This widely praised version of Dante's masterpiece, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award of the Academy of American Poets, is more idiomatic and approachable than its many predecessors. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Pinsky employs slant rhyme and near rhyme to preserve Dante's terza rima form without distorting the flow of English idiom. The result is a clear and vigorous translation that is also unique, student-friendly, and faithful to the original: "A brilliant success," as Bernard Knox wrote in The New York Review of Books.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Edition description:||Bilingual edition|
|Product dimensions:||8.56(w) x 5.96(h) x 1.22(d)|
About the Author
A former Poet Laureate of the United States, Robert Pinsky was born and raised in Long Branch, New Jersey. He teaches in the graduate writing program at Boston University and has also taught at the University of California at Berkeley. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Read an Excerpt
The Inferno of Dante
By Robert Pinsky, Michael Mazur
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1994 Farrar, Straus and Giroux
All rights reserved.
when I came to stop Below a hill that marked one end of the valley That had pierced my heart with terror, I looked up
Toward the crest and saw its shoulders already Mantled in rays of that bright planet that shows The road to everyone, whatever our journey.
Midway on our life's journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard — so tangled and rough
And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.
And yet, to treat the good I found there as well
I'll tell what I saw, though how I came to enter
I cannot well say, being so full of sleep
Whatever moment it was I began to blunder
Off the true path. But when I came to stop
Below a hill that marked one end of the valley
That had pierced my heart with terror, I looked up
Toward the crest and saw its shoulders already
Mantled in rays of that bright planet that shows
The road to everyone, whatever our journey.
Then I could feel the terror begin to ease
That churned in my heart's lake all through the night.
As one still panting, ashore from dangerous seas,
Looks back at the deep he has escaped, my thought
Returned, still fleeing, to regard that grim defile
That never left any alive who stayed in it.
After I had rested my weary body awhile
I started again across the wilderness,
My left foot always lower on the hill,
And suddenly — a leopard, near the place
The way grew steep: lithe, spotted, quick of foot.
Blocking the path, she stayed before my face
And more than once she made me turn about
To go back down. It was early morning still,
The fair sun rising with the stars attending it
As when Divine Love set those beautiful
Lights into motion at creation's dawn,
And the time of day and season combined to fill
My heart with hope of that beast with festive skin —
But not so much that the next sight wasn't fearful:
A lion came at me, his head high as he ran,
Roaring with hunger so the air appeared to tremble.
Then, a grim she-wolf — whose leanness seemed to compress
All the world's cravings, that had made miserable
Such multitudes; she put such heaviness
Into my spirit, I lost hope of the crest.
Like someone eager to win, who tested by loss
Surrenders to gloom and weeps, so did that beast
Make me feel, as harrying toward me at a lope
She forced me back toward where the sun is lost.
While I was ruining myself back down to the deep,
Someone appeared — one who seemed nearly to fade
As though from long silence. I cried to his human shape
In that great wasteland: "Living man or shade,
Have pity and help me, whichever you may be!"
"No living man, though once I was," he replied.
"My parents both were Mantuans from Lombardy,
And I was born sub Julio, the latter end.
I lived in good Augustus's Rome, in the day
Of the false gods who lied. A poet, I hymned
Anchises' noble son, who came from Troy
When superb Ilium in its pride was burned.
But you — why go back down to such misery?
Why not ascend the delightful mountain, source
And principle that causes every joy?"
"Then are you Virgil? Are you the font that pours
So overwhelming a river of human speech?"
I answered, shamefaced. "The glory and light are yours,
That poets follow — may the love that made me search
Your book in patient study avail me, Master!
You are my guide and author, whose verses teach
The graceful style whose model has done me honor.
See this beast driving me backward — help me resist,
For she makes all my veins and pulses shudder."
"A different path from this one would be best
For you to find your way from this feral place,"
He answered, seeing how I wept. "This beast,
The cause of your complaint, lets no one pass
Her way — but harries all to death. Her nature
Is so malign and vicious she cannot appease
Her voracity, for feeding makes her hungrier.
Many are the beasts she mates: there will be more,
Until the Hound comes who will give this creature
A painful death. Not nourished by earthly fare,
He will be fed by wisdom, goodness and love.
Born between Feltro and Feltro, he shall restore
Low Italy, as Nisus fought to achieve.
