Skip to content
Skip to content

Hell & Back

“Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” the rich man asks Jesus. “Sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor,” is the reply, “and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.” At which the rich man is sorrowful and turns away. “It is easier,” Jesus remarks to his disciples, “for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
Some 1300 years later, banished from his native Florence and thus largely bereft of this world’s goods, Dante Alighieri, politician, poet, and philosopher, was nevertheless still having trouble threading the eye of that needle. It seems there are other attachments aside from wealth that make it difficult for us to turn our backs on this world. Passion for one: Dante had loved a woman who rejected him, married someone else, then compounded the affront by dying young and thus remaining forever desirable. Ambition was another: aside from a cycle of secular love poems, Dante had written a provocative work of political philosophy suggesting the kind of state in which man would be free to pursue perfection. It was not a scenario in which divine grace appeared to be very important. Now, quite suddenly, he found himself confused, disoriented:

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.

So begins the Inferno. It’s a feeling that many approach¬ing forty, as Dante was when he wrote the lines, will recognise. How to proceed? As daylight breaks in the dark wood, the poet sees a mountain before him. It is Purgatory, it is the way to Paradise. All is well. But suddenly three ferocious beasts are blocking his path. The needle’s eye is defended by a wolf, a leopard, a lion. They are lust pride and avarice, say some commentators. They are incontinence malice and mad brutishness say others. They are Dante’s Florentine enemies the French monarchy and the papacy, say yet others. Whatever or whoever, they are insuperable.
Just as the poet despairs, a figure emerges from the gloom and offers an unusual alternative. By special intercession of his dear departed Beatrice, now in paradise, Dante is to be given the opportunity to approach the blessed place through hell. A vision of the damned will surely teach him to turn away from the things of this world. After some hesitation, he agrees. It was a fatal decision. Hell would never be the same again.
“For all of us,” Borges wrote, “allegory is an aesthetic mistake.” Schopenhauer, Benedetto Croce and D.H. Lawrence all concur. “I hated, even as a child, allegory,” writes Lawrence. Reduced to a series of equivalences, he complained – white horse equals faithfulness and truth – a work of literature is explained away. It does no more than state a position. We read it once and we never need read it again.
The Divina Commedia, most celebrated of all poems, is almost always presented to us as an allegory. Certainly this is the case with the huge and heavily annotated edition my son is poring over in high school in Verona. Who is the figure who appears to Dante in the wood? He is Virgil, the great Roman poet of the Aeneid, emblematic in the Middle Ages of the best that can be achieved by reason and conscience. He will take Dante as far as mere earthly knowledge can take a man. Who is Beatrice? The personal embodiment of heavenly truth, say the commentaries. She will take over where Virgil, with his human limitations, is obliged to leave off. And the pilgrim poet? Obviously he is Everyman, or Christian as Bunyan was to call him. Would Bert Lawrence, we wonder, have read a poem thus described even once?
Yet long after the fires of hell have burned themselves out, the debate about the Divina Commedia rages on. Leafing through the commentary that Robert Hollander has prepared to accompany the new translation, one is immediately aware of a fierce rift between different schools of opinion on the poem: the romantics, who were convinced that Dante sympathised with the sufferers in hell, thus subverting the Christian tradition, and the traditionalists equally convinced that, while the pilgrim in the poem sometimes wavers, the poet behind the work whole-heartedly endorsed every last lacerating pang of a misbegotten, unrepentant humanity. The academic Hollander is decidedly among the anti-romantics and enters the fray with gusto. Meantime his poetess wife, who was responsible for establishing the versification of the new translation, has recently written a poem of her own, “A Mix Up in Dante”, that has two unrelated characters from the Inferno, the Tuscan Francesca and the Greek Odysseus, enjoying a casual affair in a mishmash of contemporary settings; it’s a piece that implicitly supports her husband’s position that these two figures, adored by so many, are nothing more than incorrigible sinners. Until one has read the Inferno itself, it will be hard to understand why the debate is so heated.
The poet turns away from this world. He is going to descend the nine circles of subterranean hell, shin down Satan’s hairy legs to a hole (that needle’s eye?) at the very core of the planet, squeeze through, then climb out of the globe at the antipodes, scale the mountain of purgatory and achieve paradise. That is the overall trajectory of our allegory: man in contact with sin, man rejecting sin, man purifying himself, man returning to his maker.
But by virtue of this holy pilgrimage, Dante also intends to become one of the most famous poets of all time, human, historical time. That is an integral part of his project, and he doesn’t disguise the fact. What’s more the journey will offer him a chance to stage one last poignant meeting with the ever beloved Beatrice. He will see and talk to her again.
