We live in an age where the death of literate culture and the demise of "great books" is trumpeted or lamented with some regularity. A recent essay in the Times, for example, argued that the English poems Beowulf and Paradise Lost "are now virtually unreadable," and that the value of the great poetry of the past lies in the material it provides for modern adaptations (in this case the recent film version of Beowulf and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy).  Nevertheless, for humanists toiling away over poems from the distant past in the belief that there is some interest in the subject of their research outside of the academy, there is also evidence to the contrary. Take the example of Dante's Comedy ; over the last several years, new translations have appeared, many of which have sold well and have attracted the attention not only of scholars but also of book reviewers in the main-stream press. The final volume of Robert and Jean Hollander's version of the Paradiso (published last year), for example, has been widely and favorably reviewed, despite the wide-spread assumption that the poem's final canticle is the least readable, least interesting part of the poem.  Nevertheless, it is also true that historical distance is a serious obstacle for many of these interested readers, and the question arises as to how they can bridge the gap of roughly 700 years between Dante's time and the present. Guy P. Raffa, an accomplished Dante scholar at the University of Texas at Austin, has written a slim, elegant volume, Danteworlds , that attempts to close this gap with respect to the first, and most popular, of the poem's three canticles.
Raffa begins by explaining that his book is intended for general readers, specifically undergraduates, who find themselves in one of those still ubiquitous great books courses, confronting the Inferno for the first time. He notes that there are obvious challenges for such readers as they attempt to grapple with this difficult poem, especially that of gaining a basic knowledge of the many individuals, historical events, and religious and philosophical doctrines that Dante would have expected his readers to know. Most readers tackle this problem either by reading a translation with explanatory notes or by studying the poem in conjunction with a book or series of essays on the poem written with the "common reader" in mind. Raffa attempts a different approach. In his experience of teaching the Inferno , he has concluded that two things are key in helping first-time readers engage with the Inferno : first, they must become acquainted with the "multitude of characters, creatures, events and ideas" of the poem; second, they should try "to become adept at recalling who and what appear where by creating and retaining a mental map of Dante's postmortem worlds" (1; emphasis Raffa's). This "mental map" most clearly distinguishes Raffa's approach, as he argues that it provides an "indispensable foundation" for further study of the poem. Dante, Raffa contends, is a visual poet, and we can understand the poem much more thoroughly if we approach it with the aim of comprehending Dante's "visual poetics" (2).
He thus structures the book according to regions, imitating Dante's organization of hell. After two initial chapters that cover the "dark wood" of the poem's introductory cantos and the ante-hell of canto three, he proceeds through the rest of the first canticle by devoting one chapter to each circle of hell, with the exception of the eighth circle, to which, because of its size, he devotes two chapters. This "visual" organization caused only one problem in my reading experience; Raffa refers to events and characters that appear in other circles of hell by indicating the circle, rather than the canto, in which they appear. While this strategy may help readers reinforce the mental map they have been constructing, it may also be confusing, as students wishing to examine that part of the poem will in some instances need to dig around their copies of the Inferno in order to find the specific passage, especially when the circle in question is the seventh or eighth.
Each chapter follows the same basic format. He begins with a brief summary of the events that take place within the circle. A list of "Encounters" follows: descriptions of the main characters that Dante and Virgil meet in the circle, complete with historical and/or literary information with which modern, beginning readers are unlikely to be familiar and which help to provide an interpretive context for the characters. The next section is "Allusions," in which Raffa briefly discusses important allusions to classical myth, biblical or contemporary history, or medieval theology (e.g., the "harrowing of hell" in the chapter on the first circle), as well as descriptions of literary features of the poem. In the second chapter on the "Periphery of Hell," for example, he provides a discussion of Dante's verse form, terza rima , and of anaphora, a literary device employed by Dante for the inscription over the gate of hell at the beginning of canto 3. Raffa then identifies "Significant Verses"--one-line citations of key lines from that circle, which are cited both in Italian and in Raffa's own English translation. Finally, he concludes each chapter with a selection of "Study Questions" for readers to consider. These typically alternate between questions that send readers back to the poem for further, closer reading and study, and invitations to reflect on themes from the Inferno and how they relate to the readers' own life and assumptions. In the opening chapter, for example, Raffa asks readers to consider the four similes of the first two cantos and explain "how they work and why you find them effective or not." Another question points out that as the poem opens Dante "literally faces a midlife crisis" and then asks his readers to compare Dante's account of that psychological state with modern portrayals of it.
