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The Inferno of Danteby Dante Alighieri
Reading Group Guide
1. Robert Pinsky has described the process of translation as “always a compromise,” as “never complete,” as “an activity in which you know youre going to fail.” What do you think he means by this? Do you agree with his own assessment that his completed translation is “above all a poem” and “a work of metrical engineering?” Is the Inferno in English essentially a different poem from what it is in its original language? What aspects of the poem seem to you to be most “translatable?” Which least?
2. On its face, the Inferno dramatizes the medieval Christian belief in a literal Hell, where sinners are punished eternally for disobeying the moral law as understood by the Church, however sympathetically human they might otherwise be. Why, in spite of this stark vision, do you think the Inferno has remained compelling and vital—and even beloved—to so many twentieth-century readers? Do you think we respond to the poem differently than fourteenth-century readers did? How do the very different circumstances of contemporary Western culture influence our reading of the poem?
3. The pilgrim Dantes first meeting in Hell is with Francesca, whose moving account of how she is seduced, in part by literature, into an act of adultery has caused many readers to question why the poet renders her so compassionately. To what extent is Dante, then renowned in Florence for his courtly love poetry, implicating himself in her fall? Why might Francesca be the first to speak in Hell? Is there a difference between the way the pilgrim Dante responds to her tale and what the poet Dante intends? Why do you think this meeting comes first in the poem?
4. Though Dante is commonly thought of as a medieval poet, thirteenth-century Florence was a democracy and Dantes own political views stemmed from his allegiance to a faction of the Guelph party that advocated steadfast independence from both king and pope. In what ways might democratic ideals be said to manifest themselves in Dantes vision? How does the poet reconcile them with his belief in a rigorous and hierarchical Christian moral system? By having Brutus, Cassius, and Judas share the deepest pit in Hell, does Dante imply that crimes against the state are morally equivalent to the betrayal of Christ?
5. Do you see ways in which Dantes writing anticipates the Renaissance? What is Dante's attitude toward human reason (see especially Canto XXVI)? How do his ideas about art as embodied in the Commedia differ from predominant medieval and/or Renaissance attitudes?
6. The scholar John Freccero says in the Foreword, “There is no sign of Christian forgiveness in the Inferno. The dominant theorem is not mercy but justice, dispensed with the severity of the ancient law of retribution.” In this view, whatever empathy the pilgrim (and the reader) feels for the sinners represents incomprehension of the Divine. In contrast, Alan Williamson has proposed in The American Poetry Review that “Dante [is] often at his strongest as a poet when his feelings seem to strain aggainst the limits of his system.” In Canto XXXIII, for example, he chooses to dramatize not the sin that landed Count Ugolino in hell, but the tragic suffering of Ugolinos innocent children. What might account for this choice? If the poem was meant to illustrate an inflexible moral theology, why might Dante have chosen to tell Ugolinos story from a point of view that encourages empathy, when he could have chosen to have Ugolino speak instead of his own odious acts of betrayal? Do you agree that Dantes “feelings seem to strain against the limits of his system?” How do we know what the poet feels?
7. Dante seems to have written the Inferno in part to take revenge on his own enemies. What, in his own moral cosmology, are the implications of taking justice into his own hands in this way? Is there an appropriate Circle of Hell for such a sin? Why or why not?
8. Many twentieth-century readers have been interested almost exclusively in Hell—in the Inferno, the first section of the poem. What are some possible implications of reading the Inferno in contextual isolation from Purgatorio and Paradiso?
9. T.S. Eliot, among others, has asserted that the encounter with Satan in the last canto is anticlimactic. Do you think this is so? What might account for this? Do you think the poet was cognizant of it?
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