Details: Original text c 1314; translated by Dorothy L Sayers; edition and translation (c) 1949; Pub 1953 Penguin Classics
Verdict: Hell is not exactly fun reading but I'm glad I made the effort. (Link to a more recent edition as the 1953 one I have isn't on Amazon.)
Reasons for reading it: I've been having some discussions touching on Christian mythologies of Hell recently and wanted to feel a bit less ignorant. Plus, it seems like the kind of thing that any civilized person ought to have read.
How it came into my hands: Borrowed from my parents.
I feel a bit embarrassed reviewing one of the foundational works of European literature, but hey. I think as a generalization I'm not really bloodthirsty enough to get very much out of something that leans so heavily on extended descriptions of torture, but Hell is more than just that. I'm also not big on epic poetry; I might have been better off with a prose translation, in some ways, but then this was to hand and besides it's DLS.
Hell does go a long way towards working as a story; there's some kind of plot even if the ending is kind of declared in the opening few cantos. And Dante makes a very sympathetic narrator, his relationship with Virgil really helping to bring him to life as a person. So it's possible to read as a kind of adventure story, as well as being an allegory of Dante's conception of Christian views of sin and punishment. Sayers expounds the journey through Hell as a mirror of Dante's spiritual journey into his own worst nature; I have no idea whether that's a common view in Dante scholarship, but it works for me as a reading.
On a religious education level, I'm still completely alienated by the whole concept of a doctrine of eternal punishment, but I do feel I've gained some insight into how a reasonable person can accept that world view. Partly because Hell gives a very clear sense of the damage done to society and individuals by sin. Then, the idea that people choose their own doom, that the punishment is to some extent intrinsic to the sin itself, is more palatable than the idea that damnation is imposed almost arbitrarily by a sadistic god. Though it's a very fine distinction, and I still find it particularly hard to accept that there are people in the upper circles of Hell who are damned through wrong belief rather than wrong action.
The piece that particularly struck me was a scene where Virgil upbraids Dante for showing pity for the damned:
Here pity, or here piety, must dieI still don't like it, but it does come across as a plausible philosophical foundation, even if it's one I very much reject. (I am of course aware that Dante had his own particular view of Christianity and that Christian thinking has moved on since the 14th century! So I'm wary of generalizing too much from this, but I feel like it gives me a starting place from which I can try to understand this stuff.)
If the other lives; who's wickeder than one
That's agonised by God's high equity?
The translation is a bit odd; it's a strange mixture of rather formal, old-fashioned language with slightly forced colloquialisms. And of course 1940s colloquialisms sound more dated than the more ecclesiastical tone. Sayers says she made a deliberate decision to use the second person singular because she wanted to highlight the occasions when characters address eachother formally as opposed to informally. But to me that distinction doesn't work too well in 20th century English; thou doesn't suggest intimacy or informality to me, even though I know intellectually that that is its function, it suggests over-formality and a deliberate distancing through use of old-fashioned language. That said, there were quite a few occasions where I was taken with the way obsolete terms are revived, either to better convey the double meanings of the original, or to support the metre, or simply to give variety to the language used. Considering that it's several hundred pages of poetry and that the voice is anything but naturalistic, it's surprisingly readable.
I also really liked Sayers' notes. Just the layout is very helpful; it's done with endnotes after each canto. This means that there are no distracting footnotes and the main text of the poem is unmarked, which is a very good thing, it made me feel I was reading for pleasure rather than work. At the same time it's natural to read the clarifying explanations immediately after reading a canto, there's no messing about with having to jump between the text itself and an indigestible glob of infodump at the end of the book. The notes are also helpful with filling in the background and genuinely enlighten, rather than being patronizing or just showing off the translator's scholarship. (There are several long essays in the book, which I kind of skimmed for the stuff about translation issues and ignored the more literary bits, but it's laid out so that it's perfectly possible to read the poem without bothering with all the background.)
Dante's writing is extremely political and very much rooted in current affairs; I suppose this is the kind of attitude one expects of religious writing of the period, religion was very much applicable to real, everyday existence. But this does mean that it's sometimes hard to follow when he's satirizing public figures of contemporary Florence, or bitching about 14th century church politics. I have a slightly better knowledge of both Biblical and Classical background than the notes seem to assume, but never to the extent that the annotations got annoying. Oh, and I found the mappies and diagrams very helpful in understanding the descriptions of the journey.
Also, I have decided that I really like terza rima. I'm really tempted to try my hand at writing some. I had a lot of fun with Sayers' discourse on writing in a metre that really belongs to a different language. Her handling of it I felt was extremely successful and at least in this example the metre feels very natural to me. (I have a really hard time with some of the most traditional English metres; I simply can not write iambic pentameter, and I know in theory why it fits English stress patterns, but I just can't get my head round it.)
I didn't actually intend to finish Hell over the Easter weekend, but it just worked out that way. So, yeah, happy Easter to people reading this who are happy about Easter. Just to complete the excessively appropriate resonances, I'm quite tempted to put Alice Cooper: Go to Hell in the current music field. But I shall refrain.