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‘Inferno’ Ushers in Good Friday

April 3, 1999

NEW YORK (AP) _ The world’s largest cathedral went to hell _ to Dante’s ``Inferno,″ that is. But it was back again by Good Friday.

Beginning on a night marking both Passover and Christ’s Last Supper, a six-hour reading of the epic by the great Christian poet filled the Cathedral of St. John the Divine until 3 a.m. Friday.

And the violent, rotten world painted in the 14th century by Dante Alighieri seemed all too real in a week of protests against alleged police brutality and the carnage in Kosovo.

Dante envisioned his descent into hell for this night, the eve of Good Friday.

Standing at a lectern under a stone chiseled with the words ``The Poet’s Corner,″ readers _ including some prominent poets _ each recited one ``canto,″ or section, during the marathon reading of Dante’s masterpiece.

The ``Inferno,″ the first part of the poet’s journey through hell and purgatory to heaven, touched a nerve at a time when killing at home and abroad was the issue of the day.

The worst sinners in Dante’s hell are those who generate violence _ ``people who chewed each other to pieces bit by bit,″ as the Tuscan poet put it. For that, the perpetrators are banished to his 10th, and lowest, circle of hell.

Dozens of other characters wander into the poem: grafters, pimps and cheats whose sins have made it to the 20th century.

``What we have today is the Inferno come to life,″ said the cathedral’s poet-in-residence, Daniel Hoffman.

From Judas and corrupt political figures in Medieval Florence to priests, cardinals and a pope seduced by power and money, they parade their greed, corruption, lust, gluttony and envy. Dante’s God condemns them forever to a merciless inferno alive with frogs, serpents and monsters.

At the cathedral, the readers declaimed this tale to a rapt, youthful audience of several hundred _ including a woman with fuchsia-colored hair _ who sat at the base of the main aisle under massive stone pillars.

It was a different kind of devotion.

Many came with their own copies of ``Inferno.″ Smiles of recognition crossed some faces as well-known lines echoed through the cavernous cathedral, its air heavy with incense.

``Had we but world enough and time,″ said Hoffman, paraphrasing a famous poem by Andrew Marvell, ``we’d have read Dante’s ‘Purgatory’ and ‘Paradise’ too _ and that would correspond to Easter Sunday.″

Hoffman, a Quaker who was America’s poet laureate in 1973-74, said the cosmology of Dante’s poem ``is a descent followed by an ascent, just as (Christ’s) crucifixion is followed by the resurrection.″

Readers included Harry Pritchett, the dean of the 105-year-old church, and poets Cynthia Zarin, Alfred Corn and Grace Schulman. The reading was interrupted at midnight for an organ meditation.

Several dozen people made it to 3 a.m. to hear the last words signaling an exit from hell.

After six hours, Dante and his guide, the ancient Roman poet Virgil, finally glimpse through a round aperture ``some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears,

``Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars.″

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