Lessons in Manliness from Dante

by A Manly Guest Contributor on December 7, 2011 · 51 comments

in A Man's Life, Lessons In Manliness

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Andrew Ratelle.

“I see man’s mind cannot be satisfied
unless it be illumined by that truth
beyond which there exists no other truth.”

- Paradiso IV.124-126.

Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture, The Thinker, is probably the single most well-known depiction of the poet Dante. Originally entitled The Poet itself, the statue has since become as much of an icon of the strength of the human intellect as the man who first inspired it. Crouched in life as in Rodin’s bronze over some of the greatest problems life has to offer, Dante remains one of history’s foremost thinkers, a visionary who places man at the center of his own epic journey between good and evil.

Born in Florence to a noble family in 1265, Dante Alighieri was a man whose life was shaped by conflict. After the defeat of the Ghibellines, the rival political power in Florence, Dante’s own party, the Guelphs, split in half and turned on itself for control of the city. Having made a name for himself as a statesman and “man of letters,” Dante was sent on an ambassadorial mission to Rome to help treat for peace. Detained there by Pope Boniface VIII while his political enemies seized control of the city, Dante was fined and eventually banished from Florence for his opposition to the new ruling party. He would never again return home. For the next twenty years, Dante lived as an exile until his death in 1321, during which time he penned one of history’s greatest epics.

A poetic journey through the flames of hell, purgatory, and heaven, the Divine Comedy takes place on a truly massive scale. Encompassing the entire breadth of man’s moral actions, it has resonated with each passing generation for the last seven hundred years, never ceasing to inspire readers of every walk of life with its immortal themes of sin, suffering, and redemption. Along with its author, the Comedy has long been a touchstone of the Western intellectual tradition, ensuring an enduring legacy for those who would seek to learn from the life and work of “the central man of all the world.”[i]

Lessons in Manliness from Dante

“Nobility, a mantle quick to shrink!
Unless we add to it from day to day,
time with its shears will trim off more and more.”

- Paradiso XVI. 7-9.

Never underestimate the power of a well-rounded mind. Some two hundred years before Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo etched into tradition the archetype of the multi-talented Florentine, Dante had already taken the stage as a kind of “pre-Renaissance Renaissance man.” Though his renown stems chiefly from his abilities as a poet and writer, Dante maintained an enormous appetite for learning throughout his life.

The arts of war, politics, philosophy, linguistics, music, painting, and the natural sciences were all pursuits he engaged with the same discipline and intensity, completely immersing himself in a chosen subject for its own sake. Diverse though they were, much of Dante’s success lay in his ability to incorporate his many interests into the service of his larger work, creating a piece of literature that is at once an achievement in subject, style, language, and visual artistry.

The Divine Comedy is in many ways the first poem of its kind, an epic written not in the classical Greek or Latin, but the vernacular of the common people. To achieve this, Dante essentially standardized the language we now know as modern Italian, applying his abilities as a linguist to synthesize the varying dialects that stretched across medieval Italy into a single, cohesive whole. Likewise woven through the Comedy are many of Dante’s other scholarly interests, now conveyed to a new and broader audience through his skill with language. Set to an almost musical tempo, the Comedy’s narrative moves the reader through a vision of the afterlife that rivals the imagery of any artist, while taking on the world of politics, history, and even the metaphysical nature of the earth itself.

Breadth of study is no hindrance to a mind that can harness its resources toward a singular goal, bringing to bear the weight of one’s discipline and experience on the subject at hand.

“…for sitting softly cushioned,
or tucked in bed, is no way to win fame;
and without it man must waste his life away,
leaving such traces of what he was on earth
as smoke in wind and foam upon the water.
Stand up! Dominate this weariness of yours
with the strength of soul that wins in every battle
if it does not sink beneath the body’s weight.”

- Inferno XXIV.46-51

Learn as much from experience as you do from books. To borrow a line from Mark Twain, Dante may have studied much, but he never allowed it to get in the way of his education. Scholarly work was an essential element to his intellectual formation, but he was far from letting it be the only one.

Not content with simply playing the part of the studious observer, Dante approached life with the same vigor he applied to his studies. He was, as he later remarks in the Inferno, as much of a glutton for knowledge as he was for experience. In his youth, he fought with sword and spear against the Ghibellines as a feditore, or heavy cavalryman, on the front lines of the Florentine army at the Battle of Campaldino and later at the Siege of Caprona. Six years later, he began a career in public life, serving on councils and in debates before eventually being elected to the office of Prior for the city of Florence. During his time in exile, Dante traveled extensively, often attending meetings and delegations to try to restore peace between the factions of the Guelph party and then returning home.

