In the beginning:
Before we start this journey of 14,233 lines of poetry with Dante, we must decide which Dante we are journeying with, and how much we will learn from this companion. You will find from your notes of your translation that the Commedia opens on the evening of Maundy Thursday of the year 1300, when Dante was 35 years old. This is the Biblical 70 years lifespan as found in Psalm 90:10, and it is the highpoint of Dante’s life, or so he thought. His political party was in power in Florence in 1300, and at the age of 35 he himself held one of the highest political offices and was a well-respected and popular poet [his poetry and songs were in the top-ten list of Florentine society].
And yet, and yet, within a remarkably short time, Dante’s political party would suffer a complete reversal of fortunes and when he is gone on a political trip to a neighboring city-state, there is a coup and Dante is judged in absentia, evicted from Florence, and condemned to death should he ever return. As he writes these opening lines, Dante the exiled poet is looking back several years when Dante the politician and popular poet assumed he had it all together, he was at the top of his career, and yet, from his exile, Dante sees that in truth he was lost, completely lost in a ‘dark wood of error.’ This is a work of many levels of truth, philosophy, theology and political science. But it is also a work of basic human emotions: fear, lust, pride, exile, betrayal and greed. As we journey with Dante the pilgrim, we need to realize that it will be a journey of gradual awakening [and this Dante in the Commedia makes a lot of mistakes that mirror many of my own].
Midsummer Night’s Dream
While this is not midsummer, there is a definite dreamlike quality to this iconic opening canto. Dante the writer wants us to become a part of this opening as he includes us from the very first:
1 Midway in the journey of OUR life
2 I came to myself in a dark wood,
3 for the straight way was lost.
Some translations even claim that in verse two, Dante awoke to find himself in a dark wood. Indeed, later in the stanza beginning with verse 10 we read:
10 How I came there I cannot really tell,
11 I was so full of sleep
12 when I forsook the one true way.
We have images come upon us in the seeming-silence of a nightmare. Animals appear before us in brilliant colors, the air moves with power and fear, but no sound is made. Even the sun’s light is referred to in an oddly wonderful connection with silence in verse 60 when he is chased down the mountain by the she-wolf: “it drove me down to where the sun is silent.” In verse 63, Virgil himself appears to him, barely visible, “faint, in the wide silence.” For a work of visceral, descriptive solidity that the Inferno truly is, this opening pulls us into the journey with an air of mystery and uncertainty.
A Guide and a Path
Once Dante the character realizes that he is lost in a dark wood of error, he does what any up and coming bitcoin or political king would do, he goes straight for success: he climbs toward the sun in the most direct way! Let’s get it done in five or six easy steps and set it right. [Your commentaries will tell you of the medieval symbolism of the Sun and it’s connection with divine truth and original creation.]
Yet his way is blocked, by these mysterious creatures. Through the centuries, different meanings and values have been assigned to them, but all in all, they simply prevent him from coming to wisdom and truth in any easy way. And Dante, the self-made man discovers that he cannot do this quickly, easily, or by himself.
A guide is required and Virgil is sent to help him. [Your notes will help you and we can unpack why this particular guide was sent as we move with him through these readings.] A way is needed to cleanse, clarify and recreate Dante the sinner. This will require a different path than Dante originally desired which was the simple and straight one. It is the injunction given by Jesus in Mark 9:35 “He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ ” There is no Resurrection and Crown without Calvary and the Cross. Augustine knew this when he wrote: “Descend, so that you may ascend.”
Dante must move among his colleagues and familiar personages of history and literature, learning from their self-referent and self-justifying stances to see how they have not grown into wisdom and discernment. Finally, it is important to remember that all whom Dante interacts with on this journey are not only dead, of course, but all are also sinners, including those in Purgatory and Paradise. What is the difference between them all? What will be their similarities to me, to us?
-If you decide to use the Princeton Dante Project, this lecture by Prof. Hollander on Allegory is very helpful at the beginning of this journey. Also, there are commentary notes that I find very helpful on this site. One must click on the proper little button thingy on the left side. Play with it. You’ll figure it out.
-I forgot to mention Robert Pinsky’s translation of The Inferno. Amazingly good. Too bad there’s no Purgatorio or Paradiso yet.
-The Teaching Company has a good course on The Divine Comedy as well, if you wish to buy it or check it out at a local library.