Review of “The Divine Comedy.”

I’m not sure how to review this book. It was written around 1306 by Dante Alighieri, who was a respected Italian (before there was a nation called Italy) poet in the  Middle Ages in Florence. So I’m not going to be too hard on it. It’s a very long poem (693 pages) that doesn’t rhyme because of the translation to English, so it’s very difficult to read. It was translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1858, who was a poet himself, not that it mattered because of the aforementioned problem. Sometimes, I tried to get in a poetic rhythm while reading it and other times I just read the sentences (it has normal English punctuation) and ignored the lines and stanzas. Neither method helped.

Okay. Now to the content. I would call this a work of science fiction/fantasy if it were written today. Of course, it was written as a religious poem and in fact has been treated almost as sacred by the Catholic Church. The main character is Dante, who is led through a series of ever-descending (and more disturbing) levels by Virgil (a Roman poet), where we meet people Dante knew from Florence. I have to digress a moment and say that Dante had been exiled from Florence in a dispute between two different groups supporting different Popes. Dante picked the losing side and never returned to Florence.

Hell is filled with people he doesn’t like, most of whom are repentant although there are a few who tell him to get lost. I guess he really didn’t like those guys. There are detailed descriptions of people being devoured by lizards, disemboweled, beheaded, drowning in mud and water, burned by flaming balls falling from the sky, walking through flames, and even more fun stuff. Spoiler alert: Satan is at the bottom of Hell chewing on – you guessed it – Judas Iscariot in a frozen lake! I guess that’s where the phrase “cold as hell” originated. I always wondered about that, but now I know the origin of the phrase.

Then Dante and Virgil begin climbing a mountain through Purgatory, where he meets more people he doesn’t like (but who he didn’t perceive as evil) and some erstwhile allies from Florence. They climb the mountain and angels arrive intermittently to inform residents that they’ve waited long enough. There’s a lot of wailing and moaning here but no physical punishment. They’re joined by an old friend of Dante’s, who’s been promoted to a higher level of purgatory.

To be honest, I couldn’t keep track of how many levels there were in any of the realms he visited; for example, Hell had both levels and some kind of ditches within levels. There may have been nine levels with three sub-levels in Hell (the text is rather difficult to understand on one reading) and I was so confused by the time he exited Purgatory to enter Heaven that I didn’t even try to count after that. The friend from Purgatory wasn’t ready to go to Heaven yet, and Virgil couldn’t because he was a pagan (Virgil lived before Christianity was the official religion of Rome.), so Dante is met by his new guide who turns out to be (no surprise) a woman he’d always wanted to have an affair with but hadn’t been able to pull off.

Heaven is presented as a series of rings filled with spirits who sing a lot in Latin and the whole theme of the story becomes more philosophical, mostly on religious topics. There are lectures by saints (including St. Peter) and other notables on the corruption of the Papacy (remember that Dantes’ choice for Pope lost the religious war), including some friends of his. He goes up this stairway through ever-brightening circles of saints and angels and other luminaries (literally) – by the way, I’m certain that Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is based on this image – to finally be overcome with joy and incessant singing at the ninth (or maybe the tenth) ring. We never meet God. I guess that would have been considered sacrilegious.

My overall impression is hard to put into words. This story would make a great movie. There’s plenty of action as Dante travels through Hell and Purgatory and lots of dialogue, which addresses many topics that were of great interest to people during the Middle Ages, which has been referred to as the “Age of Faith.”  There is a very natural progression in the action and the dialogue, as well as Dante’s growing sense of his own human weakness, during his journey.

I was going to keep this review short and just say I hated the story but, as I thought about it while writing this review, I got over my initial bad impression (based on the poem format and clumsy language used by the translator) and recognized the imagination and thought that had gone into the work, especially considering when it was written. Bottom line: It’s a good story but should not be read in the intellectually punishing format I suffered through. It would be much better in prose since it has practically no resemblance to a poem in the English translation, and without the poetic English that was favored (apparently) by Longfellow. I mean, really, if you’re going to translate from ancient Italian to English, why take a detour through Old English? Let the story stand on its own merits, which aren’t that bad.

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