But it was far from a bed of roses. Dante’s intensity as an intellectual was likely the result of the fact that he experienced much of the darker side of life. By the time he began the Comedy, Dante was a man whom life had chewed up and spat back out. Hardened by war, conflict, betrayal, and the burden of exile, Dante had seen firsthand the coarseness of the world, and it left an indelible mark on him and his work. Gleaning as much from the rawness of life as from his subjects of study, Dante allowed his mind and poetic imagination to be shaped not just by the good or easy things in life, but also by its bitterness, truly making him a man who could reflect on the world as a man of the world.

“How hard it is to tell what it was like,
this wood of wilderness, savage and stubborn
(the thought of it brings back all my old fears),
a bitter place! Death could scarce be bitterer.
But if I would show the good that came of it
I must talk about things other than the good.”

- Inferno I.4-9

Accept the consequences of your own moral vision. Moral courage can take many different forms. At times, it may require a man to defend the principles he lives by, or even to do the right thing regardless of the consequences. At others, it could mean something a little more basic.

Justice was much more than a nice idea in Dante’s mind. It was real, the standard of a higher moral order that bound the actions of all men. Right and wrong weren’t just arbitrary designations, but degrees of talking about the inherent value of human behavior. His life in politics and exile had shown Dante the face of corruption and treachery, and knew that the perpetrators of both and many more ills rarely received any punishment for their deeds. But that did not mean they shouldn’t be held accountable for what they did.

The standard that evil is to be punished and good rewarded is written into the very fabric of the Divine Comedy, and it’s a standard Dante uses to measure the deeds of all men, even his own. Moral judgments require courage, because in so judging, a man must hold himself and his own actions to the very same standard. The vision that allows one to see evil for what it really is also illuminates his own rights and wrongs. For Dante, a journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven isn’t just a matter of looking into the fate of other people, but a way of viewing oneself, facing up to both one’s strengths and weaknesses as they really appear.

“You have the light that shows you right from wrong,
and your Free Will, which, though it may grow faint
in its first struggles with the heavens, can still
surmount all obstacles if nurtured well.
You are free subjects of a greater power,
a nobler nature that creates your mind…
So, if the world today has gone astray,
the cause lies in yourselves and only there!”

- Purgatorio XVI.76-83

At the end of the day, a man lives the life he chooses. Simplicity can matter as much as any level of depth or richness when it comes to creating a great work of literature. For all its timelessness and complexity, the Divine Comedy has a singular message at its core–how man, “subject to the justice of punishment or reward,” either “gains or loses merit by the exercise of his free will.”[ii]

Dante knew that men rarely live how they want, but they will always live as they choose. Though circumstance may often decide many things in one’s life, it cannot ultimately effect the control a man has over the direction he takes. Fortune may work for good or ill upon the path he walks, but it will always be the path he chooses to walk, just as it will always be his choice to move forward or to turn back.

In Dante’s mind, man was the ultimate custodian of his own fate. He alone was responsible for the outcome of his life from beginning to end, and it was he that had to accept the consequences of his choices. With all earthly distinction faded away, the characters in Dante’s Comedy are seen solely in the light of the decisions they made in life. Their lot was their choice, as it is every man’s. Placed within a moral realm ordered not by human laws, but by an inherent standard of justice, one’s merit in life lies squarely in his own hands, to rise or fall as he so chooses. For by virtue of his freedom of will, a man’s ultimate fate is his to decide and his alone.

“Expect no longer words or signs from me.
 Now is your will upright, wholesome and free,
 and not to heed its pleasure would be wrong:
 I crown and miter you lord of yourself!”

- Purgatorio XXVII.139-142

Further Reading

Probably the most readable biography of Dante is R.W.B. Lewis’ Dante: A Life.  For a more detailed bio, check out Barbara Reynolds’ Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man.

For the Divine Comedy, The Portable Dante contains Mark Musa’s translation of both the Comedy and Vita Nuova, one of the poet’s minor works.  Also worth looking into is Dorothy Sayers’ translation of the Comedy, which is available in three separate volumes: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Allen Mandelbaum’s translation can be found online at The World of Dante, a website that also contains a collection of images, maps, and biographical information.

Danteworlds at the University of Texas at Austin is probably the best “sparknotes” version of the Comedy you can find online, while The Princeton Dante Project and Columbia University’s Digital Dante Project provide a more in-depth look at Dante’s life and writings.

[i] John Ruskin. Stones of Venice, vol. III, sec. lxvii.

[ii] Dante Alighieri. Letter to Can Grande Della Scala.

