"Dante begins his journey in doubt, loss and despair his mind having wandered into a psychological dark forest of such.
As Robert Hollander has it in his most accessible translation:
"Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.
Ah, how hard it is to tell
the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh --
the very thought of it renews my fear!
It is so bitter death is hardly more so.
But to set forth the good I found
I will recount the other things I saw."
So bitter is it, death is little more;
So bitter-death is hardly more severe!
It is bitter almost as death itself is bitter. (Seamus Heaney)
But, he is saved, he meets the “shade” of his hero Virgil, who helps him out on his way, and in the Inferno showing Dante the character through hell. Virgil's Aeneid provides a source or a jumping off place for Dante in his hike through hell, a guided tour from a virtual Virgil (since he is a shade after all). The two develop quite a friendship. And this friendship and the curious humanity of it is a major part of the Inferno.
The trip to Hell is of course also a research project, the Character Dante acting like an investigative reporter among the dead, trying to find out exactly why each one is there and who they are/were. He is often telling them he will write about them and make them famous if they tell their story. In many ways Dante the narrator is one of the most fascinating of all literary creations. This from Osip Mandelstam: “One would have to be a blind mole not to notice throughout the Divina Commedia Dante dos not know how to behave, does not know how to act, what to say, how to bow.”
Most of all, The Inferno is an adventure and it's also most importantly an adventure in language, no matter who translates it, from Longfellow to Dorothy Sayers to Allen Mandelbaum to Robert Pinsky to Sharon Olds. I should mention that as far as I can research, Dorothy Sayers is the only woman to translate the complete Divine Comedy, all three books. however in the Daniel Helpern edited volume Dante's Inferno: translations by 20 COntemporary Poets (Ecco Press, 1993), poets Cynthia MacDonald, Amy Clampitt, Jorie Graham, Sharon Olds, Deborath Digges and Susan Mitchell all translate a couple of Cantos each, and to my mind, they are more gracefully readable than most of the men in the same volume.
Anyway, I digress. The amazing colorful, varied, down low/up high Language is the reason it survives, and we read it, now 700 years later. Though in fact, I should also digress to mention digressions, of which there are many in the Inferno. Like Tristram Shandy, sometimes the digressions are the best part. As in Canto XXI where the building of a ship in a winter shipyard in Venice is described in noisy detail.
There is a lot of curious use of language, dense textural language that helps make The Inferno so interesting. Allen Mandelbaum in his analysis of a passage in Canto 32 notes the following words/sounds create "a scherzo" studying the degeneration of speech:
'abbo, gabbo babbo
Tebe, plebe, zebe, converrebbe
osteric tambernic, cric'
These are the rhyme words in one passage and of course don't all appear one after the other, but nevertheless, its a fascinating way to knit things together.
The giant Nimrod, from Canto XXXIII is made to say in a Unknown language:
"Raphel mai amecche zabi almi,"
and Canto VII begins with the demon Plutus chanting:
Pape Satan, Pape Satin, Aleppe
which has been glossed in a number of ways.
These are just some of the more far out inventive uses of language in the Inferno.