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The Divine Comedy (The Inferno, The Purgatorio, and The Paradiso) Paperback – May 27, 2003
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“Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them—there is no third.”—T.S. Eliot
“Ciardi has given us...a credible, passionate persona of the poet, stripped of the customary gauds of rhetoric and false decoration, strong and noble in utterance.”—Dudley Fitts
“A sensitive and perceptive translation…a spectacular achievement.”—Archibald MacLeish
“I think [Ciardi’s] version of Dante will be in many respects the best we have seen.”—John Crowe Ransom
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: Italian
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A person can commit the worst sin or sins and yet he is not condemned to hell if he is chosen. But he will have to purify himself by doing time in purgatory, the holding place for sinful souls, before they finally reach paradise.
Paradiso is Dante's crown jewel in the three part Divine Comedy. But certainly Dante gave us much more than the Bible can tell us about heaven. He gave us a fantastic blinding light show of celestial symmetry complete with song and dance by angels and souls that made it to paradise. Some prominent souls Dante met in paradise were Adam the first man who fell from grace and began the adventure for mankind, and the king Solomon, whose excess and debauchery would have earned any other mortal a certain place in hell. But because they were were God's elect and they only had to do time in purgatory before gaining entry of paradise. So unless one is super Biblical savvy, informed in astronomy, well versed in Greek mythology and has paid attention in school to European and middle eastern history from ancient times to the 13th century, one will miss many gems in Dante's presentation of God's Alpha and Omega plan for mankind and His exquisite design of the universe. Underpinned by His unchanging laws of the nature or laws of classical physics, the stars and planets orbit in perfect rhythm and position. Complex as Dante's 33 cantos are, fear not because our excellent translator Robin Kirkpatrick gave us wonderful notes to cross check. We also live in the age of Google and Wikipedia. Uncovering the background of that unfamiliar name of a person or place is only a few keystrokes on the keyboard away. Just like 9 descending strata of hell, and the slow ascent to the different heights of purgatory, Dante's paradise too is an interstellar journey across the planets and stars, each orbit with lights more blinding and celestial hymns more haunting than the previous as Dante zooms across space in light speed with his sweetheart Beatrice as guide. At some point, I began to the wonder if I was reading Dante's poetry and not actually reading astronomy and the law of physics written by someone who lived centuries before the appearance of people like Newton, Einstein and even Hawking. For those of us who love and know the Bible, Dante gave us the additional info on the Biblical characters by writing about his encounters with such eminent characters like the first man Adam, the blessed virgin Mary, Jesus' favourite disciple, Apostle John the eagle, and king Solomon just to name a few. Mysteries such as how did Adam remain in the garden of Eden, the language he spoke and the exact offence Adam angered God to give mankind the inheritance of the original sin. It is clearly evident that Catholicism was Dante's Christianity with the blessed Virgin Mary getting more ink and praise compared to her son Jesus. The protestant church did not exist during Dante's time since Martin Luther was still a futuristic figure by two hundred years. It was surprising to read Dante's brutal and scathing criticism of the papacy and the corruption of the Catholic church pre-Lutheran times. But maybe I shouldn't be surprised that discerning educated people like Dante and Luther, especially in the Latin language could cross check the actions of the Catholic church with the Latin Bible. I was also at first surprised theologically by Dante's strong advocate for predestination and God's favour for only His elect, a theology on God's grace we often associate with John Calvin, who also came roughly the same time as Martin Luther, which was 2 centuries after Dante. But I shouldn't be surprised if the Bible I read today is the same as the Latin Bible of Dante that contains the same clear messages that God saves only his elect and his criteria is only known by Him. It was interesting to read that people of olden times like Dante (lived 900 years ago) also grappled with questions like the fate of virtuous people who lived the earth and died without knowing Jesus. Much more widespread was ignorance of Jesus in olden times before the digital age of internet and when bibles were hand copied in a few languages, chiefly Latin. Accessibility to Jesus then was acutely reserved for monks and the educated who had their hands on the precious few hand copied of bibles in extremely limited circulation. Also the souls of babies who died too soon. Where do their souls go? Dante seized his chance to get answers from the higher powers and was comforted to know that God had reserved places for these ignorant virtuous souls and the babies that died too soon. But alas places in Heaven are limited to those God has elected and they are filling up even as I write this book review. Once the last throne is filled, the day of reckoning will be upon mankind and all will be revealed. We will see how close Dante's vision of hell, purgatory and paradiso are to the real thing. Paradiso was not rarefied air or a vacuum of darkness as Dante reached beyond the outermost of Primum Mobile to finally glimpse the orbit call Empyrean, reserved for the most exclusive club (called paradise) members like the blessed Mary and Abraham. Far from it, we find a universe bathed in Gods blinding rays of love emanating from the centre of the Empyrean (which encircles the Primum Mobile and all the other 9 orbits of paradiso). God's love represented by the ray of lights of the sun is the single force that holds the universe in perfect unchanging symmetry & balance, the future of mankind and the meaning of life and the universe. While Hawking may still be seeking his elusive "unifying theory" for the universe, Dante Alighieri has already revealed it to the world, nearly 900 years ago.
Influenced by his exile in a rift between the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor at the time, which saw him favoring the pope, Dante's "The Divine Comedy" not only provides an insight into the church and the state that has haunted humanity for two millennia, it takes us through our spiritual voyage through life and even our anticipated embrace of the afterlife as reflected in the three canticas---Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Not only is the allegory rich, reflective and mind-stirring, it explains our human perceptions in so many ways.
The deep political and social implications of the work is not lost. This all-encompassing nature of the work is not common around. Would be looking for more of it. So far, I found it in "The Union Moujik", "Paradise Lost" and "Animal Farm". "Divine Comedy is a book that requires reading more than once.