First, most anthologies print big hunks of Inferno and then abruptly cut the poem off or zoom straight to the end of Paradiso. This treatment suggests that Dante's journey through the afterlife climaxes with his vision of Satan. Wrong. If you imagine Dante's pilgrimage as a road trip on Route 66, Cocytus would be Oklahoma City—a significant stop at the one-third mark, but a long way from the desired destination. (Note: No further parallels are implied between Oklahoma's fine capital and Dante's hellish lake of ice.)
Second, anthologies give inordinate attention to footnotes, riddling the poetry with superscripts and piling lines of explanatory text at the bottom of every page. Readers need some information on the many people, places, and events Dante mentions, because otherwise the poet's points would be entirely lost. But overemphasis on names and dates causes the Comedy to read more like an old newspaper than like an artistic masterpiece. Returning to the Route 66 analogy, footnote freaks are the well-meaning parents who stop at every historical marker along the road. Educational, yes, but also extremely jarring.
Perhaps the biggest mistake made by many teachers and anthologists, though, is believing that a small dose of Divine Comedy will produce lasting benefits for their pedagogical patients. More often, the dose inoculates students against ever wanting to see the poem again.
We assume most of you dutifully received your Dante vaccinations, but we hope that the ill effects have worn off and you are ready to give the poet another try. He has so much to offer—adventure, romance, humor, reflection, and the most engaging expression of the medieval Christian worldview available.
The Comedy cannot be taught or appreciated on a syllabus schedule, because savoring it is a lifetime project. As twentieth-century poet T.S. Eliot wrote, "The majority of poems one outgrows and outlives, as one outgrows and outlives the majority of human passions. But Dante's is one of those one can only just hope to grow up to at the end of life."
Yet even a little taste of the Comedy, as we hope to offer in this issue, yields rewards. In the words of C.S. Lewis, "There is so much besides poetry in Dante that anyone but a fool can enjoy him in some way or another."
Elesha Coffman is associate editor of Christian History.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
This week, ChristianHistory.net looks at what a famous painting of the poet, Domenico di Michelino's Dante with His Poem (1465) reveals about Dante's life, legend, and legacy. Next week, Wheaton College's Rolland Hein examines how Dante's description of a pilgrimage through the realms of death demonstrates how Christians should live.
Digital Dante and Dante Alighieri on the Web both offer The Divine Comedy, of course (in several translations), but also other works and information about his life from scholarly and popular perspectives.
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous Christian History Corners include:
If My People Will Pray | The U.S. National Day of Prayer Turns 50, but its origins are much older. (May 4, 2001)
Mutiny and Redemption | The rarely told story of new life after the destruction of the H.M.S. Bounty. (Apr. 27, 2001)
Book Notes | New and noteworthy releases on church history that deserve recognition. (Apr. 20, 2001)
A Primer on Paul | The History Channel uses Holy Saturday not to discuss Jesus, but the apostle who spread his message. (Apr. 12, 2001)
Image Is Everything | The Taliban's destruction of Buddhist statues is only the latest controversy over the Second Commandment. (Apr. 6, 2001)
Christian Education for All | The first Sunday schools provide a positive example of government partnerships with faith-based organizations.(Mar. 23, 2001)
The Sport of Saints? | Forget St. Pat's. It's time for March Madness, baby! (And yes, it's Christian.) (Mar. 16, 2001)
Digging in China | Christianity in the world's most populous country may be a lot older than anybody imagined. (Mar. 9, 2001)
Food for the Soul? | Lenten traditions range from fowl-turned-fish to pretzels. (Mar. 2, 2001)
The Radical Kirk | The Church of Scotland has a long history of intense reforms. (Feb. 23, 2001)
Marching to Zion | The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church celebrates its 200th anniversary today. (Feb. 16, 2001)
Innovating with the Flow | John and Charles Wesley harnessed the momentum of their time. (Feb. 9, 2000)