What happens in Canto VIII of Dante's Inferno?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Canto VIII

Phlegyas paddles his charges across the Styx and away from the them pitiful souls mired in the slime. Dante and Virgil now can see the City of Dis more clearly; the rounded tops of the city’s mosques glow red. Virgil explains that

"The fire eternal

That kindles them within makes them look red,

As thou beholdest in this nether Hell."

Coming closer still, Dante can see that the fire-lit mosques are protected by a deep moat and walls of what appear to be iron. Phlegyas takes a circuitous route but finally announces they have arrived, “Debark,” he orders, “here is the entrance."

Rather forced to oblige, Dante steps onto the shore. He is stunned to see vast numbers of guards at the gates. These protectors angrily demand

“Who is this that without death

Goes through the kingdom of the people dead?"

Virgil moves to calm the angry hoard but his words are of no comfort to Dante. The throng will let Virgil, a shade, pass through but the deny the living Dante entrance:

"Come thou alone, and he begone

Who has so boldly entered these dominions.

Let him return alone by his mad road;

Try, if he can; for thou shalt here remain,

Who hast escorted him through such dark regions."

Dante begs the great poet not to leave him, reminding Virgil how exclusively he has relied on the older man’s guidance. If we must go back, please come with me, Dante implores:

"O my dear Guide, who more than seven times

Hast rendered me security, and drawn me

From imminent peril that before me stood,

Do not desert me," said I, "thus undone;

And if the going farther be denied us,

Let us retrace our steps together swiftly."

Virgil tells Dante to not be afraid and that he will take care of things. Unfortunately, and to his likely surprise, Virgil fails to gain Dante passage. The poet returns to his charge downcast but still determined. Virgil recalls that this same throng once tried, and failed, to block Christ’s entrance. They too will eventually be victorious:

"Fear not, for I will conquer in the trial,

Whatever for defence within be planned.

This arrogance of theirs is nothing new;

For once they used it at less secret gate,

Which finds itself without a fastening still.

O'er it didst thou behold the dead inscription;

And now this side of it descends the steep,

Passing across the circles without escort,

One by whose means the city shall be opened."

This brief delay may be a reminder to Virgil that no one, not even someone as great as himself, is more important than Christ or receive better treatment than the Savior.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Canto VIII

Dante and Virgil gladly leave behind the Wrathful and the Sullen in Circle Five. As they walk on, Dante realizes that a light has been guiding them. The pair descend further into Hell:

We to the foot of that high tower had come,

Our eyes went upward to the summit of it,

By reason of two flamelets we saw placed there,

And from afar another answer them,

So far, that hardly could the eye attain it.

The poets have come to the dividing line between upper hell (Circles One through Five) and lower hell, (Circles Six through Nine). The worst offenders are housed here. In Circle Six, prior to entering the City of Dis, are the heretics, those who oppose Catholic doctrine.

Unwilling or unable to turn back, the pair proceed. In the distance, Dante observes a flickering light, unlike the ones glowing from the faraway tower. He asks his guide where it is coming from. Virgil implores his charge to look harder. Finally the ferriman comes into view. It is Phlegyas, son of the Greek god Ares, now tasked with taking souls from one side of the stinking Styx to the other. After a few harsh words are spoken between Virgil and Phlegyas, the oarsman delivers his charges to the opposite shore.

While rowing across, Dante observes condemned souls in the fetid waters. Gone is his usual modicum of compassion for the sinners. Instead, when the shade refuses to give his name, Dante curses him and Virgil shoves the sinner back into the slime.

Dante soon discovers who this heretofore nameless soul is, and why his guide is so virulent in his repulsion. This disgusting soul is Philippo Argenti, a Florentine and a member of the Black Guelph party. Allegedly, Argenti opposed Dante’s return from exile. The poet punishes his oppressor by eternally immersing the man in the River Styx, where he is accosted not only by other sinners, but turns violently upon himself as well. As the travelers are pulling away, Dante watches as the terrifying hoard attacks:

They all were shouting, "At Philippo Argenti!"

And that exasperate spirit Florentine

Turned round upon himself with his own teeth.

Glad to leave the horror behind, the poets push on. Dante remarks on the red glow in the distance. Virgil confirms that this is the City of Dis, and that its gates are heavily fortified.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial