For a story that is as spiritually symbolic as it is vulgar, look no further than Dante's Inferno. If read on a purely superficial level, Inferno appears as the story of Dante’s descent into Hell by gradual degrees of evil. However, Dante’s poetry and rich symbolism establish the allegorical nature of this first poem in The Divine Comedy. Thus, Inferno is an internal, psychological journey for Dante, potentially applicable to all humans. By examining Dante’s life prior to his exile from Florence and analyzing his character's responses to each layer of Hell, Inferno becomes a chronicle of Dante’s spiritual growth during a bleak time of the author's life. In order to grasp the inherent symbolism within his work, a brief history of Dante’s life is necessary. Dante Alighieri was born in Florence, Italy, in 1265 amidst strong political tensions between the Guelf and Ghibelline factions. He likely studied at the university in Bologna, where he developed the love for philosophy apparent in Inferno (Kirkpatrick xii). His inspiration, a nun named Beatrice, died in 1290; around this time Dante became occupied with the White Guelfs, an inner division of the Guelf faction opposite the Black Guelfs. Due to his increasing involvement, Dante was elected in 1300 to the Florentine commune (xi). However, the Black Guelfs took possession of the government in 1301, exiling Dante from Florentine in 1302. Dante settled in Verona in 1303 and started The Divine Comedy in 1307, in response to his exile (ix). With Dante's history in mind, the opening verses of canto 1 in Inferno suggest a correlation between the character and author. Since the character Dante is “[a]t one point midway on our path in life” (Inf. 1.1), the reader can deduce that he is middle-aged like the author Dante. The use of “our” rather than “my” is the first hint of Inferno’s allegorical nature; what Dante will encounter in Hell is applicable to all humans’ lives, not just his own. The character Dante is “searching/ through a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost” (Inf. 1.2-3). If taken symbolically, the “dark wood” might represent a confusing time in the character Dante’s life, paralleling the uncertainty and past sins in the author Dante’s life. He describes that wood as “a wilderness, savage, brute, harsh and wild” (Inf. 1.5), which highlights the sense of despair and anxiety that both the character Dante and author Dante experience. Soon Dante encounters the bottom of a hill whose top is “already clothed in rays from the planet/ that leads all others, on any road, aright” (Inf. 1.17-18), evocative of Heaven. Dante's passage is prohibited, though, by a leopard, lion, and wolf. Helen Luke identifies the symbolism here, noting that Dante was “hindered and finally turned back by three beasts—the leopard, the lion and the wolf—by his love of pleasure, by his fierce pride, and by the terrifying latent greed and avarice of the ego” (11). Hopeless, Dante is only saved by the appearance of the Roman poet Virgil. After Dante beseeches Virgil for assistance, Virgil informs him of an alternate road, where “you shall hear shrill cries of desperation,/ and see those spirits/ mourning ancient pain,/ who all cry out for death to come once more” (Inf. 1.115-117). Virgil can only be referring to Hell; consequently, Dante the character begins his voyage into Hell with Virgil as his guide. It is important to distinguish between the character Dante and the author Dante. Although the character Dante shares many similarities with the author Dante, the two are by no means the same person. Rather, the true Dante constructed the fictional Dante as a symbol of both himself and humankind. Similarly, the fictional Dante’s passage through Hell is symbolic of the poet Dante’s spiritual transformation during his exile. Robin Kirkpatrick, a professor at Cambridge and expert on Dante, observes that “[f]rom the opening canto of the Inferno, the reader's eye is trained upon a tremulous...
Cited: Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy I: Inferno. Ed. And trans. Robin Kirkpatrick. London: Penguin, 2006. Print.
Kirkpatrick, Robin. Introduction. The Divine Comedy I: Inferno. By Dante Alighieri. London:
Penguin, 2006. Print.
Luke, Helen M. Dark Wood to White Rose: A Study of Meanings in Dante 's Divine Comedy. Pecos, New Mexico: Dove Publications, 1975. Print.
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