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Here are my contributions to a seminar on Dante’s Divina Commedia conducted with Dr William Johnston on Thursday the 27th of March 2014 at the Institute for Spiritual Studies, St Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill, Melbourne. Will’s papers and other material from the seminar are available on the parish website.


Peter Steele, of blessed memory, Melbourne poet and Jesuit, cites the American Ralph Waldo Emerson: the Commedia is “autobiography in colossal cipher”. By which he means, Dante’s life is written large through the code of his poem. Steele embellishes on that idea by adding that the Commedia “might also be called metaphor in colossal suspense.” Which I take to mean, Dante’s poem keeps us hanging on even as it goes on talking about ultimate questions. In literary terms generally today, this is a central issue because while some writers strive to find through their words ways of describing and explaining everything knowable in human terms, others have abandoned that objective, saying words cannot do this, nor should we be making such grand universalising claims for our writing. So, while Dante’s critics say the poet can never explain everything there is to know about existence, Dante nevertheless stands as a classical example of how this might be achieved. Can our experience be turned into global statements?

Another Australian poet, Clive James, once hosted a late night London TV show called The Late Clive James. This is a very Dantesque joke, where a person who is alive presents himself as someone who is at the same time over there interviewing people on the other side. In the introduction to his new translation of Dante, Clive asks: “What kind of story has all the action in the first third, and then settles back to stage a discussion of obscure spiritual matters? But the Divine Comedy (he says) isn’t just a story, it’s a poem: one of the biggest, most varied and most accomplished poems in all the world. Appreciated on the level of its verse, the thing never stops getting steadily more beautiful as it goes on. T.S. Eliot said that the last cantos of Heaven (Paradiso) were as great as poetry can ever get. The translator’s task is to compose something to suggest that such a judgement might be right.” (p. xi of his translation) Interviewed himself lately online, after he almost died, Clive James said that the thing about Shakespeare and Dante is they both had “an incredible, vivid capacity for imagery and argument packed into a tight space.” I would add, they had an incredible store of stories they knew how to retell in their chosen mode.

Unlike Clive, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney abandoned the idea of translating Dante and it is worth hearing why. He says (p. 425-6 of O’Driscoll interview) that “for a while I was so exhilarated by the whole marvel of Dante that I was tempted to have a go at doing the complete Inferno – simply for its own imaginative splendour.” Why did he abandon the idea? “Because I didn’t know Italian, because I couldn’t gauge tone, because I was at a loss about all the little particles strewn around the big nouns and verbs. That was what I told myself, at any rate. I soldiered on for four hundred lines or so, consulting my Sinclair and my Singleton; but after I’d done three cantos, there was a realization that I couldn’t achieve what I wanted, which was to get a style going that would be right for me and the material. I couldn’t establish a measure that combined plain speaking with fluent movement. I just couldn’t match the shapes that the bright container of the terza rima contained. For a big job like that, you need a note that pays you back, if you know what I mean: you need to be making a music that doesn’t just match the original but verifies something in yourself as well.” This admission of defeat is honest and salutary. Heaney recognises that it is better to leave the poem alone rather than deliver something that doesn’t work effectively. I especially like “all the little particles strewn around the big nouns and verbs”, which is as good a description of dealing with Italian as you can get. It is those little inflected vowels that can change the meaning of a whole verse; sometimes a whole passage can hang on just one such sound in Italian.

Dante wrote his poem in the early 1300s. This is only a couple of decades before the pandemic known today as the Black Death killed possibly over half of Europe’s population. Dante’s poem is written 200 years before Columbus found the New World, a major shift in European imagination. Three hundred years before Galileo proved that the Earth goes around the Sun. Over 500 years before Darwin argued that our every existence is premised on evolution. Over 600 years before a human stands on the Moon and takes a photograph of the Earth coming up over the horizon of its satellite. All of this would have to go into a poem written by Dante in 2014 because empirical description of the world we know is as much a part of the Comedy as its spiritual attentions. These questions face serious writers today, for they are presented with the same basic questions as Dante. Who are we? What do we make of our temporal existence? Where do we come from? Where are we going?  

