I recently read Dante’s Purgatory in Dorothy L. Sayers’s translation, published by Penguin Classics, and have now embarked on Dante’s Paradise translated by Sayers and Barbara Reynolds (Sayers died during her work on this and her friend and fellow scholar, Reynolds, completed the translation).
Purgatory was a challenging read because of its unfamiliar historical references, but it was easier than The Inferno for me because I could see present-day application in terms of sin, righteousness, and obedience to Christ. I imagine that it was also easier because I’m becoming more familiar with the style and language, and also because I’m working out a way to read.
One of the wonderful benefits of the work of Sayers and Reynolds are their introductions and notes and appendices. Each canto has an introduction, and at the end of each canto there are notes which explain the images employed and the historical background and allusions. When I read The Inferno I read the introduction to each canto and then in my reading of each canto I’d often refer to the notes. I began Purgatory in the same way but then switched to simply reading the translation first and then dropping back to read the introduction and refer to any notes that provided needed explanations. This turned out to be a better approach for me because it let me encounter the “story” first as a whole, rather than piecemeal. Of course it requires the reader to accept the fact that he won’t immediately know the historical references, but if the reader is able to put his curiosity on hold for a few minutes he or she will, I think, be better able to enjoy the ride – for the story is the story is the story – and we can usually get the story of the forest without being able to indentify all of the trees. Once we’ve been through the forest then we can open our guidebook and note the unusual trees we saw and understand why the Master Gardner placed them as he did.
I look forward to revisiting Purgatory for I think there is much in it concerning spiritual formation into the image of Christ. Dante was really writing about life today, about pilgrimage today – it is not a story of speculation, it is a story designed for immediate application and Protestants ought not to be put-off with the idea of Purgatory in terms of a title because Dante is writing not to the dead but to the living – he is challenging us in our obedience to Christ today.