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Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was born and raised in the vibrant pre-Renaissance environment of Medieval Florence. His family was descended from minor nobility, and he was able to maintain a solidly bourgeois status throughout his life. His promising public career came to an end in 1301. He fell out of favor when the political climate in the city changed dramatically, and he was eventually banished.
But what was by all appearances a tragic turn of events for Dante proved to be a propitious and beneficent gift to posterity. It was while he was wandering from one inhospitable exile to another that he completed his masterful poetic trilogy, The Divine Comedy.
The work is a kind of spiritual autobiography, mapping the subterranean ecology of his soul. It is an epic allegorical description of a journey through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and finally Heaven (Paradiso). Utilizing soaring images, complex rhyming schemes, brisk plotting, compelling characterizations, and gripping contemporary illustrations, he both created a new vision for vernacular poetry and a new perspective of human psychology. The result is nothing short of stunning.
According to Harold Bloom, besides Shakespeare, "No other literary master, working in any language, so compellingly stretches the boundaries of human creativity, divine passion, and angelic beauty." John Buchan asserted that Dante's Inferno was "an essential first component of a well-rounded education, the initial course in a curriculum of wisdom and delight. It is at the core of the Western canon."
Dante was among the first to attempt a thoroughgoing integration of Christian ideals with the culture of classical antiquity-a conception that would ultimately become a cornerstone of Renaissance thought, life, and culture. Inferno, for all its social commentary and medievalism, is essentially an exploration of the human psyche. It is an expansive symbolic discourse on the nature of virtue and vice, achievement and despair, salvation and damnation.
Alas, as the incomparable Dorothy Sayers admits, "The 20th-century reader who starts out on this tremendous journey without any critical apparatus to assist him is liable to get bogged half-way unless he knows something of Dante's theological, political, and personal background." Most of us are so bereft of basic information about classical literature, ancient history, literary traditions, biblical imagery, and theological categories that without help, Dante's masterpiece must necessarily remain a closed book to us. We poor victims of government school education-and other 20th-century inanities-need help.
Thankfully, there are several excellent modern editions of Dante's great Inferno-and the rest of The Divine Comedy for that matter-loaded with just the help we need.
My favorite is the three-volume paperback translation by Dorothy Sayers, helped on the concluding volume by her long-time collaborator, Barbara Reynolds. With very helpful introductions, illustrations, charts, and a comprehensive glossary, this set, published by Penguin, will enable any reader to maximize the journey through Dante's nether realms.
This edition is getting harder and harder to find these days. Don't give up when clerks log on to their database and say, "Sorry, it is no longer available." It is available. It's just not readily available.
But if you finally get worn out and frustrated with the typical chain bookstore runaround, there is an alternative. Another fine edition of the work, also produced by Penguin in a handsome paperback set, is the translation by Mark Musa. Though the poetry itself is slightly less magisterial than the Sayers version, the notes are helpful and the glossary thorough.