So has he really turned away from this world? Well, yes and no. The poem teems with contradictions and antithetical energies. Virgil, we soon suspect, despite the commentaries, is not merely the abstract apex of human piety and reason. More interestingly, he is indeed the great poet whom Dante most sought to emulate, a charming individual who is not to be admitted to Paradise for the simple reason that he lived too early to accept Christ’s offer of salvation. It’s an outrage.
Beatrice meanwhile is Beatrice Portinari whom Dante has worshipped, despite rebuffs, since he was nine years old. And the pilgrim poet, as it turns out, is not Everyman at all, but Dante Alighieri in person. The same goes for the damned when we meet them. Never merely murderers, thieves or pederasts, they are magnificently, abjectly themselves, still sinning and suffering in a place that, far from abstract or notional, is scorchingly, stinkingly real.
But how can a living man go unscathed through hell? And how can a reader follow him? Will the poem be bearable? “Abandon all hope you who enter here,” announce the words above the gate. Hopefully, we go through. First Dante sees the wretched souls of those “who lived without disgrace yet without praise.” Rushing aimlessly back and forth, they suffer because they would rather be anyone but themselves. Well, we’re used to people like that. Six hundred years later Eliot would watch them flowing every day over London Bridge. ‘I could not believe death had undone so many,’ Dante says. Nothing new here.
Then across the river Acheron in the limbo of the first circle of hell are other noble souls who, like Virgil, perished before Christ got round to saving us. Homer and Plato are here, though sadly they don’t appear to be producing any¬thing new. With them are the souls of the tiny children who die un-baptised. It’s a strange mix. Their only torment, is that ‘without hope we live in longing.’ Again it’s not something the average reader will be entirely unfamiliar with. Thus far we can handle it.
But these opening scenes are only a foretaste of what’s to come, or perhaps a response to the exigencies of the encyclopaedic vocation of the poem (all the famous dead will have to be put somewhere). Nevertheless, Dante is immeasur¬ably sad as he reflects that ‘beings of great worth were here suspended’. Already we sense how difficult it is for the human mind to be in tune with the divine will. Is it possible Homer isn’t in heaven? The reader notes with disquiet that having encountered all the greatest poets before we’re barely inside the porch of hell, paradise is going to have little to offer in that department.
Then the real horror begins, the souls tossed this way and that on stormy winds, torn apart by a three-headed dog under endless rain, sunk in bogs, sunk in boiling pitch, sunk in shit, sunk in blistering tombs, sunk in solid ice. Dante sees sinners forever unconsumed in consuming fire, forever scratching the scabs from their flesh, forever metamorphos¬ing into snakes and lizards, forever upside down in filthy holes, forever brushing off burning embers that sift constantly down onto scorching sand.
There is no change, no rest, no night nor day, no meal-breaks. And even more disturbing, when the damned are not being whipped or clawed by demons, they are punishing each other, shoving each other about, gnawing at each other’s necks, insulting each other. L’enfer, c’est les autres. In short, if Hollywood wishes to avoid legislation against excessive violence on the big screen, the Inferno is not a picture to make in an election period. How can Dante pass through it all unscathed? And how can Robert Hollander conclude the introduction to his and his wife’s new translation with the remark that “this is not a bad place once you get used to it”?
‘So as not to be hurt,’ says the Taittiriya Samhita ‘before coming near the fire, he wraps himself in the metres.’ It’s a formula often repeated in the Vedic texts. Whether ‘he’ be god, priest or mere mortal man, in order to approach the sacrificial fire, through which alone the heavens can be conquered, he must ‘wrap himself in the metres’. Such advice is more practical than it may at first seem. The real punishment of Dante’s damned is not this or that torture – many in purgatory will face similar sufferings – but the fact that the torture can know no solution. Neither release nor oblivion are available. And while the body – in so far as the damned have a body – is forever in pain, the mind revolves unceasingly around a particular image or experience. An adulteress is trapped forever in her moment of passion, a suicide is irretrievably marooned in the circum¬stances that led him to dash his brains out against a prison wall. In this sense Dante’s damned are not unlike those ghosts who always appear in the same place in the same clothes, conservative creatures shackled for eternity to some experience they can never go beyond.
It is thus under¬standable that while the trials of purgatory will take place on a breezy mountainside open to the sky, the tortures of the inferno must be closed inside an inverted subterranean cone that funnels down in narrowing circles to the pit of ultimate despair. It’s a place of obsession, a place where time has stopped and thought has become its own prison. To get through such horror, we must wrap ourselves in the metres, for metre obliges us to keep moving on.
Now perhaps we see why Dante chooses a poet as a guide, a poet renowned for the perfection of his verse. What is Virgil’s role throughout the Inferno? As he leads Dante from circle to circle he first directs his attention, inviting him to engage with the damned – after all he must learn from his experience – but then, and this is crucial, he decides exactly how long he is to be allowed to stay and talk in any one place. ‘We must not linger here,’ he says. ‘Let your talk be brief.’ The constant danger is that the poet will find himself paralysed, blocked as the damned are blocked, and as he himself was at the beginning of the poem.