Poets take up Dante’s objectives, or are heavily influenced by his presence. Heaney abandoned direct translation but then wrote a poem about St Patrick’s Purgatory in Ireland, one of the original places of the very idea of Purgatory, in which Dante plays a guiding role. In ‘Field Work’ we hear Heaney’s translation of the story of Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri, the story in one of the lowest circles of Hell, in which two men’s hatred of one another is so unforgiving that one perpetually gnaws on the other’s skull. Written in the context of the bitter conflicts of the time in Northern Ireland, the poem takes on profound social meaning.

Harking back, Eliot used Dante as the mood setting and starting point in several of his most famous poems. “I had not known death had undone so many,” he writes in The wasteland, written soon after the First World War, the line a direct lift from Inferno 3, in which Dante describes a near-endless procession of people filing into Hell:

Si lunga tratta
Di gente, ch’io non avrei mai creduto
Che morte tanta n’avesse disfatta.

The West Australian poet John Kinsella has written his own Divine Comedy, where Dante’s poem is used as a template for a series of cantos about the private life of his family on a farm, with repeated expressions of concern about political collapse, land degradation, climate change, and urban corruption.

And so on.

But two kinds of modern writer come close to Dante in their preoccupations: story tellers who are concerned about the consequences of individual actions, whether good or bad; and writers in spirituality who wish to explain the connections between our made-up public lives and our internal private lives, determined as they are by different experiences of love.


For many people, Dante means Inferno. Full stop. Many people who have not read Dante conclude that it’s ‘That poem about Hell’. Or, and this includes many genuine readers as well, Inferno is where the action is, and everything later is not so interesting. Inferno is where all the interesting evil people are to be found, they believe, and this makes for good literature. Everyone keeps one eye on the villain, because villains are at the centre of the excitement. Apparently.

Our responses in this regard are very modern. It comes from reading too many novels and seeing too many films. It is our expectation that bad people will help spice up the story. It defines us as brainwashed romantics with an addiction to crime stories.

However, the Comedy is not a novel in the modern sense at all, the novel had not been invented when Dante wrote his poem. The Comedy draws on romances like Arthur and other knightly legends and on the courtly love mode then prevalent in European writing. It is truly an anthology of short stories and anecdotes, but it is not a novel.

Nor are the people found in Inferno there for our vicarious delectation as readers with prurient interests in bad people and what they might do next. They are there because they are in Hell, and that is the main message. In fact, Dante is showing us that people in Hell cannot do anything ‘next’. They are actually trapped permanently and cannot escape. There is No Exit. When we see these people in such a state Dante and Virgil are asking us, by implication, would you want to find yourself in this predicament? Because, you see, it is Inferno that is not interesting. The descriptions are certainly interesting, but who would want to live there?

A way to appreciate the message is by paying attention to the character Dante’s own reactions in the circles he visits with Virgil. When it is sulphuric, he holds his nose it’s so disgusting. When he sees something especially horrible in a pit or stream he is shocked, he averts his gaze. Sometimes he gets the shakes, or faints. In real time, if we were Dante himself and not the armchair traveller, we are being advised that this would be our response too. Our main reaction would be: I’m out of here!

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
che la diritta via era smarrita.

(Inferno I, 1-3)

Companionship is vital to our reading of the Divine Comedy. Without Virgil we could not traverse Inferno. I say ‘we’ because the opening lines of the poem must not be translated ‘In the middle of my life’ but quite explicitly ‘In the middle of our life’. Brilliantly and subtly, Dante involves us, any reader of his poem, from line 1 as a fellow traveller. So right away we too trust Virgil and treat his every word and action with respect and expectation. In fact we too can only survive Inferno by going along with Virgil. In Inferno we are locked into witnessing shocking things with only one person to help us through, and even then Virgil is not always very communicative.

