"I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightfoward pathway had been lost. Ah me! How hard a thing is to say, what was this forest savage, rough, and stern, which in the very thought renews the fear. So bitter is it, death is little more..."I will probably not win a prize for originality by stating that Dante's language is absolutely sublime. I am not even a great fan of poetry, but these lines had something to them that made me read on and on, sucking in the colourful images they created. It was very strange, although I am not really religious these words evoked in me the vague feeling of something grand.
What I did not expect though was the vividness of the writing; hell arose before my eyes as if I was wandering through it myself.
Dante's hell is an enourmous creation: diverse and detailed and absolutely terrifying. I can hardly imagine how long the planning phase must have been, for it is thought-out to the smallest detail.
For every sin the souls are punished accordingly, the fortune-tellers for example have to walk with their heads turned backwards because in their lives they tried to see the future when they had no right to.
I did not always agree with Dante's division into circles, for instance I found it unreasonable that fraud is punished more severely than murder and in my opinion some souls, such as astrologers and alchemists, but more than anything the virtuous pagans who committed no other sin than being born before the time of Christianity, ought not to be in hell at all. Also, looking at sins such as greed and anger I could not help asking myself if any of us would not end up in hell.
A big part of the journey through hell is made up by the stories which the damned souls tell of their lives and crimes. I was astonished that these souls were not invented by Dante, but all either real historic persons or characters from mythology such as Ulysses. The person who is in fact the reason for the whole journey (she sends Virgil to Dante to save him after he had lost the right path) is Beatrice, who died very young and is the object of Dante's eternal love. I cannot wait to finally meet her, but I am afraid she will not turn up until Paradiso. Whenever someone I knew appeared I was amazed: Sophocles for example, Brutus or Helen of Troy, but there were many Italian noblemen I had never heard of before and although their names were explained in footnotes I think a better knowledge of Italian history would make me appreciate the book more. Another thing that took me by surprise is Dante's criticism of the church; there are more than a handful of popes and bishops suffering in his hell.
However, what surprised me most is how political the Divine Comedy actually is. Obviously Florence was in terrible uproar at that time, with fights between two parties, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. This conflict is featured prominently, probably because of Dante's strong involvement in it in real life. He was even expelled from Florence, his home which he (and many of the souls in hell) loved dearly and never returned to it until he died.
Did I understand everything I read? Certainly not. There were some lines whose meaning remained a complete mystery for me even though I read an annotated edition and others where I was not sure whether my interpretation was right or utter nonsense. I tried not to worry too much about that though: I know that I probably only understood a small percentage of the Inferno accurately, but I feel that the Divine Comedy is much too multilayered to be fully comprehended after reading it just once. Most importantly, am enjoying it a lot, so onward, to the Mountain of Purgatory and into Paradise!