The many people and their ghastly wounds
did so intoxicate my eyes
that I was moved to linger there and weep.

So says the pilgrim poet at the opening to Canto 29. It’s an understandable response when you’ve just spoken to a decapitated nobleman holding his head by the hair. But Virgil is having none of it. “What are you staring at … the time we are allotted soon expires and there is more to see.”
In short, Virgil sets the pace. It is not that we now need to start thinking of him as a personification of metre. Just that he understands as no one else does the mutually tensing, only apparently contradictory vocations of poetry: to take us, yes, to the core of things, through evocation but then to get us out on the other side unscathed, with the reassuring, even anaesthetising progress of verse.
The metre Dante chose to wrap himself in involved the arrangement of hendecasyllables, lines of eleven syllables, in a verse pattern known as terza rima. That is: the poem progresses three lines at a time, the first and the third rhyming and the second setting up the rhyme for the opening line of the next threesome, each stanza, if they can be called that, standing alone, pausing a moment, but in that very pause passing the baton to what quickly follows. Once we have a sense of the role this structure is to play in the story, how it thrusts us before what is too awful to contemplate, then snatches us away from it, we can begin to appreciate how difficult the Inferno is to translate, and how all-determining the initial decision: What form am I going to use?
A dozen and more modern translations are strewn on the desk before me, too many to analyse in detail, each with its merits and its drawbacks, each the fruit of enormous labours. The choice of staying with Dante’s terza rima is of course, only for the boldest, or perhaps one might say the most reckless. Here is Dorothy Sayers, Christian, scholar and detective writer, giving us the speech in which that epitome of recklessness, Ulysses, confesses that he was not a family man and remembers his fatal, hubristic voyage through the pillars of Hercules:

No tenderness for my son, nor piety
To my old father, nor the wedded love
That should have comforted Penelope

Could conquer in me the restless itch to rove
And rummage through the world exploring it,
All human worth and wickedness to prove.

So on the deep and open sea I set
Forth, with a single ship and that small band
Of comrades that had never left me yet.

How the timbers strain here. One suspects the hero’s oarsmen of being selected from among the worthy authors of Hymns Ancient and Modern. Rove and rummage as the translator might through the resources of Victorian verse, all too often the rhyme clangs like a buoy in fog, rather than quietly chiming the passage from one moment to the next.

No stranger himself to rhymed narrative, Longfellow saw the danger and plumped for blank verse. Yet though this enables him to shadow the original more closely, he too often seems to offer little more than a review of 19th century poetic diction. Here he is among the miseries of Canto 5:

And as the cranes go chanting forth their lays,
Making in air a long line of themselves,
So saw I coming, uttering lamentations,

Shadows borne onward by the aforesaid stress.
Whereupon said I: “Master, who are those
People, whom the black air so castigates?”

