14 Weeks With Dante: Reflections on Reading The Divine Comedy

Last December, I was interested to read an article about the posthumous publication of a new translation of Dante’s Paradise by Scottish author Alisdair Gray. This took me down a browsing wormhole which led to Nick Senger’s blog and his post about a chapter a day readalong in 2021, the first of which would be The Divine Comedy. It’s a sign, I thought!

I hadn’t particularly planned to read Dante, but 2021 is the 700th anniversary of his death. So what better time to give him a go. Nick’s readalong made it feel less daunting: we would be reading a short Canto (chapter) each day and tweeting a favourite line or two.

And so here we are, on the day of the final Canto. It hardly seems possible that I have managed to get through one of the world’s most important texts. But I have, and it has been amazing.

Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the most sublime expressions of world literature of all time, narrates in poetic form the journey made by the man Dante to the kingdoms of the afterlife in order to save his soul. Aided in traversing Hell and Purgatory by his guide Virgil, who represents reason, and Beatrice, the symbol of faith, Dante undertakes this journey after getting lost in the ‘woods’ of sin. By descending into the infernal world, climbing back up through the realm of purgation, and entering that of bliss, Dante effects a real purification of body and spirit. Nonetheless the Divine Comedy is also a ‘universal journey’: the purpose of his narrative, as Dante states in his Epistola a Cangrande, is to transport all of mankind from the state of misery to one of happiness.

From the website of the Museo Casa Di Dante

One of the aspects of this readalong that I found most intriguing was the wide variety of approaches in different translations. I started off reading two translations: by Robin Kirkpatrick and Clive James. It was almost like reading two completely different texts. As time wore on, I was increasingly drawn to the Kirkpatrick, so my James copy has remained shut since around the start of our entry to Purgatory. There were so many riches to explore in that one translation that it has been plenty to keep me occupied. But I shall definitely be going back to the James version, as well as a couple of the others favoured by my fellow Twitter travellers.

I was also delighted to come across a short BBC Radio series about The Divine Comedy which takes the Kirkpatrick as its text. This is a great introduction to the whole work, although I held off listening to the episodes until I was nearly finished reading because I did not want to cloud my initial impressions. There is also a whole host of Dante-related programmes on the BBC Radio website here. (I hope both these links work for overseas readers,: apologies if not.)

So, what has it been like to read The Divine Comedy? I had many preconceived ideas which have been wholly dispelled:

  • You have to be religious to understand and/or enjoy it – you absolutely don’t. I do not have a religion, but found the text to be fascinating and sublime.
  • You have to understand it to enjoy it. Not a bit of it. At first, it took me ages to read each Canto because I diligently worked through all the notes in my Kirkpatrick edition, and followed up with plenty of Googling. But I soon realised that this was hampering my overall enjoyment of the text. So instead, I tended to glance at the notes before starting a Canto and then just enjoyed the writing. I know that I have missed lots of depth of understanding with this approach, but I think it made the whole process much more lively and pleasurable.
  • A text from the thirteenth century will be hard to read. It’s not. As mentioned above, looking at the notes can help with obscure references to the politics of Dante’s day, or his extensive references to figures of antiquity. But the language itself is not difficult at all. It is beautiful, surprising, funny, sad – everything you would want from a good read.
  • It lacks relevance in today’s world. Dante wrote The Divine Comedy in exile, having been banished from his beloved Florence. His anger and anguish pour through the text. This is a work which explores what it is like to be human. How can it ever become irrelevant?

How I feel having finished it:

  • delighted to have experienced this seminal text
  • amazed to have found it so enjoyable
  • I’ll definitely use the ‘chapter a day’ approach to tackle other large books (I’m looking at you, Brothers Karamazov and Middlemarch)
  • I would love to learn Italian to be able to read it in the original (maybe one day…)
  • meanwhile, I definitely plan to read it again, this time with a sense of knowing the shape of the text, and with hope of understanding the text in a bit more depth.