{ 51 comments… read them below or add one }

1 RJ December 7, 2011 at 7:40 pm

Amazing. It seems so incredible that someone could Craft like this. Wish that there were still those who could focus and Craft .. not for money or Fast for deadline sake.. but for growth and knowledge . Light.
These things stay around for a reason.. they teach real lessons.
Brilliant ! Well done.

2 LW December 7, 2011 at 9:41 pm

Wonderfully written. I particularly liked the section “Learn as much by experience as you do from books”. A man who reads from books alone does not understand the world fully. I enjoyed this post!

3 Sean December 8, 2011 at 2:43 am

Fantastic post. An epic that really had a crucial role in the development of my moral obligations and strengthened my vision of myself and the people around me. Can’t encourage people enough to read this! Should note: it is available from Project Gutenberg for free if you can’t afford it but I’d encourage you to support the scholars and translators who put out the hardcopies.

4 James R December 8, 2011 at 6:17 am

“Dante knew that men rarely live how they want, but they will always live as they choose. Though circumstance may often decide many things in one’s life, it cannot ultimately effect the control a man has over the direction he takes. Fortune may work for good or ill upon the path he walks, but it will always be the path he chooses to walk, just as it will always be his choice to move forward or to turn back.”

Now that is something to wrap your mind around for a little while.

5 Stephane December 8, 2011 at 7:00 am

The sentences and words you have chosen are in the very spirit of the message conveyed through Dante’s works. Congratulations.

6 Jason December 8, 2011 at 8:42 am

Also read the chapter about the inferno in James Sloan Allen’s book Worldy Wisdom. It now makes even more sense after reading about Dante’s life in this post. Thank you, Andrew.

7 Alan December 8, 2011 at 10:00 am

Mr. Ratelle – What a wonderful, excellent article you have written. Thank you, sir. I must say that the best translations and commentaries I have encountered have been from Professor Anthony Esolen. I recommend them without reservation.

Dante: Paradise (New York: Modern Library, 2004).

Dante: Purgatory (New York: Modern Library, 2003).

Dante: Inferno (New York: Modern Library, 2002).

8 Joseph Haddon December 8, 2011 at 11:56 am

The part about learning as much from experience as you do from books made me think of The Passive Aggressive Manifesto that I keep on the wall next to my desk. I highlighted the line that reads: Do as much as you read.


Very well written post, sir! Thank you!

9 David December 8, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Great article! I haven’t read all of the Divine Comedy, but I certainly would agree with the author of this article about the nature of Dante’s lessons.

If the Art of Manliness is going to continue looking into classical authors for examples of manliness, I would have to say that you could find few examples better than Niccolo Machiavelli. Beyond the misinformed impression that the general public has about Machiavelli’s ideology drawn from The Prince, Machiavelli was a prime example of what a man should be. He was a patriot, a man of integrity, a realist, and a visionary. Certainly worth a look by this site in my opinion.

10 Rachel December 8, 2011 at 12:50 pm

Very well-written article, thanks for sharing! I would only add that perhaps his muse Beatrice Portinari deserves a mention.

11 Joshua December 8, 2011 at 1:39 pm

Some parts were awkwardly written, but good points overall

12 Brucifer December 8, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Nice to see advice to men that is not dripping with insipid and cliche sports metaphors! Kudos to AoM for uplifting not only our hearts, but our minds!

13 jeff December 8, 2011 at 3:34 pm

His work is poetry, it should be either read aloud or you should be listening to it. Some of the audio books out there are outstanding and it helps to listen to a couple of different translations to get into the subject more easily. Dante is one of the rare classics, historical and meaningful for any generation.

14 Pancho December 8, 2011 at 5:02 pm

I’m in the midst of reading the Divine Comedy, having finished the Inferno a while ago, and about to begin the Purgatorio soon. I only wish I’d begun to read it a lot sooner. I chose the Dorothy Sayers translation because (a) they’re inexpensive paperbacks published by Penguin Books and (b) the notes are really helpful for giving a thorough background on Dante’s world.

My sense of the book so far is not quite as individualistic as that of the author of this post. There is free will but there are lights to guide us in the use of this free will. Dante could not make the journey the Hell without the aid of Virgil, who was himself sent by Beatrice on Dante’s behalf. Dante’s worldview is philosophical but also religious . The moral realm Dante inhabits is ordered by a standard of justice that is not only inherent but divine. Explaining this is one area where Sayer’s notes come in handy.

I agree that we need to learn from experience as well as books but that learning only comes about through reflection and I think that’s something really lacking in men today. Too many men today pursue experience without reflection. Without reflection, experience gets wasted or forgotten. Reading is an antidote for this and in Dante’s life and works we see the fruits of experience tempered by reading and reflection.

15 NJPB December 8, 2011 at 6:24 pm

This is great, Dante was surely one of the manliest of men. Additional further reading

16 Jon December 8, 2011 at 9:02 pm

Excellent points and well written. Just one problem, though:

“With all earthly distinction faded away, the characters in Dante’s Comedy are seen solely in the light of the decisions they made in life. Their lot was their choice, as it is every man’s. Placed within a moral realm ordered not by human laws, but by an inherent standard of justice, one’s merit in life lies squarely in his own hands, to rise or fall as he so chooses.”

Is it too much to mention that this “inherent standard of justice” is the Law of God?

17 Tsunami December 9, 2011 at 3:41 am

Hey, folks. Before I start airing a few of my quibbles about this post (and there are always quibbles when it comes to the Comedy) I would like to congratulate Mr. Ratelle, first for recognizing how epic the Comedy is in giving a guide to men in being manly; second for giving it a very good try in attempting to explain it; and third for his clear admiration of the Comedy. Though I do disagree with what he considers the salient points of the Comedy with regard to manliness, he has nevertheless engaged the Comedy in wonder and admiration, and that is to be respected and encouraged!

That being said, man in this life is not given joy unmixed; this is why manliness is important. Longing for this article to be more thorough, I would make a few points.

First: I love the Sayers translation. Who doesn’t love those notes? And Lord Peter Wimsey is exquisite. But we have got a lot of translations out there, and I cannot for the life of me understand why one will choose a translation in which Dante (oh quintessential Italian!) is turned into Shakespeare, and the uniqueness of his own terza rima is thoroughly abandoned for lack of translatory initiative. To quote Dante himself, somewhere in the first 57 lines or so of the Paradise (this is from memory, so pardon the ambiguous cite):

“Father, Virtue Divine, should you but deign
That I make manifest a shadow of
the blessed kingdom sealed upon my brain,
Then at the foot of that tree whose wood you love,
You’ll see me stand, and crown my brows with green,
made worthy by the subject, and by you.
Poets and Caesars now so rarely glean
your leaves, o Father, for their victory;
Man’s fault and shame, for his desires are mean;
The Penean branches must give birth to joy
when any man should strive for their high fame
In the glad heart of the Delphic deity.”

Why should we settle for the translational habits of the English gentry? We’re Americans! Many have Italian ancestry! Seek the terza rima, and if one can’t read Italian, seek a translation that strives for the leaves! I recommend, as wise Alan above, that one consider the Esolen. The translation is excellent and the notes are sublime.

But that’s more of a textual note. Substantially, my criticism is a bit more dicey. It is absolutely true that a well-rounded mind is a powerful treasure. Indeed, it’s a terrible thing to waste. And to neglect experience is to have no knowledge of the “scattered elements” which Dante sees “unite” in Canto 33 of Paradiso. But these are not statements about what one does with them; they are statements merely about maximizing one’s power over oneself and others. And Dante is not interested in power; even the demons, like “Horrible Minos”, who “weighs all the sins and sends the wicked down”, has “power” over the sinful souls. Rather, he is interested in how one uses it: that is, “how man, as by good or ill deserts, in the exercise of the freedom of his choice, becomes liable to the justice that rewards or the justice that punishes.” (Letter to Cangrande della Scala) That would seem to be the concern of Mr. Ratelle’s second two points, that one must accept the consequences of one’s choices and that one ultimately lives the life they choose.

Yet these are only part, and a very small part, of the message of the Comedy! Let’s take the first one. There is one very powerful figure in the Comedy who pre-eminently and continuously accepts the consequences of his actions, and indeed, ultimately lived the life he chose. That character is Dante’s Satan. He flaps his wings, eternally re-freezing the crater into which he fell because he would not serve God, trapping himself and all other traitors, his entire existence a pathetic mockery of the sort of thing we would call “life”. He imprisons himself and others, because to stop resisting God for even an instant is hateful to him, no matter how stupid and pathetic his continued action may be. For Satan, life is not about seeking the truth; it is about seeking himself. And because of this, he is, was, and will be everlastingly frozen in an icy Hell of his own undoing.

If you want a philosopher who will tell you to “accept the consequences of your choices”, don’t look to Dante. That’s a very small part of his point. Look to Nietzsche instead. He is all about that idea of manliness, and it ends pathetically, in man being not simply the rational measure of all things, but a pathetic self-lover with no interest in duty to anything but himself; and that is not manliness, that is masturbation. It is to be utterly unmanned by narcissism. Narcissus falls into the water and drowns, desperate to find one whom he can love, since he can only love his own reflection.

As to ultimately living the life one chooses, fine! One can ONLY live the life one chooses, ultimately. If I end up getting hit by a car, the life I lived will still be that which I chose. If I end up eating nachos and watching cartoons in five years, or wrestling bears with a team of Australian safari hunters, that will be because I chose either of those two outcomes. It is a truism to say that you will live the life you choose. Dante is not just about the truisms, though. As the perceptive Pancho notes above, Dante is guided to a correct notion of free will; he is not left to decide it for himself; indeed, this is the genesis of the whole Comedy, that left to himself, Dante would be damned of a certainty. It’s much like A Christmas Carol that way, with good reason. (That is also a most manly book.) He must be taught what true virtue is; and it is not a coincidence that Virgil, Pagan wordsmith par excellence, paragon of poetry and Pagan cosmology, is his first guide. Virgil brings Dante back to the natural perfection which, perhaps, we understand little today; this is the virtue theory of Aristotle. But Dante does not stop in earthly paradise, in Purgatorio! He goes further!

And his path is not one of power simply, although in his path there is power indeed, the “place where Will and Power are one.” Rather, it is a journey of that which blind power does not understand and that in which true manliness consists, the authority which the Roman centurion recognized in Christ, the eternal love of the Father. This is what Dante is saying about manliness: not simply “accept the consequences of your will”, but rather the demand by Christ to “accept the consequences of MINE!” Not simply “one ultimately lives the life they choose”, but that the life one must choose to be truly manly is the eternal life offered by the new Adam, Christ! And while the atheist and agnostic readers may chafe about this (I certainly would; it’s a sign of taking it seriously!) it’s not their party, it’s Dante’s. That’s how his cosmology works: if one removes Christ, manliness is whatever one wants it to be. It’s a joke without the thing to which the entire universe is directed. And Jon of the skilled eyes, there, has noticed this in reminding us that the law of Justice is the Law of God; this is the message of the angelic formation in Paradiso. I’ll take it a step further; Dante’s “IVSTITIA” is not simply a law or a concept, but a Person, a Divine Person, the Person of Christ, the Highest Wisdom to the Father’s Divine Omnipotence and the Holy Spirit’s Primal Love. (Inferno Canto III)

True manliness, for Dante, is to take up the Cross of Christ, not to build our own. Our own crosses will be too heavy for us; the Cross of Christ we do not lift by our own strength, but by His, and His yoke is easy and His burden light. (Matthew 11:30)

Anyways, for all that, I hope people are encouraged to read the Comedy! It is a truly luminous work, and I am truly in love with it. I hope that I might live a good life, that someday I might meet the author, if God wills it.

18 Pancho December 9, 2011 at 2:32 pm

in Mr. Ratelle’s defense, Sayer’s was only one of 3 different translations he mentioned. It was I who mentioned picking her translation to start with, and I did so knowing the pros and cons her version, and knowing the existence of other translations.

Ms. Sayer’s gives an explanation of her translation method in her Introduction. It’s a bit long to reproduce here but she does use “terza rima”, and explains why she used “thee and thou”, among other things.

Her notes and commentary are very valuable, especially for someone reading the Comedy for the first time. One clever suggestion I’ve seen is to use a different translation like the Esolen for the text, but read it alongside the Sayers version for the notes.

The funny thing is I knew, even before I started reading, that this wasn’t the only translation I was going to read and now that I’ve begun, I’m certain of this. It’s an immensely rich work I can see re-reading for the rest of my life. My goal is to one day read it in Italian.

All that said, I enjoyed your contribution. Thanks.

19 Rev. Marcus B December 9, 2011 at 6:25 pm

Great artical…prime example of the importance of classics and old books. As a Christian studies teacher it’s one thing I can’t emphasize enough. This is the stuff teens should be standing in line to get….in the wee hours of the morning.

20 Damberson December 9, 2011 at 6:57 pm

Your words have uncovered some of the beauty of Dante’s work I failed to see during my first reading. Of course, that was during high school. Over the past few years, I have entertained the thought that children must be given as much experience as possible then they may begin to appreciate great works of art. I hope to return to this literary classic soon enough.

21 Kenneth P. Payne December 9, 2011 at 7:33 pm

Another monumentally manly post with equally manly comments following. Manliness isn’t about ball games, beer, and babes. That’s for boys. Men think.
One small quibble: The pictured statue of the thinker doesn’t appear to be the one by Rodin. Isn’t it a free-standing piece? This one appears to be part of a frieze.

22 Steve Harrington December 9, 2011 at 10:18 pm

Yeah, a little clunky in places but that can be forgiven since the message is so spot on. I enjoyed this very much.

Kenneth, Rodin’s sculpture of Dante is part of a frieze:


(I’m always sort of amazed that people don’t google stuff like this before they comment–finding that took me less than 20 seconds…)

23 P.M.Lawrence December 10, 2011 at 2:03 am

Tsunami wrote:-

Why should we settle for the translational habits of the English gentry? We’re Americans! Many have Italian ancestry!

No, we are not Americans – not all of us, anyway. Even if we were, that argument is as one eyed and chauvinist as the straw man view it attacks. But, as Pancho reminds us, Sayers gave her reasons for her choice, which rested not on “habits” but on the places stresses come in English and Italian words and how that affected “masculine” and “feminine” rhyming and so on – issues which apply just as much, or almost, in the U.S.A. as in the U.K. (or Australia, where I am, which also has many Italians – often of more recent descent). So it’s not “settle for” so much as “rise to”.

24 Joel C December 10, 2011 at 3:45 am

We also learn that if we don’t like someone just put ‘em in hell!

25 Joel C December 10, 2011 at 3:45 am

The only thing better than a punch in the mouth if you ask me.

26 Jack December 10, 2011 at 7:07 am

I was very impressed with Inferno when I read it. It amazes me having also read the Bible how much of most people’s vision of Hell come from Dante and not the bible. I doubt they realize it.

27 Philemon December 10, 2011 at 7:14 am

Dante is a master of medieval thought rather than a precursor to the Renaissance. The medieval world-view was rooted in the perennial philosophy that sees God at the center of all things. The Renaissance, on the other, was culturally an aberration that placed man at the center. This metaphysical aberration continues to characterize our own times. Dante’s humanism and Renaissance humanism are very different conceptions.

28 Carter December 10, 2011 at 4:42 pm

This line struck me:

“Fortune may work for good or ill upon the path he walks, but it will always be the path he chooses to walk, just as it will always be his choice to move forward or to turn back.”

Basically, whether good or bad “luck” in life, you still choose how to respond to the situation.

29 Brendan December 10, 2011 at 4:49 pm

See this superb commentary:
“Because Dante is Right”–by Titus Burckhardt

30 Richard December 10, 2011 at 7:58 pm

I should have put Dante’s works in my list of books to Reading Backwards to Improve Your Critical Thinking Skillshttp://6sproductivitycomcom.fatcow.com/?p=490

I read Dante’s works just a few months ago, had a some vivid dreams the night after reading Inferno. Well worth the time and effort.

31 Tsunami December 11, 2011 at 2:49 am

P.M. Lawrence wrote:

“No, we are not Americans – not all of us, anyway. Even if we were, that argument is as one eyed and chauvinist as the straw man view it attacks. But, as Pancho reminds us, Sayers gave her reasons for her choice, which rested not on ‘habits’ but on the places stresses come in English and Italian words and how that affected ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ rhyming and so on – issues which apply just as much, or almost, in the U.S.A. as in the U.K. (or Australia, where I am, which also has many Italians – often of more recent descent). So it’s not ‘settle for’ so much as ‘rise to’.”

I will admit to having been a bit facetious in that particular point. But chauvinist? Really? I was under the impression that at a place that exalts manliness we could deal with a bit of hyperbole.

What I will say is that while Sayers did do an excellent job, she did so within a frame that was not, by any stretch of the word, formally faithful to the original Italian. It certainly gives you the same CONTENT (a difficult task for a meter translator, no doubt) but only by trading away the Trinitarian rhyme scheme. By contrast, Esolen does not do that, and I think he does quite well without mucking about with the accenting. Your mileage may vary, but I would only say that just because Sayers did well does not mean we need to drop to our knees and worship for it. That wouldn’t be manly, anyways, and Sayers would say we’d be making fools of ourselves if we did.

32 Gary F December 11, 2011 at 9:04 pm

AoM is pure gold, and this article is representative of the thoughtfulness of the content of this blog. Sometimes we need a gentle reminder from an outside source such as this blog to remind us what is important for the male of the species.

33 P.M.Lawrence December 12, 2011 at 12:39 am

Sigh. Tsunami, I had forgotten that Americans have often forgotten the meanings of words. Just as they use “savant” (the French word for “scientist”) by mistake for “idiot savant”, so also they have come to think that when someone says “chauvinist” he means “male chauvinist”, a very different thing. No, I actually meant chauvinist – someone who carries patriotism to an uncritical extreme, blind to things about his country that might actually need fixing. It has nothing to do with manliness at all.

What I was getting at was that Sayers had reasons for her choices that had nothing to do with Anglophilia, English gentry, etc., and trying to swat her work on that ground is, in the opposite way, the same intellectual vice as the fancied vice it is attacking. I am not suggesting we should deny the soundness of other approaches and stick to hers, just that we should not found criticism of her approach on the worship of a different idol with its own feet of clay. While I am glad that your reply just now did not repeat that, you should not make out that that was not what you did in the comment I was addressing.