Inferno is a place of stone, streams, and darkness. It is rough and disorganised. There is no fiery lava because Dante had never seen a volcano. In fact the further down we go the colder it gets, until the pit of hell is solid ice. There are manmade landscapes in Inferno, notably in Malebolge, and we wonder what constructions Dante knew from life that correlate to these fearsome ditches. We remember this when we arrive at Purgatorio, because that is a place of increasing interestingness, where entrances lead to new places full of something surprising, something to look forward to. At each step of the way in Purgatorio landscape is increasingly inviting, there is improvement, there is promise. This is not the case in Inferno.

The condition of those in Inferno is a warning to the reader about the pitfalls of committing those things, with the certain implication that we are in fact capable of doing such things. Inferno is at least realistic in forwarding the view that humans are quite capable of mistakes, crimes, and evil, and that we have to start by examining our own selves.

Falling and rising, descent and ascent are contrasts made between Inferno and Purgatorio. In Inferno we not only descend physically into more extreme conditions, but the descent is one of increasingly intolerable scenes of sin and punishment. Dante himself literally falls down on a number of occasions.

Many of our modern responses to Inferno are romantic goth. They indulge in the gloomy and terrifying. Or they presuppose that this is one really weird place that has to go on the tourist itinerary. Or it’s a chamber of horrors that give us an added thrill. But all of these modern responses still have to confront the actual meaning of the words on the gates of Inferno. We will read three English translations of the words very soon, but here they are in Dante’s original:

   Per me si va ne la città dolente.
Per me si va ne l’etterno dolore.
Per me si va tra la perduta gente.
   Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore;
fecemi la divina podestate,
la somma sapienza e’l primo amore.
   Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
se non etterne, e io etterno duro.
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.

(Inferno 3, 1-9)


Although Purgatory was hardly doubted throughout the Middle Ages, the definition of Purgatory by the Western Church was only made in 1274, at the Council of Lyons. Dante (1265-1321) in that year was nine years old, living in Florence, which means he was of the first generation of Christians to grow up treating Purgatory as an officially sanctioned place of temporal punishment. In his lifetime Purgatory had moved from being a need for purification of sin of the departed, to being a recognised corridor towards paradise, one that all human souls might have to traverse. Purgatory has suddenly become big time, something we all need to know about.

So when we read Purgatorio we are shown a version of the place (it is now a place) at a precise moment in its evolution in religious awareness. We have to accept the idea that Dante wrote a poem about somewhere none of us can talk of with 100% certainty, the afterlife, using geographic forms like a mountain for Purgatory, which all of his readers knew to be a literary trick, but about which the place itself his readers decidedly believed in. It is, for us, a remarkable suspension of belief on their part to read descriptions of Purgatorio knowing they are a fiction, while the whole time hanging on every word in the certain knowledge that they and those they love will very likely find themselves in Purgatory itself at some future date. Anytime soon, in fact. “Metaphor in colossal suspense.” (Peter Steele)

Purgatorio the poem is an instruction about expectations. Dante meets two of the vital requirements of good storytelling: to entertain and to inform. But it is also a warning and even catechetical in its motives. Attentive readers of Purgatorio are wised up: they finish the poem better prepared than when they started. And they will read Dante ahead of other accounts because it is a superlative poetic accomplishment. While there are countless artworks and writings from the period that help explain Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise to believers, the Commedia is an artistic expression in its own league. It is like comparing the rock video on the subject with the three hour cinematic masterpiece put out by Dante Studios. There is time for both, but most people will more certainly be wowed and warned by the big new sensaround release at the local picture house. Soon to be out on DVD.

Certain outcomes of making Purgatory doctrine laid the foundations for the Reformation 200 or so years later, especially in the practice of indulgences. Indulgences do not concern us here, though it is worth quoting Diarmaid MacCulloch when he delineates the pre-Reformation obsession with Purgatory geographically, saying that people north of the alps and on the Atlantic seaboard became more concerned with prayer as a ticket out of Purgatory than those south of the alps. As he phrases it in a sentence typical of his suave irony, “Dante Alighieri’s detailed descriptions of Purgatory in his fourteenth-century masterwork the Divina Commedia might suggest that southerners were indeed concerned with Purgatory, but his Italian readers do not seem to have transformed their delight in his great poem into practical action or hard cash.”