As a teaching tool and guide for beginning readers, there is much to praise here. Raffa, for example, generally avoids imposing his own interpretive views on his readers; instead he raises important questions, offers possibilities, but then sends readers back to the poem itself so that they can formulate their own answers. He is also generally very good at providing important historical information at the right time. Only in his chapter on the third circle of hell (gluttony), where Dante's encounter with Ciacco raises issues of Florentine politics, does Raffa provide an "Allusions" entry on "Florentine Politics," in which he offers a brief but useful account of the conflict between white and black Guelphs in Dante's Florence. He attempts, in other words, to allow the poem to dictate when issues of historical or literary context should be raised.
Indeed, Raffa has a talent for concise, lucid exposition, which serves him very well in this book, and his mastery of the vast historical, poetic, and theological material that he condenses down to a manageable size for beginning readers is impressive and, as far as this reviewer could determine, largely accurate. Naturally in a work of this breadth, a few minor mistakes and omissions sneak in. On page 14, for example, Raffa describes Virgil's Georgics as "four long poems," while it is actually one long poem in four books. On the following page, while discussing Inf . 1. 3's reference to the "diritta via " ("straight way), Raffa neglects to mention the subtext that was no doubt most obvious to Dante's contemporaries--Christ's words about the "straight way" (arta via ) from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7. 14).
Many readers may already be aware that much of this book is available on-line at the Danteworlds web site (http://danteworlds.laits.utexas.edu), hosted by the University of Texas at Austin, where Prof. Raffa teaches. In addition to the material it provides on the Inferno , it also devotes similar space to the Purgatorio and Paradiso , each of which is organized in the same fashion--visually, according to purgatorial terrace or paradisiacal heaven. It is true that the explanations offered on-line are not quite as detailed or as numerous as those contained in the book, but the site has additional resources: each page devoted to a circle, terrace, or heaven, for example, includes a link to a gallery: a historical selection of illustrations of that part of the poem, ranging from well known Dante illustrators--such as Botticelli, Blake, and Doré--to lesser known and contemporary artists; and an "audio" section, which provides recorded versions of the "selected verses" from each circle in the original Italian.
It is true that the historical information that Raffa provides already exists in one form or another, especially in those editions of the poem that come with detailed explanatory notes and in reference works such as The Dante Encyclopedia .  What is useful, though, about this book (and, to some degree, the web site) is that it is written as a guide, explicitly working with the experience of the first-time reader in mind so that it succeeds in providing enough information for the first time reader to make sense of Dante's poem without either providing one, "definitive" interpretation or taking the reader away from the poem to be lost in commentary and scholarship. Throughout, Raffa finds ways to provide context and clues that encourage the reader to return to Dante's poem for a fresh look. The book, therefore, is not only useful for first-time readers, but also for those who regularly teach the Comedy to such readers. I, for one, have made a number of notes concerning new approaches to take and new questions to ask the next time I teach the Inferno in a general education course, and I anticipate recommending this guide both to students in that course looking for further help and to friends outside of the academy who are determined to read for themselves one of world literature's greatest poems.
1. Sophie Gee, "Great Adaptations," New York Times , 13 January 2008.
2. See, for example, Joan Acocella's review, "Cloud Nine: A new translation of the Paradiso," in The New Yorker , September 3, 2007.
3. Richard Lansing, ed., The Dante Encyclopedia (New York: Garland, 2000).