34 Cole December 12, 2011 at 10:26 am

There are some great points here, but the one that hits me the most is “learn as much from experience as you do from books.” How true and easily disregarded! Experience is my favorite teacher in life, but it is one that I seem to get the least amount of time with as I get older.

35 The Quiet Seppo December 13, 2011 at 6:24 pm


“Sigh. Tsunami, I had forgotten that Americans have often forgotten the meanings of words.”

The original definitions weren’t forgotten, they were marginalized. That is, we took your words and redefined them in order to suit popular American culture. Whether you approve it or not, Americana still dominates this world. For example, you recognized an American’s alternate and natural use of certain words, and not vice versa. You can keep your Vegemite as is, though.

By the way, I re-spelled your name to suit my American point of view.

36 Sukun December 14, 2011 at 8:58 am

Excellent piece of work.

As an Italian, we had to study the Comedy for three long years at school. One year the Inferno, one year the Purgatorio and one the Paradiso. Supposedly the latter doesn’t come last only because chronologically evident reason, but also because it’s more complex and many layers (some invisible to experts, let alone 16years old students).

One detail though: we read it as Dante wrote it. But forget learning Italian just to read this. This is commendable of course (hell, go for Italian language!) but unless you really master it as even a reduced percentage of Italians themselves do, this will not help you make much sense out of this language from 1300.

This being said, only to praise again the article and the way it is written. I possibly understood much more now than when we were imposed to learn it. Ach, how kids are sometimes heu?


37 Thomas Sundaram December 14, 2011 at 8:25 pm

P.M. Lawrence:

I stand corrected. You are right that we do tend to forget the meanings of words; but let’s not repeat the supposed chauvinism and level the charge solely at Americans, no? Virtually every language has a factor of forgetfulness; I am reminded of the French national initiative to keep their language “pure” (which I think wrongheaded.)

And please don’t think I was accusing Sayers of intentionally trying to promote English colonialism! It was the furthest thing from my mind. But she was unmistakably influenced by the same literary climate as the English gentry, which tended to favor the iambic pentameter. This was at least partly owing to the fact that English really lends itself to iambic pentameter, especially “proper” King’s English. But, as I said, many are Americans, and as one may notice from a lot of deconstructive scholarship, poetry does tend to change and adapt, and sometimes even provides insights into the possibility of adapting so as to reflect a little more of the original terza rima without destroying either the content or the goodness of the form of previous translations. I should think this is not contentious, unless they are in the habit of canonizing meters where you are from!

Hence, I said, strive for the leaves! Sayers did a great job with her end in mind, but we can yet intend more, I think. Esolen certainly does, and if Sayers were the end-all of Dante translation, we wouldn’t have people writing other Dante translations in meter.

38 P.M.Lawrence December 15, 2011 at 7:38 am

Seppo, you are being offensive, just as you would be if you altered any quotation or proper name (e.g., there is no British “Labor” Party or Australian “Labour” Party). And you are mistaken about the idea of U.S. understanding of “chauvinism” overriding “ours”, for two reasons: it isn’t “our” understanding anyway, but one of French origin; and, U.S. usage (like that in “savant”) is incoherent, in suppressing any way to express actual chauvinism (so it’s wrong for that, not for not being “ours”).

Tsunami/Thomas Sundaram, I think you are right about Sayers being influenced by the literary climate but wrong about that meaning she was influenced by the English gentry’s tastes. Rather, the literary climate influenced both – and was in turn affected by what works better in English, which was Sayers’s point.

39 keith December 15, 2011 at 3:15 pm

I think this was a great article. I am a subscriber and this is just one of many. More people, not just men, need to read this blog …… In light of this article. I have a good question:
Are We Slowly Feminizing our Boys?

40 The Quiet Seppo December 15, 2011 at 4:24 pm

P.M. Larry:

“Seppo, you are being offensive”

Ya, no kidding genius.

41 P.M.Lawrence December 16, 2011 at 4:33 am

Well, Seppo, now a lot of people will recognise you for what you are and discount you accordingly, if they hadn’t realised already.

Now I will stop feeding the troll.

