Read an Excerpt Danteworlds A READER'S GUIDE TO THE INFERNO
By Guy P. Raffa
The University of Chicago Press Copyright © 2007 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter One Dark Wood
IT IS EARLY SPRING in the year 1300 and Dante, "midway along the road of our life," has strayed off the straight path and finds himself in a dark wood. Heartened by the sight of a sunlit hill, he begins to climb to safety, but soon he is beset by a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf and forced to retreat to the valley. Here Dante meets the shade of Virgil, the great Roman poet; to escape his dire predicament, Dante must visit the three realms of the afterlife, beginning with Hell, eternal abode of lost souls. Dante hesitates, declaring his unworthiness to undertake such a journey, but is persuaded to go when he learns that Virgil has been sent by Beatrice to rescue him.
THREE BEASTS :: The uncertain symbolism of the three beasts-a leopard (or some other lithe, spotted animal), a lion, and a she-wolf-contributes to the shadowy atmosphere of the opening scene. Armed with information from later episodes, commentators often view the creatures as symbols, respectively, of the three major divisions of Dante's Hell: concupiscence (immoderate desires), violence, and fraud (though some equate the leopard with fraud and the she-wolf with concupiscence). Others associate the animals with envy, pride, and avarice. Perhaps they carry some political meaning as well (a she-wolf nursed the legendary founders of Rome-Romulus and Remus-and thus came to stand as a symbol of the city). Whatever his conception, Dante likely drew inspiration for the beasts from this biblical passage prophesying the destruction of those who refuse to repent their iniquities: "Wherefore a lion out of the wood hath slain them, a wolf in the evening hath spoiled them, a leopard watcheth for their cities: every one that shall go out thence shall be taken, because their transgressions are multiplied, their rebellions are strengthened" (Jeremiah 5:6).
It is perhaps best, at this early stage, to take note of the salient characteristics of the animals (the leopard's spotted hide, the lion's intimidating presence, the she-wolf's insatiable hunger) and see how they relate to subsequent events in Dante's journey through Hell.
VIRGIL :: As guide for his character-self through the first two realms of the afterlife (Hell and Purgatory), Dante chooses the classical poet he most admired. Virgil (70-19 BCE), who lived under Julius Caesar and then Augustus during Rome's transition from republic to empire, wrote in Latin and was (and still is) most famous for his Aeneid. This epic poem recounts the journey of Aeneas, son of a goddess (Venus) and a Trojan prince (Anchises), from Troy-following its destruction by the Greeks-eventually to Italy, where he founds the line of rulers that will lead to Caesar and the Roman Empire of Virgil's day. The poem, in fact, is in one sense a magnificent piece of political propaganda aimed at honoring the emperor Augustus. Two episodes from Virgil's epic were of particular interest to Dante. Book 4 tells the tragic tale of Aeneas and Dido, the queen of Carthage who kills herself when Aeneas abandons her to continue his journey and fulfill his destiny by founding a new civilization in Italy. Book 6, in which Aeneas visits Hades to meet the shade of his father and learn of future events in his journey and in the history of Rome, provides key elements of the spirit world, primarily mythological creatures and rivers, that Dante uses to shape his own version of the afterlife, Hell in particular.
Virgil also wrote four long poems, the Georgics, which deal mostly with agricultural themes (though they contain other important material, including the famous story of Orpheus and Eurydice in the fourth Georgic). And he wrote ten pastoral poems (the Eclogues), the fourth of which celebrates the birth of a wonderchild and was thus commonly interpreted in the Christian Middle Ages as a prophecy of the birth of Jesus.
DARK WOOD :: Dante describes the dark forest (selva oscura) in which he finds himself at the beginning of the poem (Inf. 1.2) in vague terms, perhaps as an indication of the protagonist's own disorientation. The precise nature of this disorientation-spiritual, physical, psychological, moral, political-is itself difficult to determine at this point and thus underscores two very important ideas for reading this poem: we are encouraged, first, to identify with the character Dante and, second, to recognize that learning is a process in which we must sometimes read "backward" from later events to gain a fuller understanding of what happened earlier.
Characteristic of Dante's way of working, this "dark wood" is a product of the poet's imagination likely based on ideas from various traditions. These include the medieval Platonic image of chaotic matter, unformed and unnamed, as a type of primordial wood (in Latin, silva); the forest at the entrance to the classical underworld (Hades) as described by Virgil (Aeneid 6.179); the dangerous forests from which the wandering knights of medieval romances must extricate themselves; and Augustine's association of spiritual alienation with a "region of utter unlikeness" (Confessions 7.10) and temptation with "so vast a wilderness [tam immensa silva], so full of snares and dangers" (Confessions 10.35). In an earlier work (Convivio 4.24.12), Dante imagines the bewildering period of adolescence, in which one needs guidance to keep from losing the "good way," as a sort of "meandering forest" (selva erronea).
STRAIGHT WAY :: When Dante says he has lost the "straight way" (diritta via, also translated as "right way"; Inf. 1.3), he again leaves much to his reader's imagination. And again, in imagining the nature of this deviation, we may come to relate to the protagonist. In medieval thought, abandonment of the straight way often indicates alienation from God. Augustine, for example, views iniquity as a "perversion of the will" when it veers from God toward lower things (Confessions 7.16). However, in addition to any individual spiritual or psychological issues the phrase may suggest, the poet views such veering as a grand metaphor for the moral and societal woes of his world. Dante's notion of the straight way (and deviations from it) appears in all three realms of the afterlife as well as in the world of the living.
TIME OF THE JOURNEY :: Because Dante dates the initial action of the Divine Comedy to a point "midway along the road of our life" (Inf. 1.1), we know the journey took place toward the end of his thirty-fifth year: based on the biblical authority of Psalm 89:10 (Psalm 90 in the King James Bible), seventy years constitute a complete lifespan. Since Dante was born in 1265, his journey occurred in the year 1300, sometime not long before his thirty-fifth birthday (in late May-early June). Not coincidentally, Pope Boniface VIII proclaimed 1300 the first Jubilee, or Holy Year: pilgrims who, after receiving the sacrament of penance, traveled to Rome and (over a period of fifteen days) visited Saint Peter's and the basilica of Saint Paul outside the Walls were granted a onetime, full indulgence of all sins. Dante's entrance into Hell at the conventional midpoint of human life also echoes a biblical passage in which King Hezekiah, having been delivered from mortal illness, reflects on his tribulation: "I said: In the midst of my days I shall go to the gates of hell" (Isaiah 38:10). When Dante says he gained hope from the astronomical fact that the sun rose with the same stars that accompanied it at the moment of creation (Inf. 1.37-43), we can infer that the journey began under the sign of Aries, in late March or early April, the period in which the creation of the universe was traditionally believed to have occurred. (Information presented much later [Inf. 21.112-14] will allow us to pinpoint the time of the journey with even greater specificity.)
SIMILE :: Dante uses numerous similes (comparisons usually introduced with "as" and "so"), describing something that we are able to imagine to help us understand what he claims to have seen or felt. The first simile occurs in Inferno 1.22-27. Here Dante compares his narrow escape from danger to the experience of a man who, after arriving safely on shore, looks back at the sea that almost claimed his life.
SYNESTHESIA :: Meaning a "mixing of senses," synesthesia occurs when terms normally associated with one of the five senses are applied to a different sense. When Dante says he was driven back to the place "where the sun is silent" (Inf. 1.60), we wonder how the sun, usually associated with light and therefore sight, can have lost its voice.
GREYHOUND PROPHECY :: The greyhound (veltro) is the subject of the first of several enigmatic passages foretelling a savior figure who will come to restore the world to the path of truth and virtue (Inf. 1.100-111). Although Dante may be alluding to one of his political benefactors (Cangrande, whose name means "big dog"), he probably intends for the prophecy to remain as unspecific (and therefore tantalizingly open to interpretation) as the three beasts and the overall atmosphere of the opening scene. Virgil says the greyhound, feeding on "wisdom, love, and virtue," will destroy the ravenous and promiscuous she-wolf, thus preserving the Italy on whose behalf the following valiant warriors gave their lives: Camilla, queen of the Volsci, slew a number of Trojans in combat before being killed by Arruns (Virgil, Aeneid 7.803-17, 11.648-831). She fought alongside Turnus, king of the Rutulians, who waged war against the Trojans after Latinus, king of Latium, gave his daughter Lavinia (who had been promised in marriage to Turnus) to Aeneas; in the final scene of the Aeneid, Turnus is defeated by Aeneas in single combat and begs for his life, but Aeneas is reminded that Turnus killed a dear young friend (Pallas) and plunges his sword through the chest of his fallen foe (Aeneid 12.919-52). Nisus and Euryalus were Trojans celebrated for their devotion to one another. On a joint mission to bring a message to Aeneas, Euryalus was killed as the two men passed through the Rutulian camp; Nisus avenged the death of his younger friend before he too was killed by the enemy, his body falling on top of the corpse of his beloved comrade (Aeneid 9.176-445). All four soldiers therefore died in the Trojan-Italian war, recounted in the last six books of Virgil's Aeneid, two on the native Italian side (Camilla, Turnus) and two on the Trojan side (Nisus, Euryalus). By having the character Virgil alternate between affiliations (Camilla is named first, then Nisus, Turnus, and Euryalus), Dante implies that both sides in the conflict ultimately contributed to the greater good, the foundation of the future Roman Empire.
