An Explanation of Dante's Hell

A reader encountering The Inferno without any prior knowledge of the relationship between the Greek and Roman cultures can easily be confused by Dante’s design of Hell. In the upper circles of Hell Dante has placed characters whose sins included lust, wrath, and violence; in the lower, more evil circles are sinners who lied, deceived, and committed treason. To modern-day readers, this categorization of evils may seem backwards, but Dante’s Hell is consistent with Roman thought.

The Romans adopted almost their entire civilization from the Greeks, except their notion of sin. The Greeks felt that a violent act against another human being was the worst form of evil. A good example is the Trojan Horse in Homer’s The Iliad. The Greeks exalted the resourcefulness and inventiveness of the Trojan Horse. The Roman idiom hated the Trojan Horse for its deceitfulness. The Romans held deceit and treason as the worst of all evils and felt physical violence was not as harsh. This belief could stem from the fact that the Roman Empire was so strong that it had nothing to fear from physical violence but was always defeated by treason and treachery.

Dante believed in the Roman idea of evil, so his structure of Hell is consistent. There are lesser examples of Dante’s affection for Roman culture, such as his spelling “Odysseus” with its Latin form, “Ulysses.” Although it may not fit contemporary views of evil, Dante’s Hell is consistent with the Roman ideas of sin.

Historical Background

The Renaissance or the rebirth of learning, began in Italy in the fourteenth century and influenced all of Western civilization. Wealthy families in Italy, such as the Medicis of Florence, were patrons of the arts and sciences. Trade flourished and prosperity thrived throughout much of the country.

In contrast to these positive occurrences, all was not well in Italy during the Renaissance. Rulers of the independent Italian states often fought with each other to establish a large political unit. The Guelph Political party (which favored local authority) and the Ghibelline Political party (which favored imperial authority) were two such rival factions; the two had been at war periodically since the thirteenth century.

Dante’s birth in 1265 came at a time when the Guelph party, favoring local authority, was in control of Florence. Dante turned away from his Guelph heritage to embrace the imperial philosophy of the Ghibellines. His change in politics is best summed up in his treatise De Monarchia, in which Dante states his belief in the separation of church and state. The Ghibellines, however, were pushed from power by the Guelphs during Dante’s adulthood and confined to northern Tuscany.

The Guelph Political party eventually divided into two groups: the Whites (led by the Cerchi family) and the Blacks (led by the Donati family and later aided by Pope Boniface VIII). Dante became a member of the Whites and served as an ambassador to talk with the Pope in Rome about conditions in Florence. While Dante was out of town, the Blacks took over Florence. The Blacks sentenced Dante to banishment from the city; his punishment for return would be death. His wanderings gave him time to write and to study the Scriptures. This banishment also gave Dante his perspective on the corruption of the fourteenth century papacy, a view that he would clearly describe in The Inferno.

In the year 1310, Henry VII became Holy Roman Emperor; Dante believed that this German prince would bring peace. But Henry VII died in 1313 and his Italian campaign collapsed. Dante became disillusioned and left the political life; he ceased work on other materials he had begun and concentrated on The Divine Comedy.


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Any new English translation of Dante’s allegorical poem on life, death, and redemption needs to justify itself immediately and to support its claim to existence consistently, since the versions in print are many and varied. Scholars have relied upon the six-volume major edition of La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy) by Charles S. Singleton, which contains the Italian text, full commentary, and English translation, since its appearance in 1970. The three-volume prose translation of the entire poem with précis for each canto and notes by John D. Sinclair first appeared in 1939; it remains available in paperback, has an Italian text on facing pages, and is relatively inexpensive. The Penguin edition begun by the celebrated mystery novelist Dorothy L. Sayers during World War II appeared in its first installment, the Hell canticle, in 1949. Barbara Reynolds completed the Paradiso canticle in 1962, following Sayers’ death. This version, in three paperback volumes, includes an English translation that attempts to reproduce the idiom of Dante’s terza rima (rhymed tercet) form and offers a full commentary. Those who know Dante’s Italian perennially discover humor in Sayers’ Anglicizations, though many who first came to love Dante’s poem through the Sayers version retain an affection for it; it has reliable notes and good diagrams and is the least expensive edition suitable for students.

English translators have tested their mettle on Dante’s allegory since at least 1802, but the problem that afflicts all translations to some degree can become serious when the translators are themselves primarily either poets or creative writers. Such individuals are predisposed by creative impulse to express their own vision of Dante’s distinctiveness rather than to create in English the tone of the Italian text. John Dryden’s translations of the classical poets are, to take an extreme example, inevitably more poems by Dryden than renderings of an original text.