Over the thirty four cantos and nearly five thousand lines of the Inferno, the ‘aforesaid stress’ can only mount up.
More recently Robert Pinsky, remarking on how much more easily Italian can be rhymed than English and at the same time appreciating the importance of the terza rima in the poem, decided to go for a “terza half rima”, as it were; this together with a versification so full of enjambment that the division into three line stanzas often appears quite arbitrarily imposed on the sense. It seems appropriate to quote Pinsky as he deals with the subject of mangling. Here we are in the 28th canto presenting Mohammed at a time when there was no need to fear an ayatollah’s response.

No barrel staved-in
And missing its end-piece ever gaped as wide
As the man I saw split open from his chin

Down to the farting-place, and from the splayed
Trunk the spilled entrails dangled between his thighs.
I saw his organs, and the sack that makes the bread

We swallow turn to shit.

Despite Pinsky’s facility – and often the translation is fun – one is everywhere aware of the effort required to achieve even these half rhymes, while in the process the focus of the verse is often obliged to fall on the most unlikely of words. ‘Bread’ for example is not in the original and readers may be forgiven for having the absurd impression, if only for a moment, that the bread is made by “the sack”, the intestine. Then of course everything becomes clear as the word ‘shit’ pulls us up brutally mid line. But this is something Dante never does, for of course such effects break up the all-important flow.
In 1993 a book mis-titled Dante’s Inferno presented the translations of twenty contemporary poets, each tackling two or three cantos. James Merrill’s intro¬duction gives us a clue to the uneasiness one feels with so many contemporary translations, and not just of Dante. ‘The problem, he announces, ‘with most translators is their limited command of the language – their own I mean; they can always get help with the other. Hence the bright idea of asking some our finest poets to weave this garland.’
Leaving aside the self congratulation and the inappro¬priate¬ness, surely, of referring to any edition of the Inferno as a “garland”, the notion that one can get somebody else to tell you what the original means and how it feels, so that you can then rewrite it, is suspect to say the least. Why read poetry at all if someone else can tell you what it’s like? There is no substitute for an intimate experience of the original and long immersion in the culture that surrounds it. Invariably the star poets work hard at evocation and drama in their various individual styles, almost always to the detriment of the overall rapidity and homogeneity of the narrative. Here is Mark Strand leaving us in limbo:

There was no howling that I could hear,
nothing but sighs that rose
to shake the everlasting air
sighs of painless woe
from milling crowds of men and women
and children who would never know
relief.

The subordinate clause, ‘who would never know relief’ has been added to the original and creates a most dramatic and mannered stop right at the beginning of the next terzina. Meantime the crucial information that the children are very young – infanti – (they are the un-baptised) is omitted and instead we have a banal standard formula, “men and women and children”, as if merely to say, everybody. The danger of “poetic” translations is that they risk losing both an accurate account of the scene and a rapid movement through it. When things go wrong we are up to our ears in poetic effect and misery.
“Prosa rimata,” Boccaccio called it, “rhymed prose.” One of the poem’s first and greatest admirers, the author of the Decameron praised Dante’s decision to write in the vernacular rather than in Latin, and likewise to avoid the temptation of lavish poetic effect. Hell is impressive enough without. It’s not surprising, then, to find Pinsky making the observation that some of the most effective translations of the Divina Commedia have been in prose. Certainly the 1939 prose translation by the scholar John Sinclair is still a very safe bet if you want to sit down, read the Inferno right through and then get up again. But doesn’t this contradict what I said earlier about the effect of the terza rima? “There are verses, in the genre called prose,” said Mallarmé, “sometimes wonderful verses and in every rhythm.” Here is Sinclair introducing us to the second circle:

I came to a place where all light was mute and where was bellowing as of a sea in tempest that is beaten by conflicting winds. The hellish storm, never resting, seizes and drives the spirits before it; smiting and whirling them about, it torments them. When they come before its fury there are shrieks, weeping and lamentation, and they blaspheme the power of God, and I learned that to such torment are condemned the carnal sinners who subject reason to desire.

A little later one of those sinners speaks: it is the charming adulteress, Francesca.

O living creature gracious and friendly, who goest through the murky air visiting us who stained the world with blood, if the King of the universe were our friend we would pray to Him for thy peace, since thou hast pity of our evil plight. Of that which thou art pleased to hear and speak we will hear and speak with you while the wind is quiet, as here it is.

