Recapping Dante: Canto 14, or a Finger-Wagging Editorial Letter
January 20, 2014 | by Alexander Aciman
I’ve received your manuscript for Canto 14 of the Inferno, and I have quite a few notes. The language and poetry of this passage is absolutely magical; a few passages in particular caught my attention, such as “The gloomy forest rings it like a garland,” (line ten), which is such a beautiful way of phrasing it. And the expression “scorn for fire,” on line forty-six, sounds like the title of a Philip Roth novel. You have a good ear for lyricism and your poem is a unique, fascinating glimpse into theology, history, literature, even love. You’re really carving out a niche for yourself in the Italian canon—kudos!
That said, certain parts left me wanting more, and they confused me enough to wonder if you were really trying your hardest. On line forty-three, Dante addresses Virgil by saying, “Master, you who overcome all things—all but the obstinate fiends who sallied forth against us at the threshold of the gate.” This really threw me off. For the whole poem, Dante has been meek, eager to be with Virgil, and here it almost seems as if he’s mocking Virgil. It doesn’t really fit in with the reader’s impression of Dante—which, I hasten to mention, you have spent the last thirteen cantos crafting expertly.
This canto focuses on those who have sinned against God. Their punishment is to have flakes of fire slowly rained down on them (nice touch, by the way—very Sodom and Gomorrah). Our attention is drawn to one sinner who is sitting in the corner brooding, almost without regard for the flakes of fire falling over him; it’s such a magnificent image that I almost expect him to be Hector or Achilles, but instead it’s a small-timer named Capaneus, who goes on to talk about Thebes for a few lines. From what I understand, Capaneus is in hell because after his victory at Thebes, he scorned Jupiter, who in an instant struck him with lightning for blasphemy. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: you need to find a readership and speak to it. Nobody will know who Capaneus is, Dante. You already told the story of an unknown historical figure in the last canto; now it’s time to make a splash. If you want to talk about Thebes, let’s tag in Oedipus himself.
Virgil then yells at Capaneus—in fact, he’s downright nasty to Capaneus, which was a treat to read. We should have more of Dante and Virgil being mean to sinners. (Cruelty sells.) On the other hand, I’m starting to get the impression that some of these sinners aren’t really such awful people, and I almost expect someone near and dear to Dante to make an appearance in the next canto or so. It can be hard to know who we’re really supposed to pity. Your book would benefit from a line drawn in the sand—sinners on one side, non-sinners on the other.
The two move on. They come to a river, and I have to say, this is where you lost me. Dante is interested in this river, so he asks Virgil what it is, and then Virgil rattles off the names of a few different rivers. Well, which river is it? How many rivers does hell need? I think three is enough, ending with the blood bath. Anything after that is overkill.
Virgil tells Dante a story about some woman taking a baby into the mountain. Twenty minutes of Wikipedia-ing later, I figure out that the woman is Saturn’s wife and the baby is Jupiter. You should come right out and say this.
But that’s not even the worst of it. Virgil tells another story about a man in a tower: each of his limbs made of a different element, and he’s crying and the tears are rivers? What is this? Nobody I showed this to could make heads or tails of it. I’m getting the distinct impression that, rather than addressing your peers, you’re writing for some arbitrary audience that will exist over the course of the next several hundred years or so. Ambition is good, Dante, but too much can be a curse.
I like what I’ve seen so far, and I hope we can do a playback on this Canto to get it back on track.
P.S. Are you sure you want to continue writing this in Italian instead of Latin? I’m not really comfortable with breaking from tradition like that. Who knows where we could end up?
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