BOOK REVIEW / A humanist's holiday in Hell

John Mortimer offers a reader's guide to Dante's Inferno; The Inferno of Dante translated by Robert Pinsky illustrated by Michael Mazur Dent, pounds 20

Dante's Inferno is a 14th- century poem that seems calculated to cause the greatest possible pain to a 20th-century humanist, or to anyone who is attracted to Christianity because of its compassion and belief in the possibility of redemption. The God of the Inferno has precious little compassion and no forgiveness. He was the God who not only turned a blind eye to Belsen, but also exercised great ingenuity in constructing His own blood-chilling concentration camp, where sinners should suffer, not only during their brief lives, but for all eternity.

What is particular about Dante's God is that He consigns sinners to their particular circle in Hell according to an immutable tariff of offences. No attention is paid to mitigating circumstances, or the idea of doing justice to the individual soul before the Divine Court. Hell, in short, was made on exactly the lines that the present Home Secretary would wish to impose on our present sentencing system.

How do we reconcile the enjoyment of a great poem with what must seem, to many of us today, a repellent theology? Our own views may be best captured by Ulysses in his speech to his sailors. He celebrates the dignity of man and says: "You were not born to live as a mere brute does/ But for the pursuit of knowledge and the good". But such sensible humanism is, apparently, no better than the excuses of the gluttons and the adulterers. Ulysses is condemned as a thief and must suffer in Hell.

In an admirable Preface to Robert Pinsky's translation, John Freccero deals with past attempts to enjoy the poem without revulsion. Coleridge advised us to "suspend disbelief" and enjoy the poetry without accepting the theology. Erich Auerbach suggested we separate "Dante's didactic intent from his power of representation", and held that the reality of the condemned characters overwhelmed their allegorical meaning. Perhaps we should simply remember how Dante suffered from the ruthless power-seeking and political intrigue in Florence and take Hell as an accurate picture of politics today.

The Christian God of the early Renaissance is cruel and vindictive, but his victims and the pilgrim visitors are capable of finer emotions. In the fifth Canto, and one of the poem's most beautiful passages, Francesca da Rimini, lover of her brother-in-law, Paolo, is found in the Circle of Incontinence, forever blown like a starling across a stormy sky, denied sleep or rest for ever, thrashed by the wind and calling harsh cries of agony. Francesca tells the poet that she and her lover read about Lancelot and Guinevere, the great illicit lovers, and their eyes met and "they read no more that day".

Dante describes the moment when he hears Francesca's story. He is so overcome with pity for her that he falls down like a dead man. Later he finds his kind old tutor Brunetto Latini tormented among the Sodomites, condemned to burn for a hundred years if he takes a second's rest. "Might I have had my will," Dante says, "You would not have been thrust apart from human life." Perhaps one moral to be drawn from the Inferno is that, when it comes to a comparison between men and gods, mankind usually comes out best.

This extraordinary poem, in which Dante's contemporaries, friends and enemies, together with such legendary and historical figures as Dido, Theseus. Odysseus and Brutus, suffer the ingenious torments of the damned, has been much translated. The main problem has been what to do with Dante's terza rima, an infernally ingenious but musically effective rhyme-scheme which calls for three rhymes repeated in the order ABA BCB CDC DED and so on. Some translators, such as John Sinclair, have avoided the daunting issue and turned the poetry of the Inferno into prose. Shelley translated a passage from the Purgatorio into pretty good terza rima. Dorothy L Sayers, made of sterner stuff, used it in the whole of her verse translation with much success.

Robert Pinsky, a distinguished American poet, in his introduction blames the English language for being poor in rhyme, a proposition with which Byron, WS Gilbert and Cole Porter might not agree. He therefore makes considerable use of poor or "consonantal" rhymes of the sort used so effectively by Yeats and Auden. In my view they don't serve the magnificent sweep and clangour of the Inferno so well; but there are passages of beauty.

The advantages of this book are its illustrations (although I'd rather have Dore's) and the fact that the Italian original is printed on each opposite page. Even with my sketchy knowledge of the language, I can use Pinsky as a crib and enjoy the wonders of terza rima. I'd recommend getting hold of Sayers' version, too; it has a valuable glossary of names. Both translations are compulsively readable, just as the great poem is still calculated to make a humanist's hair stand on end.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor