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Peter Thornton said he knew that having a calm mind would be essential to passing his law school exams, so while his classmates at the University of Illinois were frenetically quizzing each other on elements of their first-year courses, he pulled a book from his shelf and began to read. The book was an English-Italian version of Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno.”

Those who see this juxtaposition as foreshadowing can abandon all hope of parallel adventures in hell for Dante and his disciple. Already a Ph.D. with four years of university teaching, Dr. Thornton was relying on his love of poetry – his doctoral dissertation was on Milton – as a way to quiet his mind amidst the cacophony of preparing for first-year law school exams.

The Italian came back easily, both from his graduate school days when he first read Dante in Italian and his high school and college studies in Latin and Greek.

Dr. Thornton did well on those exams and subsequent ones and had a successful career as a lawyer in Chicago, but his love of poetry and Dante remained. Last year, Barbican Press in Great Britain, and later Arcade Publishing in New York City, published his verse translation of “The Inferno.” The work is a labor of love, but it is also a scholarly piece. “I worked on it on and off when I was still practicing law,” he said. He spent about 25 years – about half on translation and revisions and the other half on footnotes.

“I loved practicing law; it was the best decision I ever made,” Dr. Thornton said, “but literary scholarship was my first love.”

The Journey

Readers familiar with the “Inferno” will recall that the poet Dante casts himself as the main character, the pilgrim, in this epic journey through nine levels of a Christianity-based hell, where sinners suffer eternal punishment and damnation as a result of their sins on earth. The “Inferno” is the first of the three poetic sections of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”; the other two parts are the “Purgatorio” and the “Paradiso.”

The journey begins shortly before the dawn of Good Friday – the Friday before
Easter – in the year 1300 of the Christian Era, and ends two days later, on Easter Sunday. Dante the pilgrim has lost his way in a dark wood in the middle of his life’s journey. His way forward and his way back are blocked, and the Roman poet Virgil appears to him,
offering a path to Paradise but only by way
of the Inferno and Purgatory.

Though a pagan, Virgil is admired by Roman Christians, both because of his poetic brilliance and because his epic, the “Aeneid,” tells the heroic story of the founding of Rome from the ruins of Troy.

The nine circles of Dante’s hell still fascinate, Dr. Thornton said, “partly because of the way Dante wrote it. People are worried about life on earth and what a moral life is. …” The dilemma of faith versus reason “was no mystery for people who lived in the Middle Ages. Traditional Christianity has always realized you can’t prove any of this – that’s why we have faith.”

Sins and Sinners

As Virgil guides the pilgrim Dante through the nine circles of hell, the punishments seem ever more gruesome. “Dante doesn’t just hate the people in the ‘Inferno.’ There is good and bad. He is continually overcome by grief as he goes through hell. A lot of great people have destroyed themselves because of the dark side of what they are,” Dr. Thornton said.

There are two types of sinners. The first four levels are occupied by sinners who did not sin by “choice” or “deliberation” but by something that overwhelmed them. The lower circles are reserved for those who deliberately chose evil action, harming others for their own betterment. Each punishment is a contrapasso, a reflection of the sin committed on earth.

People who did bad things on earth put themselves in a bad place, “and that doesn’t become clear until death – then it becomes evident what they had done to themselves,” Dr. Thornton explained.

On the edge of hell, in Limbo, Dante encounters some of the great writers and thinkers who died before the Christian Era and so had no opportunity to be baptized. Because they were not baptized, they have no opportunity to progress to Paradise through Purgatory, but they are virtuous and thus unworthy of hell. Among those in Limbo are Homer, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, Ovid, Horace, Aeneas, Julius Caesar, Lavinia, Euclid, Ptolemy, Zeno, Penthesilea, Camilla, Hippocrates, Galen, Averroes, and Saladin.

