The Divine Comedy (Dante Alighieri, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds) #EU27project

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds, in a three volume Penguin paperback edition

I was somewhere in Purgatory when I realised that I could count The Divine Comedy towards the EU27 Project.

A tradition of mine (it’s been two years now: I can call it a tradition) is to attempt a daunting Christian book over the Easter weekend. Last year it was Julian of Norwich. Easter was a little later last year, and spring was a little earlier, and there were no services in church, and there was all the time in the world to take a folding chair out into the back garden and read. Result: I would no longer call Julian of Norwich ‘daunting’.

This year I thought I’d try Dante. I stayed on the sofa, though. I finished Paradise on Sunday morning. In the afternoon it was just about warm enough to read outside.

This is the third book I’ve read for the EU27 Project, and all of them were written outside the European Union. (The next one up breaks the pattern and actually mentions euros.) The Divine Comedy is, of course, the oldest. When Dante was writing the unification of Italy was centuries away, and the idea of a unified Europe was – well, I don’t want to say utterly foreign, because of course there was the Holy Roman Empire and the memory of the Roman Empire to work with. And he does. But he’s writing as an exile from a bitterly divided Florence.

My medieval history is extremely shaky, particularly outside England, and I had no idea who about 70% of the personages we encounter. The notes were useful here; so, too, was giving up worrying about which corrupt Pope was which and just going with it.

Dorothy L. Sayers isn’t afraid either to be a vigorous Dante apologist or to relate the people and politics of his context to her own. This helped a lot. He’s writing at the beginning of the fourteenth century, having experienced first hand the bitterness of civic feuds. She’s writing in the middle of the twentieth century, in a world that has just been brought face to face with the fact of how utterly depraved humanity can be.

And this was something that I, reading in the early twenty-first century, found very comforting. We do, in fact, live in precedented times. The world has been a mess since we left Eden; it’s a mess in a different way this time round, and I don’t always agree with either Dante or Sayers about the appropriate response to that – but it resonates. The anger resonates, the despair resonates, the hope resonates. And then that leap into a bigger picture which none of us is actually qualified to see, whose portrayal is wonderful in its own inadequacy… I loved it. Dante’s worldview is very different from my own, but that really didn’t seem to matter.

Reading The Divine Comedy over the Easter weekend allowed me to follow it in real time, sort of. I didn’t start until the morning of Good Friday (Dante gets lost in the wood on Maundy Thursday), managed to keep up through Hell, and then had to sprint a bit in various parts of Purgatory owing to the demands of Easter socialising and the fact that I had work to do on Tuesday and Wednesday. Once he gets into Paradise we lose the time markers, and so I slowed right down again until Sunday morning, when I finished it all off at once. The momentum helps. The notes are intimidating, particularly in the thickness they add to the books, but helpful. I might read up on some medieval popes and Holy Roman Emperors and go back to it in a bit. As for next Easter, I’m thinking of St Augustine.

6 thoughts on “The Divine Comedy (Dante Alighieri, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds) #EU27project”

  1. I read that version years ago and loved both Inferno and Purgatory. I faltered on Paradise (It is, it is indeed, it is my Beatrice) because it just didn’t grab me with the interest of the other two. Does it get better?

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  2. I wish I had known about the Sayers editions when I decided I’d undertake re-reading the Divine Comedy. But I decided I do it with an audiobook, hoping being read to would be the ticket. I confess the experiment is slow going; I have spurts of interest and excitement and then lose it.

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  3. I have several translations of the Commedia. Sayers’ superb trilogy of translation-explanation of one of the Western world’s greatest achievements in literature was required reading in my grad school’s Medieval Studies and Medieval Theology program. The explanations are accurate and marvelously thorough–and they made me love the Sayer’s translation as much as I love another required book in my studies, Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. There is a more poetic translation of Commedia, John Ciardi’s, that I had read earlier and still in many ways prefer for its poetry. Sayers’ translation was one of the literal ones, Ciardi was an important poet, and if you want a moving translation of Paradiso read his. I am now 85 years old and still can’t read the final Canto of the Ciardi Paradiso without tears running down my face. You might be interested to know that I’m white and have never been a Catholic, although many friends are. Raised Methodist, I left that church after we moved to the Southern US where the Protestant churches were so racist and anti-Semitic my parents and I couldn’t abide them. I joined the Unitarian Fellowship at U of Fla in 1955, soon after Brown vs Bd of Education, and knew I’d chosen well when we were arrested off campus in 1956 for criculating a petition to integrate the law school. I chose Universalism, too, ten years later, after its merger with the Unitarian Church, and have been a devout and very active “UU” ever since. What I love about both Dante and Julian is their emphasis on God as love and their beautiful strides toward inclusive ecumenism. I can imagine the Hindu “good man” of whom Dante wrote reading either translation and feeling accepted.


    1. Thank you for a lovely, detailed comment. I’ll look out for the Ciardi translation; it sounds great.

      Julian is brilliant. While she and Dante both seem to have been orthodox (small O!) believers, they both have a sort of imaginative humanity that makes them very relatable despite how alien the medieval worldview can be. (Sayers is so good at bridging that gap!)

      I’m Church of England, which involves its own complex set of relationships with the wider society, but mostly works for me. I have a lot of time for the Unitarians – my forebears were Quakers back in the 18th/19th centuries, and that drive for social justice and questioning pretty much everything resonates with me.


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