Like the Greek New Testament, most translations of Dante’s Divine Comedy come equipped with a critical apparatus. In some cases, like Charles S. Singleton’s, the apparatus swells into a massive work of its own—quoting references at length in English AND Latin and ending up requiring a separate binding. The critical apparatus assists the neophyte in making sense of the text—explaining its dizzying array of obscure references to medieval theology, Italian politics, and classical literature. Besides the Bible, no other work even approximates its heritage of line-by-line commentary.
Dante demands a lot from his readers. Often times I have no idea what’s going on until I read two different translations and look at the endnotes. This isn’t always the case, but there are always these cases. The Hollanders ask, “Is Dante an ‘easy’ poet? That depends on what passages we happen to be reading. He can be as simple and straightforward as one’s country neighbor, or as convoluted as the most arcane professor.” I’ve found that to be true. Cantos 16-18 of Purgatory were especially dense and required patient slogging.
Dorothy Sayers recommends a different approach:
The ideal way of reading The Divine Comedy would be to start at the first line and go straight through to the end, surrendering to the vigor of the story-telling and the swift movement of the verse, and not bothering about any historical allusions or theological explanations which do not occur in the text itself.
Seriously? That’s the first sentence of her introduction. Might as well say, “The ideal way of reading the Comedy is in Italian, whether you speak it or not.” The critical apparatus is absolutely necessary if you want not only to enjoy the Comedy, but also understand it. Take the time to read it, THEN go back and reread the canto without props.
The critical apparatus is not only helpful, it is beautiful. Here is an example where Singleton references Dante’s Convivio. The lines he’s commenting on are about God’s creation of the human soul and what directs its loves.
First, the lines in Purgatory:
Directly from His hand who cherished her
before she came to be, the simple soul
comes forth just like a little baby girl
Who cries and laughs and doesn’t know a thing
save that, moved by her Maker, by her joy,
she willingly turns to all that makes her sing.
Innocently she tastes the savor of
some lesser good, then chases it, deceived,
unless some rein or guide direct the love.
Now here is Dante in the critical apparatus:
The supreme longing of everything, and that first given to it by nature, is to return to its first principle. And inasmuch as God is the first principle of our souls, and hath made them like to Himself, even as it is written, “Let us make man in Our image and after Our likeness,” the soul itself most chiefly longs to return to Him. And like a pilgrim who is traveling on a road where he hath never been before, who believes that every house which he sees from afar is the hostel, and finding that it is not directs his belief to another, and so from house to house until he comes to the hostel, even so our soul, so soon as it enters upon the new and never-yet-made journey of life, directs its eyes to the goal of its supreme good, and therefore whatever it sees that appears to have some good in it, it thinks to be it. And because its knowledge is at first imperfect, through having no experience or instruction, little goods appear great to it; and therefore it begins first from them in its longing. And so we see little children intensely longing for an apple, and then going on further, longing for a little bird, and then further on longing for fine clothes, and then a horse, and then a mistress, and then wealth, but not much, then much and then enormous. And this comes to pass because in none of these things does he find that for which he is ever searching, but believes he will find it further on. Wherefore we may perceive that one desirable thing stands in front of the other before the eyes of our soul, something after the fashion of a pyramid, wherein the smallest part first covers all the rest, and is as it were the apex of the supreme object of longing, which is God, as it were the base of all the rest. Wherefore, the further we proceed from the apex towards the base, the greater do objects of our longing appear; and this is why in the process of acquisition the longings of men become more capacious one after the other. But in truth we may lose this way in error, just as we may lose the paths of earth.
There’s no way I would have gotten that out of those 9 lines. And not only does it make more sense now, it brings me into the spiritual vision underlying the whole Comedy—a journey to God, our supreme longing and joy. As shocking as it may seem, some readers miss that and think the Comedy is a gruesome and spiteful poem about placing people Dante didn’t like in Hell, or is merely a journey to the underworld (like the Aeneid), or only an epic poem akin to the Odyssey.
Part of this problem stems from the fact that many people seem to stop reading after Inferno! That would be like only reading the book of Judges in the Bible. The Comedy continues way beyond the Inferno (it’s called a comedy because the protagonist goes from a bad to a good state, unlike a tragedy going from good to bad), but it continues not on the same plane—it ascends. Dante’s whole point is that the meaning of human life is to enjoy God, to behold Him in love and become Him in life. Dante got lost in that dark and dense wood in the beginning because he, like we so often do, lost sight of this.
1. Robert and Jean Hollander, Dante’s Inferno, Intro., pp. xxvii-xxvviii
2. Dorothy Sayers, Dante’s Hell, Intro., p. 9
3. Anthony Esolen, Dante’s Purgatory, 16:85-93
4. Dante, Convivio, IV, xii, 14-18. Quoted in Charles S. Singleton, The Divine Comedy, II. Purgatorio. Part 2: Commentary, pp. 360-361