42 Walter December 18, 2011 at 2:07 am

Hi, congratulation for the very nice article, I appreciated it very much because it’s not so common that someone non-Italian knows so much about Dante and the “Divina Commedia.” I am Italian so I studied it extensively at school and I have to say that this is one of the things that really lose a lot during translation: he was a real poet, there is a perfection in the word he chose that is impossible to recreate in another language. For example he was the first one to use “Terza Rima” (an interlocking three-line rhyme scheme like this: A B A, B C B, C D C, …) and this pattern is used throughout ALL the poem, and also every single line have the same length (endecasyllab). Sometimes the choice of the words allowed him to express its meaning also with sound (i.e. at the end of canto V he write “e caddi come corpo morto cade” – “And fell, even as a dead body falls.” If you hear the Italian sentence all those “d”, “rp”, “rt” together give a peculiar sound, like you could hear him falling).
One of my favorite quotes is from canto XVI:

Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza”

Consider ye the seed from which ye sprang;
Ye were not made to live like unto brutes,
But for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge

43 Valerio December 18, 2011 at 10:07 pm

I’m also from Italy, and the quote above it’s also one of my favourite.

It’s the expression of Ulysses, a man that explored the world even against god’s will, and after being judged and trown to hell for it, doesn’t blame himself or god, but reclaim this as his way and the way of mankind.

44 P.M.Lawrence December 18, 2011 at 11:37 pm

Walter, it’s mathematically impossible to use Terza Rima all throughout, as the interleaving intrinsically must break at the beginning and end of a section. I don’t know how Danto handled that, but at least the following possibilities exist:-

- use a different but linked pattern at each end, e.g. a couplet;

- run each section into its successor, e.g. each canto, though this doesn’t deal with the very beginning and end;

- wrap each section’s end around onto the beginning.

In some ways this is like how chromosomes work – ending with near dummy telomeres or (in some bacteria) wrapping around.

Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dante very occasionally diverted from his own choice of pattern for poetic reasons; Virgil did precisely that in the Aeneid, dropping out of pentameter two or three times.

45 Walter December 19, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Yes you’re right, I meant that every single Canto has terza rima inside, but between different canti there is no terza rima, it interrupts at the end of every canto with a single line and starts again from scratch with the next canto, like this (Inferno, Canto XXXIV):

salimmo sù, el primo e io secondo,
tanto ch’i’ vidi de le cose belle
che porta ’l ciel, per un pertugio tondo.

E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle

Regarding the diversions from the pattern, Divine Comedy doesn’t have such things as far as I know.

46 P.M.Lawrence December 19, 2011 at 7:44 pm

And at the beginning of the canto? It must start ABA BCB CDC …, but is there any rule constraining the As or are they just working like a free standing couplet?

47 The Quiet Seppo December 21, 2011 at 2:11 pm

P.M. Larry:

“Well, Seppo, now a lot of people will recognise you for what you are and discount you accordingly, if they hadn’t realised already.”

Good grief. Heh.

48 Jacob Alvarez December 24, 2011 at 5:34 pm

Great article if you aren’t looking for the real meaning in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Not once did the author mention God or Jesus Christ. How can you analyze Dante’s work without acknowledging that it is first and foremost Dante’s attempt to convey his personal struggle in this world and ultimate reliance upon God? That’s like saying the true meaning of Christmas is to get gifts from Santa Claus. I understand AoM wanting to appeal to society by nixing Christ from the equation. However, I don’t find it acceptable when presenting work focused on Him. Just another example of the popular opinion winning out over the Truth. I will continuously pray for the author and all those who avoid what we should be exalting.

49 Andrew Ratelle December 29, 2011 at 8:20 am

@Jacob Alvarez

Your comments and honesty are appreciated, as are your prayers. I will respond however, by saying that if it’s Chinese you’re hungry for, you’re better off not going to a Pizza Parlor.

This is a men’s interest publication that primarily concerns itself with the discussion of masculinity in today’s secular world. If you want to read an extensive scholarly analysis of the Divine Comedy or an essay detailing the influence of Dante’s Catholic faith on his life and works, you’ve come to the wrong place. Religion and spirituality are issues of sufficient depth that, once raised, must be dealt with adequately. To assume that one could or should do so here would be to entirely misunderstand the proper scope of this website. This simply isn’t the place for a detailed discussion on the Catholicity of Dante or the theology behind the Divine Comedy, but rather where one can reflect on how the example given by his life and works relates to modern masculinity.

The inclusion of an explicit mention of God or Christianity at this point would at seem at best frivolous and at worst disrespectful of the material itself. Shoehorning throwaway religious references into a forum that cannot appropriately address them is the mark of no small misunderstanding of the relationship between faith and literature. Recall that even Dante himself refrained from making direct references to both Christ and the Virgin Mary not out of some desire to make his work more ‘appealing’ to society, but out of respect. Sometimes an honest forbearance is simply that, and not the sign of some ill-gotten desire to bleach God out of the picture.

A good Christmas and New Year to you.

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