The Divine Comedy

“To look back is wont to give men pleasure.”

Dante Alighieri

The Divine Comedy is another of those books that I’ve always vaguely wanted to read and finally found an excuse in the form of a University Reading List. A poem about a guy who is guided around Hell, Purgatory and Heaven by Dead Virgil? A poem that has influenced EVERYTHING, from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials? Why not?


It took me a ridiculously long time to read this. Or, at least, it felt like it did. My Booklikes timeline claims I was only reading it for 17 days, but I’m not sure I believe it. The Divine Comedy is simply interminable. Of course, most editions split it into three volumes – Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso – presumably so you don’t have to swallow it all at once; but Weird University Library Version (a translation by one Geoffrey L. Bickersteth) had it all in one book with pages so thin it was like reading the Bible.

In fact, reading The Divine Comedy is very like reading the Book of Revelation. There’s lots (oh, lots) of fire and brimstone; you get the impression that the whole divine cosmos is ruled by a paranoid megalomaniac; and there’s that nagging feeling that there’s a point here that you should be getting but it’s all flying completely over your head…

It didn’t help that this is a truly awful translation. Mr Bickersteth apparently thought it would be a terrific idea to translate into verse, and not only into verse, oh no, but into the exact verse form Dante used, a form called terza rima, one that is notorious for not working in English. Hence we have some very dodgy translation practices in the service of rhyme. At one point Bickersteth – I am not kidding – uses the word “ee”.


It’s a very archaic form of the word “eyes”, and it just looks weird here. Weird and affected and obviously the action of a translator desperate for an appropriate rhyming word.

Another problem with Bickersteth’s translation is that there are no proper notes. We keep meeting these random saints who, presumably, we are supposed to recognise, but, to be honest, they may as well be X Factor contestants for all I knew.

It’s possible that I would have enjoyed The Divine Comedy more had I read a different translation, but it seems unlikely. Dante – by which I mean the character Dante – is a really nasty guy; God is far too eager to damn people to the blackest depths of hell for the crime of actually thinking for themselves; and there are just plot holes by the tonne. If Virgil is from Hell, how does he know all about Purgatory? Think about it.


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