Hell has lost its capital letter. It has become a cipher for our worst earth- and ego-bound fears. We no longer apply ourselves to the idea of hell, but apply the idea of it to ourselves. Few of us are now scared of ending up there, but most subscribe to a basic notion of retribution - the casual nemesis of "what goes around comes around". We have to believe this; it is a large part of what makes us behave.
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) set his Divine Comedy in 1300, the year in which he turned 35. According to the Bible, this is life's half-time. The journey is a digression, literally a sidestep, but nothing is left to chance in what follows. Dante, guided by the "shade" of Virgil, tours hell (and then purgatory and heaven), noting every aspect of this underworld's extraordinary construction. Hell reaches down to the centre of the earth in circles with sections and subsections tailored to the punishment of every possible sin, from the mild agony of the unbaptised to the more painful of the spendthrifts, the fraudsters and the betrayers of their own kind.
The maps that have been made of Dante's hell recall Giulio Camillo's Theatre of Memory, a later Renaissance idea of a kind of amphitheatre stuffed with images intended to provoke spiritual thoughts. As those who pored over Botticelli's tiny, exquisite illustrations when they were exhibited at the British Museum last year will remember, the Inferno is just as didactic, crammed and freighted.
In an age when any poem that makes it on to a second page is considered "long", the Divine Comedy represents the triple concept album - like Ovid or Virgil, an irresistible challenge for the mid-career western poet looking for a stretch. In making himself a crucible on which to distil epic truth, Dante also appeals to the postmodern poet who, like him, is probably more interested in casting the real in an imagined world than vice versa. Dante, however, was a 13th-century man writing within a Christian tradition, whereas we tend towards the relative and the passive. The path taken is what Dante is concerned with, rather than the path not taken.
Readers approaching Dante need help. Just as he had Virgil, we have introductions, glossaries and notes. The most intelligent and stalwart are, to my mind, those of Dorothy L Sayers, whose 1949 translation has rightly been revitalised. Her colloquialisms have not aged well, but Sayers teases out every nuance.
One natural point of engagement with the epic is to have lived somewhere like Northern Ireland, where history is raw and in the making. Seamus Heaney has had an ongoing dialogue with Virgil, just as Michael Longley has had with Ovid. Now Ciaran Carson is billed as producing the first version of the Divine Comedy by an Irish poet.
When stuck, Carson would walk to the old Belfast Waterworks that lie on one of the city's "sectarian fault lines". This geography makes him sensitive to the ramifications of wandering off the right road. He would recognise much of Dante's Florence and is attuned to how people give themselves away - their affiliation evident in name, clothing and gesture: "what holds the future for the citizens/of my divided city? Is there one just man/in it? Or are they all sectarians?"
Sayers recognises that, ideally, one would sit down and read the Divine Comedy from start to finish, caught up and carried along. But she believes that if we do not study the architecture of the poem - its topicality, politics and theology - we are trying to "judge a great city after a few days spent underground in the cellars and sewers".
Dante's Europe, she says, was much like the postwar Europe in which she was writing: "The Italian cities in the 13th and 14th centuries were not places like Little-Hugley-in-the-Hole, nor were their politics the politics of the parish pump." Dante was born into the Florentine clan of the Guelfs, who were embroiled in a historical feud with the Ghibellines. He became a powerful political operator before his sudden exile in 1302. He never returned.
The American translator Michael Palma's view of the Inferno is one of American-style inclusivity: "It speaks to many different audiences on many different levels." He talks about Dante "weaving in a surprising amount of personal information", as if it were extricable and not part of the scheme. He rejects archaism and rhetorical extravagance, preferring accuracy and rhythmic regularity to the point that his fluent and lucid version tips towards the bland.
Dante claimed to dislike translations, and Sayers admits that "no translation could ever be Dante". All three authors agree that the terza rima, the Divine Comedy's interlocking rhyme scheme, does not work in English - but undertake it all the same. English naturally falls into iambic pentameters rather than syllabics, into even numbers (couplets and quatrains) rather than odd. Here, the language asserts itself in various ways. Carson uses the ballad form as rhythmic counterpoint; Sayers, the force of the Saxon monosyllable; and Palma, the momentum of sheer flow.
Carson is an extraordinarily alert poet who says that he expects a translation to sound like a translation and keeps us conscious throughout of his, and Dante's, mediation - "one foot firmly set/below the other in iambic stress". Sayers, all hard consonants and short vowels, is crisp and absolute. She packs in most of Dante's meaning and sticks to it, and the tone is very much that of: "Well, here we are, so let's get on with it." Palma is self-effacing, intent on precision and conservative.
The Inferno is a horror story we can read from the safety of our armchair, just as Dante, like someone playing a virtual-reality game, wanders through every scene unscathed. But he is always absorbed, mourning the fate of some while relishing that of others: "great is my desire/to see this arrogant bastard dunked in swill/before we leave behind this lake of ire" (Carson). The action-movie zip and gore of it all is the dominant mode of modern epic and adds punch to its inevitably happy ending. A notable number of Americans have given the Inferno a go, including the former US poet laureate Robert Pinsky.
Dante is not describing hell so much as customising an idea of hell, which is probably why the Inferno speaks to us now. These are welcome additions to the oeuvre. Read Sayers for clarity and zest, Palma for meaning and reason, and Carson for artfulness and art.