all hope you who enter here”) to the concept of outer and inner circles of Hell with punishments intensifying as you proceed along the downward spiral, there is much here that is still familiar to us. What I wasn’t so prepared for was not just the gruesomeness but the comic grotesqueness (including references to flatulence and excrement) of some of the punishments meted out in Hell and some of the people — including popes and kings — who are dealt with in this way.

While some of Dante’s encounters in Hell carry the suggestion of score-settling (and give the impression that virtually everybody he meets there were people he knew or knew of), the great poem overall does reinforce the central idea that it is how we conduct ourselves over the course of our earthly lives (and sometimes, alas, in one unrepented action) that determines our eternal destiny. It’s far too complex and tangled to go into here, but by aligning himself with the losing side in the churning cauldron of Florentine in-fighting during his young manhood (there was scarcely any separation between Church and state at the time) Dante was banished from his beloved native city in 1302 and lived in exile until the end of his days. He was never to see his wife again and only renewed contact with three of his adult children towards the end of his life. These experiences of exile and loss profoundly affected his imagination and his capacity to envisage these separate and discrete worlds of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven.

My own favourite of the three volumes was Purgatory. This for me — I’m not sure if Pope Francis would concur — is where the “mercy” comes flooding in. After long immersion in such an utterly hopeless realm as Inferno, it was so encouraging to be in the company of characters who thrived in the knowledge that their prayers had been answered and forgiveness granted by a merciful God. Paradoxically, Purgatory is a mountain that becomes easier to climb the higher you rise and the closer you come to paradise. Those laden down at the base of the hill are practically leaping by the time they reach the top.

The Divine Comedy was a hard and demanding slog, punctuated every 20 cantos or so by diving into other more immediately congenial books for relief or perhaps as a sort of literary palate cleanser. But I’m pleased to have finally read it, to have acquired a deeper experience of a masterwork that has influenced and shaped so much of our culture. Perhaps its most considerable reward for me has been to serve as a salutary check against any vanity I might feel as a reader, making me aware of my inadequacies when it comes to extracting the full meaning from certain works.

Having made it through my inaugural voyage, it is conceivable that perhaps a decade down the line I might return for another tour of these other worlds. Next time, I think I’ll go with the fully rhymed translation by Dorothy L. Sayers whose novels, essays and letters I’ve long revered.

(Goodden is a writer in London, Ont. His latest book is Continuing City.)

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