When I first read Dante’s Inferno, I knew what I was supposed to think. I was supposed to see the great epics of literature, the heroes and the anti-heroes, Virgil, Christianity, the Pantheon—but all I could think about was that Dante’s verse sounds a lot like Bob Dylan’s. With a harmonica, an acoustic guitar, and a raspy voice, Inferno could become a rock-and-roll hit overnight.

On paper, the worlds of Bob Dylan and Dante Aligheri couldn’t be more different. Dylan comes from the Minnesota town of Duluth, Dante from Florence. Dylan is Jewish, Dante Catholic. Dylan was born in the 1940s, and Dante was born almost 700 years earlier, in the 1260s. Aside from their shared poetic genius, Dylan seems an unlikely candidate to be crowned the “New” Dante. But when I paid closer attention to Dylan’s lyrics, looking specifically for connections to Dante, I realized that Dylan evokes Inferno in ways that seem too specific, too numerous, and too noticeable to write off as incidental.

These overlaps are most evident in my favorite song by Dylan, the 1965 masterpiece “Desolation Row.” Immediately, the title “Desolation Row” evokes some sort of hellscape—I like to think that this song is Dylan’s modern rendition of hell, an Inferno updated and outfitted for the 1960s. As soon as Bob Dylan strums the song’s first chord, he begins an 11-minute journey through the bleak, surreal landscape of “Desolation Row.” Over an acoustic guitar and discordant harmonica, Dylan guides listeners through this mystical place, recounting the stories of once-celebrated figures who now live in states of loss or longing, decaying with each passing day on “Desolation Row.”

“Desolation Row” sits between imagination and reality. Dylan creates a place, with stars, a moon, factories, and castles, but its physical geography is nebulous. It has traces of structure, but they are disjointed and murky. Its characters come from the Bible, Shakespeare, folk tales, and 20th-century America, but they occupy the same space and time. As for the location of each hell, Dante conceptualizes Inferno as an “abyss of suffering,” and Dylan describes “Desolation Row” as a “cyanide hole,” both pits requiring some form of subterranean descent to enter. The inhabitants of “Desolation Row” are trapped in a specific physical location, their freedom denied by those responsible for running hell: the faceless “agents,” “insurance men,” and “superhuman crew” for Dylan, and demons and monsters for Dante’s Inferno. Meanwhile, judgment is an arbitrary process: the nurse, “some local loser,” judges the damned of “Desolation Row,” but like King Minos, she only controls their positions in hell. Neither has the authority to redirect a soul’s fate. With these renditions of a police and justice system, Dylan and Dante give their hells a bureaucracy, arguing that the mechanical treatment of humans is in and of itself hellish.

There are even connections to Inferno’s sin of lust. In “Desolation Row,” “everybody is making love or else expecting rain,” a distinctive pairing between rain and sex that also appears in the second circle of Inferno. In the same circle, Dante includes the Assyrian queen Semiramus, who is condemned to hell for her incestual practices and sexual pervsion. Dylan likewise features sexual perversion in hellscape with the masturbating “blind commissioner,” who has “one hand tied / to the tight-rope walker,” and the “other in his pants.” Dylan and Dante see sexual perversion as an essential part of hell and are critical of the excessively lustful—a similarity that, considering that lust is one of the seven deadly sins, foregrounds that sin is as strong a theme in “Desolation Row” as it is in Inferno.

Beyond these more specific, physical details that link Dylan to Dante, the hellscapes also share a similar atmosphere. Analogous to Inferno, “Desolation Row” is frightening – full of sin, narcissism, and forgotten dreams, but this desolation is accompanied by an edge of mysticism, a sort of dreamy confusion that shades our image of the world. Part of this effect derives from the way Dylan reworks his chosen characters; he creates a freak show from people who are not freaks, composing pairings that cross fiction and reality, as is the case for “Einstein disguised as Robin Hood” and Cinderella’s “Bette Davis style” behavior. That Nero, the Good Samaritan, and Romeo are slumming it on Desolation Row is almost comedic in its absurdity, but Dylan’s account is matter of fact, with regret, yet distance—his denial of Desolation Row’s absurdity counteracts its potential for humor. An equally eclectic mix of characters populates the circles of Inferno, and Dante surveys these characters with an approach similar to Dylan’s. More than anything, Dylan and Dante share an unbroken sense of pity for the “ill-begotten souls” of hell, both in the position of outsiders looking in. This subversion of time, space, and reality is what makes hell so mystical, and this carnival of characters is what makes it so unsettling.

It wasn’t until after reading Inferno that I grasped the full essence of “Desolation Row”—the surrealism, the strangeness, and the hellishness. Once I saw the connections between these works, I came to appreciate both even more: Dylan for his subtle, poetic abilities, and Dante for the orality of his verse and immortality of his Inferno. Did Dante actually inspire Dylan? It is impossible to know for sure. But Dylan did follow a long literary tradition of constructing hell with poetry, and of, just like Dante, conceiving hell as the distortion of culture. Dylan reworked this tradition to create a 1960s, rock-and-roll, poetic masterpiece—“Desolation Row,” a hell for the 20th century.