AENEAS AND PAUL :: Declaring himself unworthy to undertake this journey to the realms of the afterlife, Dante compares himself unfavorably to two men who were granted just such a privilege (Inf. 2.10-36). The apostle Paul claims in the Bible to have been "caught up into paradise" (specifically the "third heaven") where he "heard secret words which it is not granted to man to utter" (2 Corinthians 12:2-4), and Virgil describes the visit of AENEAS (see "Virgil" above) to the underworld in Aeneid 6. These two otherworldly travelers are linked through their association with Rome, seat of both the empire and the church. Dante, contrary to Augustine and others, believed the Roman Empire in fact prepared the way for Christianity, with Rome as the divinely chosen home of the papacy.
THREE BLESSED WOMEN :: Similar to other epic poems, the Divine Comedy begins in medias res ("in the middle of events"). This means the events that prompted the journey happened prior to the opening action of the poem. In this case, Virgil explains in Inferno 2 that he was summoned to Dante's aid by Beatrice, who was herself summoned by Lucia at the request of a woman able to alter the judgment of Heaven (Inf. 2.94-108). This last woman, who sets in motion the entire rescue operation, can only be Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus according to Dante's faith. "Lucia" is Saint Lucy of Syracuse (died ca. 304), a Christian martyr closely associated with fortitude as well as sight and vision (her name means "light," and a later legend reports that she gouged out her eyes to protect her chastity). The common view that Lucy bore personal meaning for Dante (perhaps as his patron saint) derives from the poet's claim to have experienced a period of weakened eyesight as a result of intense reading (Convivio 3.9.14-16). Beatrice, who will reappear as a major figure later in the poem, was the inspiration for Dante's early love poetry and now plays the role of his spiritual guide. Early commentators have identified her as the daughter of Folco Portinari, an influential Florentine banker who founded the hospital of Santa Maria Novella and was chosen several times to serve on the commune's chief executive body, the priorate. Beatrice was married (in 1286 or 1287) to Simone de' Bardi, whose family ran one of Florence's largest banking houses. She died in 1290 at age twenty-four, just a year or so after the death of her father. Along with Virgil, these "three blessed women" (Inf. 2.124)-Mary, Lucia, Beatrice-make possible Dante's journey to the afterlife.
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita (Inf. 1.1) Midway along the road of our life Io non Enëa, io non Paulo sono (Inf. 2.32) I am not Aeneas, I am not Paul I' son Beatrice che ti faccio andare (Inf. 2.70) I am Beatrice who makes you go
1 : : What do the three "Danteworlds"-Hell, Purgatory, Paradise-mean to you? How do you envision them? How do you think they might relate to one another and to the world in which we live?
2 :: Dante literally faces a midlife crisis. What problems or issues do you associate with such an experience? Can you think of any recent representations (in movies, books, the news) of some sort of midlife crisis?
3 :: What might it mean that Dante describes himself as halfway along the road of "our life," as opposed to "my life," in the opening verse of the poem?
4 :: Look for another example of synesthesia (soon after the first one) in Inferno 1. What is the effect of these strange descriptions? How do they contribute to the overall atmosphere of the opening scene?
5 :: Discuss the similes in Inferno 1 and 2 (there are four in all). Explain how they work and why you find them effective or not.
Chapter Two Periphery of Hell: Cowardice
AFTER PASSING THROUGH the gate of Hell, marked with the ominous words "Leave behind all hope, you who enter," Dante and Virgil observe the many shades of those who lived such undistinguished lives they are refused entry to either Heaven or Hell. Racing after a banner that never comes to a stop, these cowardly souls are repeatedly stung by flies and wasps, their blood and tears becoming food for the worms at their feet. The travelers approach the shores of Acheron, where wretched souls of the damned gather to cross the river aboard a boat piloted by Charon. The quick-tempered ferryman denies passage to Dante, who, shaken by an earthquake, loses consciousness and collapses.
COWARDS :: Included among the cowardly souls, who are also known as fence-sitters, wafflers, opportunists, or neutrals, are the angels who refused to choose between God and Lucifer (Inf. 3.34-42). The idea of a marginal place-inside the gate of Hell but before the river Acheron-for souls neither good enough for Heaven nor wicked enough for Hell proper is an original product of Dante's imagination. Partial theological justification for Dante's invention may be found in the Bible: "But because thou art lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth" (Apocalypse [Revelation] 3:16).
Excerpted from Danteworlds by Guy P. Raffa Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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