I remember the first time I read The Divine Comedy. I was a university freshman and it was the beginning of a year of extraordinary discovery, but The Divine Comedy stands out particularly in my memory. I had never read anything like it before – and I was a bookish child, devouring books like ice cream. However – and this is the point I want to make – that first experience of following the pilgrim Dante down into the abyss of Hell, up the hard climb of the Mountain of Purgation, and through the light-filled celestial spheres into the presence of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” was – frankly – rather murky.
There were glorious moments, where some clarity broke through: Limbo with its false sun, Satan frozen in the ice, the Earthly Paradise at the top of the mountain, the Celestial Rose alive with blessed souls: all images that remained with me long after the reading was over. But Dante is so dense with figures from history, literature, and scripture, with allegory and allusion, that I knew I was missing most of it.
I had great guidance – an excellent lecturer to listen to and a tutor who steered our small tutorial of intense young students as ably as he could – but even so, I felt like I was floundering around like a cod caught in the shoals. And I was. Nevertheless, I fell in love – with Dante the poet and Dante the pilgrim, with Virgil and Beatrice, and with this incredible conception of an allegorical poem exploring the life of the human soul from the depths of human misery and desolation to the ineffable joy of the presence of God.
I would go on to study The Divine Comedy twice more and in much greater depth under a teacher’s guidance before I felt ready to sit alone in a room with Dante, so when people tell me they find Dante difficult, I understand. So here, for what it’s worth, is my advice to those who want to read The Divine Comedy but are daunted by the prospect. The poem itself points the way.
First, seek guidance. Dante could not of himself, under his own power, make this journey. He required a guide and a teacher – three in fact: Virgil, Beatrice and Bernard of Clairvaux. They act as guides in the poem, but they were also guides to him in life and as a poet. So if ever the opportunity comes to take a class on The Divine Comedy from a teacher who loves the poem, do it.
Second, read the poem with a group. Poetry, by its very nature, is meant to be a communal experience. Poetry, like music, must be heard. It is a group activity. We moderns tend to be silent solitary novel-readers, and forget the glories of the uttered word. Find others to read the poem with, try to include someone who has read the poem before, and read it together using the commentary that comes with the text. Take turns reading and listening.
But if you do find yourself alone with Dante, the above advice still holds. Take guidance from the commentary that comes with almost every translation. Read one canto at a time, and read it aloud all the way through. Read it a second time (perhaps silently), pausing to check the notes and commentary as you go along. Then read it aloud again this time enjoying the words and images.
Whether you read The Divine Comedy with a class, in a group, or alone, keep the following in mind:
- Don’t get bogged down or dismayed by what you don’t understand.
- Don’t try to “get” everything. There are layers upon layers of meaning; on a first reading, be satisfied with the big picture.
- Savor the images.
- Chew on the words.
- Take your time.
- Enjoy the journey.
- Don’t rush.
- Read the whole poem.
Reading a poet like Dante makes us realize how much of our cultural memory we have lost. But reading a poet like Dante also helps restore that memory in us. Dante also reminds us that the best things in life require time and patience, and are best done slowly.