Inferno by Dante (translated by Hollander and Hollander)

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I feel like this week is a week for books I’ve read that I recognize I need to reread: first Blake, and now Dante. But isn’t that point of reading the classic masterpieces by magnificent writers like Blake and Dante, that you know you miss something magnificent and will enjoy it all the more on reread?

I had attempted reading Dante in the summer of 2010 and quickly stalled. There were so many footnotes full of unfamiliar details: it was overwhelming. Besides, it hot and sunny outside and medieval poetry was just not sinking in.

Reading Dante’s Inferno (as translated by Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander) this fall went much better. The poetry is amazingly readable, and I found myself reading the footnotes after each canto with interest: rather than trying to grasp the meaning and symbolism behind each person, action, and setting, I just let it wash over me. In one ear and out the other. As such, I missed a lot, but I enjoyed my first full experience with Dante, and now I want to revisit it with more careful reading and understanding at another point, maybe in conjunction with some criticism and explanations.

Dante’s story begins when he’s lost on a hill in a wood. Robert Hollander suggests in the notes that possibly Dante had been suicidal at that point, searching for his place on earth and the purpose of his life. As he flees a lion that blocks his path, the poet Virgil arrives to take him on a special tour of the afterworld. It seems to me that this tour is to give him hope and direction for his own life. As he descends in to hell, he sees the suffering that is the result of wickedness on earth. Life in the Inferno is varied, but all are suffering some gruesome punishment. Because it’s the RIP challenge season (I also read Inferno for Allie’s readalong), it was perfectly morbid. I think I’ll have to revisit Inferno during another fall.

Inferno is the first of the three parts of The Divine Comedy. I have a hard time imagining I’ll read the other two parts before I revisit this one. I want to get it a little more. I even feel a bit silly clicking “post” to this simply because I haven’t told you very much. But, all I feel like I can say now is that I liked it and I want to understand it. Someday I hope I can explain it to myself a little better too.

Reviewed on October 28, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I’m very lucky in that I got to study this one in college in a really good class. I’m sure it would have gone over my head otherwise, but instead ended up being one I really loved. Back in the spring, I reread it, with Robert Pinsky’s translation (which I highly recommend – especially for the notes!). I just wish Pinsky had translated the rest of the trilogy. I haven’t read them yet but really want to.

    • Amanda » I really wish I’d studied this in class so I could linger over it. As it is, I’ll just accept that I’ll revisit it some day. My husband remembers reading the Pinsky in school too so that maybe the next translation I read. Although I think I’d enjoy this translation again too! So much in there.

  • I feel very strongly that someone should read the story first and then re-read with footnotes. I completely ignore them the first time around, and I’ve found that they are really not necessary to experience the story (whether we are talking Inferno or Dracula). They do, however, lend a little extra oomph upon re-reading.

    • Trisha » yes! that’s what I did this time. I dabbled in the notes a little with each canto, but mostly I just read the poetry. I really enjoyed it! Last summer I was trying to read the notes with each line and it didn’t work AT ALL. I do need to reread this one. It will be a great experience doing that too.

  • When I read Divine Comedy last summer, my first thought was that I would have to read it again. There’s just so much to it–not least of which is the lovely language. (I would love to be able to get my Italian to the point where I could read this in the original, but I’m not sure that’s likely to happen!) I did feel the notes were a lot more important for Purgatorio and Paradiso than they were for Inferno (the references are less familiar to the 21st century reader), but even there the poetry is lovely on its own.

    • amanda » I am not certain I’ll get to the other parts of Divine Comedy. I guess I want to better understand Inferno! But yes, it is so beautiful. And wow, if the references to the other parts are even less familiar, then I’m in trouble! I wasn’t familiar with most of Inferno.

      • Oh, oh, I didn’t mean to scare you regarding Purgatorio and Paradiso! Now that I think about it, there are a lot of political/religious references in Inferno, but there are also a lot of mythological references, which I think are more familiar today. That’s really all I meant!

  • I love that you write your thoughts-in-progress off a first read, acknowledging that it’ll take more exposure to the work to absorb it more deeply. I’m that way too, about some works. The first pass feels more like an acquaintanceship (is that a word?) that “friendship.”

    • Jillian » yes, although I didn’t “get’ this book on first read, I really do want to better appreciate it. I need to read it again. I like your reminder that it’s just the beginning of a long “friendship.”

  • This is one of those books that I have heard about for years, but never been inspired to read… I have to admit, though, that I love Christina Rossetti’s stuff. I am glad I discovered her!

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