Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno” is a narrative poem describing Dante’s journey through his perception of hell in search of salvation. Dante’s writing of this classic piece was greatly influenced by the politics in Florence during the late thirteenth century but the Inferno is much more than a political symbolic work of literature but is a beautifully poetic and allegorical. Inferno has made a memorable mark in European Literature as a great medieval poem written in vernacular language. Before Dante’s Inferno literary writings were almost all written in Latin, the language of the Catholic Church, but Dante used his native Tuscan dialect which helped unify the Italian language. Dante said his work to be a comedy but he didn’t mean it in a humorous sense but instead as a classical tragedy with a plot having a sad beginning but a happy ending. I think the comedy can relate to everyone in some way as it deals with the questions of humanity and the afterlife. The Divine comedy consists of a prologue and 33 cantos. Dante and Virgil enter the wide gates of hell and descend through nine circles. In each circle they witness sinners and their punishments for the sins they committed while living on earth. In Dante’s view torture is godly justice. In Canto IX the sinners are the heretics. Canto XI contains the sinners that have committed really bad fraudulent acts. Canto XXXIV contains the souls of the most evil sinners, the traitors to their benefactors. Throughout Dante’s writing symbols are used to represent the will of God and the punishments for the sinners were a reflection of the sin that they committed against God. Dante’s travels take you through different levels of hell searching for salvation. The imperfections and sins of humanity are shown using allegory and irony is used to demonstrate what the consequences are for the actions that the sinners have committed. It begins with Dante the Pilgrim walking in the woods finding himself lost in the dark woods. He struggles to climb a higher road to light but is blocked by three fierce beasts. Here he encounters Virgil the dead poet and he promises to guide Dante through hell and Purgatory and there another spirit would lead him into Paradise because Virgil cannot. “Have pity on my soul,” cried Dante, “which ever you are, shade or living man!” “No longer living man” says Virgil, “though once I was” (p1215, line 67) “Are you then Virgil, are then that fount from which pours forth so rich a stream of words?”(p1216, line 79). They enter hell which is described as a cave at the center of the earth. On their way down through hell they encounter ledges that are called circles and within these circles people’s souls are being punished for their sins. The punishments in Dante’s hell are a reflection of the sins that were committed on Earth. In Canto IX is the sixth circle which the heretics are punished. The punishment for the heretics was to lie in graves of fire for all eternity. The symbolic retribution here is that since they didn’t believe in life after death while on earth, now dead their bodies and souls were to lie in graves of god’s wrath for eternity. “There lie arch heretics of every sect, with all disciples; more than you think are packed within these tombs. Like heretics lie buried with their like and the graves burn more or less accordingly” (p1242, line 127). In Canto XI they continue on their way on through where the heretics are punished and the stench is so bad they must stop for a moment. Here Dante sees an inscription on a tomb. “Within lies Anastasius, the pope Photinus lured away from the straight path” (1246, Line8) Virgil than began to explain the structure of hell to Dante. He starts with the next circle, circle seven, which is the circle of the violent and is divided into three smaller circles. “Since violence can be used against three persons, into thee concentric rounds it is divided: violence can be done to God, to self, or to one’s neighbor” (p1246, line 29). Then Virgil explains the most evil sin, fraud, but that’s just the mild acts of the fraud, the really bad fraudulent sinners are in circle 9. Dante tells Virgil he understands but questions why these sinners in the previous circles are not also here in the city of flame. Virgil scolds Dante for his seemingly stupid question reminding him of the beloved book. Dante then asks him to explain the sin usury once again. Virgil explains that it is good for man to make a living from art and nature but not when they do it unnaturally, like generating money, this is a violation of nature therefore a sin. Virgil then notices that the constellations in the sky are changing and he says it’s time for them to move on. Canto XXXIV is the final region of hell, and as they approach Virgil shouts out “Vexilla regis prolevnt inferni” (p1323, line 1) telling Dante to keep his eyes out for Lucifer himself. Here all of the sinners are under ice lying in all different positions catching Dante’s attention. Virgil then decides it’s time for Dante to see Dis and that he will have to be brave. Dante is scared stiff, so scared he almost cannot write but he tries to explain what he is feeling and seeing. “I did not and was not living either! Try to imagine, if you can imagine, me there, deprived of life and death at once. The king of the vast kingdom of all grief stuck out with half of his chest above the ice” (p1323, line 25) Dante explains that Lucifer is so big that he himself is closer to the size of a giant. He has three heads, one red, one yellow, and one black and underneath them each are a pair of enormous bat like wings. He had six eyes and three mouths and Dante noticed he was eating sinners. The sinners here were traitors to their benefactors. Virgil points out Judas Iscanot, Brutus and Cassius who are all being eaten and who had all betrayed someone of great importance. Then Virgil says it’s time to go and he seems to be in a hurry. Virgil tells Dante to hold on as he climbs down Satan using his hair.” He grabbed on the shaggy sides of Satan then downward, tuft by tuft, he made his way between the tangled hair and frozen crust” (p1324, line 73) As they climbed Dante felt that they were somehow turned around and climbing back to hell but Virgil insisted this was the way and snaps at Dante to get going that it was getting late. Dante then asks Virgil what just happened why did it seem they got turned upside down but they are still right side up. Virgil explained that they are now in the northern hemisphere where it is now morning and that they are on the land of God. “Now you standing beneath the hemisphere which is opposite the side covered by land, where at the central point was sacrificed the man whose birth and life were free from sin”(p1325, line 112). They follow the road leading all the way to the surface of the world where they emerge and can once again see the stars. Dante’s hell is a place full of flames, pain and tears and from his hell we are taught about moral scale from those who sin without intention and their degree of punishment, to those who commit the worst of sins and are trapped in ice with Satan in the middle to eat them as he pleases. Dante’s Inferno at times is complicated reading because it is allegorical and many of its lines have two meanings and it has allot of word play but it is a wonderfully clever poem causing the reader to really think about the consequences of living an unjust life.
Alighieri, D. Inferno. Canto IX, XI, XXXIV. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. (2009). W.W. Norton & Company. NY, NY.