Hear Dante’s Inferno Read Aloud by Influential Poet & Translator John Ciardi (1954)


On the 750th birth­day of Dante Alighieri—com­pos­er of the dizzy­ing­ly epic medieval poem the Divine Com­e­dyEng­lish pro­fes­sor John Klein­er point­ed to one way of help­ing under­grad­u­ate stu­dents under­stand the Ital­ian poet’s impor­tance: an “obvi­ous com­par­i­son” with Shake­speare. They both occu­py sin­gu­lar­ly defin­i­tive places in their respec­tive lan­guages and lit­er­a­tures as well as in world lit­er­a­ture, Klein­er sug­gest­ed, and indeed no less a crit­i­cal per­son­age than T.S. Eliot once wrote, “Dante and Shake­speare divide the world between them. There is no third.”

And yet, those who know the epic Eng­lish poems Par­adise Lost and Par­adise Regained—heav­i­ly influ­enced by Dante’s work—may find John Mil­ton a more apt com­par­i­son. Mil­ton also made com­plex uses of the­ol­o­gy as polit­i­cal alle­go­ry, and wrote polit­i­cal tracts as pas­sion­ate and res­olute as his poet­ry. Both Mil­ton and Dante were intense­ly par­ti­san writ­ers who expand­ed their world­ly con­flicts into the eter­nal realms of heav­en and hell.

Like Mil­ton, Dante’s for­ma­tive polit­i­cal expe­ri­ence involved a civ­il war—in his case between two fac­tions known as the Guelphs and the Ghi­bellines (then fur­ther between the “White Guelphs” and the “Black Guelphs.”) And like Mil­ton, Dante had spe­cial access to the pow­er­ful of his day. Unlike the Eng­lish poet and defend­er of regi­cide, how­ev­er, Dante was a strict monar­chist who even went so far as to pro­pose a glob­al monar­chy under Holy Roman Emper­or Hen­ry VII. And while Mil­ton veiled his polit­i­cal ref­er­ences in alle­gor­i­cal sym­bol­ism, Dante bold­ly named his adver­saries in his poem, and sub­ject­ed them to gris­ly, inven­tive tor­tures in his vivid depic­tion of hell.

Indeed, Dante’s lit­er­ary per­se­cu­tion of his oppo­nents presents one of the fore­most dif­fi­cul­ties for mod­ern read­ers of the Infer­no. In addi­tion to cat­a­logu­ing the num­ber of clas­si­cal and mytho­log­i­cal char­ac­ters Dante encoun­ters in his infer­nal sojourn, we must wade through pages of con­tex­tu­al notes to find out who var­i­ous con­tem­po­rary char­ac­ters were, and why they have been con­demned to their respec­tive lev­els and tor­ments. Most of his named his­tor­i­cal sufferers—including Pope Boni­face VII—had died by the time of his writ­ing, but some still lived. Of two such cas­es, one online guide notes humor­ous­ly, “Dante explains their pres­ence in Hell by say­ing that they were so sin­ful that the dev­il did not wait for them to die before snatch­ing their souls…. Obvi­ous­ly libel laws were not that strict in Medieval Italy.”

The Infer­no treats the exis­tence of hell and the griev­ous sins that con­sign its inhab­i­tants there with the utmost seri­ous­ness. And yet, the pres­ence of Dante’s many per­son­al and polit­i­cal ene­mies injects no small amount of dark humor into the poem, such that one can read it as polit­i­cal satire as well as an inge­nious mar­riage of medieval Catholic the­ol­o­gy and phi­los­o­phy with the poet­ry of court­ly love. The rich­ness of the Divine Com­e­dy’s rhetor­i­cal world invites a great many inter­pre­ta­tions, but it also demands much of its read­er. To meet its chal­lenge, we might lean on excel­lent ref­er­ence guides like the online World of Dante, which offers a ful­ly anno­tat­ed text in Eng­lish and Ital­ian, as well as maps, charts, and dia­grams of the hell­ish world, and visu­al inter­pre­ta­tions like Gus­tave Doré’s illus­tra­tion from Can­to 6 at the top.

And we might lis­ten to the poem read aloud. Here, we have one read­ing of Can­tos I‑VIII of the Infer­no by poet John Cia­r­di, from his trans­la­tion of the poem for a Signet Clas­sics Edi­tion. Cia­r­di (known as “Mr. Poet” dur­ing his day) made his record­ing in 1954 for Smith­son­ian Folk­ways records, and the lin­er notes of the LP, which you can down­load here, con­tain the excerpt­ed “verse ren­der­ing for the mod­ern read­er.” The trans­la­tion pre­serves Dante’s terza rima in very elo­quent, yet acces­si­ble lan­guage, fit­ting giv­en Dan­te’s own use and defense of the ver­nac­u­lar. You can hear the com­plete read­ing on Spo­ti­fy (down­load the soft­ware here) or on Youtube just above.

Cia­rdi’s read­ing will be added to our col­lec­tion, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free.

You can also find a course on Dante (from Yale) in our col­lec­tion, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Free Course on Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty

Mœbius Illus­trates Dante’s Par­adiso

Artists Illus­trate Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy Through the Ages: Doré, Blake, Bot­ti­cel­li, Mœbius & More

William Blake’s Last Work: Illus­tra­tions for Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy (1827)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.