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The Inferno () Top 100 Books of the Millenium

    Midway on our life's journey, I found myself
        In dark woods, the right road lost.
           -Canto I, 1-2

    Therefore I judge it best that you should choose
        To follow me, and I will be your guide
        Away from here and through an eternal place

    To hear the cries of despair, and to behold
        Ancient tormented spirits as they lament
        In chorus the second death they must abide.
           -Canto I, 88-93 (Virgil to Dante)



        -Canto III, 1-7 (written above the Gates of Hell)

    ...we came forth, and once more saw the stars.
        -Canto XXXIV, 140 (final line)

There is a certain, rather delicate, aspect of the modern liberal sensibility that rebels against Dante's Inferno.  In his account of returning to Columbia to restudy Western Civilization, David Denby is surprised not to like Dante much :

    I could not rid myself of the notion that Dante had entered into complicity with torture. In some
    way, he believed in torture; he justified it. . . . My reading of Dante was a failure, and of the most
    direct sort: I didn't enjoy it

And in his introduction to this translation by Robert Pinsky, John Freccero says that :

    In spite of Dante's reputation as the greatest of Christian poets, there is no sign of Christian
    forgiveness in the Inferno.  The dominant theme is not mercy but justice, dispensed with the
    severity of the ancient law of retribution.


    Justice in Hell is meant to be objective, measured out by a bureaucratic monster in proportion to the
    specific gravity of the sin.  Such a mechanical administration of punishment leaves no room for
    judicial error or caprice.

    Few of Dante's readers have derived much satisfaction from the triumph of this somewhat
    anonymous justice.

These sentiments, with which I could not disagree more strongly, reflect the curious point we've reached in Western history.  On the one hand, the intelligentsia find torture, capital punishment, virtually any civil rights imposition, to be unacceptable when it comes to actual evil doers, but blithely advocates abortion, euthanasia, and the like, for genuine innocents.  Human beings in this world view are judged by their physical condition, rather than by their moral standing.  And yet, it is Dante who is adjudged to be brutal.

Personally, I find something comforting in the idea that, in a world where so much evil exists, those who are evil might face eternal perdition.  Particularly satisfying is the presence of the great romantic lovers in Hell--Tristan and Iseult, Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, etc..  I've always found disturbing the literature  which celebrates love which must perforce be so shallow as these great affairs--it's nice to think of them getting their comeuppance.

As a rule though, it seems likely that readers' reactions to the rather severe treatment of the souls in Hell will track their own political leanings.  If you are someone who wishes that justice were objective, you're unlikely to be offended.  If you tend to wring your hands in agony at the prospect of someone being held accountable for their actions, you won't feel comfortable with the fate Dante forecasts.  In either case, the poem itself is truly great and in Robert Pinsky's translation, it's reasonably easy to follow.  You will want to refer to the notes frequently and a study guide of some kind can't hurt.  I also recommend the recorded version : hearing it read aloud adds to the experience greatly.


Grade: (A+)


Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "dante alighieri"
    -BIO: Dante Alighieri (Catholic Encyclopaedia)
    -BIO: Dante Alighieri: Poet, Spiritual Writer ( James E. Kiefer)
    -The World of Dante (
    -JOURNAL: Lectura Dantis Online
    -The Clickable Inferno
    -Dante's Inferno (David Felfoldi)
    -Dante's Inferno: Site Resource Guide
    -LINKS: City Honors Dante's Inferno Internet Sites
    -For the Hell of It : produced by students studying ENG 251, Survey of World Literature I-Fall 1999 at Thomas Nelson Community College under the direction of Dr. Thomas Long
    -LECTURE: Inroduction to The Inferno (W. Stephany, UVM)
    -LECTURE: LBST Lecture on Dante (Ian Johnston, 1997, Malaspina)
    -LECTURE: Module 15: Dante's Inferno (1) (
    -ESSAY: The Ambiguity of Evil: An Examination of Dante's Inferno (Matthew C. Steenberg, St. Olafs)
    -ESSAY: The Teaching of Ethics through Literature and Dante's Inferno (ANNE BARBEAU GARDINER, Association of Departments of English Bulletin)
    -ESSAY :  What about Purgatory? : The doctrinal grounding of Dante's mysterious mountain. (Dennis Martin, Christian History, Spring 2001)
    -Dante's Inferno - The MUD Version (MUD Commissioned by C. Roberts Stevens at the University of Texas at Austin's Computer Writing and Research Lab)
    -ARTWORK: Robert Rauschenberg's XXXIV Drawings for Dante's Inferno
    -Renaissance Dante in Print (1472-1629)(Notre Dame)
    -ETEXTS: The Divine Comedy Research Edition (The Electronic Literature Foundation)
    -ETEXT: The Divine Comedy (translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) (
    -ETEXT: Inferno from The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (c.1320) Translated by Henry F. Cary
    -ETEXT: The Inferno From the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri Translated by S. Fowler Wright
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE: The Inferno by Dante Alighieri (Spark Note by Patrick Gardner)
    -Dante's  "Clickable" Inferno : selections from Dante Alighieri's Inferno in an "interactive" format. The text used is up to you, the user; choose from Allen Mandelbaum's, Robert Pinsky's, or John Ciardi's translation and notes to Dante's original text
    -ARCHIVES: "alighieri" (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES: "dante" (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY : Dante is more than a revered but bygone giant. There has never been so much evidence of his continuing vitality (The Economist)
    -REVIEW: of THE DIVINE COMEDY OF DANTE ALIGHIERI A Verse Translation by Allen Mandelbaum (John Ahern, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Purgatorio  By DANTE ALIGHIERI. Translated by W. S. MERWIN (DANIEL MENDELSOHN, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  Dante: A Life in Works by Robert Hollander  (Algis Valiunas, Weekly Standard)
    -REVIEW : of  Dante by R W B Lewis (Jonathan Bate, booksonline uk)

