Classics Poetry

Reading Dante in St. Louis

I tend to pick up long, dense literary works when I’m stressed out: Faulkner, Beowulf, Dante. I find hope that I can chip away at my troubles one problem at a time the same way I can finish lengthy tomes by reading a few pages every day. To be transported into other worlds and to marvel at language beyond my imagination are happy bonuses.


I read The Divine Comedy, a few cantos at a time, in my bed in the basement of my home while my parents, unable to care for themselves, slept in Bill’s and my bed upstairs. 

Dante may well have been the very first “gonzo” writer, even though his life bridged the 13th and 14th centuries and the term was coined by American writer Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson’s “gonzo journalism” combined reportage, memoir and wildly subjective and speculative opinion.

Isn’t this what Dante has done in The Divine Comedy? The hero, after all, is named Dante. Both Dante the author and Dante the character are from Florence. The story is set in 1300 when the actual Dante was 35 years old and when Dante the traveler journeyed “half of our life’s way.” Dante’s descriptions of his adventures in Hell, Purgatory and Heaven are certainly subjective and speculative. 


It delights me to think of Dante as a gonzo writer because I came to write my Dr. Bookworm “gonzo book reviews” as a result of reading The Divine Comedy. I started reading it at a very tough point in my life, just as Dante the traveler found himself in a “dark wood of error,” and as Dante the writer suffered exile from his beloved city of Florence. Bill and I were caring for my infirm parents in our home. That alone stretched our physical and emotional resources to near breaking point. In addition, a family member criticized everything we did. They didn’t like the food we served, the physical therapy, the caregivers we hired, the TV shows we watched with Mom and Dad, the money we spent. This person spent hours on the phone degrading us to relatives and family friends

I thought Dante’s Inferno would give me some release. I wanted to see a place where bad behavior was punished. I wanted to see bad guys “get theirs.” I hoped for a vision of hell like that painted by Hieronymus Bosch or in Chinese folk paintings of Buddhist hell. I was not disappointed.


 In Inferno, gluttons are eternally pelted by stinky rain and ice; corrupt politicians are dipped in burning pitch while devils poke them with prongs; churchmen, including Popes, who made money from their office, are jammed upside down in holes with flames licking their feet.

Drawing by Botticelli about 2 centuries after Dante

Reading about tortures was satisfying, but Dante gave me much more than vicarious revenge. Dante’s conversations with the inhabitants of the afterlife sparkle with personality. Francesca da Rimini eagerly tells her story of lust and death: seduction, 14th-century style. She says, “One day, to pass the time away, we read/of Lancelot — how love had overcome him. …And time and time again that reading led our eyes to meet, and made our faces pale.” The only problem was that Francesca was sharing that look with her husband’s brother.

I was immediately taken by the writer’s use of imagery. He uses everyday examples to illustrate some rather bizarre scenes. Dante the traveler encounters Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri. In their struggle for political advantage, they betrayed their own people and double-crossed each other. Here’s the description of their eternal punishment: “and just as he who’s hungry chews his bread, /one sinner dug his teeth into the other/ right at the place where brain is joined to nape.”

Purgatorio has a very different vibe. Rather than the class and regional jealousies evident in Inferno, people in Purgatory greet Dante as kin and countryman. It is a place where sinners atone for their sins, and all are guaranteed entrance to heaven through God’s goodness. Dante converses with many artists, who praise their colleagues, bringing up such names as Giotto, Pisano, Cimabue.

As Dante and his guide, the Roman writer Virgil, travel up the seven terraces of Purgatory Mountain — each terrace represents a deadly sin: pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony and lust — the Arts play a prominent role. Eight times a day, everyone stops what they are doing to sing the Liturgy of the Hours. Dante converses with  a musician who had set his poems to music. In the very first canto of Purgatorio, Dante speaks of his “talent,” his writing skills, and how he would “sing” of his trip through Purgatorio. 

Atoner with stone. Virgil (left) with Dante on right

The visual arts are highlighted in Purgatory. Atoners carry heavy blocks of stone on their backs, but not as punishment for punishment’s sake. These stones are used to carve devotional scenes on the walls of the terraces. At the top of Purgatory Mountain, Dante and Virgil arrive at the Garden of Eden. There Virgil eases himself out and Beatrice becomes Dante’s guide. Virgil, as a pagan, is not allowed to enter Paradiso. 

Beatrice leading Dante

In Paradiso, Dante discourses with philosophers, saints and apostles; emperors, popes and founders of religious orders; fellow Italians; ordinary people and an ancestor. He sees all the orders of angels, the Virgin Mary and a vision of the Triune God. And he is blown away by God’s Goodness.

His ancestor, a crusader, and St. Peter urge him to write about his remarkable journey. They tell him that that is his mission. He has to make the poem we are reading. He worries if he’s capable of doing justice to the experience, but he has to try. He has to become Dante the writer. He must make Art. Dante the traveler and Dante the writer become one. 


As I read through the one hundred cantos of The Divine Comedy, the anger and angst about my life situation faded. I decided that I have to write. My life experience is as unique as Dante’s, and only I can tell my own story. As Dante the poet put everything he knew about history, geography, politics, the Bible, the Greek and Roman classics into his work, I too would incorporate everything at my intellectual disposal. I, too, would transform stress and joy into stories. And thus, Dr. Bookworm was born. 

Tell me: Do you have a literary revenge book?

By Cathy Luh

I am a doctor, a writer and Grammy to Edin and Caleb. I live in St. Louis with husband Bill.

7 replies on “Reading Dante in St. Louis”

I, too, find writing a means of reflecting on painful and other emotional aspects of my life. Your description of Dante inspires me to take a more thorough look; I’ve read only bits and pieces over the years. The scenes indeed are reminiscent of Hiermonyous Bosch. I had the great good fortune to see his Garden of Earthly Delights as well as other paintings in the Prado a couple years ago.


Cathy, I write too. I have always enjoyed writing though didn’t consider myself a writer. I wrote in my career as a librarian. Some might say I wrote too much and too passionately. I wrote reports, reviews and articles. But as you said in your blog, writing can help clear the air and sort out your thoughts . It can release physical pressure in your body. After my husband died, I started writing every night. My husband kept a diary for 30 years and I told him I would continue it. It has been my salvation. I air my joys and grievances every day. It is amazing what you can forget unless you write it down. Now I am writing letters. Not typing letters, but writing letters. I bought a fountain pen which I probably haven’t used since grade school. Now I am looking for writing paper. I write to 2 people regularly. Writing continues to be an important part of my life.


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