And Turnus, Euryalus, Camilla the maiden —
All dead from wounds in war. He will remove
This lean wolf, hunting her through every region
Till he has thrust her back to Hell's abyss
Where Envy first dispatched her on her mission.
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.
Then you shall see those souls who are content
To dwell in fire because they hope some day
To join the blessed: toward whom, if your ascent
Continues, your guide will be one worthier than I —
When I must leave you, you will be with her.
For the Emperor who governs from on high
Wills I not enter His city, where none may appear
Who lived like me in rebellion to His law.
His empire is everything and everywhere,
But that is His kingdom, His city, His seat of awe.
Happy is the soul He chooses for that place!"
I: "Poet, please — by the God you did not know —
Help me escape this evil that I face,
And worse. Lead me to witness what you have said,
Saint Peter's gate, and the multitude of woes —"
Then he set out, and I followed where he led.
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
che la diritta via era smarrita.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!
Tant' è amara che poco è più morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch'i' vi trovai,
dirò de l'altre cose ch'i' v'ho scorte.
Io non so ben ridir com' i' v'intrai,
tant' era pien di sonno a quel punto
che la verace via abbandonai.
Ma poi ch'i' fui al piè d'un colle giunto,
là dove terminava quella valle
che m'avea di paura il cor compunto,
guardai in alto e vidi le sue spalle
vestite già de' raggi del pianeta
che mena dritto altrui per ogne calle.
Allor fu la paura un poco queta,
che nel lago del cor m'era durata
la notte ch'i' passai con tanta pieta.
E come quei che con lena affannata,
uscito fuor del pelago a la riva,
si volge a l'acqua perigliosa e guata,
così l'animo mio, ch'ancor fuggiva,
si volse a retro a rimirar lo passo
che non lasciò già mai persona viva.
Poi ch'èi posato un poco il corpo lasso,
ripresi via per la piaggia diserta,
sì che 'l piè fermo sempre era 'l più basso.
Ed ecco, quasi al cominciar de l'erta,
una lonza leggera e presta molto,
che di pel macolato era coverta;
e non mi si partia dinanzi al volto,
anzi 'mpediva tanto il mio cammino,
ch'i' fui per ritornar più volte vòlto.
Temp' era dal principio del mattino,
e 'l sol montava 'n sù con quelle stelle
ch'eran con lui quando l'amor divino
mosse di prima quelle cose belle;
sì ch'a bene sperar m'era cagione
di quella fiera a la gaetta pelle
l'ora del tempo e la dolce stagione;
ma non sì che paura non mi desse
la vista che m'apparve d'un leone.
Questi parea che contra me venisse
con la test' alta e con rabbiosa fame,
sì che parea che l'aere ne tremesse.
Ed una lupa, che di tutte brame
sembiava carca ne la sua magrezza,
e molte genti fé già viver grame,
questa mi porse tanto di gravezza
con la paura ch'uscia di sua vista,
ch'io perdei la speranza de l'altezza.
E qual è quei che volontieri acquista,
e giugne 'l tempo che perder lo face,
che 'n tutti suoi pensier piange e s'attrista;
tal mi fece la bestia sanza pace,
che, venendomi 'ncontro, a poco a poco
mi ripigneva là dove 'l sol tace.
Mentre ch'i' rovinava in basso loco,
dinanzi a li occhi mi si fu offerto
chi per lungo silenzio parea fioco.
Quando vidi costui nel gran diserto,
«Miserere di me», gridai a lui,
«qual che tu sii, od ombra od omo certo!».
Rispuosemi: «Non omo, omo già fui,
e li parenti miei furon lombardi,
mantoani per patrïa ambedui.
Nacqui sub Iulio, ancor che fosse tardi,
e vissi a Roma sotto 'l buono Augusto
nel tempo de li dèi falsi e bugiardi.
Poeta fui, e cantai di quel giusto
figliuol d'Anchise che venne di Troia,
poi che 'l superbo Ilïón fu combusto.
Ma tu perché ritorni a tanta noia?
perché non sali il dilettoso monte
ch'è principio e cagion di tutta gioia?».
«Or se' tu quel Virgilio e quella fonte
che spandi di parlar sì largo fiume?»,
rispuos' io lui con vergognosa fronte.
«O de li altri poeti onore e lume,
vagliami 'l lungo studio e 'l grande amore
che m'ha fatto cercar lo tuo volume.
