How I Read The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

My Quick Take: Amazing and challenging.

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.

-Inferno, Canto 1

I finished the Divine Comedy in April 2022, at Easter. I have struggled to write a meaningful review of it, and find that I am simply unable to, or perhaps (more likely) I feel overwhelmed by the task, and have put it off. After mulling this over for months, I have decided that I don’t need to write a review. Scholars devote their whole career to this poem and there are many fantastic resources that anyone can consult on interpretation and the best passages from the poem. My daughter, who is majoring in Medieval Studies, noted that there is an entire class devoted to the Comedy. And anyway, I think that everyone will have their own experience with the reading of it. I certainly did!

Finishing this poem was probably the most challenging reading project I’ve completed, but one of the most worthwhile. For secular and religious folks alike, this epic holds much depth, grotesquery, political intrigue, wicked skewering of enemies (literally and figuratively), love, and ultimately hope. Many read only Inferno (with a morbid curiosity that is, I’d say, rewarded), but I’d recommend continuing through Puragtorio and Paradiso because they are magnificent, and complete the work as intended.

I would have given up on this poem without having a framework. Each of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso has 33 Cantos (sections) plus one initial one, for a total of 100 Cantos. To understand the action and meaning, you need to have knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology and literature, Christian theology and the political landscape of Dante’s late Medieval Florence and environs. It helps to know who the characters are in each Canto: they were his friends and enemies, both living and dead. The backstory for each Canto makes even the more mundane (and yes, there are some less exciting Cantos) sections interesting. Reading a synopsis of Dante’s life before embarking on the Comedy also helps.

There are many excellent digital resources to help you on your Dante journey, but I settled on a plan of action that ultimately worked well for me after a few fits and starts. It is all free. So without further ado, here is the Trish Talks Books method of not just reading, but understanding and exploring the Divine Comedy:

  • Read a quick synopsis of Dante’s life. Even Wikipedia will do.
  • Sign up for 100DaysofDante. Baylor University has produced an amazing program online to help you read the Comedy. I started in Fall 2021 and three times per week they send you an email with a link to the Canto to read that day, and the accompanying Youtube video. Each video is about 10 minutes long, and features a different Dante scholar discussing the Canto. The reading program is designed to end at Easter (the Comedy all takes place over the days of Easter). They are running the program again starting August 31, 2022, and with the most current version you can choose the pace that you want and also choose any start date. I checked and you can just go to Youtube and search for the Canto you want (e.g. “100 Days of Dante Canto 1”), so they appear to be available ongoing, even if 100 Days of Dante ends. I took notes, which were really handy for reading over to remember favourite quotes and themes.
  • Before I read each Canto, I went to the Danteworlds (University of Texas) website and read the history and comments about the Canto I was to read that day. It discusses the mythology, historical figures mentioned, and any significant politics of the day relevant to the Canto. This was essential for my understanding.
  • When I was done reading the whole Comedy, I enjoyed listening to the CBC Ideas three part podcast Dante: Poet of the Impossible. It really capped off the experience.

With this method, I not only enjoyed the experience of reading the Divine Comedy much more, but I also learned a lot, probably just as much as taking that university course my daughter mentioned! If you like classic literature, I totally recommend you read this.


I suggest you read the Divine Comedy because it is so rewarding and awesome.

Read a summary of Dante’s life before starting.

Read the Danteworlds summary for the Canto you are about to read beforehand.

On, read the day’s assigned Canto then watch the accompanying video (I took a few notes so I could remember the main concepts and quotes).

When you’re done, listen to the CBC Ideas three part podcast Dante: Poet of the Impossible.

Contemplate writing a beautiful and moving review, for months, then give up on that idea as it's been done much better by many other people. We’ll each take our own personal meaning from it anyway.



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