These sentences have an austere rhythm of their own, while the archaic diction and phrasing seems more acceptable without the alarm bell of forced rhyme. Sinclair’s version is rapid, to the point, almost always close to the original, and yet… if only visually there is something lacking. We miss the sense of constant even division, of opening and of closure, the reassurance of manifest artifice.
The new translation by Robert and Jean Hollander is, as an introductory note tells us, a reworking in free verse of Sinclair’s prose, reinforcing its rhythms, removing archaisms and awkwardness, often altering the interpretation where Sinclair is not convincing. Here are their versions of the passages quoted above.

I reached a place mute of all light,
Which bellows as the sea in tempest
Tossed by conflicting winds.

The hellish squall, which never rests,
Sweeps the spirits in its headlong rush,
Tormenting, whirls and strikes them.

Caught in that path of violence,
They shriek, weep, and lament.
Then how they curse the power of God

And again:

Oh living creature, gracious and kind,
That comes through somber air to visit us
Who stained the world with blood,

If the King of the universe were our friend
We would pray that He might give you peace,
Since you show pity for our grievous plight.

With any translation of the Inferno, one can quibble ad infinitum, if only because the original just will not stay still; it won’t be pinned down to any formula. That said, the Hollanders’ translation is definitely a welcome addition, and to my uncertain ear, coming to all these versions fresh from a re-reading of the original, it certainly seemed the most accessible and the closest. Unfortunately, as we shall see, the commentary Robert Hollander offers to accompany the text is not quite so well pitched.
Whenever Indiana Jones enters an ancient temple or burial ground, we know what is about happen. However much our hero respects and venerates an antique past, neverthe¬less this sacred place, frozen in time, stacked with precious horrors and holy artefacts, is going to be utterly destroyed. As the edifice comes crashing down, Jones, in the nick of time, will rush out of the crumbling portals into the fresh air of a world where nothing is sacred, except perhaps lucre and serial romance.
Although it would be facetious, even blasphemous, to suggest that the same thing happens in the Inferno, still it has to be said that over the centuries the effect of Dante’s passage through hell has been no less devastating. If the poet survives his journey unscathed, the same cannot be said of the infernal abode. Its ecology is too fragile for even this minimal tourism. While the souls of the dead float weightlessly over this most artificial environment, every step taken by the gravity-bound poet sets off a little landslide. And if first scholarly commentaries on the Divina Commedia began to appear almost as soon as it was in circulation, that is partly because there was an immediate apprehension that the place of punishment was in urgent need of shoring up. Robert Hollander takes his turn at this ghoulish maintenance duty with remarkable vigour.
Dante is sent through hell in order to gain ‘greater knowledge’ as Virgil says. Thus much of the poem is made up of question and answer. As each new horror unfolds, we must “understand” it. So we learn that on crossing the Acheron each soul is assessed by the monster Minos who indicates which circle he or she must go to by arranging his tail in the appropriate number of coils. How Minos distinguishes, in the case, for example, of the eighth circle between the ten very different ditches that await the dismayed sinner on arrival, we don’t know. Does he uncoil and re-coil? It is a peculiarity of explanations that they tend to invite further questions.
Meantime other information is coming in thick and fast. We learn that milder sins are punished in the upper circles and more heinous crimes below, in the city of Dis whose gates in the fifth circle mark the descent into “nether hell”. We learn that sins of incontinence are less wicked than sins of will; that the sins of sodomy, blasphemy and usury are punished together because they all involve violence against God or His natural order. Who would have thought? We learn that the dead are granted knowledge of future events on earth, but not of the present situation. Such a state of affairs involves the drawing of some difficult lines, does it not? Presumably as time progresses and the future becomes the present the dead must now forget what a shortly before they knew. Is this really an imaginable world?
But all these are minor points. Most importantly, and exhaustively, we learn that each and every sinner is punished by being subjected to a sort of intensification or symbolic inversion of his dominant crime. Being eternally boiled in pitch, for example, John Sinclair’s notes explain, is an appropriate punishment for those who have accepted bribes in public office, because pitch is sticky, prevents clarity of vision, and rarely allows the sinner to surface. Diviners, on the other hand, who usurped God’s power by looking into the future, are properly served by having their heads reversed on their shoulders so that they are constantly looking backward. On three or four occasions the poet wonders at this appropriateness:

O Supreme Wisdom, what great art you show
in heaven, on earth, and in the evil world,
and what true justice does your power dispense!

