But all the streets are burning everywhere.

The city is burning these multitudes that climb

Her buildings. Their inferno is the same

I scaled as a stupendous blazing stair.

They vanish as I look into the light.

Allen Ginsberg, 1948

On October 7, 1955, Allen Ginsberg performed “Howl” in public for the first time at a poetry reading at Six Gallery in San Francisco, advertised by a postcard proclaiming: “Remarkable collection of angels all gathered at once in the same spot” (Latson 1). Two years later, the City Lights Books-published Howl and Other Poems was at the center of an obscenity trial due to its depiction of illicit drugs and sexual practices. As the book’s opponents attacked its moral value, the defense assembled a team of eloquent witnesses, writers and poets who would speak to its literary worth. Describing “Howl” as “a vision of a modern hell,” poet and novelist Vincent McHugh testified that Ginsberg’s poems “derive certainly from Dante…and Dante, in turn, derives from the Odyssey, and so on into all the mythologies of the world” (Hyde 51). With support from the American Civil Liberties Union, City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti won the case, as the California State Superior court ruled that the poem was of significant social importance.

This is not the only prominent writer to link the two poets. In his introduction to Howl and Other Poems, Ginsberg’s mentor, William Carlos Williams, suggests that we read the poem as a Beat Inferno. For Williams, the poem is evidence that Ginsberg has “literally…been through hell” (Ginsberg  7). The experiences Ginsberg describes are “horrifying,” and for Williams, the poet himself, though he sees “with the eyes of the angels”, speaks as one of the damned, and the reader is even warned that “we are going through hell” (Ginsberg 8).

This essay seeks to re-examine Dante and Ginsberg through their seminal works, La Divina Commedia: Inferno and “Howl,” placing particular attention on the use of dramatic monologue in which speakers are speaking on behalf of themselves and their experience. The poems share a great deal, both in terms of their style and meaning. Both poems employ a tripartite structure of katabasis and ascent, and confessional monologues which invoke some moral-spiritual consideration by the reader. While their metric elements are dissimilar, the speakers in both poems explore hell and transcendence as a means to bemoan the social issues of their day, critique those responsible, and offer a way forward through the avenue of spiritual-holy love and self-discovery. Moreover, the single-word titles of both works evoke the structure, style, and meaning within.

blake's red dragon

While McHugh and Williams identified Ginsberg as a stylistic descendent of Dante, this lineage has since been buried beneath a host of scholarship which focuses on the more obvious succession: Dante to William Blake, and subsequently Blake to Ginsberg. Indeed, in the summer of 1948, Ginsberg underwent an extraordinary experience, hearing an auditory hallucination of William Blake’s voice reciting “Ah Sun-Flower” and “The Sick Rose,” accompanied by a feeling of participation in universal harmony, which he described as “the very ancient place that [Blake] was talking about, the sweet golden clime…this existence was it!” (Ramazani et al. 335). To share in this universal poetic inheritance would then connect Ginsberg to one of? Blake’s source of inspiration, Dante. Both Dante and Ginsberg were searching for the paradisal self in an infernal world, with the Commedia and “Howl” representing the externalities of this search.

Ginsberg wrote in a romantic tradition that honored Blake and Walt Whitman, and by extension, Dante. All of these eclectic writers share a sense of the prophetic in their combination of the poetic and religious-philosophical. The long rhapsodic lines and short chants of “Howl” are both driven by an ideal of  “a living speech, an organic metric that expresses the poet’s physiological state at the time of composition” (Ramazani et al. 336). This is certainly quite different than the controlled, consistent meter present in the Commedia.

