Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1469
Essential Passage 1: Canto I
How first I enter'd it I scarce can say,
Such sleepy dullness in that instant weigh'd
My senses down, when the true path I left,
But when a mountain's foot I reach'd, where clos'd
The valley, that had pierc'd my heart with dread,
I look'd aloft, and saw his shoulders broad
Already vested with that planet's beam,
Who leads all wanderers safe through every way.
Then was a little respite to the fear,
That in my heart's recesses deep had lain,
All of that night, so pitifully pass'd:
And as a man, with difficult short breath,
Forespent with toiling, 'scap'd from sea to shore,
Turns to the perilous wide waste, and stands
At gaze; e'en so my spirit, that yet fail'd
Struggling with terror, turn'd to view the straits,
That none hath pass'd and liv’d.
Dante, at the age of thirty-five, is travelling along the road of his life when he comes into a dark forest on Maundy Thursday (the Thursday preceding Good Friday, commemorating the memorial of the Last Supper, in which Christ shared a final meal with his apostles). Bewildered, he quickly loses his way and deviates from the path. Oblivious to his surroundings, his focus is solely on his fear. He cannot remember exactly at what point he strayed from the road, stating that he was sleepy and inattentive to his walk and thus departed from his prescribed course unintentionally. He comes to the foot of a hill at the end of the valley where the dark forest lies and sees the guiding star lighting the way. His fear lessens somewhat and he turns and looks back the way he had come. He sees the darkness from which he has emerged in the hopes of finding his way back to the correct road.
Essential Passage 2: Canto IV
The gentle guide: "Inquir'st thou not what spirits
Are these, which thou beholdest? Ere thou pass
Farther, I would thou know, that these of sin
Were blameless; and if aught they merited,
It profits not, since baptism was not theirs,
The portal to thy faith. If they before
The Gospel liv'd, they serv'd not God aright;
And among such am I. For these defects,
And for no other evil, we are lost;
"Only so far afflicted, that we live
Desiring without hope.”
Virgil, the Latin poet who is serving as Dante’s mentor and guide, has brought Dante through the gates of Hell into the First Circle, which is Limbo. Dante dreads having to encounter the people who are in anguish. Although Virgil accuses him of being in fear, Dante states that it is pity, not fear, that fills him with dread. Observing the inhabitants, Dante sees individuals who appear to be sad, yet without inner or outer torment. There are no cries of remorse, only sighs of lost opportunities. Virgil explains that these are the innocent who died outside of the Church, unbaptized and unredeemed. He readily admits that they had their good qualities, but it was not enough. The rite of baptism is required for all who are accepted into the realm of Heaven. For those who died before Christ, these residents in Limbo failed to honor God as God and instead worshipped other gods or idols. They are thus condemned to remain without hope.
Essential Passage 3: Canto VIII
"O my lov'd guide! who more than seven times
Security hast render'd me, and drawn
From peril deep, whereto I stood expos'd,
Desert me not," I cried, "in this extreme.
And if our onward going be denied,
Together trace we back our steps with speed.”
My liege, who thither had conducted me,
Replied: "Fear not: for of our passage none
Hath power to disappoint us, by such high
Authority permitted. But do thou
Expect me here; meanwhile thy wearied spirit
Comfort, and feed with kindly hope, assur'd
I will not leave thee in this lower world.”
Dante, guided by Virgil, has successfully traversed Upper Hell, if not without pleasure, then at least without the fear of personal danger. The duo arrive at the gate to the City of Dis (Satan), which signifies the entrance to Lower Hell, the place where souls who have committed more grievous sins are punished. At the gate, however, a thousand spirits cry out and refuse them entrance, commanding Virgil to abandon Dante, as the former is destined to remain in Hell for the time being since he has brought a living person into the dark realm, but Dante may go forward alone. Dante is overcome with fear, not sure that he could find his way back to the entrance to the world above. He pleads with Virgil to go back with him if they are not allowed to go forward. Virgil assures Dante that he will not leave him alone. They have credentials, and thus the right, to pass through the gate, despite the cries of the guardian spirits. He commands Dante to stay while he goes to talk to the spirits, who slam the gates in his face. Virgil is obliged to cry out for help to gain entrance to the City of Dis.
Analysis of Essential Passages
Dante finds himself in a dark wood, having strayed from the path. In terms of his spiritual journey, he has backslidden. What specific actions or attitudes led him off the road are not revealed, but the implication is that his error has been inattention (having fallen asleep) rather than a deliberate act of disobedience to God. His wandering into sin was indiscernible until the moment he found himself in the dark wood, thus signifying spiritual danger. It is to his credit that he recognized the danger of his wandering condition before he had traveled too far down the road. The pull toward righteousness will prove to be his eventual redemption and return to salvation. It is specified that this spiritual warning came as the result of the prayer of Beatrice, the true love of his life, symbolizing the importance of intercession for the benefit of others. Beatrice’s prayer sent to Dante a mentor in the form of Virgil, denoting the idea that one cannot travel the spiritual road alone but must have the help and guidance of a friend and companion. As they travel along, Virgil provides correction and training for Dante. Although Dante does not always find Virgil's remonstrances pleasant, he nevertheless submits willingly, indicating recognition of his need for redemption.
The first level of Hell through which Virgil and Dante pass is inhabited by people who have committed what might be called “victimless” sins, sins in which the only real harm has been spiritual on a minimal level. Their sins are more sins of the personality rather than a deliberate intention to rebel against the dictates of Scripture or the doctrines of the Church. Also, many are the victims of their times, having been born before or outside the influence of Christianity. Nevertheless, they are condemned to Hell, but a Hell without torment. It is to this level that Virgil has been sent, though he indicates that there is a possibility of removal by the will of God, as some of the Old Testament characters, such as Adam and King David, have experienced. To this level also have been assigned some of the worthier Greek poets and philosophers, such as Homer, Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato.
Eventually Dante and Virgil approach the gates into the City of Dis, where reside the serious sinners throughout history. Their sins lie in the area of intentional disobedience of God, as well as acts of evil and cruelty. Their punishments are thus more fitting to their crimes and involve intense pain and torment. Here is the version of Hell that is more aligned with the traditional view, though not with flames of fire. Ice, wind, mud, and water are some of the forms of eternal punishment, each one symbolic of the effects of the particular sin to which it has been assigned. At this level, Dante and Virgil encounter more dangers to themselves than on the Upper Level, indicative of the seriousness of the sins. At the center is Satan himself, the focus of the evil that has been committed by the sinners in this region. Though those in Upper Hell seem to be protected by the fortress gates, here Satan has free reign to torment those who have tormented others or themselves.
Throughout the journey, Dante portrays sins as having varying degrees of severity. Contrary to the Protestant view of all sin being equally egregious, Dante reflects the teachings of the Catholic church of the Middle Ages. As he travels up through Purgatory, Dante will encounter those who have committed sins but have the power to cleanse themselves of its effects, thus making themselves fit for Paradise.
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