Thinking through Hell: Guided by my Students

If hell was a museum, my students could be its docents. They just finished reading Dante’s Inferno, and as they read, they had to draw a chart of hell that illustrated the sin, the punishment, and any major characters Dante meets in each circle.

When I assign any kind of project that requires drawing, I set the standards low. After all, on my best days, I can draw stick figures that barely resemble the human form. I’m learning that I’m in the minority, since most of my students have more artistic ability in their pinky finger than I do in my whole body. Needless to say, the finished products were better than I could have hoped for.


Not pictured: a pop-up book of hell. Easily one of my favorites.

They’ll do a similar project as we read through Purgatory over the next couple weeks. Pictures to come.

Preparing to Teach Dante

This weekend I’m preparing to teach Dante’s Divine Comedy for the next five weeks to a group of tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade students. The task feels overwhelming, especially when I consider the complexity and influence of his poem. Never mind The Divine Comedy, Without The Divine? – The Dishintroducing the Divine Comedy to a group of college/adult students, how do I distill the significance of Dante’s work for high school students without either misrepresenting the poem, making it impossibly tedious, or devoting the rest of the year to reading it?

I ask a similar question of almost every text I teach–this year alone, we’ve read The Consolation of Philosophy, Pilgrim’s Progress, Saga of the Volsungs, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Murder in the Cathedral, etc. As far as I can tell, there is no easy or best answer. I can only hope to give students a sufficient introduction which will hopefully inspire them to return to the text later. This, after all, is only a first pass.

For the Divine Comedy, my introductory lecture will draw on Anthony Esolen’s introduction to the Inferno, where he lays out three underlying philosophical principles of Dante’s view of the world:

1. Things have an End

This is the Aristotelian conception of telos. All things have an end, by which Aristotle meant that all things have an ideal function/purpose. The fulfillment of that purpose will inevitably bring happiness (Greek: eudaimonia). To have accurate knowledge of a thing, you must know its telos, which is unique to every individual person/thing. The punishments in the Inferno correspond to each soul’s direct violation of his telos. The skin diseases of the alchemist, for example, “express, in brute corporeal form, the reality of the falsehoods the alchemists committed” (Esolen xv). Hell, as C. S. Lewis pointed out in The Great Divorce, is locked from the inside. God does not stand over hell imposing punishments on the sinners. They punish themselves by refusing to turn toward the true end and fulfillment of all their desires.

2. Things have Meaning

One of the most wonderful (or most tedious, depending on how you view it) is Dante’s belief that every minute detail plays into the overall importance of God’s created cosmos. Nothing is too small. Esolen illustrates the idea with Jesus’ reference to Jonah in the Gospel of Matthew. Of all the prophets Christ could have referenced–Isaiah, Ezekiel, Elijah, etc.–he chose one of the minor prophets as “a type, or forerunner” of Christ’s own death and resurrection. Jonah wasn’t merely a convenient symbol. He is a testament to the truth of salvation. It is possible to treat every aspect of Dante’s poem in the same way. Detailed descriptions of every punishment in Hell speak to the nature of the sin itself and of it’s corollary telos. This is true not only of the content of the poem but of its structure as well.

Here is Esolen’s description of Dante’s use of numerology:

Dante invented his rhyme scheme (terza rima) precisely to give glory to the Trinity; so, too, the threefold division of the poem, reflecting the threefold division of the hereafter into Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Since tradition held that Christ died at age thirty-three, each of the sections of the poem contains thirty-three cantos, except for the unworthy Inferno, which contains either thirty-four or thirty-two, an excess or a deficiency, depending on whether we consider that Hell begins in the first canto or at the gates in Canto Three. Just as the fall of Adam is the happy fault that brought the Redeemer into the world, so the numerical blemish for the Inferno brings the whole Comedy to an even one hundred cantos, the square of ten, itself the square of the Trinity plus Unity. (Inferno xvi)

