Is The Divine Comedy Hard To Read?

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The Divine Comedy isn’t light reading by any means. After all, this 14th-century epic poem is comprised of 100 cantos and 14,233 lines. The subject matter is rife with both Greek mythology and church history.

Encounters with Cerberus, theological musings with St. Thomas, and dreams of eagles are just a few of the bizarre and often confusing moments that make up Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy.

However, is The Divine Comedy hard to read? Yes, The Divine Comedy is a fairly challenging read. This is mostly due to some dated phrasing and complex subject matter. However, it’s not impossible to read by any means. With a more modern, annotated translation, it’s easy to see why this epic poem is a classic.

So let’s dive right in and take a look at what exactly makes Dante Alighieri’s magnum opus such a tricky read!

Is The Divine Comedy Hard to Read?

Dante’s travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven can be pretty confusing and often are for Dante himself.

At the end of Paradiso’s 21st canto, after witnessing literal angelic fireworks, Dante straight up admits he was “…thunderstruck, I did not understand.”

So, yes, The Divine Comedy can be a bit challenging at times

This epic poem not only paints some crazy pictures of the afterlife, but it also has some pretty outdated phrases that might not land on modern readers (such as the use of the “fig sign”, which I guess was a thing???).

There are moments where it can be easy to get lost, but it’s also not a super difficult read or anything. 

I don’t know if there’s, like, a standardized way to rate how hard a book is to read, but whatever. This book gets a 3.5 out of 5 on my reading difficulty scale, so there ya go!

Is The Divine Comedy Worth Reading?

If you’ve hit this point in the article and thought, “well, I guess this one just isn’t for me”, wait just a second! The Divine Comedy is absolutely worth reading!

While it may prove challenging at times, there are dozens of incredible and beautiful passages throughout this text.

Here are just a few of my favorites:

“When that great worm descried us, savage Cerberus, he op’d his jaws, and the fangs show’d us; not a limb of him but trembled. Then my guide, his palms expanding on the ground, thence filled with earth rais’d them, and cast it in his ravenous maw.

(Inferno, canto 6)

Through that celestial forest, whose thick shade with lively greenness the new-springing day attemper’d, eager now to roam, and search its limits round, forthwith I left the bank…”

(Purgatorio, canto 28)

“Whatever melody sounds sweetest here, and draws the spirit most unto itself, might seem a rent cloud when it grates the thunder, compar’d unto the sounding of that lyre, wherewith the goodliest sapphire, that inlays the floor of heav’n, was crown’d.”

(Paradiso, canto 23)

This also doesn’t even mention how much fun this book is! Dante’s travels through Hell and Purgatory are pretty insane, and there’s plenty of clever punishments and trials Dante comes up with depending on what the particular offender’s committed.

For example, in canto 23 of Inferno, Dante finds religious hypocrites forced to walk in circles for all of eternity wearing hooded cloaks weighed down with lead. Neat!

I will say that, personally, the Paradiso kind of gets a little boring (and also kind of hard to understand).

Dante’s basically traveling to each planet in the Solar System and on each stop he has like, a little mini-theological discussion with famous saints or Biblical figures.

It’s a bit much at times, but there are some really beautiful sections, especially towards the end.

“In that abyss of radiance, clear and lofty, seem’d methought, three orbs of triple hue clipt in one bound: and, from another, one reflected seem’d, as rainbow is from rainbow: and the third seem’d fire, breath’d equally from both. Oh speech how feeble and how faint art thou, to give conception birth! Yet this to what I saw is less than little. Oh eternal light!”

(Paradiso, canto 33)

What’s the Easiest Translation of The Divine Comedy?

As I talked about earlier, The Divine Comedy can be a little tricky to read thanks to some older phraseology. However, there’s a ton of newer translations nowadays that take Dante’s wording and make it more accessible for today’s audiences.

In terms of a more modern understanding, I’d definitely recommend Robin Kirkpatrick’s translation

This particular translation strikes a balance between respecting the syntactic and metric components of Dante’s work while also making sure things flow well in the sentence structure itself, which was helpful for me as a reader.

However, the quotes I used for the majority of this article came from Rev. Henry Francis Cary’s translation.

This one’s a little bit trickier to get through, but the benefits of it are simply that it’s available online to read for free. If you’re doing further research into a passage of The Divine Comedy, this is a great choice.

Finally, I also audiobooked this poem through the Librivox app (which I super recommend), and that translation was from American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

This translation is slightly more modern (being published about 60 years after Cary’s), but still retains a bit of that ~antique~ phrasing if you’re into that kind of thing. It’s a solid translation, and it’s free!

Is The Divine Comedy Funny?

The Divine Comedy is sort of a complicated title. Is this poem supposed to be funny? Is Dante making fun of religion? Is this supposed to be Dante’s wacky adventures through Hell???

In short, no, The Divine Comedy is not funny. The titular word “comedy” used here meant something a little different back in 14th-century Italy than it does now.

Back then, ancient poetry was categorized either as “High”, which were generally tragedies, and “Low”, which were comedies! Because of those strict parameters, anything back then that had a happy ending was a comedy.

The Divine Comedy has a happy ending (spoiler alert!), thus the reason for its title.

So unfortunately, there’s no jokes, no gags, and no goofs. It’s just Dante and company making their way through the afterlife, seeing the sights, and learning some valuable lessons along the way. Neat!


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