Even so, and despite the odds, Robert Pinsky’s translation of the Infernosucceeds admirably. Perhaps this is because he is an academic as well as a poet, but it is also likely that the nature of his own verse lends itself to the confessional yet universal nature of Dante’s allegory. Pinsky’s verse collections, An Explanation of America (1979), History of My Heart(1984), and The Want Bone (1990), are essentially confessional explorations of the self upon which the poet projects a universal dimension. Perhaps this element in his own creative work predisposes him to see that writing, and for that matter translating, allegory as complex as Dante’s corresponds directly to the difficulty of the journey the Pilgrim undertakes. Dante as pilgrim and poet are the same man, yet the poet must successfully complete a technical feat (rendering the ineffable nature of divinity in vernacular and finite language) even as the Pilgrim needs to finish a course never completed by any living person (a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven). In essence, Pinsky recognizes that the progress of the Pilgrim corresponds directly to the progress of the poet.

John Freccero, the eminent American Dantist who holds the chair in Italian studies at Stanford University, originated this confessional approach to Dante’s poem, and it is to Freccero that Pinsky turns for the foreword that accompanies the translation. Unlike many prefatory essays, which are simply endorsements of a text, Freccero’s is a masterful overview of his own approach to the entire poem, yet he writes in a style suitable for general readers. Before its appearance in Pinsky’s volume, readers could find such guidance only in Freccero’s articles, collected under the title Dante: The Poetics of Conversion (1986). Any reader who would fully appreciate Pinsky’s translation must begin by reading Freccero’s essay.

A further comment on the format of the book concerns the thirty-six illustrations by Michael Mazur, which begin on the endpapers and as the frontispiece, then continue at the beginning of each of the thirty-four cantos. These appear as black-and-white washes, are expressionist in overall style, and are either representational or simply evocative of the cantos they introduce. Black and white implies the interiority and exteriority that cohabit Dante’s allegory. Mazur often does not concern himself with illustrating particular scenes of the canticle, as had Gustave Doré, or with presenting his own cosmology, as had William Blake, so much as with suggesting states of mind appropriate to pilgrim, to poet, and, not least, to reader.

It is, in fact, slighting to call Mazur’s drawings illustrations, since they do not attempt to control the reader’s perception. An inspired use of Mazur’s work appears at canto XI, as the Pilgrim is about to enter the first ring of Hell’s seventh circle. Mazur’s drawing merely suggests from bird’s-eye view the circles that the Pilgrim has traversed and those that lay ahead. The following page reproduces Mazur’s black-and-white wash in gray with a definite schema of Hell’s topography superimposed. What had been suggestive thereby becomes informatively narrative.

Notes by Nicole Pinsky appear at the conclusion of the volume. These are brief when compared to the scholarly editions, but this is an asset given the requirements of general readers.

Ultimately, though, the success of Pinsky’s volume rests with the words the poet-translator uses to express the words of the poet-pilgrim. Pinsky supplies the Italian text on facing pages and remains remarkably literal, yet translates with admirable skill. He commendably resists full English rhyme in his rendering of the aba, bcb terza rima, employing half rhyme in the first and third lines of the tercets when full rhyme would lack grace. Strong rhyme would turn Dante’s verse into doggerel or create patter-songs like those of W. S. Gilbert’s libretti.

Pinsky’s rendering of the familiar lines that begin canto I illustrates his sensitivity to the confessional nature of Dante’s verse. Having completed his journey, the Pilgrim announces his intention to attempt a re-creation of the man he had been when he had first awakened in the Dark Wood.

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard—so tangled and rough

And savage that thinking of it now, I feel

The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.
And yet, to treat the good I found there as well

I’ll tell what I saw, though how I came to enter

I cannot well say, being so full of sleep
Whatever moment it was I began to blunder

Off the true path.

Pinsky carefully establishes the complementary duality that exists between the difficulty of the journey itself and the difficulty of rendering an accurate account of it. The fear is simultaneously from recollection of near spiritual disaster, the treacherous process itself, and the possible inadequacy of conveying the experience. The good the Pilgrim finds exists not only in Heaven but also in the divine justice that creates Hell and Purgatory. The poet recognizes comparable good in re-creating the experience for its universal value. This sense of divine justice is so strong in Dante’s poem that it admits of degrees of damnation and salvation appropriate to each of the damned and saved. Primal love impels both pilgrim and poet, the former realizing this in the beatific vision of Heaven, the latter in conveying the process of conversion.