Ginsberg’s style in “Howl” was much more frenzied and diffuse than Dante’s precise, unfolding terza rima, but his organic style is able to express concepts in a more direct, commonplace, and even internal manner, which asserts that causal language is important. In a 1994 BBC interview, Ginsberg explained the need for candor in writing, the making of the private world public “very consciously following the direction of my ultimate American mentor Walt Whitman, who, in 1855, in an early edition of Leaves of Grass, said that he hoped that American poets would develop in the direction of candor, kind of in an inadvertent, manipulative frankness, like spontaneous frankness…” (The Allen Ginsberg Project)

This is not to say that Ginsberg considered traditional forms like terza rima to be useless. In a 1981 class on Expansive Poetics Ginsberg taught at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics of Naropa University, he discusses the rhythmic effectiveness and dynamic expansiveness of Dante’s terza rima during a discussion of Shelley’s “Hymn to intellectual beauty”:

AG: The “Ode to Intellectual Beauty” (“Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”) has the most complicated stanza pattern of anything,

Student: But it doesn’t have the sense of a fixed pattern, like say…

AG: Oh, it has a fixed pattern

Student: Oh?

AG: It has a fixed rhyme, a totally fixed pattern. Yes, completely. Yes. The point of (a) fixed pattern is because you get a certain frame of reference, or a certain rhetorical, or rhythmic, or rhyme, structure. You just build up on it higher and higher, and higher, higher (like, in the end of Dante(‘s) Divinia Commedia), the cadences that he’s used in the last cantos of  (the) Paradiso, the cadences that he used in the rest of the terza rima, gets to be this repetitive ultimate orgasmic – “in te misericordia, in te pietate,/in te magnificenza, in te s’aduna/quantunque in creature e di bontate“.. I don’t know  (“In thee is munificence, in thee compassion, in thee is whatever abounds through the universe” [or, in (a) more recent, Allen Mandelbaum, translation – “In you compassion is, in you is pity/ in you is generosity, in you/is very goodness found in any creature”]). It’s like the repetitive thing that he used in the terza rima works for him to get up into an ecstatic breath and an ecstatic statement. It can be done, yes, through formal form, regular old forms.

(The Allen Ginsberg Project)

The inclusion of La Commedia as the prime example of emotionally-affecting poetry speaks to Ginsberg’s fondness for Dante, and his assertion that an ecstatic-transcendent statement can be made through formal meter speaks to the power of terza rima to make some of the same forceful points that Ginsberg’s speaker in “Howl” makes. Ginsberg’s repetition of lines beginning with “who,” “Moloch!,” and “I’m with you in Rockland,”  attempts to access the same sense of  the “repetitive thing…repetitive ultimate orgasmic,” in order to drive home a point, albeit with different cadences.

This spontaneous frankness described above approaches the form of Dantean dramatic monologue, as Ginsberg’s howling positions the speaker as a character in Dante’s Hell, similar to one of the tortured souls of Minos. The more technical consideration of dramatic monologue as poetry told in the point of view of a character still holds. Indeed, as Dante descends, his encounters are composed of tales recounted to him in a confessional style, and the pilgrim’s narration is confessional as well. Both poems begin from the standpoint of the self: “I saw the best minds” and “… I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.” (Alighieri et al. 27). As such, both poems invite the reader to experience the world from the speaker’s point of view.

Yet Ginsberg is not Dante the pilgrim in this comparison, but rather Virgil, the one who guides the reader through the world he inhabits. As Dante and Virgil begin their journey in Inferno, Virgil states to the pilgrim that, “Thus for your good I think and judge that you shall follow me, and I shall be your guide” (Alighieri et al. 33). While Dante is merely passing through hell, Ginsberg is, as Williams tells the reader, one of the damned. He has partaken of the horrors described and like Virgil, Ginsberg inhabits Hell, but according to Williams he goes further than Virgil insofar as he claims it as his own. This concept of speaking on behalf of one’s experience relates directly to the dramatic monologue, present in both works.