Tu se' lo mio maestro e 'l mio autore,
tu se' solo colui da cu' io tolsi
lo bello stilo che m'ha fatto onore.
Vedi la bestia per cu' io mi volsi;
aiutami da lei, famoso saggio,
ch'ella mi fa tremar le vene e i polsi».
«A te convien tenere altro vïaggio»,
rispuose, poi che lagrimar mi vide,
«se vuo' campar d'esto loco selvaggio;
ché questa bestia, per la qual tu gride,
non lascia altrui passar per la sua via,
ma tanto lo 'mpedisce che l'uccide;
e ha natura sì malvagia e ria,
che mai non empie la bramosa voglia,
e dopo 'l pasto ha più fame che pria.
Molti son li animali a cui s'ammoglia,
e più saranno ancora, infin che 'l veltro
verrà, che la farà morir con doglia.
Questi non ciberà terra né peltro,
ma sapïenza, amore e virtute,
e sua nazion sarà tra feltro e feltro.
Di quella umile Italia fia salute
per cui morì la vergine Cammilla,
Eurialo e Turno e Niso di ferute.
Questi la caccerà per ogne villa,
fin che l'avrà rimessa ne lo 'nferno,
là onde 'nvidia prima dipartilla.
Ond' io per lo tuo me' penso e discerno
che tu mi segui, e io sarò tua guida,
e trarrotti di qui per loco etterno;
ove udirai le disperate strida,
vedrai li antichi spiriti dolenti,
che la seconda morte ciascun grida;
e vederai color che son contenti
nel foco, perché speran di venire
quando che sia a le beate genti.
A le quai poi se tu vorrai salire,
anima fia a ciò più di me degna:
con lei ti lascerò nel mio partire;
ché quello imperador che là sù regna,
perch' i' fu' ribellante a la sua legge,
non vuol che 'n sua città per me si vegna.
In tutte parti impera e quivi regge;
quivi è la sua città e l'alto seggio:
oh felice colui cu' ivi elegge!».
E io a lui: «Poeta, io ti richeggio
per quello Dio che tu non conoscesti,
acciò ch'io fugga questo male e peggio,
che tu mi meni là dov'or dicesti,
sì ch'io veggia la porta di san Pietro
e color cui tu fai cotanto mesti».
Allor si mosse, e io li tenni dietro.
Day was departing, and the darkening air Called all earth's creatures to their evening quiet While I alone was preparing as though for war
To struggle with my journey ...
Day was departing, and the darkening air
Called all earth's creatures to their evening quiet
While I alone was preparing as though for war
To struggle with my journey and with the spirit
Of pity, which flawless memory will redraw:
O Muses, O genius of art, O memory whose merit
Has inscribed inwardly those things I saw —
Help me fulfill the perfection of your nature.
I commenced: "Poet, take my measure now:
Appraise my powers before you trust me to venture
Through that deep passage where you would be my guide.
You write of the journey Silvius's father
Made to immortal realms although he stayed
A mortal witness, in his corruptible body.
That the Opponent of all evil bestowed
Such favor on him befits him, chosen for glory
By highest heaven to be the father of Rome
And of Rome's empire — later established Holy,
Seat of great Peter's heir. You say he came
To that immortal world, and things he learned
There led to the papal mantle — and triumph for him.
Later, the Chosen Vessel too went and returned,
Carrying confirmation of that faith
Which opens the way with salvation at its end.
But I — what cause, whose favor, could send me forth
On such a voyage? I am no Aeneas or Paul:
Not I nor others think me of such worth,
And therefore I have my fears of playing the fool
To embark on such a venture. You are wise:
You know my meaning better than I can tell."
And then, like one who unchooses his own choice
And thinking again undoes what he has started,
So I became: a nullifying unease
Overcame my soul on that dark slope and voided
The undertaking I had so quickly embraced.
"If I understand," the generous shade retorted,
"Cowardice grips your spirit — which can twist
A man away from the noblest enterprise
As a trick of vision startles a shying beast.
Lo giorno se n'andava, e l'aere bruno
toglieva li animai che sono in terra
da le fatiche loro; e io sol uno
m'apparecchiava a sostener la guerra
sì del cammino e sì de la pietate,
che ritrarrà la mente che non erra.