How reassuring, or at least distracting, such symmetry is. Then, in so far as each crime can be presented as a breaking of bonds, within family or society, or more seriously between creature and creator, our exploration of hell’s bureaucracy leads quite naturally to a discussion of the state of Italy, and in particular Florence, where all these crimes, the poet assures us, are daily being committed. Indeed Dante’s Florence and Dante’s Inferno often seem contiguous in the poem, as if hell were nothing more than one more busy Tuscan metropolis.
So it is that among the underworld’s gay community, Dante can profit from a long discussion on Florentine politics, past and future. Since such matters, together with all the other Italian gossip, are a key subject of the poem, the inclusion of informative notes at the end of each canto is useful and welcome. In this regard Hollander is impeccable. The text is presented generously spaced – Italian on the left, English on the right – and with ample commentary easily and unobtrusively available at the end of each Canto. As neatly organised as Hell itself.
Still, we should not lose sight of the fact that the attention to current affairs, like the enchantment of the verse and the intriguing topography of infernal justice, are part of a series of strategies for preventing us from being over¬whelmed by the suffering of the damned. With similarly anaesthetic intent, Dante likes to toss in the odd conundrum from time to time to tease the lively intellect. Sinclair, for example, becomes concerned because he can’t quite see the appropriateness of the punishments of the tenth ditch of the eighth circle. Hollander shares with us his perplexity that a character in the fifth ditch seems to have come straight to hell, bypassing Minos’s sorting procedure. How can this be? Screams of torture fade away behind the clamour of such intriguing questions.
In the 29th canto, when Dante mischievously tells us that the inner part of the eighth circle is twenty-two miles in circumference, Hollander manfully resists the temptation to engage in the agitated algebra that has produced so many scale maps of the poet’s hell. But a few cantos on, an obscure reference to the physical stature of Satan, has our commentator rising beautifully to the bait. Dante writes: “I in size am closer to a giant than giants are when measured to his arms.” Hollander informs:

‘That is “I am proportionally, closer in size to a giant than a giant is to Lucifer”. For the size of the giants, ca. Seventy feet, see the note to Inferno XXX 58-66. Let us, merely for the purposes of calculation, agree that Dante was six feet tall. The equation is simple: 6/70=70/x;x = 817. Thus Lucifer is at the very minimum 817 feet tall. Since both the giants and Satan are only halfway out of the ice that leaves him towering from the waist up, over the ice by at least 409 feet.’

