Among American libraries, the most widely held texts (as of 2004) were The U.S. Census, the Bible, and Mother Goose. However, the fourth, edging out Shakespeare, is Dante’s Divine Comedy. Referring to the Inferno (the first third of the Comedy), Jacques Barzun notes, “Remember that he [Dante] wrote a pamphleteering poem in which, as a wandering exile, he damned [quite literally] his political and personal enemies, extolled friends, and put forth dogmas by no means all orthodox.” For example, he was probably the first to put into print the idea that a pope (actually several popes) wound up in hell. Dante tried to remake history and faith in this world with his vision of the afterworld.
Inferno begins with Dante having wandered thoughtlessly away from the true path. However, when he tries to return, he is driven to the gates of hell by a panther, a lion, & a she-wolf. In this work (somewhat departing from Dante but closer to more ancient accounts of hell) we enter hell by traveling down the Styx, a marsh-like river full of disconsolate shades. There we hear the moans of lost souls and the growls of the beasts below echoing down the rock corridors.
Part II begins with another set of threes, the 3-headed hell-hound Cerberus. We hear the barks and screams of animal violence from each of his mouths. Minos, a half bull and half man, is a sort of Satanic St. Peter who judges the sinful and sends the to their proper circle by twisting his tail around his body the corresponding number of times. The hurricane of Dark Winds is end for those with uncontrollable desire. Dante expressed great compassion for these poor souls (especially Francesca Rimini and Paolo) who suffered in death as they suffered in life from their love. This movement is built not from melodies but from wildly rushing scales with each instrument playing as fast as they possibly can, regardless of the speed of the rest of the ensemble.
Three furies guard the gates of the City of Dis (City of Sin). Their wails are as much in agony as in aggression, as they are the daughters of the Queen of Everlasting Lamentation. In this Inferno, the City of Coffins has been reinterpreted as the fate of Ideologues (rather than simply heretics). There are centuries-old methods for encrypting messages (and often names) into the fabric of music. Using these methods and some of my own devising, I have consigned a few dozen friends, enemies, and persons of note to their rightful ends. Not a few living political figures have a spot reserved for them in the City of Coffins.
A River of Boiling Blood torments the violent and the bloodthirsty. An army of demonic archers forbids them from escaping or easing their torture. This movement begins with one of the more memorable lines from the Comedy, “And he [the chief demon] made a trumpet of his rear end.” Canto XXI, line 138.
The bottommost circles of hell are not fire but ice, beginning with the frozen swamp Cocytus. This swamp is not completely frozen but rather thick, icy sludge, queasily undulating, with occasional bubbles from the sighs of the submerged ghouls murkily breaking the surface.
Departing again from Dante, I portray the center of hell not as a massive three-headed worm but as the complete absence of God. This final canto of the Inferno begins with a mocking quotation from a Latin hymn “Vexilla Regis.” The original hymn, composed to celebrate the arrival of a fragment of the true cross to Poitiers, France, begins, “The banners of the king come forth. The mystery of the cross shines out.” In Dante’s rendering it becomes, “The banners come forth of the King of Hell.”
The music for Vexilla Regis occurs in different guises throughout the work, but the original tune isn’t heard until the very end of Easter Sunday. This final section begins with a depiction of the waves of Lethe, the River of Forgetfulness, which flows from the summit of the mountain of Purgatory to feed the four rivers of the Inferno. The Inferno ends with Dante emerging from hell to “once again behold the stars.”