Ginsberg's Inferno: Dante and "Howl"

Citation metadata

Author: Jeffrey Meyers
Date: Spring 2012
From: Style(Vol. 46, Issue 1)
Publisher: Penn State University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 2,315 words

Document controls

Main content

Abstract: 

In "Howl" Ginsberg places his own revolutionary poetry of suffering--his portrayal of outcast homosexuals and drug addicts, the insane and suicidal--in opposition to the traditional values of society. At the same time he uses Dante's scholastic philosophy, fearful punishments and circles of Hell as the foundation of his own poem, to heighten yet control the personal guilt and terror in his frenzied lamentation. Ginsberg, a star performer of his own work, emphasized the agonized howl in "Howl" As the chanted poem leaped off the page, he made his ecstatic audience understand how Dante's Inferno deepens the intellectual content, tightens the structure and enhances the theme of his poignant poem.

Full Text: 

I

"Howl" (1956), the most influential poem of the last half century, is as densely allusive as The Waste Land and Ulysses. Allen Ginsberg's major influences--Christopher Smart, William Blake, Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac, as well as Comte de Lautreamont, the Surrealists, Antonin Artaud and William Carlos Williams--are well known. Ginsberg did not mention Dante Aligheri in his extensive annotations for Barry Miles' scholarly edition of "Howl" (1986), so critics have not fully explored the profound influence of the Inferno. But in May 1948 Ginsberg, aged twenty-two and still an undergraduate at Columbia, wrote Kerouac, "I have been reading Dante, which I have found very inspiring" In The Beat Generation, Bruce Cook wrote that the author of "Howl" (like Dante) was "an aggressive, savage young man ... a great hater." In "Howl" Ginsberg could exclaim, like Marlowe's Mephistopheles, "Why this is Hell, nor am I out of it." His telling phrase, "the whole boatload" and his repetition of "illuminations" allude to Rimbaud's wild and debauched Le Bateau ivre and Les Illuminations, and "Howl" portrays--with anguish, grief and rage--his own Dantean Saison en enfer.

The structure of "Howl" roughly corresponds to that of The Divine Comedy. Section I, a long series of laments, beginning with the pronoun "who," about chastisements and tortures, and section II, a condemnation of the materialistic and repressive society symbolized by the Canaanite fire god Moloch, whose worshippers had to sacrifice their own children, are Ginsberg's Inferno. Moloch is his equivalent of Lucifer, whom Dante sees with Judas in the lowest circle of Hell. Section III, Ginsberg's homage to catatonia, portrays his sympathetic identification with Carl Solomon, the dedicatee of the poem. Solomon, his fellow inmate at the Columbia Psychiatric Institute in 1949, was recommitted to the Rockland insane asylum in 1955 and is passing through Purgatorio. Section IV, "Footnote to 'Howl,'" also written in 1955, is a modern riff on the sacred theme of holy living. Ginsberg begins his Paradiso with fifteen chants of "Holy!," which echo "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory" in Isaiah 6:3. He then names everything in the world that he incongruously considers sacred: all parts of the body, friends, his mother, music, the cityscape, places from Peoria to Paris, Arkansas to Tangiers, time, the sea, the desert, hallucinations, faith, mercy and charity.

Both The Divine Comedy and "Howl" combine descriptions of harsh Old Testament punishment and pain with the promise of New Testament salvation, and Ginsberg even quotes Christ's last words on the Cross. He not only portrays dim "burning fire" and "supernatural darkness," but also invokes angels and archangels, seraphim and saints, and many wounded, fallen souls striving for illumination and redemption. He mentions purgatory and paradise, and his thematic last line--"Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!"---echoes the sacred sense of the last line of Paradiso: "l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle" (the love that moves the sun and the other stars). "Beat" poetry alludes to the jazz beat and the beaten down condition of the renegade, as well as to the spiritual element that suggests "beatific."

Ginsberg subtly introduces his own version of Dante's unreal reality, timeless and otherworldly, with evocative phrases like "the motionless world of Time between," "Eternity outside of Time" and "incarnate gaps in Time & Space." He brilliantly portrays the demonic New York subways: men "chained themselves to subways," "howled on their knees in the subway" and--in a phrase deleted from the first line of section II-- "Whose hand bashed out their brains on the subway wheels." The subways symbolize the shuddering black underground inferno--with its noise, stink, filth and rats--that winds around in Dantesque circles beneath the urban deathscape. The analogous, inexorable "boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing through snow" ominously recall the recent transport (as late as 1945) carrying Jews to their wintry holocaust.

Like the Inferno, "Howl" offers humane sympathy and spiritual consolation as the poet recalls the tormented beings who inhabit public and private Hells. The vulnerable Carl Solomon, the source of many of Ginsberg's anguished stories, is his Virgilian companion in the Underworld. "Ah, Carl," he sighs, "while you are not safe I am not safe." His Dantean scene, a catastrophic vision of moral defiance and anger, contains a caustic anatomy of the wicked world at the "crack of doom." Both poems are based on the tragic fate of real people. Both poets glorify friends and savage enemies, though Ginsberg dispenses with Dante's fine gradations of agony. Dante put in Hell men he pitied and enemies he hated; Ginsberg's damned were men he pitied and friends he loved. Dante's defiant sinners and Ginsberg's tormented victims are lonely and without comfort. Dante's punishments, though severe, were well deserved; Ginsberg's, though often self-inflicted, were too harsh. His outcasts were certainly not what he called "the best minds of my generation," but they may have been the best of the mindless.

Ginsberg impressively unwinds Dante's tightly structured terza rima and transforms it into coils of surging energy that recall the Hell-bound subways. In a series of cinematic jump-cuts, he high jacks adjectives, which vault over their logical connections, and creates startling juxtapositions of images: "unshaven rooms," "ashcan rantings," "eyeball kicks," "sexless hydrogen" "hydrogen jukebox."

Dante punished many sinners for inciting war, especially between the Guelfs and Ghibellines in Florence (which forced him into exile) and between Florence and its nearby enemies. "Howl" is also a prophetic anti-war poem. In the decade before Ginsberg wrote it, he'd lived through the atomic bomb, the Cold War, the Berlin Blockade and the Korean War. Two months after his poem was published, Russian tanks invaded Hungary. Despite his deliberately outrageous persona--Karl Marx's beard, Einstein's wild hair, Sartre's owlish spectacles--Ginsberg was actually well educated and learned, rational and disciplined. A few years later, in the 1960s, he felt instinctively and saw clearly that the war in Vietnam was disastrous and genocidal. It took Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense, more than thirty years to grasp what the "mad" Ginsberg knew when the war was still raging. In the Moloch section he poignantly observes "Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!" for their dead sons. In the tranquilized Fifties, Ginsberg served up an explosive cocktail of drugs, sexual freedom, social protest, proletarian dress (persuading conventional girls to wear workers' garb) and, later on, Buddhism--his true Paradiso.

II

Dante inspired specific as well as general passages in "Howl." Ginsberg's poem matches, with a dominant theme or precise phrase, each of the eight deadly sins in Dante's circles of Hell.

Lust: "cock and endless bails ... whoring through Colorado ... scattering their semen freely."

Gluttony: "cooked rotten animals lung heart feet."

Prodigality: "burning their money in wastebaskets ... [Moloch] whose blood is running money!"

Anger: Like Dante's sinners in the wood of suicides, Ginsberg's friends rage against themselves and the oppressive system. They "created great suicidal dramas [by] ... jumping off Empire State... [and also] jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge,"

Heresy: "Howl" defies all conventional, political, social, moral and especially sexual beliefs. Dante's dear friend Brunetto Latini is forced to run incessantly as punishment for unnatural lust: his (unnamed) sodomy. But what is licrcely condemned by Dante is celebrated by Ginsberg--always seminal and semenal--whose friends are the victims of repressive sexual laws. He subtly echoes Dante's punishment by having his fast-paced sodomites--"fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists"--furiously and obsessively moving back and forth across the country.

Violence: "danced on broken wineglasses barefoot ... cut their wrists three times successively."

Deceit and Treachery are represented by Moloch, betrayer of all decent and humane values, with his "demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses!"

"Howl" also derives tremendous power from many striking parallels to passages from the Inferno. In Canto I of Charles Singleton's prose translation (1970), Dante describes the "despairing shrieks" of the "tormented spirits" who "gave tongue to their pain." Ginsberg's naked and trembling victims fill his poem with wails, screams, shrieks and animal howls of pain, Aristotelian pity and terror fill Dante's heart when he sees and hears the suffering of his friends. Ginsberg's victims, like prisoners in a torture chamber, listen "to the Terror through the wall." He is suffused with pity for Carl Solomon, for his mentally ill mother who accused "the radio of hypnotism" and for all the poor devils in the poem. Dante's "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate" ("Abandon every hope, you who enter") could be cut above the entrance to Ginsberg's insane asylums: Pilgrim State, Rockland and Greystone.

