The Spouter-Inn

7. Inferno.

I am the way into the doleful city,
I am the way into eternal grief,
I am the way to a forsaken race.

Justice it was that moved my great creator;
Divine omnipotence created me,
And highest wisdom joined with primal love.

Before me nothing but eternal things
Were made, and I shall last eternally.
Abandon every hope, all you who enter.

I saw these words spelled out in somber colors
Inscribed along the ledge above a gate;
‘Master,’ I said, ‘these words I see are cruel.’
(Inf 3.1-12)


Dante’s Inferno, the first section of the Divine Comedy, is a medieval poem in which our author is given a guided tour of Hell. He encounters famous historical figures as well as people he knew personally, while his tour guide (the Roman poet Vergil) explains the logic of the Hell’s organization and the divine justice of its terrible punishments. Suzanne and Chris retrace these steps and talk about their favourite passages in all their upsetting cruelty and beauty.

Show Notes.

The Inferno as translated by Mark Musa, Charles Singleton, or Ciaran Carson. Also available free online in Allen Mandelbaum’s translation (with useful notes by Teodolinda Barolini) at Digital Dante.

The Holkham manuscript, one of only four fully illustrated copies of Dante’s Divine Comedy from the fourteenth century, is available online through the Bodleian library. It’s worth exploring its illustrations.

Gustave Doré’s famous nineteenth-century illustrations are also fabulous.

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s statue of Ugolino and His Sons.

More artworks inspired by the Inferno.

Caroline Bergvall reading “Via”, hosted at her PennSound page. The poem is in her collection Fig.

Next time: John Milton’s Paradise Lost, also available at Project Gutenberg.

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6. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken, and I may say in each case it was before there was any general recognition of the quality of genius in them. The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead. I have met many important people, I have met several great people but I have only known three first class geniuses and in each case on sight within me something rang. In no one of the three cases have I been mistaken. In this way my new full life began. (5)

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (written by her partner, Gertrude Stein) recounts the couple’s lives in early twentieth-century Paris among painters, writers, and composers—and, during the First World War, soldiers. Chris and Suzanne explore what the book says about how painting is like writing, about wives, and about America—and they talk about other pieces by Stein that they love.

Show Notes.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (or on Project Gutenberg).

Other works by Stein: Three Lives. Tender Buttons. The Making of Americans. How to Write.

Gertrude Stein reads If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso.

Alice B. Toklas in her own words.

Picasso’s Trois femmes (1908), a portrait, “in a sort of red brown, of three women, square and posturing, all of it rather frightening”.

Picasso’s Portrait of Gertrude Stein.

Sonia Delaunay’s magnificent book collaboration with poet Blaise Cendrars, La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France.

Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, an exhibit that was at the National Portrait Gallery several years ago with a webpage full of images of Stein.

The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde, a series of lectures hosted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Next time: Dante’s Inferno (translated by Mark Musa or Charles Singleton or Ciaran Carson or whomever you’d like).

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5. Little Women.

‘In spite of the curly crop, I don’t see the ‘son Jo’ whom I left a year ago,’ said Mr. March. ‘I see a young lady who pins her collar straight, laces her boots neatly, and neither talks slang, nor lies on the rug as she used to do. Her face is rather thin and pale just now, with watching and anxiety, but I like to look at it, for it has grown gentler, and her voice is lower; she doesn’t bounce, but moves quietly, and takes care of a certain little person in a motherly way which delights me. I rather miss my wild girl, but if I get a strong, helpful, tender-hearted woman in her place, I shall feel quite satisfied. I don’t know whether the shearing sobered our black sheep, but I do know that in all Washington I couldn’t find anything beautiful enough to be bought with the five-and-twenty dollars which my good girl sent me.’ (ch. 22)

Little Women has Suzanne and Chris tackling new territory: a novel, a children’s book, and something written within the last two hundred years. They discuss this tale of four sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy), the possibilities it offers young women (but eventually takes from them), its complex exploration of gender, and its fascination with death.

Show Notes.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (also on Project Gutenberg).

Avidly, on the Los Angeles Review of Books, had a great cluster of articles about each of the sisters.

How Little Women Got Big” at the New Yorker, which draws upon a recent book about Little Women, Anne Boyd Rioux’s Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters.

Next episode: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein.

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4b. Bonus: Timothy Perry on The Book of Peace.

We met up with Timothy Perry, medieval manuscript and early book librarian at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto. The Fisher is excited to announce the acquisition of a rare and lavish medieval manuscript of The Book of Peace, written by Christine de Pizan (whose classic The Book of the City of Ladies we discussed in our last episode). Tim was kind enough to show the newly acquired book to us and tell us about its many charms.

Show Notes.

A detailed description of the manuscript (with images!) from the Fisher Rare Book Library.

An article about the acquisition in U of T News.

The Book of Peace, translated by Karen Green, Constance Mews, and Janice Pinder. (Open access!)

An article about Pierre Bergé, a previous owner of the manuscript.

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4. The Book of the City of Ladies.