3. Things are Connected

If everything has a telos and if everything has meaning, then naturally everything is connected in some way. For Dante, “each thing reflects the mind and plan of its Architect” (xx). Simultaneously, “it is not possible to separate, in this universe, those things which have to do with divinity from those things which do not” (xx). The endless interconnections of Dante’s universe speaks directly to the truth, power, and beauty of Christ’s incarnation. When God took on flesh, He did not merely save human souls, He set in motion the sanctification of the created physical world. This includes everything from mountain ranges to (it pains me to say) mosquitoes. Some of the best descriptions of the comprehensive nature of Christ’s redemptive work occurred during the debates surrounding the Christian veneration of icons in the eighth century. In support of the use of icons, St. John of Damascus writes, “I do not worship matter, but the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation…”

Since Christ saw fit to take on flesh, so Dante sees fit to spend much of his poetic energy in describing the physical appearance & condition of the souls in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. In the Inferno, gruesome descriptions of bodily punishments (e.g., those who sow discord in the body) are balanced with physical beauty. It’s Beatrice’s physical beauty, for example, that makes Virgil himself eager to obey her request to guide Dante back to the “straight and true” path:

When she had finished speaking to me so,

she turned her glistening eyes all bright with tears–

which made me all the readier to go,

And so I came to you as she desired,

raising you from the beast that faced you down

and stole for you the short way up the hill.

Will a discussion about these three principles be sufficient to excite my students about reading the Divine Comedy? Will it be enough to help them grasp some of the basic and essential thematic components of the narrative? Maybe. I probably won’t know until we’ve moved on to a new book, and I’m again busy asking the same questions.

Sabbath Poetry: G.K. Chesterton

I’m reading (and teaching!) G.K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse. It’s a lot of fun, especially if you’re willing to set aside things like “historical accuracy” and revel in the idea and legends of Alfred the Great.

In typical Chestertonian fashion, here’s a great section on the differences between pride and humility:

Pride flings frail palaces at the sky,

As a man flings up sand,

But the firm feet of humility

Take hold of heavy land.


Pride juggles with her toppling towers,

They strike the sun and cease,

But the firm feet of humility

They grip the ground like trees. (IV.256-63)



I read “Ozymandias” with my 7th, 8th, and 9th grade writing students today. I was not prepared for the intense discussion that followed.

At first, they rolled their eyes that we were reading poetry. As we read the poem, we worked on finding the narrative and saying what we see. Twenty minutes later every student in the class–including my 7th graders!–knew what the poem was about and had very strong opinions.

We landed on the question, “Is it true that everything we do will be forgotten someday?”

One 8th grade student didn’t think so. His evidence? Michael Jordan. According to him, because Jordan is the greatest basketball player to ever live, and because everyone loves his “Air Jordan” shoes, it was not possible for him to be forgotten. Some of the other students quickly pointed out the flaws in his example, but the question was still being contested when we finished class.

It’s always a strange moment for me when I see students become intensely interested in something as revered as Shelley’s poetry. But I also love these moments. Despite the tendency to compartmentalize learning, and then to categorize people as a “Math Person,” a “Literature Person,” a “Science Person,” etc., our curiosity is actually unbounded by such arbitrary delineations.

No one is actually a “Literature/Math/Science person.” We’re attracted to Goodness, Truth, and Beauty wherever we happen to find them.

Poetry with High School Students

Part way through the 2017-2018 school year, I stumbled into a new routine with my 10th-12th grade literature students. Every Friday, we designated the whole class period to reading and discussing a single poem.

I can’t say when exactly this idea occurred to me, but I’ve always enjoyed breaking up the usual class routines with poetry. At my previous school, I occasionally hosted “Poetry Geek-out Sessions.” I would bring in a poem, read it with the class, and then I’d let my enthusiasm for poetry do the rest. It was a simple lesson in close reading. It also didn’t hurt that the students enjoyed watching their teacher lose his mind over a handful of words on a page.

Now that I’m back in the classroom this year, I’ve made my poetry geek-out sessions more scheduled and more conducive to a student-led discussion format. Don’t get me wrong. I still bring in poetry that, as Emily Dickinson says, “makes me feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.” So the students are hardly deprived of my tendency to make a fool of myself. But in this context, I’m more self-conscious about making sure students are doing the work of close reading.