Not only is the dramatic monologue in Inferno similar to the nature of the howling speaker in Ginsberg’s poem, but the confessional-elegiac mode is also present in both works. In this sense, crying out is a shared poetic mode. Dante would have been aware of this sorrowful, elegiac mode, as he writes in his essay “De vulgari eloquentia” in which he describes three basic forms or literary styles: the tragic, the comic, and the elegiac. He describes the tragic as the “high” style, the comic as the “low” style, and the elegiac as the “style of the unhappy”: “Deinde in hiis que dicenda occurrunt debemus discretione potiri, utrum tragice, sive cornice, sive elegiace sint canenda. Per tragedian! superiorem stilum inducimus; per comediam inferiorem; per elegiam stilum intelligimus miserorum.” (Iannucci 21) As such, some combination of the comic-low and elegiac-unhappy can be applied to the dramatic monologues by speakers in Hell. This stylistic framework also relates to “Howl,” in which the speaker cries out in a similar sense of mourning, not in anger, as had become its association, but in anguish, a sense that Ginsberg describes in the 1994 BBC interview:

Jeremy Isaacs: Was “Howl” an angry poem about America?

AG: I wouldn’t say “angry”. There are certain aspects “wrathful”, in judgment, but I would say, more “exuberant”, because, you know, the ultimate part of the peroration, at the end — “I’m with you in Rockland, where you’re madder than I am” — but “I’m with you” — it’s a gesture of sympathy to a friend who’s in trouble, basically, with a certain amount of anguish in it. The ultimate accusation, really, is, “Moloch, whose name is the Mind” It isn’t, you know, out there, the all-devouring God, the destroyer God, it’s not out there, it’s our own Imagination, as [William] Blake pointed out. So “Moloch, whose name is the Mind” is hardly angry. That’s a piece of wisdom-teaching actually, something that I understood from Blake long ago.

(The Allen Ginsberg Project)

However, Dante seems to place particular emphasis on the narrative progression of La Commedia, much more so than Ginsberg does in “Howl,” and closely corresponds to the outline of classical comedy (Iannucci 21). The ultimate justification, then, for entitling the poem Commedia appears to be the content, or more precisely, the movement of the narrative from a vision of moral chaos and conflict to one of peace and spiritual fulfilment, more than its “low” or “high” style.

Regardless of style, each text is dominated by the voices of speakers, who are speaking on behalf of themselves and their experience. The tales of speakers like Francesca da Rimini, Bertran de Born, and Piero della Vigna mirror the tales that Ginsberg recounts. Yet in the sense that it only has a singular speaker, “Howl” attempts to have a larger concept of selfhood, which indicates Ginsberg’s attempt to cry out on behalf of an entire generation in a Whitmanian sense, the speaker speaks on behalf of himself, a nation, and a new world. In “Howl,” Ginsberg is certainly thoroughly distraught, given his depiction of the city, of America, and of a generation’s prospects in the post-war environment.

books about allen ginsberg
Some of our books about Allen Ginsberg.

Both poems are burning missives, social critiques that invite emotional participation by the reader. In order to evaluate each poem’s capacity for social critique by way of dramatic monologue, it helps to consider the context in which each text arose. “Howl” is coming out of a sense of war-as-Hell. Ginsberg was tasked with creating art within the context of massive human and psychological devastation. The raw, instinctual, attention-getting, sorrowful language of “Howl” is born of the incomprehensible carnage of the Holocaust, the leveled cities in Europe, millions of civilians dead, and a new specter of atomic devastation. Indeed the “Beat experience” and Alighieri’s political awareness begins and ends with war.

World War II, the Korean War, and eventually the Vietnam War provide a background for Ginsberg, and a broader literary movement that served as a sustained commentary on the political landscape in crisis, a world on fire. In the post-war context, Ginsberg questions the self-celebrating democratic patriotism of the 1950’s. The U.S was directly responsible for millions of deaths, and the boom in U.S. post-war prosperity mostly affected white people. Similarly, La Commedia is born from Dante’s exile, and the all-encompassing political crisis and civil war. For the Florentines, the city-state was self-contained, and may have well represented the world for most Guelphs and Ghibellines.

dante statue in verona
A statue of Dante in Verona, by David S. Wills.

In the eighth bolgia of the eighth circle of Hell, Dante denounces the city of Florence in a similar manner to the way that Ginsberg denounces the American military-industrial complex in Part II of “Howl.” He grieves for his city as he writes, “Rejoice, Florence, since you are so great that on sea and land you beat your wings, and your name spreads through Hell! Among the thieves I found five such citizens yours that I feel shame, and you do not rise to honor by them…Then I grieved, and now I grieve again, when I consider what I saw, and I rein in my wit more than is my custom” (Alighieri et al. 399).  These lines explicitly connect grief in the moment of writing with the grief experienced in the penitential journey, an indication of Alighieri’s real-life frustration with Florentine political strife, and of division more generally. Denunciation of Italian cities is frequent in the Malebolge, with Bologna, Pistoia, and Siena all coming under criticism for their injustices. Perhaps Ginsberg’s model in characterizing New York-as-Hell is Dante, who, exiled from Florence, creates a divine comedy out of historical contingency, and in the process, turns the strife of his local city, into a generational voice. Similarly, Ginsberg paints a portrait of New York: “Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smoke-stacks and antennae crown the cities!/Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius!” (Ginsberg 17). Here Ginsberg is certainly grieving, as made evident in his depiction of the city. Ginsberg’s elegiac tone is in reference to the death of an American ideal, a loss of hope, rooted in the devastation of the post-war environment and in the smoggy, belching industrial landscape.

One particularly strong congruence between the poems is a consideration of the relationship between mind and body, explored through auditory imagery and the presentation of human-inhuman hybrids in the monologue of Pier della Vigna and part III of “Howl.” In the second round of the seventh circle of Inferno is the Wood of the Suicides, in which the souls of those violent against themselves are transformed into gnarled, thorny trees and fed upon by “the ugly Harpies…who drove the Trojans from the Strophades with dire prophecy of their future woe…faces human…they utter laments on the strange trees” (Alighieri et al. 199). Here, Pier della Vigna’s confession is itself a specific form of punishment suited to his sin, a bleeding lamentation.

The words and blood that spill from the broken branch, “as when a green log is burnt at one end, from the other it drips and sputters as air escapes: so from the broken stump came forth words and blood together,” indicate a loss of control of his mind-body faculties, chief among them speech (Alighieri et al. 201). This idea of a hybrid being crying out continues in Dante’s auditory imagery of the mournful voices of the branches, “cries of woe,” and the concept of a human spirit imprisoned in a tree which is formed “when the fierce soul departs from the body from which it has uprooted itself” (Alighieri et al. 199-203).The uncanny atmosphere of the barren wood and the bizarre confession of the “spirito incarcerato” further establish the haunting dreamlike quality that evokes the mystery of suicide and the tragedy of della Vigna’s life. (Alighieri et al. 202).

The confession della Vigna delivers here strikes a similar tone to part III of “Howl,” especially the passage:

I’m with you in Rockland

   where you pun on the bodies of your nurses the harpies of the Bronx

I’m with you in Rockland

   where you scream in a straightjacket that you’re losing the game of the actual pingpong of the abyss

I’m with you in Rockland

   where you bang on the catatonic piano the soul is innocent and immortal it should never die ungodly in an armed madhouse

I’m with you in Rockland

   where fifty more shocks will never return your soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the void

(Ginsberg 19)

Dante’s considerations of the relationship – or division – between mind and body, and more broadly, the mobility of the physical human form within a perverse environment connect to Ginsberg’s portrayal of the immobile Carl Solomon, his fellow inmate at the Columbia Psychiatric Institute in 1949, screaming, bound by a straightjacket, losing the “game of the actual pingpong of the abyss” (Ginsberg 19). Both passages even refer to the partly-human harpies as a specific tormentor. Moreover, the line on electroshock therapy, which will “never return your soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the void” evoke the Dantean consideration of undoing of the unified soul and body (Ginsberg 20).  This is the same electroshock treatment that Ginsberg’s mother would have received while held at an asylum, which Ginsberg references in the footnote to “Howl”: “Holy my mother in the insane asylum” (Ginsberg 21).  Carl Solomon’s “Pilgrimage…in the void” leads the reader right to Dante’s pilgrimage through the underworld. This scene in the seventh circle is emblematic of all confessions in Inferno, an ironic reversal of canonical penance insofar as it brings no relief but rather mocks the sinner and intensifies his punishment. For Ginsberg, the suffering are revered and sympathized with, more so than in Dante’s poem.