The hierarchies of damnation and redemption that inform Dante’s cosmology derive from Plotinus, as articulated in the writings of Saint Augustine. Pinsky calls Hell’s circles “tangled . . . rough and savage,” but they resolve themselves into the ordered spheres of Heaven once the Pilgrim, guided by his pre-Christian predecessor poet Virgil, sorts out an appropriate path and makes the Plotinian leap from the dross of Hell and Purgatory to the infinite bliss of Heaven. Correspondingly, it is the paradoxical task of the poet to free himself from the heavy chains of linguistic signification that allegory imposes even as he continues to write allegory to his poem’s end in Paradise. If one understands the daunting nature of the task imposed upon pilgrim and poet, one can appreciate the trepidation with which any translator must approach Dante’s poem.

Dante’s Virgil, identifiable with the Roman poet of the first century b.c.e. Publius Vergilius Maro, did not have to surmount the challenge to linguistic signification that a journey to Heaven imposes. His poem, The Aeneid (c. 19 b.c.e.), brings its hero through the pre-Christian underworld. Though it uses the city as an exponential metaphor, as doesLa divina commediaThe Aeneid is essentially a poem that emphasizes the dolor (sorrow) inherent in loss. Aeneas can realize love only in its defective, transient state; hence he loses his wife Creusa, his beloved Dido, his father Anchises, his protégé Pallas, and, indeed, Troy itself. Hence Virgil cannot accompany the Pilgrim through Heaven or provide the poet with an exemplar poem to serve as inspiration for the final canticle. Pinsky’s translation, despite all of its virtues, remains at the end of The Inferno a work that is comparably incomplete.

Dante conceives his Hell as a medieval city, but its topography is inverted. It is la città dolente (the sorrowing city), but it is without the happy dolor of fond memory one can find in The Aeneid. When one sympathizes with the plights of various sinners, the sympathy arises from the tragic nature of their commedia (condition, situation). In canto V, for example, in the circle of the lustful, the Pilgrim and reader pity Paolo and Francesca. Their adultery was prompted by Francesca’s proxy marriage to a hunchback but more by their reading of the story of Lancelot and Guinevere. Francesca tells the Pilgrim the story of their entrapment and murder, but she does so without emotion. Pinsky’s translation captures the Pilgrim’s regret

“that sweet conceptions and passion so deep
Should bring them here!” Then, looking up toward
The lovers [he says]: “Francesca, your suffering makes me weep
For sorrow and pity.”

Their adultery has placed Paolo and Francesca in a single flame, yet is this not as much an everlasting memorial to their passion, an eternal consummation, as a punishment for their sin? Divine justice damns Paolo and Francesca as it must, but it also recognizes the circumstances of their adultery.

A parallel example appears in canto XIII, the forest of the suicides. At Virgil’s suggestion, the Pilgrim breaks a branch from a thornbush, only to discover that the bush is the bodily form of Pier della Vigna, once a highly trusted adviser of Frederick II, but falsely accused of treason. In disgrace, della Vigna committed suicide. Again, Pinsky places the burden of regret with the Pilgrim as he hears a moan and the words “Why do you break me? . . ./ Why have you torn me? Have you no pity, then?” The Pilgrim does feel compassion, for he sees in della Vigna’s situation the elements of cruelty, treachery, meanness, and tragedy that touch the lives of most human beings. When the Harpies have done even more damage to the limbs of the suicides, the Pilgrim, “compelled by the love I bear my native place,” gathers the branches and returns them to the broken della Vigna. In doing so, he explicitly recalls the love he bears for Florence, the city that had unjustly accused him of treason and forced him into exile.

Hell’s sinners endure environments that range from the fire of passion-inspired sin to the ice of sin that is premeditated and employs treachery. Increasing moral disorder is the element that characterizes the entire place. Satan is himself packed in ice, and he resides in Hell’s frozen arxwith Brutus and Judas Iscariot, the betrayers of Julius Caesar and Jesus Christ, in either hand. The landscape is bizarre indeed, yet it is entirely appropriate to the human condition.

Sources for Further Study

American Poetry Review. XXIII, September, 1994, p. 43.

Boston Globe. December 25, 1994, p. 16.

Chicago Tribune. February 12, 1995, XIV, p. 5.

Library Journal. CXIX, November 1, 1994, p. 80.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. December 10, 1995, p. 8.

The New York Review of Books. XLII, October 19, 1995, p. 4.

The New York Times Book Review. C, January 1, 1995, p. 7.

The New Yorker. LXX, January 23, 1995, p. 87.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, September 26, 1994, p. 57.

The Sewanee Review. CIII, Summer, 1995, p. lxxxv.