The Dante project: the Italian reading and overall

2023-12-05 @Literature

This year I read most of Dante’s Divine Comedy in the original Italian, eager to really approach the full extent of the poetic vigour. A couple of years back I’d already read translated derivatives over two or three iterations, thus familiar with the poem to whatever superficial degree. In any case, the Comedy has since pervaded much of my poetry and creative prose.

Being thus strongly moved, I welcomed the advanced milestone. And though I don’t speak Italian (irrespective of other Romance languages), I followed the approach as Jorge Luis Borges delineated in a lecture on the topic. Borges read an Italian-English side-by-side version as follows:

  1. One cantico per day (a hundred in all across the three books).
  2. A tercet in English.
  3. A tercet in Italian.
  4. And on, to the end of cantico, alternating languages.
  5. The entire cantico in English.
  6. The entire cantico in Italian.

Eventually, by Paradiso, the particular domain of Dante’s Italian fairly well adapted, Borges claims to have but scarcely referenced the English version.

I followed a similar method of small variations across multiple, non-consecutive phases of the year, whenever a dual-language library or personal copy of the poem made my possession, having proceeded as far as two thirds of the third book - specifically, Paradiso.XXI.

I never quiet attained the stage of reading any new Cantico entirely without language aid. However, this certainly worked for rereadings, of which I exercised numerous: sometimes remarkable passages (virtually all remarkable), sometimes entire Canticos. In any case, I advanced sufficiently for my purposes.

That said, my thoughts follow. Mind you, in part this serves as a followup to my conspectus from two years back.

I was remarkably taken by the compactness of the Italian verse. Already acquainted with a heavy batch of translations, in verse, in prose, in rhymed tercets, in blank verse: all stray. That is to say, like any translation of any work of any poetic byproduct, it serves for naught but intellectual appropriation.

I can see how my readings from two years back facilitated just that: nothing of poetry. Oh, and before I stray in thought: by compactness, I refer literally to the amount of syllables in expressing an idea or image. The translations come far more verbose. It goes to say, manipulation of original poetry fosters entropy.

I could go on with endless particulars, examples, favourite passages, but don’t think that would be of any benefit to anyone not already exposed to the original, or anyone I can plausibly expect to even read these lines. So to remark on Dante’s Comedy in the general light:

Overall, the Comedy packs extraordinary verses, but also heavy diatribe, which sometimes borders on plain nagging. Sometimes a passage expresses an academic topic with such rigor that trace of poetry fades if not for the rhymed tercets.

That is to say, in spirit of the Epic Poem tradition, the Comedy entertains numerous themes in varied narration style. The highs produce fantastic imagery, passion and wit. The lows can appear a bit dry or too heavily dogmatic. But these segments number fewer. Good poetry prevails.

Much obscure doctrine pervades the poem: particularly, the political, the astrological and the theological.

The first intimates with the Italian political arena of the then and before. Most of it will seem alien to anyone not appropriately studied. But this far from spoils the impact. On the contrary, these passages enable a vessel to a unique perspective on Medieval Italy. And there’s always the poetry, something I can never sufficiently emphasize.

The theology follows a priori, this being a Western, medieval poem after all.

The extravagant astrological framework caters to much poetry, albeit obscure in metaphors for anyone not versed in the domain. But again, that doesn’t much matter.

The poem effectuates a voyage through the realms of spirits (be it limbo/hell, purgatory or paradise), facilitating historical commentary through interactions with these phantoms, who all conveniently speak Italian (though most happen to be Italians).

Some characters, per the epic tradition, retell entire histories, more so in Purgatorio and Paradiso. Some, in the manner of presagers/soothsayers, foretell the events to come. Some plainly seek to lecture, especially of prevalence in the third, heaviest part (Paradiso) - ie, St Thomas Aquinas, or the former Caesar Justinian.

So many spirits encountered across the way … Hundreds. In Inferno, they roam across the jaws of hell. In Purgatorio, Dante (with his guide Virgil) encounter them either in penitentiary exercise or along the shores eager to ascend the Mound. In Paradiso, Dante (this time guided by Beatrice) interacts not with crooked souls nor cadaverous shades, but with spectral entities and occasional allegory.

But whatever the veil, all serve as a voice into some clever insight.

Yeah, Dante wines and complains an awful lot. And so do the other bygoners. It’s a poem of complaints: corrupt popes and clergy (particularly Boniface VIII), rotting generation, urban decay, betrayal, extortion, etc …

Interestingly, and particularly in the first two books, the pagan school conflates with the Christian. But this is common throughout medieval and renaissance literature. Although sometimes I don’t quiet know what to make of it: to encounter the Minotaurs and St. Paul in the same universe …


I find plenty throughout the Comedy. Some of these Dante addresses, albeit obscurely, or in a way my theologically inapt mind fails to reconcile. Examples:

All three sections of the poem engage characters gifted with presaging abilities, as I’d before mentioned. This includes even Cacciaguida, Dante’s great-great-grandfather, encountered in the fifth heaven - Mars. And if I recall, Forese Donate as well, Dante’s friend in Purgatory.

But Dante also condemns this entire class of practitioners (along with alchemy or chicanery of sorts) to the eighth infernal circle. Am I missing something?

Then the issue of virtuous pagans, or the unbaptized without misdeeds, is scrupled over throughout the poem. That includes some desert island natives who’ve never seen a missionary or heard of Christianity. As it stands, they are all destined for the Limbo of hell: devoid of torture, but eternally gloomy and hopeless. There pre-Christian philosophers and poets (Virgil among the ranks) eternally engage in respective subjects. I don’t think the issue ever sees reconciliation.

And the greatest of dilemmas:

Dante, still alive, is allowed to promenade across every crust and herb of the world of the damned, purgatory and heaven. Virgil, otherwise confined to the Limbo, is allowed to guide Dante through Purgatory, as far as the Earth’s paradise. But not Paradiso per se.

Why? Because Beatrice willed it (and God sanctioned). Because she felt Dante morally strayed and risked damnation, thus in need of this transcendental voyage. Effectively, the heavens can intervene and override any decree.

Thus, what distinguishes Dante from the endless swarms of the condemned, who, by acts of similar intervention, may have found solace above?

Don’t read seriously into that. This is a poem, authored and protagonized by Dante Alighieri.

But treading similarly aimless territory …

Beatrice, the embodiment of virtue, must have risen to heaven but ten years prior to the poem’s setting. And yet she occupies some of the highest ranks. Perhaps, perhaps.

But I’m more concerned with her portrayal. Dante paints her beauty as extravagant, unspeakable. I presume in a sense not entirely theological; in a sense not entirely devoid of carnal affection. Yet throughout her dialogue, I detect not a trace of a female element one could ascribe to Beatrice. She reads as a mere abstraction mostly engaged in advanced theological (and platonic) dialogue, not to mention discordant with her recent ascension.

Maybe some beings are purposely portrayed as passionless and stoic. The poets Virgil and Statius are of no exception. But why do I even bother with these irrelevancies, which realistically occupied some infinitesimal measure of my thought, next the rest? - The rest being a colossal poetic product.

Questions, comments? Connect.