Passionate sinners

Passion overcame Paolo and Francesca, the eternally damned lovers in the second circle, when they were reading the Arthurian legend of Lancelot and Guinevere. They, as all other souls in the hell, now suffer a contrapasso, a punishment that uniquely reflects their earthly sin. Just as they succumbed to the winds of desire, they are now forever blown about by winds. A lower circle of hell and a different contrapasso are reserved for Paolo’s brother, who killed the lovers.

Dr. Thornton said, “Francesca’s story is told very elusively. The story is known historically, but Dante only alludes to the scandal. Francesca is wonderful. Dante finds it very difficult to condemn her, but he has to.” 

Dante started out as a love poet, writing “La Vita Nuova” before he began the “Divine Comedy.” Dr. Thornton notes, “Dante the author and Dante the character [the pilgrim] both realize how love celebrated by poets can lead to damnation.” 

Sinners through Fraud and Violence

In the nether regions are the sinners who chose their sins, acting deliberately and maliciously. These punishments show how the sin destroyed the soul. The grafters, for example, whose sticky fingers allowed them to steal and embezzle, will spend eternity in sticky pitch, hidden in the afterlife as their dealings on earth were hidden.

Circle Eight is reserved for those who committed fraud or violence, not just upon family or friends, but at times upon larger segments of society: causing schisms or leading unorthodox sects, gaining power through manipulation or murder, forcing wars upon their neighbors or civil war in their cities, and misusing their religious status for personal gain, not to mention the seducers, pimps, flatters, sorcerers, and hypocrites.

Pope Nicholas III is there, one of several popes stuffed head-to-foot in a hole in a gulch of the Eighth Circle. The soles of the popes’ feet are on fire, a perversion of the Holy Spirit – usually shown as fire around the head – the contrapasso to their perverse dealings on earth.

“What could be more of a betrayal than the medieval papacy?” Dr. Thornton asked rhetorically.

The Verse and the Footnotes

Dr. Thornton’s iambic pentameter moves the reader unobtrusively along the pilgrim’s path. “A poem is not just verse, but also rhythm,” he said. “I wondered if I could do a translation of Dante’s ‘Inferno’ that would be a real poem.”

There are two ways to read his translation, Dr. Thornton said, with or without the footnotes. But to read the verse and not the prose is to miss much of the scholarly passion Dr. Thornton has put into this work – he spent twice as much time on the footnotes as on the translation. “You can’t read the ‘Divine Comedy’ with really understanding without footnotes [his or anyone else’s],” he said.

The footnotes bring the reader to late 13th-century Florence and those who rule by political or religious greed, ambition, and, at times, statesmanship. These notes also refer to earlier scholarly works on Dante, Christianity, and history. Dr. Thornton concludes many of these notes with his own commentary.

This writer was reading a borrowed copy of Dr. Thornton’s “Inferno,” taking care not to mar the pages. She stopped that practice on page 92, at the three-paragraph, 22-line footnote to lines 22-27 of Canto IX – where sinners are punished for violence or fraud. Dr. Thornton explains Dante’s view of the moral harm resulting from each of these, as evidenced in hell, versus the legal judgment on earth: “Dante’s judgment of the relative evil of violence and fraud probably comes from Cicero, who held both unworthy of man but fraud more loathsome. On Duties 1.13. 41. It is unlikely that Dante is simply espousing the aristocratic preference for the bully over the sneak. … The murderer commits a greater injury than the thief and is accordingly punished more harshly under any rational legal system. The calculations of fraud, however, use reason not to seek the truth but to obscure it, and thus pervert the noblest and distinctively human power of the soul … but it would be difficult to argue, in Dante’s time and ours, that systemic corruption is more destructive of a society than endemic violence.”

She has kept the dog-eared copy and purchased a new one for the lender.

Next Steps

Dr. Thornton leaves Dante’s “Inferno” as the pilgrim steps into the breaking dawn of Easter morning. Both journeys will continue. The pilgrim must visit Purgatorio before he can set foot in Paradiso. And Francesco Petrarch and his 366 sonnets are begging this shy, scholarly Evanston resident for a fresh look.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...