These famous lines, narrated by Dante, open Inferno and immediately establish the allegorical plane on which the story’s meaning unfolds (I.1–2). The use of such potent words as “journey” and “right road” signifies the religious aspect of Dante’s impending adventure and quickly notifies us that we are leaving the realm of the literal. Likewise, the image of being lost in “dark woods” sets up a clear dichotomy between the unenlightened ignorance involved in a lack of faith in God and the clear radiance provided by God’s love. The simple contrast between the “dark woods,” which embody Dante’s fear, and the “right road,” which embodies Dante’s confidence in God, makes his challenge clear—he sets out to look for God in a sinful world. His reference to “our life” contributes to the allegorical level of Inferno: the journey upon which Dante is embarking is not solely his but rather that of every human being. He describes his journey in only the vaguest of terms, with no mention of where he is coming from or where he is heading, because he believes that this journey is one that every individual undertakes so as to understand his or her sins and find his or her peace with God.
. through me you enter into the city of woes
through me you enter into eternal pain,
through me you enter the population of loss.
. . .
abandon all hope, you who enter here.
Dante reads these lines, which he finds inscribed on the Gate of Hell, as he and Virgil pass into the Ante-Inferno before the river Acheron in Canto III (III.1–7). These lines may be said to represent the voice of Hell, as they declare its nature, origin, and purpose, and thus pave the way for what is to come throughout the poem. First, the inscription portrays Hell as a city, which defines much of the geography of the poem—Hell is a geographically contained area bound by walls and containing a vast population of souls. Hell is thus a grotesque counterpart to Heaven, which Virgil describes as the city of God. Second, the inscription portrays Hell as a place of eternal woes, pain, and loss, situating it as the center of God’s strict punishment of sinners, a place from which there is supposed to be no escape (“abandon all hope”).
. . . One day, for pleasure,
We read of Lancelot, by love constrained:
Alone, suspecting nothing, at our leisure.
. . .
And so was he who wrote it; that day we read
. . .
No further. . . .
Francesca speaks these lines in Canto V when she tells Dante the story of her love affair with Paolo, her husband’s brother, for which they are now both condemned to the tempest of the Second Circle of Hell (V.112–124). Francesca describes how she and Paolo, who had fallen secretly in love, read to one another from a story about Lancelot and Guinevere, who also shared an illicit love (Guinevere was King Arthur’s wife). Feeling that their own story was reflected in the story of the Arthurian lovers, Paolo and Francesca were overcome with emotion, and when they read about Lancelot and Guinevere’s first kiss, Paolo kissed Francesca; Francesca’s husband, spying on the lovers, had them killed before they had the opportunity to repent and seek God’s forgiveness.
This passage, in addition to being one of the most famous in Inferno, is one of the most moving. Dante heightens the tragic quality of the romance between Paolo and Francesca with his mastery of the style of romantic love poetry—one of the many modes that he assumes in Inferno. These lines also imply the power of literature to excite the emotions, a power that Dante hoped to harness. Perhaps most important, they offer a sympathetic story to explain the suffering of these souls in Hell, allowing the reader to share Dante’s compassion for them. As the poem progresses, the stories told by the damned souls grow less and less sympathetic, compelling the reader to share Dante’s growing abhorrence of sin and underscoring the poem’s theme that sin is not to be pitied.
I did not open them—for to be rude
To such a one as him was courtesy.
Dante speaks these lines in reference to a promise, in Canto XXXIII, to open Fra Alberigo’s eyes for him (XXXIII.146–147). Alberigo, one of the living men who was snatched and brought to Hell before they died because of the magnitude of their sins, is lying supine in Cocytus, the frozen lake; his tears have frozen over his eyes, and he has asked Dante to remove the rings of ice from his eyes so that he might cry freely for a time. Dante initially agrees, but after he realizes the extent of the man’s evil, he changes his mind and recants his promise, taking pleasure in Alberigo’s suffering. This quote is extremely important to Dante’s overall development in the poem, indicating the extent to which he learns not to pity suffering sinners and to despise sin wholeheartedly. At the beginning of Inferno, Dante weeps for many of the suffering souls; by the penultimate canto, he doesn’t even help them weep for themselves. This attitude, wholly endorsed by Virgil, may seem harsh to the modern reader, but it is portrayed in Inferno as Dante’s necessary first step toward overcoming sin in his own life and finding salvation in God.
To get back up to the shining world from there
My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel;
. . .
Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars.
These concluding words of Inferno describe Dante and Virgil’s climb out of the underworld and back to the surface of the Earth (XXXIV.134–140). Dante the poet fancies that when Lucifer was flung down from Heaven, he struck the Earth in a place exactly opposite Jerusalem in the Southern Hemisphere and penetrated the center of the planet; the cavity left by his fall is Hell. As Dante and Virgil climb out of Hell on the other side of the world, they climb up through a cavity that was once full of earth; the earth was displaced by Lucifer’s fall and thrust up to the surface, where it formed an island. This island is Purgatory, which Dante tours in the next part of The Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, as he continues his trek toward salvation.
These lines are chiefly important because of how they end: Dante, fresh from his nightmarish visit to Hell, gazes up at Heaven’s stars. This image symbolizes the idea that Dante has begun his slow climb out of sin and confusion and has taken a step toward Beatrice and God, ending this very dark poem on a note of brilliant optimism. It is greatly significant that both Purgatorio and Paradiso end with the same word as Inferno: stele, or the stars. It is clear not only that Dante aspires to Heaven but also that his poem aspires to a place among the epics.