When the evil Julian heard this voice, he reproached the torturers for not having removed enough of Christine’s tongue, telling them to cut it so close that she would be unable to converse with her lord Jesus. They cut off the whole of her tongue, right down to the root, but she spat out these remains in the tyrant’s face and blinded him in one eye. Speaking just as easily as ever, she exclaimed, ‘Tyrant, what was the point of your removing my tongue so that I couldn’t praise God when my spirit will praise Him for evermore whilst yours is damned for all eternity? It’s only fitting that my tongue should have blinded you, since you didn’t believe my words in the first place.’ (3.10, pp. 222–23)

The Book of the City of Ladies begins with its author, Christine de Pizan, working in her study, and suddenly overwhelmed by the misogyny of so many of the great books surrounding her. She is visited by three women—personifications of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice—who instruct her to build a city, and offer her biographies of all the illustrious women who will live in (and therefore be) the city. Suzanne and Chris explore this classic medieval anthology: the ways in which women have made themselves heard; the physical effort of creating both cities and manuscripts; and the echoes Christine’s book has both with other great books and with our own experiences today.

Show notes.

The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan, as translated by Rosalind Brown-Grant.

More info (and images!) about the manuscript of The Book of the City of Ladies that Christine supervised herself.

“In the fifteenth century, men read Christine de Pizan…”

A banner, unfurled at Columbia University during a protest in 1989, included Christine as one of seven great female authors that should be part of the canon.

Next episode: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

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3. The Metamorphoses.

“O gods, if any there be who will listen to my prayer, I do not refuse the dire punishment I have deserved; but lest, surviving, I offend the living, and, dying, I offend the dead, drive me from both realms; change me and refuse me both life and death!” [...] Even as she spoke the earth closed over her legs; roots burst forth from her toes [...] her blood changed to sap, her arms to long branches, her fingers to twigs, her skin to hard bark. And now the growing tree had closely bound her heavy womb, had buried her breast and was just covering her neck; but she could not endure the delay and, meeting the rising wood, she sank down and plunged her face in the bark. (Myrrha, at 10.483-498)

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a long and curious poem, telling stories of people getting transformed into animals, plants, or stones; stones turning into people, and language getting perverted every which way. Suzanne and Chris talk about the issues in translation, the way language can be lost, creation and the natural world, Ovid’s ideas of gender and sexuality, and medieval (and later) interpretations of these stories. They also wrap up this first cluster—on so-called “foundational” texts that turned out to have an unexpected common theme—and announce the next cluster.

Show Notes.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses in three translations: Frank Justus Miller, Brookes More, and Arthur Golding.

The passages we discuss:

Some later works inspired by the Metamorphoses:

The Ovide moralisé is currently being translated into modern English. Meanwhile here’s a translation into Middle English done by William Caxton.

[Correction: Ovid was exiled in modern-day Romania.]

The next book we’ll discuss.

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2. The Symposium.

“Imagine that Hephaestus came with his tools and stood over them as they were lying together, and asked, ‘What is it you humans want from each other?’ And when they were unable to reply, suppose he asked them instead, ‘Do you want to be so thoroughly together that you’re never at any time apart? If that’s what you want, I’d be glad to weld you together, to fuse you into a single person, instead of being two separate people, so that during your lifetime as a single person the two of you share a single life; and then, when you die, you die as a single person, not as two separate people, and you share a single death there in Hades. Think about it: is this your heart’s desire?” (29; 192e)

Plato’s Symposium is a curious text: a philosophical treatise on love, a play about a dinner party in classical Athens where the guests are all flirty and catty, and a story-within-a-story that goes at least five layers deep. Suzanne and Chris consider what it means to get intellectually pregnant, to philosophically crash a party, and to find your missing half.

Show Notes.

The Symposium by Plato, Robin Waterfield’s translation.

Our friends at Dear Reader discussed some adaptations of ancient Greek material: Check it out!

Aristophanes’ myth of the origin of love inspired a striking song in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

When Alcibiades stumbles into the party, drunk and beautiful with flowers in his hair, he probably looks a little like Dionysius, the god of wine.

No Silenus states with effigies inside have survived, but Susan Woodford has argued that medieval “Vierges ouvrantes” statues were similar.

We do have depictions of Silenus as the (significantly older) tutor of Dionysus, however.

Next episode: The Metamorphoses by Ovid. (Use whatever translation you can find.)

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1. The Iliad.

For a young man all is decorous
when he is cut down in battle and torn with the sharp bronze, and lies there
dead, and though dead still all that shows about him is beautiful;
but when an old man is dead and down, and the dogs mutilate
the grey head and the grey beard and the parts that are secret,
this, for all sad mortality, is the sight most pitiful. (22.56-76)

Suzanne and Chris begin their conversations about great books with a very big and very old one: Homer’s Iliad. This Ancient Greek poem about the Trojan War is, of course, widely known, but if you haven’t read it (or if you haven’t read it in a while), you might not remember how complex (and downright strange) it gets with its reflections on war and the fallout of war. They also talk about the joys of dipping in and out of books, rather than reading them from cover to cover.

Show Notes.

The Iliad by Homer, in the Richmond Lattimore translation.

A review of English translations of the Iliad.

Another review of English translations.

A quick taste of what Ancient Greek might have sounded like.

“‘Homer can help you’: War veterans use ancient epics to cope.”

“‘The Iliad’ as illustration of epic struggle with post-Vietnam stress.”

Here, Bullet” by Iraq war veteran Brian Turner, along with a short bio and two podcasts on war poetry.

Teaching classics to convicts.

A lecture on “The Disordered Soul: Thémis and PTSD”.

Writers & Company interviews Pat Barker, author of a recent novel that retells the Iliad from Briseis’s perspective.

Christopher Logue’s War Music is a classic recent radical translation/retelling of the Iliad.

Next episode: The Symposium by Plato.

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