Filippo Argenti devoured his own body: "in se medesmo si volvea co' denti" ("turned on himself with his teeth"); Ginsberg's men were "butchered out of their own bodies" and "burned cigarette holes in their arms." Dante's three Furies are neatly matched by Ginsberg's "three old shrews of fate." Those who committed violence against others boil in a river of blood; Ginsberg's madmen wear a "wig of blood" and "walked all night with their shoes full of blood." The panders and seducers are tormented by "demon cornuti con gran ferze" ("horned demons with large scourges"); Ginsberg's friends are scourged by terrifying hallucinations and agonizing withdrawal symptoms after bad acid trips and overdoses of heroin. Dante's flatterers are "plunged in human filth" and "fouled with ordure"; Ginsberg's men, sobbing with despair, defied pollution and "jumped in the filthy Passaic" In the Inferno the peculators are boiled in sticky pitch; Ginsberg's pals are also "burned alive."

Dante's counterfeiters are driven mad; Ginsberg's famous opening line declares: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness." His modern equivalents of Dante's insanity are the debilitating and often disastrous electro-convulsive therapy (described in Plath's The Bell Jar) and the all-but-useless "concrete void of insulin Metrozol [used in shock treatments] electricity hydrotherapy psychotherapy occupational therapy pingpong & [drug-induced] amnesia." The "pingpong" is characteristic of his sly wit. Shortly before writing "Howl" Ginsberg gave guilt-ridden permission for his mother's lobotomy.

In "Howl" he laments his "mother finally ****** [fucked] ... Holy my mother in the insane asylum!" Ginsberg most powerfully echoes the terrible story of Count Ugolino. Singleton writes that as podesta (potentate) of Pisa, Ugolino "entered into the negotiations referred to by his opponents as the 'tradimento de le castella' ('betrayal of the castles'). For this supposed treachery he was put in prison, where he [and his four sons] died of starvation in 1289." Dante first sees Ugolino with his great enemy, Archbishop Ruggieri of Pisa, frozen together in one hole. Ugolino is doomed to gnaw endlessly on his victim's skull, a savage repast that mocked the cannibalistic urges as he starved: "e come '1 pan per fame si manduca / cosi '1 sovran li denti a l'altro pose / la 've 'l cervel s'aggiugne con la nuca" ("and as bread is devoured for hunger, so the upper one set his teeth upon the other where the brain joins with the nape.") One of his sacrificial sons, dying a slow death, exclaims with inexorable logic: "Padre, assai ci fia men doglia / se tu mangi di noi: tu ne vestisti / queste misere carni, e tu le spoglia" ("Father, it will be less painful to us if you eat of us; you did clothe us with this wretched flesh, and do you strip us of it!"). Clearly alluding to this cruel cannibalism, Ginsberg writes of doomed friends "who bared their brains to Heaven ... bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains." As William Carlos Williams, Ginsberg's Paterson poetic mentor and the pediatrician who delivered "Howl," wrote in his introduction to the first edition of the poem: "Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell."

Though Ginsberg and T. S. Eliot were at antithetical poles of American poetry, Dante's influence placed "Howl" in the European tradition, which Eliot believed was essential for the creation of serious verse. In his influential essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1917), he stated:

   We shall often lind that not only the best, but the most individual
   parts of [the poet's] work may be those in which the dead poets,
   his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.... The
   historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of
   the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man
   to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with
   a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and
   within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a
   simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This
   historical sense ... is what makes a writer traditional. And it is
   at the same time what makes a writer acutely conscious of his place
   in time, of his own contemporaneity.

In "Howl" Ginsberg places his own revolutionary poetry of suffering--his portrayal of outcast homosexuals and drug addicts, the insane and suicidal--in opposition to the traditional values of society. At the same time he uses Dante's scholastic philosophy, fearful punishments and circles of Hell as the foundation of his own poem, to heighten yet control the personal guilt and terror in his frenzied lamentation. Ginsberg, a star performer of his own work, emphasized the agonized howl in "Howl." As the chanted poem leaped off the page, he made his ecstatic audience understand how Dante's Inferno deepens the intellectual content, tightens the structure and enhances the theme of his poignant work.

Works Cited

Cook, Bruce. The Beat Generation. NY: Scribner's, 1981. Print.

Dante Aligheri. The Divine Comedy: Inferno. Trans. with commentary by Charles Singleton. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1970. Print.

Eliot, T.S. "Tradition and the Individual Talent." Selected Essays, 1917-1932. NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1932. Print.

Ginsberg, Allen. "Howl." Collected Poems, 1947-1980. NY: Harper & Row, 1984.

--. Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript and Variant Versions, Fully Annotated By the Author. Ed. Barry Miles. NY: Harper Perennial Modem Classics, 2006. Print.

--. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters. NY: Viking, 2010. Print.

Williams, William Carlos. Introduction to Howl. San Francisco: City Lights, 1956. Print.

Jeffrey Meyers

Independent Scholar

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A300342923