Fascinating, isn’t it, how mathematics can contribute to matters metaphysical! But if we don’t want to concentrate on mutilations and misery, we needn’t limit ourselves to elaborating internal textual references. Dante knows he has set in motion a system here that will amuse ad infinitum. This morning, for example, my newspaper offers the announcement:
ASTROCARTOMANTE Alessandra riceve pomeriggi serate distintissimi. (Fortune teller – tarot and astrology – receives real gents only afternoons and evenings).
I ask myself: assuming Alessandra doesn’t repent, where is she going to lodge in hell? If she is indeed a diviner, the fourth ditch of the eighth circle and an eternally twisted neck await her. But in the argot of Italy’s classified ads, “astrocartomante” is code for prostitute. This would put her in the sins of the flesh, perhaps, somewhere in the milder upper rooms of hell.
On the other hand, there is hypocrisy here, is there not? Alessandra is a whore passing herself off as a fortune teller. Hypocrisy would plunge her way back to the eighth circle, but the sixth ditch this time, where she will drag her heels eternally under the weight of a leaded mask with gilded surface. Dante, as I recall, includes but one prostitute in the Inferno, inserting her, rather surprisingly, into the ditch where the flatterers wallow in shit. Why? Because when a lover would ask her, ‘have I found favour with you?” the lady would reply: “beyond all measure.” Our poet is nothing if not witty.
“Beyond all measure.” It is measure and measurement that make hell “not a bad place once you get used to it.” The many pleasing symmetries, between crime and punishment, between landscape and spiritual reality, between life and after-life, give us a sense that all, even in hell, is well.
Well, it isn’t. Suddenly, and dosing out the encounters with great cunning, Dante brings us up against an individual. A figure detaches itself from the crowd and tells a story of intense personal experience. It is Francesca recalling her passion for Paolo, or it is the noble Farinata rising erect from a scorching tomb. Pier delle Vigne gives an account of his tragically blighted career and suicide. His damnation seems incidental. Ulysses wonderfully recreates the folly of his last and most glorious exploit. Who cares what circle he is in?
At these and other moments, as pity, sympathy, or even admiration swell in the poet’s breast, we know that for all the satisfactions of moral pigeon-holing, nothing has been explained. The individual, for better or worse, treacherous, Promethean, or merely unreasonable, is so much more than a single sin. There is a fierce tension here. Hell’s ramparts tremble. Sensibly, Virgil hurries us on.
Not so Hollander. Ominously, in his introduction, he has already told us that: “Dante, not without risk, decided to entrust to us, his readers, the responsibility for seizing upon the details in the narratives told by the sinners, no matter how appealing their words might be, in order to condemn them on the evidence that issues from their own mouths.”
But if, after reading this, you are concerned you might get it wrong, not to worry. Hollander, unlike Dante, won’t let you. He uses his commentary not just to give us valuable information but to make sure that we do indeed add our weighty condemnation to God’s. Again and again he tells us what the poem means and how we should feel about it. In his view of things this inevitably means feeling rather less than we felt when we read the poem. Ulysses, for example, Hollander tells us, despite being admired for his Promethean spirit by so many poets and thinkers (Tennyson, Benedetto Croce, and Primo Levi are briefly listed) is “in common parlance, a con artist, and a good one too. He has surely fooled a lot of people.” But not our commentator. Of Francesca, he warns us that, however poignant her words, she is in fact entirely calculating; she just wants to win our pity while in fact, “it is pity itself that is here at fault.”
This challenging assertion looks forward to a key line in the Inferno where, when Dante shows pity for the diviners, Virgil protests: Qui vive la pietà quand’ è ben morta. Literally: Here pity – or piety (pietà can mean either or both) – lives when it is good and dead. The Hollanders, determined to spare us misunderstandings, translate, “Here piety lives when pity is quite dead.” Sinclair more faithfully and enigmatically offers, ‘Here pity lives when it is quite dead’.
But let us not quibble over the translation, since the Hollanders’ version seems in fact the only contextually compre¬hensible reading of the line. Let us also leave aside the ungenerous reflection that Virgil, who himself shows pity elsewhere, has a particular axe to grind with the diviners since his Aeneid was frequently read, not as a poem, but as an instrument of divination. Pity for them was not justice for him! Let us even assume, as Hollander would wish us to, I think, that the comment refers to the whole of hell and not just to this particular ditch. All the same, and however we phrase it, we cannot escape the fact that Dante is drawing our attention here to a scission within the very notion of what piety, or godliness, is.
The two qualities, pity/piety, stem from the same etymological root; we had hoped they were inseparable. Instinctively, we seek to keep them together. But a contemplation of hell, where God’s terrible vendetta is visited on the damned for all eternity, obliges us to see that if we want an ordered cosmos with paradise on top and hell at the bottom, then pity will have to go. Hell, a pitiless place, is the price one pays for paradise and more in general for the delirium of believing that human actions can reverberate for all eternity.
Looked at this way, Sayers’ translation of the thorny line is intriguing: “Here pity, or here piety, must die,” she writes, acknowledging the interesting alternative that it might be pity that lives, as it certainly does in Dante’s poem, while orthodox piety and its grim fortifications collapse.
Another difficult and provocative remark, makes it clear that Dante appreciates the revolutionary potential of the tensions that galvanise his tale. In canto 12 the poet finds himself slithering down a landslide that ‘shifted under my feet’. In the now familiar tone of reassuring explanation, Virgil tells Dante that when Christ came briefly down to hell after his crucifixion, carrying off a select few in the process, the infernal place was severely shaken. He goes on:

so that I thought the universe felt love,
by which, as some believe,

the world has many times been turned to chaos.
And at that moment this ancient rock,
Here and elsewhere, fell broken into pieces.