Readers who get stuck in Inferno and see this as the place where all the action happens, have a long way to go. Inferno is a dead-end ultimately without an understanding of what happens next. Indeed, Purgatorio is the poem that helps us better appreciate what is going on in Inferno.

Quando la nova gente alzò la fronte
ver’ noi, dicendo a noi: “Se voi sapete,
mostratene la via di gire al monte.”

E Virgilio rispuose: “voi credete
forse che siamo esperti d’esto loco;
ma noi siam peregrin come voi siete.

Dinzi venimmo, innanzi a voi un poco,
per altra via, fu sì aspra e forte,
che lo salire omai ne parrà gioco.”

And the new people lifted their faces
toward us, saying to us, “If you know
the way up the mountain, show it to us.”

And Virgil answered, “Possibly you believe
that this is a place with which we are familiar,
but we are pilgrims even as you are.

We came here just now, a little before you did,
by another way that was so rough and hard
that the climb must seem like play now, after it.”

(Purgatorio II, 58-66)

Notice that the people we meet here are ‘nova gente’ (new people) by contrast with those in Inferno, who are described as ‘perduta gente’ (Lost people). In these verses the word ‘peregrin’ (pilgrim) first appears in the Comedy.  For the first time in the poem we are on pilgrimage, we are on the way to learning about ourselves. Inferno was not a pilgrimage. Inferno was an endurance test, a wakeup call, a place of no escape. But an early sign that the infernal state has been escaped is the use of ‘peregrin’. It is behind us. While on pilgrimage we are not in a burning hurry, we can stop when we like, we make conversation as we wish, we have time to reflect on ourselves and others, what we have been and who we are now and what we can be in the future. None of that is possible in Inferno, which is somewhere passed through in haste, quick, get out of there. Inferno is not even really much of a journey, it is not a tourist destination. Pilgrimage is a medieval business, a way of finding the Way. Pilgrimage is what we do on earth in our allotted time, which may be why Purgatorio is for many readers, myself included, the most accessible and recognisable of the three places in Dante’s poem. Pilgrimage is a way of reconciling things in our own life: it is a ‘little life’ within the larger span of our life. We may
choose to remember the poem is set in 1300 that, coincidentally or not, was the first Holy Year of the Western Church. It was a Jubilee that was, in this case, a chance for sins to be pardoned if the penitent took a pilgrimage to Rome.

Noi volgendo ivi le nostre persone,
“Beati pauperes spiritu!” voci
cantaron sì, che nol diria sermone,

Ahi quanto son diverse quelle foci
da l’infernali! ché quivi per canti
s’entra, e là giù per lamenti feroci.

Già montavam su per lì scaglion santi,
ed esser mi parea troppo più lieve
che per lo pian non mi parea davanti.

As we were turning there, voices were
singing, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,”
so that there are no words to tell of it.

Oh how different are these openings
from those in Hell. Here one enters to singing
and there below to fierce lamentations.

Now we were climbing up the sacred stairs
and seemed much lighter than I had been where
I was walking on level ground before.

(Purgatorio XII, 109-117)

Normally it is harder to walk uphill than on a flat path, but here Dante observes that he is now lighter than he was previously. This is because heaviness is a condition of Inferno. Lightness is a feature of Purgatorio. This contrast only becomes apparent once we read Purgatorio. With each encounter, Dante feels himself lightened of a burden. Sometimes he talks about a weight being lifted from his shoulders. The first third of Purgatorio is a physical, emotional and intellectual effort of overcoming the weighted experience of Inferno. Recent scarred memory stays in the present. We are made to sense its presence, even though Inferno, it has been established, is behind us. Gradually, Dante describes the sense of being freed from the infernal state of mind. Purgatorio appears to be the place where both gravity and grace are at work, unlike Inferno where only gravity operates, and Paradiso, where we are drawn into another place altogether, one only possible through the operations of grace.

