Discuss Canto IX of Dante's Inferno.

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Dante uses medieval numerology as an organizing principle in his epic, with cantos relating to the number 3 seeming to have special significance. Canto 9 (the square of 3) offers one such instance. While it seems less dramatically interesting, it offers some important insights for Dante's readers.

Dante and Virgil have become stalled at the Gates of Dis, as the devils refuse to let them pass. Virgil had assumed he would be able to guide Dante easily through Hell, and this is a significant failure. Virgil is reputed to be one of the most eloquent of Classical poets, yet his failure here reduces his language to near incoherence.

"We have to win this battle," he started to say,

"Or else . . . and she, who offered so much aid—

Late though it seems to be, and still on the way." (Pinsky 9.7-9)

This is an important point in the poem, for one of Dante's objectives is to not only surpass the ancients in spirituality (and thus not end up in Limbo but in Paradise) but also to surpass them poetically. Virgil's intellect and language falter, while Dante's does not. Readers need to monitor the times when Dante recognizes the need to grow past what Virgil, "his author," can manage, and this is a significant beginning. Dante himself even questions whether Virgil knows what he is doing and where they are going, and that indicates a new spiritual and intellectual strength growing within him.

At a slightly later point, Virgil covers Dante's eyes so that he will not be turned to stone by the sight of the Gorgons, or Furies. Dante breaks the narrative and appeals to his reader:

O you whose mind is clear:

Understand well the lesson that underlies

The veil of these strange verses I have written. (Pinky 9.94-96)

A reader can be forgiven for feeling stymied by this claim, for much in the poem might seem as impenetrable as Dis's gates. In retrospect, however, one can understand the complex metaphor that Dante is constructing before his readers enter the part of Inferno that involves more complex sins and contrapassos.

The veil of the strange verses is the allegory Dante constructs. Just as direct sight of the Gorgon would paralyze Dante the Pilgrim, leaving him forever where he stands, direct sight of the truths of human failing that Dante is about to convey in the subsequent cantos would overwhelm the reader. As this canto suggests, to become lost in Hell is to remain forever lost. To avoid that danger, one needs to see properly what one's sins really look like on the inside rather than the external acts they involve. The veil of allegory allows the reader to take in these truths through metaphors that the reader will need to interpret rightly.

Virgil and Dante are finally able to move past the Gates when the disdainful angel from Heaven comes to speed their progress. It is valuable to note that disdain here is set against the raging anger or brooding sullenness found in canto 8 as well as Virgil's anger and frustration at being impeded initially.

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Canto IX

The typically unflappable Virgil tries to comfort his charge as they tarry at the Gates of Dis. But the elder poets own fear causes him to stammer:

"Still it behoveth us to win the fight,"

Began he; "Else. . .Such offered us herself. . .

O how I long that some one here arrive!"

Already terrified, Virgil’s fear is alarming to Dante. He wonders if anyone has ever crossed the gates before:

"Into this bottom of the doleful conch

Doth any e'er descend from the first grade,

Which for its pain has only hope cut off?"

Virgil reveals that he personally descended to the bottom of Hell:

"Seldom it comes to pass that one of us

Maketh the journey upon which I go.

True is it, once before I here below

Was conjured by that pitiless Erictho,

Who summoned back the shades unto their bodies.

Naked of me short while the flesh had been,

Before within that wall she made me enter,

To bring a spirit from the circle of Judas;

That is the lowest region and the darkest,

And farthest from the heaven which circles all.

Well know I the way; therefore be reassured.

This fen, which a prodigious stench exhales,

Encompasses about the city dolent,

Where now we cannot enter without anger."

Dante, the author, seems to have borrowed this tale from the poet Lucan’s work, Pharsalia. In Lucan’s telling, the witch Erichtho calls a condemned soul back to the living world; she wants the shade to reveal details about the civil war between Caesar and Pompey. Dante makes Virgil the sorceress’s emissary for this horrific task. Doing so gives Virgil an explanation for knowing what comes beyond the gates of Dis.

Somewhat reassured, Dante waits at his mentor’s side; his eyes are drawn to the glowing red dome from which hang three bloody-female like figures. These “women” writhe in agony, a writing akin to the that circle their waists as well those that from their heads like a sort of reptilian hair. These, Dante recognizes, are the “Furies” (also called "Erinyes"), the mythological “Daughters of the Night,” who, once charged with exacting revenge against those who have offended gods (and sometimes mortals). Now, for their heresy, they are punished in Circle Six.

Virgil identifies the trio:

“This is Megaera, on the left-hand side;

She who is weeping on the right, Alecto;

Tisiphone is between..”

The Furies are sisters in Greek mythology. Megeara punishes people who commit crimes, particularly crimes of infidelity. It is she who causes jealousy and envy. The second, Alecto, revenges moral crimes, especially unchecked anger. Tisiphone pursues murderers, especially those responsible for fratricide and parricide. Terrified, Dante presses closer to his guide, and rightly so. The sisters are still dangerous. They threaten to call upon their elder sister, Medusa; making eye contact with this Fury will turn men to stone.

Virgil commands:

"Turn thyself round, and keep thine eyes close shut,

For if the Gorgon appear, and thou shouldst see it,

No more returning upward would there be."

Dante complies without hesitation; Virgil himself covers his eyes.

Suddenly, Dante feels a fierce rush of wind. The sensation heightens the poet’s terror, but Virgil tells Dante to open his eyes: the Messenger of Heaven is approaching. Everything in front of the Messenger rushes to get out of his way. At the Gates, the Messenger simply waves a small rod and the doors swing open. The Messenger has no kind words for the suffering sinners of Dis. They deserve to be there for thwarting the will of God. He roars:

"O banished out of Heaven, people despised!"

Thus he began upon the horrid threshold;

"Whence is this arrogance within you couched?

Wherefore recalcitrate against that will,

From which the end can never be cut off,

And which has many times increased your pain?

What helpeth it to butt against the fates?

Your Cerberus, if you remember well,

For that still bears his chin and gullet peeled."

Dante and Virgil follow the Messenger through the Gates of Dis. As they step carefully across the uneven ground, the travelers seeopen tombs, sepulchres, from which flames leap. This is the eternal place of unrest for the arch-heretics (also known as the “Heresiarchs.” Arch-heretics were those who actively led other people away from the holy word of God. From within their fiery tombs, these souls scream “dire lamentations.” The poets observe but do not comment and continue on.

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