This is not to say that Dante is wholly unsympathetic. In the article “Dante’s Sympathy for the Other, or the Non-Stereotyping Imagination: Sexual and Racialized Others in the Commedia,” Teodolinda Barolini considers Dante’s sympathy for the other against the backdrop of dogmatic belief-as-rejection of the other. Barolini proposes that the Commedia contains “many startlingly non-normative postures in the social and historical sphere” (Barolini 177).  The various forms of sympathy toward the other include those presented by Dante’s speakers in the form of confessional dramatic monologue. Barolini writes how in his treatment of women “stereotypes of degraded sexuality had little purchase over Dante’ imagination…In Dante’s circle of lust the name of historical specificity is Francesca da Rimini, an adulteress. She is the Commedia’s second most famous female, after Beatrice, and -like Beatrice Portinari- we would never have heard of her if not for Dante” (Barolini 181). 

In the story of Francesca, Dante writes a gendered story that places unusual value on the personhood of the speaker. Dante’s inclusion of Francesca’s dramatic monologue is significant, especially when historicizing the character, who, according to Barolini was “Dynastically unimportant, Francesca was forgotten by contemporary chroniclers…the first and most authoritative chronicler of Rimini was Marco Battagli whose 1352 work On the Origins of the Malatesta alludes to the event in which Francesca died without naming her, indeed without acknowledging her existence” (Barolini 181). In effect, Dante’s inclusion of the monologue is sympathetic, as it has preserved Francesca’s voice and has raised hers to be perhaps one of the most significant in Inferno. Beyond this, Dante’s Francesca tells a story of how she and Paolo fell in love while reading, as she recounts, “we were reading one day, for pleasure, of Lancelot, how Love beset him; we were alone and without any suspicion” (Alighieri et al. 93). Here, Francesca is not only the protagonist, but a reader rather than a fornicator, and a speaking agent, rather than a forgotten voice. Indeed, it is Paolo who stands beside her, weeping silently. For Barolini, this portrayal allowed Francesca to achieve “dignity and prominence- a celebrity- that in real life she did not possess” (Barolini 182). 

Like in Inferno, “Howl” offers sympathy to its subjects as the poet recalls the tormented and underrepresented host of beings who inhabit the modern Hell. Most noteworthy among them is the institutionalized Carl Solomon, to whom the poem is dedicated. Like Dante and Virgil, Solomon is Ginsberg’s companion in the underworld, and sympathizes with his roommate at Rockland as he cries “ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you’re really in the total animal soup of time” (Ginsberg 16). In this sense, the speaker is speaking on behalf of those who are voiceless, a sympathetic portrayal of a tragic fate of real people. One could produce entire books on Ginsberg’s role in the unveiling of homosexuality to the reading public. Both poems then include considerations of these real people, friends and foes, who are immortalized as they are tormented, lonely and without comfort, from Hell to America.

One primary difference here is that Dante places individuals that he pitied or detested in Hell, as the pilgrim states in Canto 5, “After I had heard my teacher name the ancient ladies and knights, pity came upon me, and I was almost lost” (Alighieri et al. 91). Whereas Ginsberg’s Hell is more all-encompassing, with all people subject to the “fascist national Golgotha” (Ginsberg 20). Ginsberg places friends and foes alike within this context, and all but those culpable are to be pitied.

Indeed, Dante is far more critical of the damned when he considers their acts to be especially morally bankrupt, increasingly so as he descends through the levels of Hell. This gradation of punishment correlates to the cosmology of Dante’s Hell. As the pilgrim encounters the speakers in the ninth bolgia, he encounters the Ghibelline Mosca, “one who had both hands cut off, lifting the stumps into the murky air so that the blood soiled his face” (Alighieri et al. 439). Mosca, the last of the five Florentines mentioned by the pilgrim to Ciacco, murdered Buondelmonte de’ Buondelmonti on Easter Sunday, 1215, a killing which represents the origin of the division of Florence into Guelf and Ghibelline factions and the beginning of the city’s destruction (Durling 447). The pilgrim jeers at Mosca, “And I added: ‘and the death of your clan’; so that he, piling grief on grief, walked off like a person mad with sorrow” (Alighieri et al. 439) To verbally attack one of the damned does indicate some lack of sympathy on Alighieri’s part, at least to those who do not align with his particular moral compass.