We also find here that people in Purgatorio sing, an expression not to be heard in Inferno. In Inferno there is weeping, howling, groaning, lamenting. The contrast is powerful. Singing is a natural human activity indicative of a listener, of belief in the future, of hope. Human noises in Inferno are the opposite, negative and painful sounds of enduring suffering and irreversible loss. Almost every canto of Purgatorio mentions singing. It is the singing of psalm lines, in particular, for the psalms were the commonly held poetry of the Mediterranean world of Dante. They were known to educated and uneducated alike. And we hear in this canto one of the beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit. Because pilgrims in Purgatorio will hear the words of blessing.

All of which affirms the central fact that here there is hope. In Inferno we abandon hope. Complete absence of hope is a definition of Hell. Those in Inferno are fixed at the stage where they come to a realisation of the sins they have committed. Such a moment of painful realisation in real life can be like hell, which is one way of appreciating why Dante places them there: as a warning. We have to consider the idea that people in Inferno have no wish to be free of their sin and that hope itself is not on their list of priorities, or even possibilities. While Purgatorio offers the possibility of moving out of that fixity, of finding a solution to the mistakes in life, of learning to overcome past errors. 

Penance, for this reason, is central to an understanding of the first two books of the Divine Comedy. Repentance and the possibility of being forgiven seem not to be available to those in Inferno. Almost the entire reason for Purgatorio is repentance and forgiveness and reparation. The condition of those in Inferno is a warning to the reader about the pitfalls of committing those things, with the certain implication that we are in fact capable of doing such things. Inferno is at least realistic in forwarding the view that humans are quite capable of mistakes, crimes, and evil, and that we have to start by examining our own selves. Purgatorio is the option where that examination of self is on offer. Each individual in Purgatorio is going through some kind of penitential test, with the aim of future personal restoration.

Similarly, falling and rising, descent and ascent are contrasts made between Inferno and Purgatorio. In Inferno we not only descend physically into more extreme conditions, but the descent is one of increasingly intolerable scenes of sin and punishment. Dante himself literally falls down on a number of occasions. Whereas Purgatorio is on the up and up. Here the climb is increasingly easy (not always what we feel when we actually climb a mountain, by the way) and Dante is not prone to the same collapses as reported from the previous place. The further away from Inferno we find ourselves, the lighter we feel.

Falling asleep is one way of dealing with trauma, with shocking sights not previously thought imaginable. Sleep is one way of dealing with pain and in Purgatorio Dante reports on several occasions how he goes to sleep. In Inferno there is much fainting and swooning, where Virgil is there to pick Dante up and keep him on track. Perhaps after Inferno Dante was suffering from sleep deprivation and Purgatorio is a kind of catch-up. No one is going to be caught napping in Inferno and when Dante does sleep in Inferno it is sudden and deep, as when he loses consciousness after witnessing Paolo and Francesca in Canto 5. This year a professor in Bologna offered the theory that Dante himself had narcolepsy. Retrospective diagnosis based on a literary text is fraught with risk. Certainly Dante is fascinated with the process of falling asleep and describes it more than once in beautiful detail. Some critics of the narcolepsy theory say that Dante describes the poetic state of reverie attendant upon the creative act. Others that Dante the person in the poem falls asleep at those moments of the day, evening in fact, when the body would fall asleep naturally, and that this is Dante’s way of indicating time passing, in places where clock time is redundant. Whether or not the poet was narcoleptic, the theory draws attention to the sleep patterns through the poem and the poet’s acknowledgement of dream states as part of human experience, a source of the poetic muse. 

A noticeable contrast when we enter Purgatorio is improved inter-personal communication and human contact between Dante and those he meets. Contact is suddenly real, not just a matter of observation, a quick hello (if that) and then moving on, as we know it in Inferno. Words are no longer delivered under duress. Instead of briefings from Virgil about the circle we now find ourselves in, change happens. People are allowed to share their experiences. They no longer stand as examples of what we don’t want happening to us, but as people who by their actions show us what we can do in our own lives. This is why Purgatorio is the critical book in the Divine Comedy, it is the main access to the meaning of everything else we read about here. It is the book of examples, it is ‘Life, a User’s Manual’. 


