Journeying Through the Inferno: Canto 1

by John Stamps

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost
. . .
I cannot well repeat how there I entered,
So full was I of slumber at the moment
In which I had abandoned the true way.

Along with the rest of the Western World, I decided to join the 100 Day Journey of reading Dante. Yes, we’re reading the entire Divine Comedy. With Dante the pilgrim as our guide, Dante the poet leads us from the Inferno through Purgatory into Paradise. New videos are released every Mon-Wed-Fri and they only last about 10 or so minutes. You can read any translation you want—I’m using Anthony Esolen’s. The plan is to read three cantos per week, an eminently do-able practice as long as you don’t get bogged down in the notes. The 100 Days of Dante will end Easter 2022. Can you think of a better way to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth than with Dante and Beatrice in Paradise? I sure can’t.

Reading Dante fulfills a number of personal bucket list goals. For starters, the dreadful Western Civilization class I took as an undergraduate at a fundamentalist college—wow, was it really back in 1973?—was the low point of my academic career. I’ve been remediating my invincible ignorance ever since.

The Canto One video was narrated by Ralph C. Wood, former Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University. I know about Ralph Wood as a Flannery O’Connor scholar. I didn’t realize he knew so much about Dante as well. One remark he made really struck me. In fact, I copied it into the front page of my copy of the Inferno.

“We will not discover truth, goodness, happiness, and beauty until we know we have lost them.”

That observation might not be self-evident. But I think Dr Wood is correct. We sleep walk through life. Our careers or simple busy-ness consumes us. Who has the cycles to contemplate truth or beauty?

But we can start our pilgrimage simply by seriously ruminating why am I so unhappy? More money won’t make me happy. Self-medicating in all its various adult forms won’t make me happy. I don’t make enough money to be on permanent vacation.

But Dante isn’t writing about run-of-the-mill happiness such that you’d find from a trip to Maui or at the bottom of a bottle of a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. He wants us to ponder what constitutes our true beatitude, from the Latin word beātus, “happy, fortunate.”

As we descend into the inferno with Dante and Virgil as our guide, we can begin to cross off one vice after another that most certainly won’t make us happy. Canto Two warns us, you’ll never be happy if you’re a coward.

(Go to Canto 2)

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4 Responses to Journeying Through the Inferno: Canto 1

  1. brian says:

    Odysseus, Orpheus, Dante, fundamentally Christ on Holy Saturday. Descent into Hades is required if one desires to properly see the stars. The Word rises from aniconic darkness that is excess of light, yet we are also creatures of the earth, chthonic, feeling, death implicated. Imagination discovers reality, but only after a sojourn that transfigures the ordinary by enduring the mysteries of night.

    Liked by 2 people

    • johnstamps2020 says:

      Don’t forget Aeneas! I read Book Six of The Aeneid last night as background reading. Sybil leads Aeneas down into Hell so that he can visit his father. His hopes are crushed. Death is irremediable. And Elysium disappoints. The dead – even the good and noble dead – are still just shadows, even if they’re not being tortured.
      “So Aeneas pleaded, his face streaming tears.
      Three times he tried to fling his arms around his neck,
      Three times he embraced – nothing… the phantom
      sifting through his fingers,
      Light as wind, quick as a dream in flight.”

      Like

  2. Tom says:

    John, thanks for this. I’m joining the trek with you all, but beginning late. So I’ll have to catch up. Just two thoughts for now.

    1) How does 100 days of reading Dante end at Easter of 2022? Somebody’s math is wrong. 100 days from, say, Sept 1 would be the first week of December. I haven’t been to the site yet, so I’m guess these are not 100 consecutive days.

    2) I love the opening line you started with:
    Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita \ mi ritrovai per una selva oscura…
    “In the middle of our life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood.” (trans. Luzzi, 2015)

    The “I” is Dante’s, but his journey is part of “our life.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • johnstamps2020 says:

      The 100 Days of Dante cheats. It’s three cantos per week: M-W-F. It’s 100 days of Dante, it’s not just one day right after another. That’s how we end up at Easter April 17. Don’t worry. Most of us are behind as well. And these blog posts will lag behind as well. We just got a Canto Five video on Friday. No, I haven’t listened to it yet. That’s why God invented the weekend – to get caught up on stuff.
      P.S. Pascha is April 24. We Orthodox get another week’s reprieve to read Dante.

      Liked by 1 person

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