Preface #1 - I could write many blog posts about the history of this epic poem, why Dante wrote it, what it meant politically, and who all the characters were in his life. But you can just read Wikipedia instead and you’ll get the gist of it.
Preface #2 - I am reviewing the 1954 translation by John Ciardi. (If you’re going to read a 300 page poem, written 700 years ago in Italian, you want to take time to find the best translation)
This translation is ideal because each Canto (chapter) starts with a half page summary of the chapter. Then you read the poetic chapter. Then you find 3 pages of notes about the chapter, who the characters were and what they meant to Dante and Italian culture in the 14th Century.
MY REVIEW: This book is excellent.
It is an amazing work by a magnificent poet which explains what Hell might look like. He details the suffering and punishment for each kind of sin. As he descends further and further through the 9 circles of Hell, he finds people he knew, politicians, religious leaders, rival poets, etc… He describes why each one is there, why they are suffering, and what they would tell those still living if they could.
The First Circle of Hell is genius. There is no suffering, it feels like heaven. It is reserved for the righteous and virtuous who were not baptized in life. Here he finds Homer, Cicero, Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle, Socrates and many others. They are not destined to suffer at all, but are only in hell because without baptism they cannot be allowed into heaven.
Then Dante starts the descent into progressively more horrific suffering as he details the gradation of sin. First Lust, then Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, and Heresy. When Dante gets to the 7th circle of hell which is reserved for the Violent - he breaks it into 3 levels. 1 – Violence against others. 2 – Violence against self. 3 – Violence against God and Nature.
Circle 8 is when he really hits his stride. This circle is reserved for the Frauds and Dante details the ten different kinds of Fraud and why each is worse than the last: Seducers, flatterers, those who sold church offices, false prophets, corrupt politicians, hypocrites, thieves, evil counselors, the “sowers of Discord” and at last the imposters. Dante doesn’t pull any punches as he describes which Catholic Pope is found in each section. He then even details Muhammad’s suffering for leading people away from Christianity.
Circle 9 is the last circle of Hell where Satan himself lives. This is saved for those who committed the sin of betrayal. Cain who killed Abel, Antenor of Troy who betrayed his city to the Greeks, Ptolemy who invited all his enemies to a banquet of truce, and killed them all.
In the bottom of Circle 9 is the worst place in all of hell: Judecca. This is where the three-headed Satan abides with one sinner being torn to shreds in each of his three mouths. Brutus and Cassius are in the mouths on the sides, suffering eternal torment from Satan for their betrayal of Julius Caesar.
In the central most vicious mouth is Judas Iscariot, who betrayed the Lord Jesus Christ. Judas’ head is being constantly gnawed by Satan's jaws as his back is forever being skinned by Satan's claws.
The poem is then complete.
The poem is then complete.
The detail of this poem is exquisite. The profound symbolism is aweing as each sinner suffers in a manner symbolic of the pain they caused others in life.