Asked why readers shun the Paradiso reasons like these crop up:

1.     Nothing happens, there is no action.
2.     It’s unreal. It’s about a place that doesn’t exist.
3.     Nobody is perfect, so why try being perfect?
4.     The poetry is completely over the top.
5.     It’s this Italian poet’s fantasy about a girl he saw once when he was nine or something.
6.     It depicts an outdated view of existence and the universe.
7.     It is completely removed from my personal experience.

However, when we read Paradiso we find the complete opposite of these prejudgements and dismissals. Our expectations are contradicted at every turn.

1.     Far from nothing happening, we find there is too much happening, and we don’t have a guide like Virgil to explain.
2.     Far from being unreal, Paradiso turns out to be a series of descriptions of the inner world of our conscious experience.
3.     Although no one is perfect, and Dante admits as much right to the final canto, the poem describes the increasing wholeness of the person. This means spiritual growth and maturity, the overcoming and letting go of old ways, as seen in Inferno and Purgatorio. Each canto introduces a new way of understanding self, and self’s relationship to others and to ultimate reality.
4.     As for the poetry, Eliot said that the final cantos of Paradiso are as great as poetry could ever hope to get. Translators, Clive James amongst them, confess they feel they have to start at the start and work their way through the poem, rather than picking different sections and piecing it together. It’s as though they are confronted by the journey presented by Dante, they must go through the process themselves, from bad to good, damnation to grace. Paradiso is a reward for the translator. It is a reward for the reader.
5.     John Banville said of Seamus Heaney last year that “Genius is the ability to summon childhood at will.” It is remarkable that Dante, despite all the relationships, the ups and downs, in his life writes at all times with the powerful memory of the beloved young woman he rarely met or was ever close to. In exile in Ravenna, it is the deep inner connection he has with the world of his upbringing. I remember this when I ponder the popularity of the three cantiche. Inferno, it seems to me, is a 20-year-old’s poem, full of danger, inexplicable action, and bad stuff happening. Purgatorio is a 40-year-old’s poem, looking backward with some understanding of the good and the bad, knowing there is more only what and why. While Paradiso is a poem for 60-year-olds, a poem that reaches for peace and resolution and knows you cannot go on faffing around forever. You need bearing. The whole Commedia is about the life cycle, the experience of living itself. And how does Dante maintain perspective? By focussing on someone he loved before any of the experiences in the poem had even happened to him, in early adolescence. There she is at the start and at the end, in the world, as we know it.
6.     Paradiso is unlike any other poem. I am starting to see how one of its main effects is to describe what it feels like to know you are loved by someone else. This effect grows larger with each canto. They are descriptions of conscious states of beatitude, each one more satisfactory than the last. How Dante does this I just don't know, but the reader experiences the sense of being loved by someone outside of oneself. All the poetic constructs become quite secondary to this main experience. It is, for this reason, not Inferno and not Purgatorio.  And even though there is a journey involved, it’s not the going that is important here so much as the sense of being loved, and blessed. The someone else is Beatrice, that is Grace in and through a loved person, but is really what we mean by God.


Dante Alighieri. Purgatorio : a New Verse Translation by W. S. Merwin. Knopf, 2000.
Heaney, Seamus. Field Work. Faber, 1979.
James, Clive. “Introduction” in his Dante : The Divine Comedy : a New Verse Translation. Picador, 2013.
MacCulloch, Diarmaid. A History of Christianity : the First Three Thousand Years. Allen Lane, 2009.
O’Driscoll, Dennis. Stepping Stones : Interviews with Seamus Heaney. Faber, 2008.
Steele, Peter. “”Dante: Love and Death on the Longest Journey”, in Braiding the Voices : Essays in Poetry. John Leonard Press, 2012.


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