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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes
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The Inferno contains some very graphic, grotesque, and even
obscene language and imagery. Sinners wallow in a river of
excrement; demons pass wind to sound like bugles. Yet the
poem is epic, grand-and about God. Why does Dante do this?

Historically, Dante was one of the first artists to use both low
style (bawdy language, grotesque images) and high style
(elevated poetic language and themes) in the same work. He
was also the first to write a major epic poem in his native
language, Italian, rather than in the more academically
acceptable Latin.

One explanation for this is that Dante used his language and
style as another way of organizing his work, to guide the
reader through. Dante's mixed styles reflect the truth he is
trying to present. Dante saw a connection between the
mundane, street world and the elevated, spiritual world. Dante
the pilgrim has to travel through the murky, disgusting depths
of Hell before he can reach Heaven; so too the reader must
work his or her way through physical images of sin and
punishment before he or she can reach a theoretical
understanding of sin's nature and the divine order that gives
each his eternal place. In other words, Dante uses a mixture of
language styles to lead the reader to his more abstract
meanings and themes.

It may be difficult, when you're reading a translation, to get all
the nuances of style that Dante included. Also, it's hard for us
in the 20th century to remember that this language seemed
shocking or slangy in the 14th century, because it's completely
acceptable in literature today. Keep reminding yourself,
though, that Dante was one of the pioneers in using "street"
language in literature.

Also, Dante's style reflects his interest in polarities. Two
extremes of language-coarse and refined-continually pull the
reader in different directions. A formal "high style" of writing
is polarized with a casual, colloquial "low style." Partly, this
creates the variety that is important to Dante, to show how
many possibilities there are in his quest. It also exerts a
tension that keeps the poem moving, never resting with one
level of meaning-just as Dante the pilgrim can never rest until
his quest is finished.

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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes

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