Reading Dante

“The ideal way of reading The Divine Comedy would be

to start at the first line

and go straight through to the end,

surrendering to the vigour of the story-telling

and the swift movement of the verse,

and not bothering about any historical allusions

or theological explanations

which do not occur in the text itself.”

Introduction to Hell: Dorothy Sayers translation. Opening paragraph.

I had not read Sayers when I wrote my book. I used her translation and notes for allusions in the text that Henry Cary (translation 1814) did not adequately explain. I had my mother’s old copies of Sayers’ Purgatory and Paradise to start with, but I did eventually buy a copy of Sayers’ Hell, promising myself that I would read through all of her commentary when I was done with my own writing. To write a beginner book in the way I wanted, I had to keep moving and stay a beginner! My idea was to get to the end of the Comedy the first time. If some subjects got less attention, okay, just keep going.

Many people with whom I discussed my project of writing for beginners, knew almost nothing about Dante or The Divine Comedy. Others had read or heard only of the Inferno. Only Hell! When I was halfway through Purgatory, still knowing nothing of the end of the story in Paradise, I was still outraged by this way of teaching, still sure that people were missing the point.

I started reading Dante, in response to a sister’s desire that her siblings listen to the podcasts ( from Baylor University that started in 2021. Baylor was marking the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death with commentary on each canto beginning on his actual death date, September 14, and continuing to the following Easter. I am pretty sure that all my family except myself had read Dante forty years before me.

Beginning with the Henry Cary translation of Dante, because I had it in the house, I read the first canto fifteen times before I knew what it said. The podcast did not help with that literal question. The podcasts in fact were far above me. What a waste though! The first canto is exquisitely designed as a story hook. It starts in the middle.

A traveler is lost, but it is morning and he’s feeling hopeful. He had a miserable night in a savage and wild forest, but now he sees light and thinks he will get out of his troubles. As he walks along, he talks about how bright and beautiful everything is and how sure he is that he has escaped death. Then a leopard appears. He thinks the animal is as beautiful as the morning, and doesn’t realize right away that he is being driven back to that dark wood … till more savage beasts appear and he realizes he is truly about to lose not just himself in a wood, but his very life. He sees someone else in the misty morning and calls for help. The someone else has been sent to help him, but wonders initially, why the traveler can’t go straight to the light. The animals in the way convince the helper that the only way to the light is the way that goes through Hell. So he and the traveler set out.

Don’t you want to know what comes next?

In her Introduction Sayers discusses why people only read the Inferno. Reading the other two Canticles requires acceptance of a Catholic viewpoint, she says, of our selves as “rational beings” who bear the free responsibility for our choices. We must believe that our choices can damn us for all eternity.

The necessity for understanding a Catholic viewpoint can be seen by looking at Cary’s discussion of Canto 2 in Hell. Cary was an Anglican minister in the 1800s who could not bring himself to admit that it is Mary, the Mother of God, who sees that Dante is in trouble and sends him help. Cary just says Divine Mercy has looked down. Later, some of the Baylor podcasts on Purgatory had trouble with this very Catholic concept, suggesting for example, that Purgatory as a place is the beginning of Heaven. NO. It isn’t.

But Dante does make a good story out of his travels through Purgatory.

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