Descending into Dante’s Inferno: A Musical Narration by Hozier

By Silvia Cosmacini

By Silvia Cosmacini

Try to visualize Hell. Is it a scalding hot cave, or a chilling abyss? Who calls this haunting place home—demons, tormented souls? Who told us what Hell looks like?

Dante Alighieri in a Nutshell

For those of you who don’t know, Dante Alighieri, a well-loved Italian author of the 14th century, was the one who crafted the Inferno blueprint. With his masterpiece known as “La Divina Commedia”, he turned the literary world upside down and changed the course of history. Dante’s impact goes far beyond mere literary achievements. His work not only consolidated the Italian language once and for all, thanks to the groundbreaking multilingualism of his poetic work, but also revolutionized our understanding of Hell. Yes, I am talking about the demonic realm. 

Dante’s vivid portrayal of the three realms – Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven – shaped history’s perception of them, inspiring countless paintings, poems, and works that have captivated generations and are considered works of art.

Well ahead of his time, Dante’s description of Hell was so influential that when one tries to visualize Hell, his version of the Infernal Reign comes to mind. Dante’s work has become permanently ingrained in our collective consciousness, impacting even those who are unfamiliar with it. In the Divine Comedy, the main character is none other than Dante Alighieri himself, as he gets lost “midway upon the journey of life” and stumbles upon the doors of Hell. Chaperoned around the Infernal realm by the Latin poet known as Virgil, Dante must find his way back to a righteous path.

Inferno’s Structure

Now, what if I told you that Hell is shaped like a funnel? Technically, a funnel made of 9 circles slowly descending into the center of the Earth – where the Devil is a permanent resident – but a funnel nonetheless. 

As we walk alongside the poet and his guide on their journey, we uncover a meticulously structured Inferno, in which every circle corresponds to a specific sin. As we delve deeper into Hell, slowly getting closer to Lucifer himself, the severity of the sins encountered on the way escalates.

The journey begins with the Limbo, a realm reserved for non-baptized and indecisive souls, and ends with the ninth circle, where those who were guilty of acting treacherously belong. Dante’s curiosity is mirrored by his character-self, as he voluntarily interacts with the damned souls found on his way. He listens attentively as they recall their mortal lives, admitting their faults to the poet and explaining to him their eternal punishment. One distinct characteristic of Dante’s Inferno is the presence of the law of retaliation, which guarantees that the punishment of those inhabiting hell will resemble, or completely contrast, the sin that they committed while alive.

Dante’s Inferno in Music: Hozier

Hozier, an Irish singer and songwriter, is one of the many artists who seemed to find inspiration in Dante’s work. With the release of his latest album “Unreal Unearth” and the start of his international tour, which included a mindblowing one-night stop in Amsterdam, Hozier has skillfully found a way to carry the poet’s legacy into the hearts of his audience. The album, and its 16 songs, follow the underlying structure described by Dante in the Divine Comedy, taking listeners on a journey through the 9 circles of Hell – much like Virgil did with  Dante’svoyage to Hell in the Divine Comedy.

The brilliance behind Hozier’s songwriting lies between its accuracy and creativity. Throughout the album, well-aimed references to important passages of Dante’s Inferno and its characters can be found, showcasing the singer’s deep understanding of the Divine Comedy. At the same time, Hozier successfully integrates his own experiences with Dante’s narrative, creating a unique perspective on the main themes of the Inferno. Reflecting on one of the most famous passages of the Divine Comedy, in his song “Francesca”, Hozier takes us with him to the second circle of Hell, reserved for those who were overcome by lust in their mortal life. The song follows two lovers, Paolo and Francesca, as they recount their tragic love story and how their illicit affair led them to their deaths.  Dante expresses conflicting feelings towards the couple: while they deserve to be in hell, as they’ve let themselves be consumed by lust while Francesca was married to none other than Paolo’s brother, their love and devotion for each other seems to be unfitting in such a dark place.

Hozier skillfully narrates the story by assuming Francesca’s point of view, as she describes to Dante the lengths to which she’d be willing to go to be with the person she loved so dearly. As she shamelessly admits that, if it meant being together for eternity, she would go through all of it – the betrayal, violent death, damned soul – again. At the same time, the singer honors Dante’s brilliance with the not-so-casual mention of storms and hurricanes, which represent the eternal punishment for the lustful soul of the circle.

In the last song of the album, Hozier’s audience reaches the end of the journey. Light, being one of the recurring themes of the Divine Comedy as it alludes to the ethereal presence of God and Heaven, represents the perfect epilogue to the album, bringing those who were brave enough to stay by the narrator’s side back to where it all started. In “First Light”, the singer describes a life-alternating event that brings him peace, drawing parallels to Dante’s self-revelation and (future) triumphant ascent to Heaven. Surprisingly, the setting in which this unexpected realization takes place in the song is none other than a mundane, slow morning in bed. While the narrator acknowledges the potential return of darkness in his life because of its unpredictable nature, his fears are placated by a recent enlightenment. He finds peace in knowing that he won’t ever be the same, forever altered by the discovery of his guiding light, that makes life worth living.

 

Edited by: Ashley Young

Cover: Silvia Cosmacini

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