    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: Your search: "robert pinsky"
    -Favorite Poem Project
    -POEM: Robert Pinsky: PROLOGUE: FOR A STAGE PRESENTATION OF THE INFERNO (Oct 22, 1998, NY Review of Books)
    -POEM: Robert Pinsky: ABC (Feb 18, 1999 , NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY:  Tidings of Comfort and Dread: Poetry and the Dark Beauty of Christmas (Robert Pinsky, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: The Muse in the Machine: Or, The Poetics of Zork  (Robert Pinsky, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: A Man Goes Into a Bar, See, and Recites: 'The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strained'   (Robert Pinsky, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY:  SHARING NEW FREEDOM (Robert Pinsky, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of GREAT TRANQUILLITY  Questions and Answers. By Yehuda Amichai (Robert Pinsky, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of O HOLY COW! The Selected Verse of Phil Rizzuto. Edited by Tom Peyer and Hart Seely (Robert Pinsky, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of PATRIMONY A True Story. By Philip Roth (Robert Pinsky, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of BITTER FAME A Life of Sylvia Plath. By Anne Stevenson (Robert Pinsky, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE DEATH OF METHUSELAH And Other Stories. By Isaac Bashevis Singer (Robert Pinsky, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  THE COLLECTED POEMS OF WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS Volume One: 1909-1939 (Robert Pinsky, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  THE COLLECTED STORIES By Grace Paley (Robert Pinsky, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE MEADOWLANDS Wilderness Adventures at the Edge of a City. By Robert Sullivan (Robert Pinsky, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A WIDER WORLD Portraits in an Adolescence. By Kate Simon  (Robert Pinsky, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of REQUIRED WRITING Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982. By Philip Larkin  (Robert Pinsky, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Poetry and American Memory (Robert Pinsky, The Atlantic, October 1999)
    -ONLINE CONFERENCE: Pinsky on Poetry, Computers, and Dante (Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: "Democratic Vistas," : A look at Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project (The Atlantic)
    -AUDIO: Dante & Co. : Dante Alighieri, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Robert Pinsky -- together in cyberspace. Hear Pinsky read excerpts from his translation of Dante's Inferno (The Atlantic)
    -AUDIO: Soundings: Ben Jonson, "My Picture Left in Scotland"  Robert Pinsky, Gail Mazur, and David Ferry read aloud this great poem of unrequited love. With an introduction by Robert Pinsky, excerpted from his new book The Sounds of Poetry (The Atlantic)
    -INTERVIEW: Interview: Robert Pinsky (Tom Sleigh, American Poet, Winter 1997-98)
    -INTERVIEW: AMERICA'S WORDSMITH : In a discussion with Elizabeth Farnsworth, America's newest Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky, discusses the state of poetry in America, his new job and poetry in cyberspace. (NewsHour, PBS)
    -INTERVIEW: Robert Pinsky (Anne-Marie Cusac, The Progressive, May 1999)
    -INTERVIEW: An Interview with Robert Pinsky   (Spring 1998 issue of Meridian, University of Virginia)
    -INTERVIEW: March 1998 interview in The Cortland Review
    -ARCHIVE: "pinsky" (
    -ARCHIVE: Favorite Poem Project : Robert Pinsky reads poems (NewsHour, PBS)
    -Academy of American Poets : Robert Pinsky
    -Internet Poetry Archive : Robert Pinsky
    -Modern American Poetry : Robert Pinsky (1940- )
    -ESSAY:  Poetic Ability Desirable but Not Essential  (Richard A. Cohen, NY Times)
    -ARCHIVES: "pinsky" (NY Review of Books)
    -ARTICLE: Bringing Dante Into the Realm Of Contemporary English (DIANA JEAN SCHEMO, NY Times, January 31, 1995)
    -REVIEW: of THE INFERNO OF DANTE A New Verse Translation. By Robert Pinsky (John Ahern, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Oct 19, 1995 Bernard Knox: Our Dante, NY Review of Books
       The Inferno of Dante A New Verse Translation by Robert Pinsky
    -REVIEW: of The Figured Wheel New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996. By Robert Pinsky (Katha Pollitt, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Jersey Rain By Robert Pinsky (Adam Kirsch, NY Times Book Review)

    -Academy of American Poets
    -Internet Medieval Source Book (Fordham)
    -Christian Classics Ethereal Library : Classic Christian books in electronic format (Wheaton)
    -Biographical sketches of memorable Christians of the past (Online Anglican Resources)
    -Modern American Poetry : A Multimedia Companion to  Anthology of Modern American Poetry  (Oxford University Press, 2000) Edited by Cary Nelson