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This review is from: The Divine Comedy (Oxford World's Classics) (Paperback)
"Midway life's journey I was made aware/that I had strayed into a dark forest..."
Those eerie words open the first cantica of Dante Alighieri's "Divine Comedy," the legendary poem that takes its author through the eerie depths of hell, heaven and purgatory. It's a haunting, almost hallucinatory experience, full of the the metaphorical and supernatural horrors of the inferno, and joys of paradise.
The date is Good Friday of the year 1300, and Dante is lost in a creepy dark forest, being assaulted by a trio of beasts who symbolize his own sins. But suddenly he is rescued ("Not man; man I once was") by the legendary poet Virgil, who takes the despondent Dante under his wing -- and down into Hell.
But this isn't a straightforward hell of flames and dancing devils. Instead, it's a multi-tiered carnival of horrors, where different sins are punished with different means. Opportunists are forever stung by insects, the lustful are trapped in a storm, the greedy are forced to battle against each other, and the violent lie in a river of boiling blood, are transformed into thorn bushes, and are trapped on a volcanic desert.
Well, that was fun. But after passing through hell, Dante gets the guided tour of Purgatory, where the souls of the not-that-bad-but-not-pure-either get cleansed. He and Virgil emerge at the base of a vast mountain, and an angel orders him to "wash you those wounds within," then lets them in.
As Virgil and Dante climb the mountain, they observe the seven terraces that sinners stay on, representing the seven deadly sins -- the angry, the proud, the envious, the lazy, the greedy, the lustful and the gluttons. It's a one-way trip, and you don't even get to look back.
The road up the mountain leads to the gates of Heaven, and soon Dante has been purified to the point where he's allowed to go inside. Virgil doesn't get to enter Heaven, so he passes Dante on to the beautiful Beatrice, the woman he loved in his younger years.
She whisks him up to the spheres of those who are now pure of soul -- the wise, the loving, the people who fought for their religion, the just, the contemplative, the saints, and finally even the angels. And after passing through heaven's nine spheres, he passes out of the physical realm and human understanding -- and sees God, the incomprehensible, represented by three circles inside each other, but all the same size.
Needless to say, it's a pretty wild trip.And admittedly "Purgatorio" and "Paradiso" aren't quite on the writing level of "Inferno," which has the most visceral, skin-crawling imagery and lines ("Fixed in the slime, groan they, 'We were sullen and wroth...'"), and a wicked sense of irony. It makes the angels and saints seem a bit tame.
But there's plenty of power in the second two books, particularly when Dante tries to comprehend God, and almost blows out his brain in the process -- "my desire and my will were turned like a wheel, all at one speed by the Love that turns the sun and all the other stars." It's haunting, and sticks with you long after the story has ended.
More impressive still is his ability to weave the poetry out of symbolism and allegory, without it ever seeming preachy or annoying. Even at the start, Dante sees lion, a leopard and a wolf, which symbolize different sins, and a dark forest that indicates suicidal thoughts. Not to mention Purgatory as a mountain that must be climbed, or Hell as a Hadesian underworld.
Dante's vivid writing and wildly imaginative journey makes the "Divine Comedy" a timeless, spellbinding read, and hauntingly powerful from inferno to paradiso.