This combination of madness and sorrow continues again in Dante, with the monologue of Bertran de Born, who cries out in? his confession:

“‘Oh me!’…‘Now see my wretched punishment, you who go still breathing to view the dead: see if any is as great as this. And that you may take back news of me, know that I am Bertran de Born, he who gave the young king bad encouragements. I made father and son revolt against each other: Achitophel did no worse to Absalom and David with his evil proddings. Because I divided persons so joined, I carry my brain divided, alas, from its origin which is in this trunk. Thus you observe me in the counter-suffering’.”

(Alighieri et al. 439)

This example of the sowing of strife provides a particularly striking conclusion to the Canto, and the only instance of the word contrapasso or “counter-suffering,” which de Born enunciates while holding his severed head in his hand (Alighieri et al. 439).  The disseminators of civil discord are mutilated in ways that match their mutilation of the body politic. Given Alighieri’s distaste for division, the reader is invited to sympathize with de Born only as a sort of pity, which Dante might have viewed as justice for his eternal damnation.

Comparing these two poems’ monologues leads inevitably to some consideration of their rough structural correspondence. In what appears to be the lone piece of scholarship linking Ginsberg and Dante, independent scholar Jeffrey Meyers lists overlapping thematic and structural elements of “Howl” and The Divine Comedy, indicating that section I, a long series of laments about chastisements and tortures, and section II, a condemnation of the materialistic and repressive society symbolized by the Canaanite fire god Moloch, are Ginsberg’s Inferno (Meyers 89). By this logic, Moloch is clearly Ginsberg’s equivalent of Lucifer, relegated to the lowest circle of Hell. Meyers considers section III, Ginsberg’s homage to catatonia and Carl Solomon, to be a portrayal of institutionalization as passing through Purgatorio. Finally, the “Footnote to ‘Howl,’” also written in 1955, represents “a modern riff on the sacred theme of holy living” (Meyers 89).

As such, Ginsberg begins his Paradiso with fifteen repetitions of “Holy!,”  a mantric chant which echoes the biblical “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory” in Isaiah 6:3 (Meyers 89). Both works then have a hopeful resolution in the promise of salvation, either intellectually or spiritually. For Dante, this is the ideal presented by Beatrice, for Ginsberg, an idiosyncratic list of all he considers sacred: parts of the body, his friends, his mother, music, the city, places from Arkansas to Tangiers, time, the sea, the desert, hallucinations, faith, mercy and charity.

These resolutions of infernal katabasis indicate shared intimations of a Judeo-Christian moral axis, either at the center of the work, in the case of the Commedia, or for Ginsberg, deployment of religious topics and imagery like Golgotha, “Holy,” “Moloch,” and even “saintly motorcyclists.” Perhaps for Ginsberg, the motorcyclists (Hell’s Angels?) represent some sort of libertine sexual salvation that might pre-empt gay liberation movements to come.

Yet Ginsberg was no Christian, so some other divinity must be considered. More central to a comparison of the two poems is Ginsberg’s Beatrice, his divine intellectual-romantic ideal, the love of the world-soul. Ginsberg’s belief in transcendence through repetitive chant is expressed in its nascent stages through his repetition of “Holy” in the footnote. Ginsberg’s belief in this eternal and inherent nature of reality, expressed sometimes as the dharma, was central to beat literature, and to Ginsberg’s later writing and spiritual practice.[1] An awareness of such a force was likely informed by the use of psychedelic drugs and the counterculture of the 1950s and ’60s but the concept has deep roots in poetics. This concept of the world-soul was explored by his precursor Percy Bysshe Shelley in poems like Queen Mab, in which he develops the image of fairies, of “viewless beings” from which comes a portrait of the universal soul:

 “Unrecognized, or unforeseen by thee

Soul of the Universe! Eternal spring

Of life and death, of happiness and woe

Of all that chequers the phantasmal scene

That floats before our eyes in wavering light

Which gleams but on the darkness of our prison

Whose chains and massy walls

We feel, but cannot see”

(Shelley et al. 50)

In the case of Dante, this would have been the grace of the divine Christian God. In the case of Queen Mab, one might speculate on whether something in Shelley (and by extension Ginsberg) was tugging him towards a Platonic-Kantian sense of some quasi-divine noumenal unifier of experience which is itself inaccessible to experience, or at least human sensory perception. The idea that such a world-soul which permeates matter so that matter is not just physically but morally sentient relates directly to the previously discussed entrapment of the human soul in a tree’s body or the soul of Carl Solomon, which Ginsberg describes as interred in Rockland in the lines “I’m with you in Rockland/where you bang on the catatonic piano the soul is innocent/ and immortal it should never die ungodly in an armed/ madhouse” (Ginsberg 19).

Regardless of which holy form resides in the noumenal realm, both writers find salvation for their subjects, with the pilgrim ascending in Paradiso, and with Ginsberg’s depiction of the soul, destroying Rockland:

I’m with you in Rockland

where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof

they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself        imaginary walls collapse

O skinny legions run outside           O starry-spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here

O victory forget your underwear we’re free

In this final section of his dramatic monologue, Ginsberg imagines the soul triumphant against all the infernal machinery of Rockland and America, promising freedom for those who would join him and the rest of a new visionary generation. Both poets incorporate dramatic monologue into their works to portray the plight of the damned, who cry out in anguish from Hell to America. Yet both poets provide an attainable avenue of hope and light: love. Presented in the Dantean ideal of paradisiacal Beatrice and the Ginsbergian “Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith! Holy! Ours! bodies! suffering! magnanimity! Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!” In both the path to an intellectual, hard-won salvation through love comes through critical examination of the self, understanding of humanity, and subsequent ascension through various states (Ginsberg 22). Yet in order for one to be saved, one must first pass through Hell.


Alighieri, Dante, et al. Inferno. Oxford University Press, 1996.

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Dante’s Sympathy for the Other, or the Non Stereotyping Imagination: Sexual and Racialized Others in the Commedia.” Critica Del Testo, XIV, no. 1, 2011.

“BBC Face To Face Interview, 1994 (ASV#21).” The Allen Ginsberg Project, 27 Oct. 2019, allenginsberg.org/2011/11/bbc-face-to-face-interview-1994-asv21/.

Buckley, William. “The Avant Garde.” Firing Line, season 3, episode 18, WOR-TV, 1968.

“Expansive Poetics – (Shelley’s Ode To The West Wind).” The Allen Ginsberg Project, 5 Feb. 2020, allenginsberg.org/2013/12/expansive-poetics-6-ode-to-the-west-wind/.

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and Other Poems. City Lights Books, 2001.

Hyde, Lewis. On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg. Univ. of Michigan Press, 1999.

Iannucci, Amilcare A. “Dante’s Theory of Genres and the ‘Divina Commedia.’” Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society, vol. 91, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973, p. 21.

Latson, Jennifer. “Allen Ginsberg Howl Reading in San Francisco: Oct. 7, 1955.” Time, Time, 7 Oct. 2014, time.com/3462543/howl/.

Meyers, Jeffrey. “Ginsberg’s Inferno: Dante and ‘Howl.’” Style, vol. 46, no. 1, 2012, pp. 89–94.

Ramazani, Jahan, et al. The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. W.W. Norton, 2003.

Senior, Matthew. In the Grip of Minos: Confessional Discourse in Dante, Corneille and Racine. Ohio State University Press, 1994.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe, et al. Percy Bysshe Shelley: the Major Works. Oxford University Press, 2009.

[1]Ginsberg would go on to perform the Hare Krishna mantra on a 1968 episode of William F. Buckley Jr.’s television program Firing Line in an attempt to end the war in Vietnam, to which Buckley replied “That is the most un-harried krishna I’ve ever heard.” Ginsberg discusses the world-soul on the program. Link in bibliography.