O muse, o alto ingegno, or m'aiutate;
o mente che scrivesti ciò ch'io vidi,
qui si parrà la tua nobilitate.
Io cominciai: «Poeta che mi guidi,
guarda la mia virtù s'ell' è possente,
prima ch'a l'alto passo tu mi fidi.
Tu dici che di Silvïo il parente,
corruttibile ancora, ad immortale
secolo andò, e fu sensibilmente.
Però, se l'avversario d'ogne male
cortese i fu, pensando l'alto effetto
ch'uscir dovea di lui, e 'l chi e 'l quale,
non pare indegno ad omo d'intelletto;
ch'e' fu de l'alma Roma e di suo impero
ne l'empireo ciel per padre eletto:
la quale e 'l quale, a voler dir lo vero,
fu stabilita per lo loco santo
u' siede il successor del maggior Piero.
Per quest' andata onde li dai tu vanto,
intese cose che furon cagione
di sua vittoria e del papale ammanto.
Andovvi poi lo Vas d'elezïone,
per recarne conforto a quella fede
ch'è principio a la via di salvazione.
Ma io, perché venirvi? o chi 'l concede?
Io non Enëa, io non Paulo sono;
me degno a ciò né io né altri 'l crede.
Per che, se del venire io m'abbandono,
temo che la venuta non sia folle.
Se' savio; intendi me' ch'i' non ragiono».
Excerpted from The Inferno of Dante by Robert Pinsky, Michael Mazur. Copyright © 1994 Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword by John Freccero,
A Plan of Dante's Journey Through Hell,
I Canto I / Canto I,
II Canto II / Canto II,
III Canto III / Canto III,
IV Canto IV / Canto IV,
V Canto V / Canto V,
VI Canto VI / Canto VI,
VII Canto VII / Canto VII,
VIII Canto VIII / Canto VIII,
IX Canto IX / Canto IX,
X Canto X / Canto X,
XI Canto XI / Canto XI,
XII Canto XII / Canto XII,
XIII Canto XIII / Canto XIII,
XIV Canto XIV / Canto XIV,
XV Canto XV / Canto XV,
XVI Canto XVI / Canto XVI,
XVII Canto XVII / Canto XVII,
XVIII Canto XVIII / Canto XVIII,
XIX Canto XIX / Canto XIX,
XX Canto XX / Canto XX,
XXI Canto XXI / Canto XXI,
XXII Canto XXII / Canto XXII,
XXIII Canto XXIII / Canto XXIII,
XXIV Canto XXIV / Canto XXIV,
XXV Canto XXV / Canto XXV,
XXVI Canto XXVI / Canto XXVI,
XXVII Canto XXVII / Canto XXVII,
XXVIII Canto XXVIII / Canto XXVIII,
XXIX Canto XXIX / Canto XXIX,
XXX Canto XXX / Canto XXX,
XXXI Canto XXXI / Canto XXXI,
XXXII Canto XXXII / Canto XXXII,
XXXIII Canto XXXIII / Canto XXXIII,
XXXIV Canto XXXIV / Canto XXXIV,
Also by Robert Pinsky,
About the Author,
Reading Group Guide
To the Teacher
Whether you are approaching Dante Alighieri's Inferno for the first time, for the first time since college, or as a teacher or scholar, you will discover in Robert Pinsky's award-winning translation not merely a fascinating work of medieval Christendom but a psychologically acute vision of sin and suffering with surprising resonance for our times. By conceiving of a fresh, unique way to maintain fidelity to Dante's poetic structure without distorting English usage or idiom, Pinsky conveys not just the literal meaning of Dante's words but their music and spirit, their subtext and emotional import. The result is a timeless, eerily recognizable Helland a poem that speaks to our own souls and renews our appreciation of Dante's greatness.
The Inferno is the first part of a three-part epic poem by Dante called the Commedia, or Comedy, and later dubbed Commedia Divina or The Divine Comedy by others. Written in the early fourteenth century, in a world poised between the theological worldview of the Middle Ages and the philosophical expanse of the Renaissance, it presents us with one of the essential human narratives: the journey of the self through the darkest side of existence toward the redemption and affirmation of the soul, from the "dark woods" of human life toward God's light.
