Abandon Hope, but Save a Little

Thence we came forth to see again the stars.

~ Dante Alighieri

Dante’s Inferno is not a cheerful poem. It follows the poet Dante and his guide Virgil through hell, upon whose gate are inscribed these words: Abandon all hope, ye who enter hereThis slogan could just as easily be printed on the poem’s front cover. Inferno isn’t a fun read, unless you happen to enjoy long conversations (all written in archaic language and poetic meter) with the tormented souls of damned sinners.

I once wrote about my favorite opening lines in literature, and more recently considered some of my favorite last lines. For example, A Tale of Two Cities ends on a poignant note: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” My all-time favorite last line concludes The Lord of the Rings: “‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”

The final line of the Inferno is right up there with my favorites. For a poem whose most enduring words are “Abandon hope,” it ends hopefully. Dante and Virgil leave hell.

I can imagine it so clearly: disheveled travelers, exhausted from climbing in the endless dark, chilled by the ice of hell’s last circle, disturbed by the horrors of the underworld, glancing upward and seeing a sky alight with stars. I can see them stumbling out of the cave into the fresh air, blinking in the soft light from heaven. I can hear cicadas buzzing and feel a breeze stirring the grass. Hell is behind them. The nightmare is ended. After all the circles of hell, they know they’ve reached safety, for they see again the stars.

Thence we came forth to see again the stars

I’m a bit sentimental, but that’s one of my favorite images in all of literature. After literally going through hell, our heroes are safe. They are no longer trapped beneath stone ceilings. Above them, the heavens declare the glory of God. It’s a touching picture, and an uplifting end to a really bleak poem.

In one of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, there’s a similar scene in which the protagonists escape an underworld to find themselves beneath a starry sky. J.R.R. Tolkien’s books also feature characters ending underground journeys by stumbling out into the open, such as Bilbo getting out of the Misty Mountains in The Hobbit and the Fellowship fleeing Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. Escaping the underworld to find oneself beneath the sky has become a literary motif, and I dig it.

To conclude, here’s a bit of trivia: All three parts of the Divine Comedy end with the word stars. Neat, huh?

2 thoughts on “Abandon Hope, but Save a Little

  1. I have always found the passage in “The Lord of the Rings” where Sam looks up and sees a star above the gloom of Mordor to be deeply moving.

    I am partial to the Dorothy L. Sayers translation myself, although the first one I read was Ciardi’s, when I was in high school, and then only “The Inferno” (education seemed to think only the gloomier view of life was fit for our consumption, as if we were a giddy bunch that needed sobering up. We were also told to memorize the speech from Macbeth that starts ” Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”. In retrospect, I could probably charge them with instigating suicidal pessimism, with no mitigating or balancing positive viewpoint).

    “We must also be prepared, while we are reading Dante, to accept the Christian and Catholic view of ourselves as responsible rational beings. We must abandon any idea that we are the slaves of chance, or environment, or our subconscious; any vague notion that good and evil are merely relative terms, or that conduct and opinion do not really matter; any comfortable persuasion that, however shiftlessly we muddle through life, it will somehow or other come right on the night. We must try to believe that man’s will is free, that he can consciously exercise choice, and that his choice can be decisive to all eternity. For The Divine Comedy is the drama of the soul’s choice. It is not a fairy-story, but a great Christian allegory, deriving its power from the terror and splendour of the Christian revelation. Clear, hard thought went to its making; its beauty is of that solid and indestructible sort that is built upon a framework of nobly proportioned bones. If we ignore the theological structure, and merely browse about in it for detached purple passages and poetic bits and pieces, we shall be disappointed, and never see the architectural grandeur of the poem as a whole. People who tackle Dante in this superficial way seldom get beyond the picturesque squallors of the Inferno. This is as though we were to judge a great city after a few days spent underground among the cellars and sewers; it would not be surprising if we were to report only an impression of sordidness, suffocation, rats, fetor, and gloom. But the grim substructure is only there for the sake of the city whose walls and spires stand up and take the morning; it is for the vision of God in the Paradiso that all the rest of the allegory exists.” —Dorothy L. Sayers, from the Introduction to The Divine Comedy I: Hell.

    • I had forgotten that scene from The Lord of the Rings. Flipping heck, I need to reread those books.

      I’ve read only a few stanzas of Sayers’s translation, but was impressed that she was able to preserve the rhyming scheme of the original. That said, some lines seemed a bit convoluted to fit the rhymes. I suppose there’s no easy way to craft new rhymes in English while keeping the flow of the original Italian.

      It’s certainly a shame that people never seem to get past Inferno. While it’s definitely the most sensational of the poem’s three parts, the poem is incomplete and unbalanced without the other two.

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