At the beginning of each class, I give students two rules to follow every time we read and discuss poetry:

  1. Say what you see.
  2. Find the narrative.

Prior to our discussion, we read the poem out-loud at least three times using different readers. The goal is to hear how the same poem can elicit different cadences which in turn produce different understandings. Whereas some students will pause at the end of each line, others will read with the syntax. The effect is palpable. Where one reading left students puzzled about the meaning of one stanza or line, another will clarify it beyond all doubt.

During the discussion, we’ll talk about things like meter, rhyme, enjambments, and figurative language as we encounter them. For example, we had a “light bulb moment” reading The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock last year when we realized that Eliot had cleverly used meter to echo Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” speech at the beginning of the poem.

  • Hamlet: “To be or not to be that is the question.”
  • Prufrock: “To lead you to an overwhelming question…”
    • Both lines are five and a half feet long and follow an iambic rhythm. They also begin and end with the same words (To…question). Given Prufrock’s themes of growing old, of action vs. inaction, and of the trouble with appearances vs. reality, it’s safe to assume Eliot was thinking of Hamlet the whole time.

My primary goal during Poetry Friday, however, is to help students grasp the content of a poem. This is not a class dedicated solely to learning about the complexities of poetic form. (Which I love, by the way, and some day, I’d love to teach a class that dives into the complexities of meter, rhyme, etc.). My focus on Fridays is to help students experience first-hand how poetry can change the way they see and experience the world. I think this is important because most students have an adverse reaction to poetry–e.g., “It’s too weird.” “Why don’t they just say what they mean in a simpler way?” “Poetry is great for some people, but it’s just not my thing.”

If my experience teaching poetry has taught me anything, it’s that the instinctive reaction to dislike, to disregard, or to politely reject poetry is symptomatic of never having connected with a poem in a meaningful way. And I can’t blame students. Reading poetry is a participatory activity. Unlike the majority of their other reading requirements and habits, students cannot passively receive the information of a poem, much less quickly skim a poem for a “basic understanding.” Poetry is demanding. You must slow down, concentrate, and patiently allow the words and images percolate in your imagination. Then you must listen for the way the words and images resonate with each other and with their various social, etymological, and historical contexts. It’s hard work. But my goodness it is worth it every time.

To use Gerard Manley Hopkins’ phrase, poetry helps us see the world “charged with the grandeur of God.” The sound of lake water will transport you to Innisfree. The color black will elicit visions of nobility and divine grace. And hope will forever be a thing with feathers.

The other day I was once more reminded of why reading poetry with students is worth it. We were reading W. H. Auden’s poem, “As I walked out one evening.” In the middle of a lively discussion, I noticed that one of my students, (I’ll call him Joe) was silently squirming in his seat.

Quick background on Joe: he’s a 10th grade boy who loves his truck, his knives, and all your usual outdoor hobbies–hunting, camping, etc. Joe does not care for school. He’s not a bad kid, but it’s clear that his mind is always elsewhere.

So, when I saw Joe looking uncomfortable during our discussion, I had to know what was going on. For all I knew, maybe he really needed to use the restroom. I asked what he thought of the poem and of the discussion. He sat up straight, grimaced at the poem, and then fell back into his seat. He said that he did not expect the poem to end the way it does. It begins with idealistic lovers, and then transitions into a meditation on the destructive nature of time, the deterioration of relationships, and culminates in a haunting line: “You shall love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart.”

It still wasn’t clear to me why Joe would look so unsettled. Finally, after a short pause, he said, “Usually when I read poetry I just think of it as pretty words on a page. It doesn’t affect me. But this one makes me feel something.”

I struggled to contain my excitement. Thankfully, I had enough self-control not to push him to say more than he was willing to say. Instead, we continued to talk about how and why the poem could produce such an effect in us. The class ended without any profound words on the power of poetry, and by the grace of God I avoided impersonating Mr. Keating. The poem made him feel something, and that was enough.

While I may not know everything that was going on in Joe’s heart and mind, I can say that he’s been a little more attentive in class since then. Poetry has changed his world a little. And that’s enough.

UPDATE: 9/10/2018

Credit where credit is due: I get many of my ideas for poems and discussion questions from the Saint Constantine School Podcast, Poetry Corner. Like my set up for Poetry Fridays, Timothy Bartel’s episodes follow a simple structure. He provides some biography for the poet and poem, reads the poem, and then does a close reading. Bartel is also a poet in his own right.