Finally, I really relished finding daily quotes that showcase the beautiful poetry of the work: all the colours, all the nature references, and some surprising mentions of things like the science behind the solar system and the working of chiming clocks. It was such a pleasure to take this journey with my fellow Twitter travellers, looking forward to seeing what their quoted lines were (especially if we happened to pick the same ones), noting the images they found and their own reflections on the text. If you would like to have a browse through our selections, search on Twitter for the hashtag #divinecomedyreadalong.

And so, what next? I hadn’t planned to carry on with the remainder of Nick’s chapter-a-day project. But I have really enjoyed the process and so cannot resist starting out on the next journey, which is to read a chapter of Quo Vadis each day starting tomorrow (11 April). Here’s Nick’s introductory post if you are interested in joining us – it would be great to have you along! 🙂

26 thoughts on “14 Weeks With Dante: Reflections on Reading The Divine Comedy

  1. Well done Liz. I wouldn’t have started Dante for the reasons you have above on your blog. Glad it enriched your horizon and you enjoyed it. I’m on a German histoical fiction book a the moment, which I like. It is nice to learn history like that. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. How interesting! I studied The Divine Comedy in college, but I don’t really remember it. I need to find more Twitter hashtags like #divinecomedyreadalong. My Twitter feed is cluttered with constant writers’ lifts and what-did-you-eat-for-breakfast type questions. Any suggestions for more literary hashtags for me to seek out?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The first two that immediately come to mind that I regularly follow are #ReadMoreWomen and #WomenInTranslation But it depends what you are particularly interested in. You could start with some general #literaryfiction type searches and see where that leads? Or even specific authors or books you like eg #DaphneDuMaurier #Rebecca This would probably lead to other hashtags by people with similar interests. And if I spot any others I’ll pass them on. 😀

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Thank you, Liz. I’ve made a note of these. I tried #literaryfiction when I first started on Twitter, but all I was seeing was a stream of “buy my book.” I’m mainly looking for other people who write literary fiction and poetry.

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      2. One further thought – I often alight on readalongs, reading challenges etc through fellow bloggers. So, for example, a good hashtag for this coming week is #1936club which is a week long reading challenge of books published in that year (see kaggsysbookishramblings.Wordpress.com). So perhaps one thing to do might be to look for the activities of people writing about other writers etc and see if you can pick up relevant hashtags that way?

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  3. There is a brilliant serie of lectures online given by an Italian professor (in English) about the Divine Comedy, I stayed with most of it until half way into Paradise! I can find the link if you are interested. It is/was outstanding!

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  4. Those BBC links look great; thanks. I am a Zen Buddhist and some people may think it strange that I like The Divine Comedy and find it relevant. The thing is not to take it too literally but as a spiritual allegory, therefore I think Dante is speaking about timeless issues such as goodness and evil. It is relevant today as we struggle to understand ourselves. Weaving in and out of the morality narrative is the dramtic narrative of coures; it’s a great story. See William Blake’s illustrations.

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  5. That’s a great achievement, Liz, and all the better because you have taken so much from the experience. Dante has never really called to me but I’ve noted the Kirkpatrick version and also that it’s on Audible. That’s tempting but for the future though. I’m so pleased you enjoyed it so much! And if you ever decide on a readalong of Middlemarch, keep me in mind!

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    1. Thanks Sandra, and I’m really glad the idea of a Middlemarch readalong has piqued your interest – I hope to say more about that in the coming months 🤞🏻😀

      Liked by 1 person

  6. HI Liz, this is a useful post for anyone wanting to read The Divine Comedy. I found an audio book version which I am going to give a try. You are right that for a 700 year old book it is not difficult to read. I can follow it easily enough and read bits and pieces of Dante’s inferno at a young age. I didn’t remember anything except the pictures in my Dad’s book and those scared me to death. I am looking forward to revisiting this book and reading/listening to it all.

    Liked by 1 person

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