This is a very dangerous idea. The entrance to hell bore the claim that the place was founded by ‘primal love’, but here we have a suggestion that love is alien to order. Love leads to chaos because it tends to forgive, it isn’t interested in coiling tails and carefully divided ditches.
Whether he originally intended it or not, Dante has found that to bring pity into hell makes for the most powerful poetry, as qualities that stir our souls are infinitely punished by a system we nevertheless feel we must accept as divine. Having happened on that formula, he cannot resist pursuing it. What could be more seductive to an artist than the serendipitous discovery? But each time he does so he exposes an essential tension at the core of Christianity, a quarrel between rival visions of justice and of love that has kept Western society uneasily on the move for centuries, so much so that today it has become very hard for us to contemplate inflicting pain of any kind. To read the Inferno is to savour at its most elemental and intense one of the profound moral conflicts that has shaped the contemporary psyche. If twenty-first century man went to heaven he would soon be demonstrating to have hell abolished.
Point the infernal brickwork as he will, even Robert Hollander is not immune from some chaotic sentiment. When Dante is moved at the sight of his old homosexual friends and wishes to greet them with an embrace, our commentator forgets to remind us that such affection for people God has eternally condemned is out of place. Rather than castigating the fraudulent intentions of a sinner who puts the blame for his sodomy on his ‘bestial wife,’ Hollander applauds the poet for ‘a remarkable lack of the typical Christian heterosexual scorn for homosexuals.” It’s a rare lapse, but telling.
Whenever a magical world crumbles and its demons are put to flight, you can be sure they will turn up again elsewhere, and without the reassuring distance old boundaries guaranteed. So, on reading Dante, one is powerfully struck by how present he is in our modern literature. Hell is gone, but, like New York’s mental patients, the damned have been let loose among us. They are there in Eliot, in Kafka, in Borges, and above all in Beckett, where they loom from the trash cans of “Endgame,” from the heap of sand in “Happy Days.” And if, having read the Hollanders’ excellent translation, you are yearning for a more sophisticated commentary on the Divina Commedia, you might do worse than to turn to Beckett’s novel Watt, where he recreates for the modern reader the Inferno’s strange force-field of symmetry and suffering, of a language that evokes and anaesthetises. Here is Watt exploring a hell in need of renovation:

This garden was surrounded by a high barbed wire fence, greatly in need of repair, of new wire, of fresh barbs. Through this fence, where it was not overgrown by briars and giant nettles, similar gardens, similarly enclosed, each with its pavilion, were on all sides distinctly to be seen. Now converging, now diverging, these fences presented a striking irregularity of contour. No fence was party, nor any part of any fence. But their adjacence was such, at certain places, that a broad-shouldered or broad-basined man, threading these narrow straits, would have done so with greater ease and with less jeopardy to his coat, and perhaps to his trousers, sideways than frontways. For a big bottomed man, on the contrary, or a big-bellied man, frontal motion would be an absolute necessity, if he did not wish his stomach to be perforated, or his arse, or perhaps both, by a rusty barb, or by rusty barbs. A big-bottomed big-bosomed woman, an obese wet-nurse, for example, would be under a similar necessity. While persons at once broad-shouldered and big-bellied, or broad-basined and big-bottomed, or broad-basined and big-bellied, or broad-shouldered and big-bottomed, or big-bosomed and broad-shouldered, or big bosomed and broad-basined, would on no account, if they were in their right senses, commit themselves to this treacherous channel…

Both the horror and the humour of such a passage owe everything to Dante, while the distance between the anguished tension of the Inferno and the despairing hilarity of Watt can in part be traced back to the corrosive powers that animate the earlier work.
While the damned, then, show no signs of making themselves scarce, the same, alas, cannot be said of Beatrice and the blessed. Clinging to the wreckage, Ulysses and his crew survive for a thousand reincarnations, but the good ship Paradise, it seems, was lost with all hands. Fortunately Dante was not aboard. Having threaded the world’s most treacherous passage and dreamed up, for the other side, a Purgatorio and Paradiso of great beauty and complexity but little excitement, he then awoke to find himself once again under the stars, where he remains with us to this day. It is a poor and shadowy sort of immortality for man who no doubt believed he would be in the blazing light of Paradise with the saints and the angels; but at least the commedia of literary fame, unlike that of heaven and hell, is not one that need be underwritten by the sufferings of the damned.