Busy with Dante


I’ve been spending most of my writing energies on writing about Dante recently. I’ve taken up the ambitious and perhaps foolhardy project of putting down my various interpretations of the cantos. I’ve decided to share a tiny excerpt of something I’ve written about Canto I which was partly inspired by my reading of Guenon’s notes on the Commedia. This is, of course, a very rough draft. My editor friends constantly tell me that the point is to just keep writing and worry about fixing things later, so I’ve taken that to heart. Excerpt follows:

The context of Dante’s awakening in space and time is also important to note. He makes mention that it is “midway” through the journey of “our lives” rather than explicitly stating a number of years. While a seemingly minor detail, it can be understood in the light of the preference of proportion rather than discretion. Instead of having a discrete and countable number, Dante places his temporal location as a perfect half. In this tiny detail, Dante is signaling that his concept of time and history is not the historiographical, literal, or even scientific conceptions that might preoccupy historians or biographers, but places timing in the context of eternity. It is not at the service of precision, but of “meaning.” In other words, the actual age he assigns himself is not as important as the significance of the timing: the central point of his life. A “turning point” like this is reminiscent of the folk riddle of “how far can you walk into a forest,” with the answer being “halfway before you start moving out of it.” This theme of a “turning point” can also be reworded as “Axial” thinking or “Polar” thinking. This concept of centrality, polarity, and axis is yet another theme introduced in the very first few words of the poem as subtle as a diamond shimmering on a sunny ocean wave. The reinforcement and crystallization of this tiny seed that he plants will be made clear to the patient reader who continues on, but it is sufficient for now to demonstrate the density of planting Dante is accomplishing in the first few lines of his foundational earth.

This vegetable imagery can be taken further when one examines that it is a Dark Wood that Dante finds himself awake in. He could have chosen a desert or a wasteland to represent the area of being lost in the world, yet he chose a forest which obscures the light above. The obvious luminary reference aside, the choice of a specifically vegetable beginning can be understood, in one sense among many, to be an explanation of the nature of “error”—of being lost itself. Dante is demonstrating that the semi-conscious wanderings of man are not due to a complete desolation, but rather, as a state of disorder of what had been the gifts of life. By analogy, if one examines the various “seeds” of ideas that Dante has planted in his first few lines and follows these ideas as they grow throughout the cantos, one finds an ordered and ascending development. Standing in opposite would be ideas or movements that would grow without order, without poetry, or without control. As such, these ideas would grow analogous to a “dark wood” where there is no order or dominion placed. This is, probably, an intentional contrast to the initial charge to the first parent to tend to the Garden1 considering the various other parallels to Genesis. Thus, Dante’s original sin is surprisingly similar to that of Adam: the loss of “consciousness” that is perhaps allegorically depicted in the separation of Adam and Eve which allowed Eve to be seduced by the serpent. In other words: an abdication of the virtuous, higher, and dominating aspect of the human person and the allowance of the violation of boundaries much like the indiscriminate growth of an unchecked forest. Thus, not only does Dante demonstrate through his vegetable imagery the true nature of error as that which is “good” gone out of control, but that this inability for man to hold dominion and cultivate these chthonic ideas planted in his lower self lead to a kind of fall reminiscent of the “Original.”

1Genesis II, 15

5 thoughts on “Busy with Dante

  1. Do you have any recommendations for a translation of The Divine Comedy? I’ve heard good things about Anthony Esolen’s work, but I know it doesn’t try to retain some aspects of the original poetry.


    1. I rather like Ciardi’s translation , although the Sinclair one is fine , too . I just enjoyed the way Ciardi tried to preserve ‘some’ of the rhyming . Honestly , and I make this clear in my introduction which I hadn’t included in the excerpt , I’m no linguistic expert . I’m merely trying to examine the truths within the symbols as best as I can and usually I try to compare Ciardi’s translation with Longfellow’s to get some insight from the original Middle Italian . I know that more nuanced understanding of the original text will yield greater results , but I’m also content in knowing that the great power of his writing is kept within the intelligible symbols one can get from any translation to start with so it’s good enough as a start .

      Edit: That being said, I’d recommend the Sinclair translation first and foremost since that’s what I used in official study . Ciardi is more of an aesthetic choice that has several ‘liberties’ taken to make it rhyme . Longefellow is good enough if you’re able to brace yourself for the Victorian-era language .


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