One of the most important aesthetic features of Dante’s Divine Comedy receives little discussion among readers of the poem’s English translations: Dante’s poetic form, the terza rima, which scholars believe him to have invented for The Comedy. Terza rima utilizes three-line stanzas, which combine iambic meter with a propulsive rhyme scheme. Within each stanza, the first and third lines rhyme, the middle line having a different end sound; the end sound of this middle line then rhymes with the first and third lines of the next stanza. The rhyme scheme thus runs aba bcb cdc ded efe, and so forth. Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” (1820) instances one of the finest uses of terza rima in an English-language poem:
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
Because this rhyme scheme could propagate itself forever, a terza rima poem typically ends with a stanza of only one line, which rhymes with the middle line of the second to last stanza. We see this type of close in Canto XXXIII of Inferno:
For with Romagna’s worst spirit I have found
One of you—already, for deeds he was guilty of,
Bathed in Cocytus: in soul now underground
Who in body still appears alive, above.
The English language possesses a vocabulary more massive than that of Italian: because English is descended more or less equally from three different languages (Latin, Anglo-Saxon, and medieval French), it contains many synonyms. The word kingly, for instance, descends from Anglo-Saxon, while regal comes from Latin and royal comes from French. Despite this abundance of words, English provides far fewer possibilities for rhyme than Italian, which stems much more directly from Latin, a language that contains regimented systems for noun and verb endings. Nouns in Italian are thus much more likely to rhyme with one another than nouns in English; the same holds true for verbs.
As a result, writing terza rima stanzas, which depend so heavily on available rhymes, proves punishingly difficult in English. To circumvent this difficulty, most translators of The Divine Comedy sidestep the terza rima form, choosing to translate either in prose or unrhymed blank verse. Some translators utilize rhyme, but among recent translations, only Robert Pinsky’s makes an attempt to preserve Dante’s verse form. In order to do so, Pinsky makes liberal use of half-rhymes (“near”/“fire,” “alive”/“move”), and often departs widely from Dante’s original lines—most of his cantos contain fewer lines than Dante’s.
For these reasons, a discussion of terza rima does not always seem relevant for English-language readers. Nevertheless, an analysis of Dante’s reasons for using terza rima helps us to understand better both his style and his themes, two elements that figure strongly in English readers’ appreciation of the poem.
Dante’s use of terza rima underscores the intricate connections among story, form, and theme in Inferno, an unprecedented and unmatched unity of parts that is probably Dante’s greatest poetic achievement. First, as the rhyme scheme passes new rhymes from one stanza to the next, it creates a feeling of effortless forward motion. This dynamic matches the endless advance of Dante and Virgil as they descend into Hell, an advance that drives the plot. Second, terza rima, with its three-line stanzas, reflects other groupings of threes found throughout Dante’s poem, all of which contribute to a complex symbolism. The number three plays an important role in Catholic theology because of the triune God, made up of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. In Inferno, Dante encounters three beasts in the first canto; three holy women send Virgil to guide him; Satan has three heads and chews on three sinners. By using terza rima, Dante makes a thematic element into a structural building block as well. Terza rima also serves to link the poem’s smaller formal structure to its larger geometry, for the three-line stanzas mirror the three-pronged nature of the entire Divine Comedy, which comprises Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Furthermore, each of these parts contains its own three sections: in Inferno, for instance, these are the Ante-Inferno, Upper Hell, and Lower Hell. Purgatorio and Paradiso each have thirty-three cantos; although Inferno has thirty-four, its first canto acts as a general prologue to The Comedy as a whole. Hell, in its entirety, divides into nine circles—three times three. Many more threesomes exist as well, illuminating only a small part of the intricacies of Dante’s structural plan.