On one level, the poem tracks the particular spiritual journey of its author. Set in the year 1300, the Commedia follows Dante the character on a pilgrimage from Hell to Paradise, re-creating metaphorically the course of Dante's life and the development of his ideas. Dante the poet, writing seven years after his fictional pilgrimage, depicts Dante the pilgrim as he is guided through Inferno and Purgatorio by the Latin poet Virgil, and through Paradiso by the Lady Beatrice. Dante was renowned in Florence as a courtly love poet and was in mourning for the love of his life, Beatrice Portinari, who died in 1290. Dante had been passionately involved in Florentine politics as a member of the radical Catholic wing of the Guelph party which favored the separation of church and state. When the Guelphs lost power to another faction at the turn of the century, Dante was falsely accused of crimes against the state and exiled from his beloved Florence. In Inferno, he takes the opportunity to name names and assign positions in Hell to the false counselors, errant colleagues, self-interested politicians, misguided clerics, and other morally reprehensible contemporaries whose actions, he believed, led to his exile. At the same time, he revisits his own intellectual and moral life, comes to understand his sins, and in the poem's third part, Paradiso, emerges redeemed. With an irony that animates the poem for the contemporary reader, Inferno traces its author's spiritual growth even as it achieves revenge on his personal enemiesfor eternity, in a sense.
The poem's vision of Hell is based on Thomas Aquinas's interpretation of Aristotle's principle of retribution. This is the concept of contrapasso, in which the soul's suffering in Hell extends or reflects or reembodies the sin that predominated it: adulterous lovers are thrown about in a perpetual storm, murderers are boiled in blood, those who succumbed to anger tear at one another's naked bodies, etc. This vision of Hell is grounded as well in the medieval belief in a rigorous divine justice. In this endeavor Pinsky neither abandoned terza rima nor tried to reproduce the rhymes of the Italian. Instead, he sought a reasonable English equivalent, by defining rhyme loosely so as to let English approximate the richness in like sounds of Italian. But what makes the poem an enduring work of literature is not merely its manifestation of Christian doctrine and Aquinas's ideas but its astonishing, imaginative richness. Dante creates a complex tension between his poetic vision of an absolute divine justice and his pilgrim-self 's actual experience of human nature and human suffering. Dante's sinners are fully and recognizably human, distinct individuals and members of society; they interest us dramatically. In the Inferno we recognize ourselves as we are in the world above ground and the great challenges we face in struggling to live a good life.
Dante in Translation
Dante structured his Commedia as an epic poem in three parts and a hundred cantos. Inferno contains thirty-four cantos and is set in the Lenten period of the year 1300. The action of the poem is meant to occur over the days that recall Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection.
In calling his poem a "comedy," Dante suggests that it ends happily and that its protagonist is not a mythologized heroic warrior but an actual contemporary person. He wrote the poem not in Latinthe standard language of the most serious literature of the periodbut in the everyday Italian of his city. In this Dante resembles the authors of the Gospels, who used humble language to convey the message of Christ, and made his work generally accessible to people.
In the Commedia, Dante also devised terza rimathe pattern of interlocking rhymes (aba bcb cdc ded, etc.) in which the first and third lines rhyme in each tercet, or group of three lines, with the second line indicating the rhyming sound of the next tercet. This pattern, with its conclusive yet propulsive rhythm, gives the poem a muscular quality; its verses move through narrative, dialogue, cosmology, meditation, and theological musing with great conviction, carrying the reader along as the sentences cross rhymes and tercets.
These two essential elements of the poem's structurethe use of colloquial speech and terza rimahave always posed great challenges to those who attempt to translate the Commedia into English. Terza rima relies for its strength on the Italian language's rhythm and its richness in rhyming words. English has far fewer rhymes than Italian, but many more synonyms; because of this, translators in search of rhyming synonyms have often resorted to the use of words no English speaker would actually say, thus making the translated poem sound awkwardly formal. For centuries, translators have sacrificed meaning to music or vice versa. The resulting versions have been either literally accurate, but not effective as poems in their own right, or stilted and archaic in their use of English and thus incapable of conveying the power and momentum of the original.
Robert Pinsky's approach to these challenges was based in an effort to recreate Dante's poem in plain English while also conveying some of Dante's verbal music. Poetry, in Pinsky's view, is a technology of language's sounds, and since one language's sounds cannot be those of another, poetry is in this sense essentially untranslatable. "I wanted to make it as accurate as I could," Pinsky says of the beginning of his undertaking. "After working on a very little of it, I got a strong notion that I could also make it sound like a poem in English."
