C. S. Lewis read Dante’s Inferno in Italian when he was in his teens, and he read Dante’s Purgatory in the hospital when he was recovering from wounds he received in the inferno of World War One.
When he was twenty-three he mentioned in his diary that he disbelieved in immortality and that Dante’s “facts” were outdated. (At that time his brother Warren was reading Dante.) Six years later, in the spring of 1929, Lewis reluctantly decided that there is a God; but he did not yet believe in Christianity or an afterlife.
At the beginning of January in 1930 C. S. Lewis visited his friend Owen Barfield for a few days, and the two did “some solid reading together.” After lunch they would take a walk, then read Dante’s Paradise (in Italian) the rest of the day.
Afterward, Lewis described this experience to his friend Arthur Greeves:
“[Paradise] has really opened a new world to me. I don’t know whether it is really very different from the Inferno (B. says it is as different as chalk from cheese — heaven from hell, would be more appropriate!) or whether I was specially receptive, but it certainly seemed to me that I had never seen at all what Dante was like before. Unfortunately, the impression is one so unlike anything else that I can hardly describe it for your benefit — a sort of mixture of intense, even crabbed, complexity of language and thought with (what seems impossible) at the very same time a feeling of spacious gliding movement, like a slow dance, or like flying. It is like the stars — endless mathematical subtility of orb, cycle, epicycle and ecliptic, unthinkable & unpicturable yet at the same time the freedom and liquidity of empty space and the triumphant certainty of movement. I should describe it as feeling more important than any poetry I have ever read.”
Lewis suggested that Greeves might try it in English translation, but warned him “If you do, I think the great point is to give up any idea of reading it in long stretches… instead, read a small daily portion, in rather a liturgical manner, letting the images and the purely intellectual conceptions sink well into the mind…. It is not really like any of the things we know.”
Six months later, Lewis told Greeves he had visited Barfield again and they had finished Paradise. “I think it reaches heights of poetry which you get nowhere else; an ether almost too fine to breathe. It is a pity I can give you no notion what it is like. Can you imagine Shelley at his most ecstatic combined with Milton at his most solemn & rigid? It sounds impossible I know, but that is what Dante has done.”
The year after he first read Paradise, C. S. Lewis became a believing Christian, and he was clearly influenced by Dante for the rest of his life. There are traces of The Divine Comedy throughout his writing, from The Pilgrim’s Regress, his first Christian book, to Letters to Malcolm, his last.
Kathryn Lindskoog’s brand new essay tracing Lewis’s references to The Divine Comedy in his books from The Pilgrim’s Regress to Letters to Malcolm will appear first in the spring 1999 issue of The Canadian C. S. Lewis Journal. After that it will appear in The Lewis Legacy.