Literary Wisdom · Poetry

Literary Wisdom: “Inferno” by Dante Alighieri

As the year began to close, I ventured into the world of epic poetry—and what a beautiful thing it has been! With many thanks to Homer’s Odyssey and Milton’s Paradise Lost, I finally learned what it was like to sail through the mythological, monster-ridden Mediterranean Sea and to fly on the wings of angels, whirling through space and time and witnessing God cast Lucifer out of Heaven and into the ever-mysterious Chaos. Yet if I had to choose just one favorite—just one book out of the three I’d read that I would take with me through all my days and let broil in my imagination and wonder—I would turn to Dante’s Inferno. Here is the beginning of Dante’s venture into eternity, the profound and whimsical undertaking to understand sin at its core. It’s a scary journey, it’s a piercing journey, it’s a life-shattering adventure—but you will never see God’s glory the same once you call Dante Alighieri your spiritual travel companion. Let “Literary Wisdom” prove it.

(Note: All hellish quotations taken from Anthony Esolen’s version of Inferno, published by the Modern Library in 2005—and dare I say, it is certainly a heavenly rendition of Dante!)


Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wilderness,
for I had wandered from the straight and true.
How hard a thing it is to tell about,
that wilderness so savage, dense, and harsh,
even to think of it renews my fear!
It is so bitter, death is hardly more—
but to reveal the good that came to me,
I shall relate the other things I saw.
Canto One, Lines 1-9

Ah, the famous “midway” opening of the Divine Comedy! Here we see a man truly horror-stricken at the ugly man he had been before he had seen all the lands of eternity, relieving his flaming emotion every time he thinks of his journey. Afterwards, he discusses the primary lesson he learned in the first installment of the epic trilogy: that death is hardly more bitter than the temptations he faced on earth. Before he was snatched away into the everlasting realms, Dante is tempted on all sides, and he is about to give in. But by the time he walks out of heaven and steps once more upon earth, Dante’s belief in the severity of his sin and his realization of how much it offends God is unshakeable. Finally, persevering through the intense pain in his heart, the great poet determines to write, for the sake of his fellow earth-wanderers. To see such a melodious encapsulation of past, present, and future is so rare in this day and age, but back in the early fourteenth century, a lone God-loving Italian got it right.


“Poet,” I said to him, “I beg of you,
by that same God you never knew, that I
may flee this evil and the worse to come,
Lead me now to the place you tell me of,
so I may see Saint Peter’s gate, and those
you say are dwelling in such misery.”
Canto One, Lines 130-135

One of the most encouraging things about Inferno is that Dante did not enter into eternity based on his own merits. Rather, he started his celestial journey of faith through merciful intercession of a saint in heaven, who sees Dante about to succumb to his flesh and asks Virgil, the eternally condemned author of Aenid, to guide the troubled man through eternity. Equally beautiful, however, is Dante’s willingness to embark upon this journey. I could hardly think of anything more frightening than someone like William Shakespeare suddenly appearing in front of me when I was going to commit sin and asking me to come with him into hell! Nevertheless, after much hesitation and interrogation into how such an offer came about, Dante risks his life so he might learn how to better glorify God. As we see throughout the book, Virgil is indeed (in the words of Prince Hamlet) “an honest ghost”, and Dante’s faith is rewarded when he enters into heaven in Paradiso.


I AM THE WAY INTO THE CITY OF WOE,
I AM THE WAY INTO ETERNAL PAIN,
I AM THE WAY TO GO AMONG THE LOST.

JUSTICE CAUSED MY HIGH ARCHITECT TO MOVE:
DIVINE OMNIPOTENCE CREATED ME,
THE HIGHEST WISDOM, AND THE PRIMAL LOVE.

BEFORE ME THERE WERE NO CREATED THINGS
BUT THOSE THAT LAST FOREVER—AS DO I.
ABANDON ALL HOPE YOU WHO ENTER HERE.
Canto Three, Lines 1-9

There’s so much to unpack from this inscription upon the gates of hell—”city of woe”, “eternal pain”, “no created things but those that last forever”. But the burning dilemma here is in the middle lines: “Justice caused my high architect to move:/Divine omnipotence created me,/The highest wisdom, and the primal love.” Anthony Esolen pointed this out beautifully on page 422 in his translation of Dante’s work, and I will let him finish this off:

“How can Love fashion a realm of groaning and wailing, of utter agony and alienation?…One may suppose…that punishment respects the dignity of the sinner, to grant him what his own disordered love has merited and has longed for. For such a lover, the only place more agonizing than Hell would be Heaven. Indeed, the one place hotter than Hell is Heaven, as Dante imagines it: without grace, the fires of Love in Paradise would be unendurable. Perhaps, then, the inscription over the gates of Hell is meant to teach as much about Love as about Hell. For Love, as Dante saw, is no mere sentiment, no habit of ease. It is a consuming fire.”


“O highest peak of virtue,” I began,
“who lead me at your pleasure round these rings,
speak to me, let my wish be satisfied….

“Good leader, if I hide my heart from you,”
said I, “I do it only to speak less.
That’s what you’ve often said that I should do.”
Canto Ten, Lines 4-6, 19-21

Sometimes the best way to receive information is through silence. Granted, when we are confronted with our sin like Dante was in Inferno, we should repent in prayer. But even before repentance is possible, we cannot keep endless, purposefully distracting chatter in our heads into which to escape while we feel God’s conviction. True change comes after the believer has lifted his hands to surrender and has silenced himself so he can listen to his Maker. Though Dante does not say that directly in the quote above, his words to Virgil on his journey through hell nevertheless reflect that truth in one of the most poignant ways in history—and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the entire book does so as well.


As far as you can go from Beelzebub
inside the cavern tomb, there is a place
where not by sight, but by its sound one finds
A little rushing stream that courses down
a hollow it has eaten in a rock,
taking a winding way, with easy slope.
Upon this hidden path my guide and I
entered, to go back to the world of light,
and without any care to rest at ease,
He first and I behind, we climbed so high
that through a small round opening I saw
some of the turning beauties of the sky.
And we came out to see, once more, the
stars.

Canto Thirty-four, Lines 127-139

I’m not sure if Dante meant this or not, but the conclusion of Inferno feels like a triumphant entry into the glory of Revelation. First, Virgil and Dante had journeyed “as far as you can go from Beelzebub”—not that they had vanquished him forever as indicates the Apostle John’s final Scripture, but that they had escaped his realm and went “back to the world of light.” There, far away from hell, the poets meet “a little rushing stream”, which feels like a symbol of their escaping from the place of death to a sort of River of Life. It speaks peace, rest, nourishment. Finally, after fleeing from the underworld and setting their feet once more upon land, Dante’s vision rushes upward into the stars—”the turning beauties of the sky.”

Somehow, I think, the end of Inferno is more effective than the way I might have ended it, or the way in which I expected it to conclude. The first installment doesn’t end with a nasty, gory, bloody battle with the king of devils; it ends with a simple, quiet reflection upon God’s beauty, and the realization that, though humanity cannot prevail against the devil, God has a plan in place. Hope reigns side-by-side with Trust, and we can thank God that such is not just the case with Inferno, but with reality itself, no matter how fallen it may be.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” ~Revelation 21:1-4, ESV

 

~Sarah Merly

December 1, 2018

Isaiah 53