In this endeavor Pinsky neither abandoned terza rima nor tried to reproduce the rhymes of the Italian. Instead, he sought a reasonable English equivalent, by defining rhyme loosely so as to let English approximate the richness in like sounds of Italian. He defines rhyme by like terminal consonants, no matter how much the vowel may vary. Thus there are such "rhymed" triads as both/forth/mouth and neck/snake/alack. Pinsky's translation runs the sentences freely across the ends of lines and tercets; the reader's voice also should run freely, not treating the end of a line as a stop. Within the idiomatic flow of Pinsky's English are sentences that can be read with pleasure.
1. Robert Pinsky has described the process of translation as "always a compromise," as "never complete," as "an activity in which you know you're going to fail." What do you think he means by this? Do you agree with his own assessment that his completed translation is "above all a poem" and "a work of metrical engineering?" Is the Inferno in English essentially a different poem from what it is in its original language? What aspects of the poem seem to you to be most "translatable?" Which least?
2. On its face, the Inferno dramatizes the medieval Christian belief in a literal Hell, where sinners are punished eternally for disobeying the moral law as understood by the Church, however sympathetically human they might otherwise be. Why, in spite of this stark vision, do you think the Inferno has remained compelling and vitaland even belovedto so many twentieth-century readers? Do you think we respond to the poem differently than fourteenth-century readers did? How do the very different circumstances of contemporary Western culture influence our reading of the poem?
3. The pilgrim Dante's first meeting in Hell is with Francesca, whose moving account of how she is seduced, in part by literature, into an act of adultery has caused many readers to question why the poet renders her so compassionately. To what extent is Dante, then renowned in Florence for his courtly love poetry, implicating himself in her fall? Why might Francesca be the first to speak in Hell? Is there a difference between the way the pilgrim Dante responds to her tale and what the poet Dante intends? Why do you think this meeting comes first in the poem?
4. Though Dante is commonly thought of as a medieval poet, thirteenth-century Florence was a democracy and Dante's own political views stemmed from his allegiance to a faction of the Guelph party that advocated steadfast independence from both king and pope. In what ways might democratic ideals be said to manifest themselves in Dante's vision? How does the poet reconcile them with his belief in a rigorous and hierarchical Christian moral system? By having Brutus, Cassius, and Judas share the deepest pit in Hell, does Dante imply that crimes against the state are morally equivalent to the betrayal of Christ?
5. Do you see ways in which Dante's writing anticipates the Renaissance? What is Dante's attitude toward human reason (see especially Canto XXVI)? How do his ideas about art as embodied in the Commedia differ from predominant medieval and/or Renaissance attitudes?
6. The scholar John Freccero says in the Foreword, "There is no sign of Christian forgiveness in the Inferno. The dominant theorem is not mercy but justice, dispensed with the severity of the ancient law of retribution." In this view, whatever empathy the pilgrim (and the reader) feels for the sinners represents incomprehension of the Divine. In contrast, Alan Williamson has proposed in The American Poetry Review that "Dante [is] often at his strongest as a poet when his feelings seem to strain aggainst the limits of his system." In Canto XXXIII, for example, he chooses to dramatize not the sin that landed Count Ugolino in hell, but the tragic suffering of Ugolino's innocent children. What might account for this choice? If the poem was meant to illustrate an inflexible moral theology, why might Dante have chosen to tell Ugolino's story from a point of view that encourages empathy, when he could have chosen to have Ugolino speak instead of his own odious acts of betrayal? Do you agree that Dante's "feelings seem to strain against the limits of his system?" How do we know what the poet feels?
7. Dante seems to have written the Inferno in part to take revenge on his own enemies. What, in his own moral cosmology, are the implications of taking justice into his own hands in this way? Is there an appropriate Circle of Hell for such a sin? Why or why not?
8. Many twentieth-century readers have been interested almost exclusively in Hellin the Inferno, the first section of the poem. What are some possible implications of reading the Inferno in contextual isolation from Purgatorio and Paradiso?
9. T.S. Eliot, among others, has asserted that the encounter with Satan in the last canto is anticlimactic. Do you think this is so? What might account for this? Do you think the poet was cognizant of it?