Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1434
Essential Passage 1: Canto I
IN the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct: and e'en to tell
It were no easy task, how savage wild
That forest, how robust and rough its growth,
Which to remember only, my dismay
Renews, in bitterness not far from death.
Yet to discourse of what there good befell,
All else will I relate discover'd there.
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...
Dante presents himself as the narrator as well as the protagonist in The Divine Comedy. He begins the tale by announcing himself as a wanderer, having reached the halfway point of his life (Dante was thirty-five when he wrote The Divine Comedy), in the year 1300, on the Thursday before Good Friday (Maundy Thursday). Using the allegory of a road through a dark forest, he states that he lost his way along the correct road. He confesses a fear at the darkness of his location, a fear that lingers even at the time of writing. Yet the forest is not totally devoid of goodness; it is not a place of utter evil (as the depths of Hell where he will soon find himself). He cannot remember how he became lost, only that he had been sleepy and thus lost the proper way.
Essential Passage 2: Canto II
That from this terror thou mayst free thyself,
I will instruct thee why I came, and what
I heard in that same instant, when for thee
Grief touch'd me first. I was among the tribe,
Who rest suspended, when a dame, so blest
And lovely, I besought her to command,
Call'd me; her eyes were brighter than the star
Of day; and she with gentle voice and soft
Angelically tun'd her speech address'd:
"O courteous shade of Mantua! thou whose fame
Yet lives, and shall live long as nature lasts!
A friend, not of my fortune but myself,
On the wide desert in his road has met
Hindrance so great, that he through fear has turn'd.
Now much I dread lest he past help have stray'd,
And I be ris'n too late for his relief,
From what in heaven of him I heard. Speed now,
And by thy eloquent persuasive tongue,
And by all means for his deliverance meet,
Assist him. So to me will comfort spring.
I who now bid thee on this errand forth
Am Beatrice; from a place I come.
The Roman poet Virgil has come to Dante as a mentor along his journey through the three stages of the afterlife (Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven). He explains to Dante why he has come to escort his fellow poet. Virgil explains that he is counted among those in the first level of Hell, those who are denied heaven because they had never heard the message or ignored the revelations in nature of God. He is waiting for his possible rescue and to be allowed to enter Heaven on the basis of what he did know outside of his exposure to Christianity. He explains that a lady called to him (Beatrice, the love of Dante’s life). Overcome by her beauty and her obvious blessedness, Virgil begs to know what she desires of him. She explains that she has a friend (Dante) who unfortunately is not a “friend of fortune” (luck) and is lost on the road of his life and is contemplating turning back in fear. She fears that he may already past hope of recovery, that she is too late in responding to what she has heard in Heaven. Beatrice commands Virgil to leave Hell, find Dante, and escort him through the journey back to salvation.
Essential Passage 3: Canto XXX
I was all fix'd to listen, when my guide
Admonish'd: "Now beware: a little more.
And I do quarrel with thee." I perceiv'd
How angrily he spake, and towards him turn'd
With shame so poignant, as remember'd yet
Confounds me. As a man that dreams of harm
Befall'n him, dreaming wishes it a dream,
And that which is, desires as if it were not,
Such then was I, who wanting power to speak
Wish'd to excuse myself, and all the while
Excus'd me, though unweeting that I did.
"More grievous fault than thine has been, less shame,"
My master cried, "might expiate. Therefore cast
All sorrow from thy soul; and if again
Chance bring thee, where like conference is held,
Think I am ever at thy side. To hear
Such wrangling is a joy for vulgar minds.”
While Virgil and Dante are in the tenth chasm of the Eighth Circle of Hell, Dante sees many people who are quarrelling. He stands staring at the conflicts until he is warned by Virgil to look away. However later, when he sees Sinon and Adam, two individuals who are condemned for their fury, arguing heatedly with each other, he once again stands and gapes at the two. In anger Virgil chastises Dante; he is disobeying his orders to ignore the wrangling. Immediately Dante feels intense shame for his disobedience. He begs for forgiveness repeatedly, genuinely feeling great remorse. Virgil quickly forgives him, telling Dante that his shame is greater than the fault. He encourages Dante to let it all pass but to learn from the lesson. To watch such people as them argue, wanting to hear what they are arguing about, is a shameful thing for such a one as Dante, and this temptation to stop and listen should be avoided.
Analysis of Essential Passages
In placing himself as the first-person narrator, Dante personalizes the spiritual journey. Not only aspects of his own life and acquaintances are included, but also figures in Italian history of the time. This makes the epic poem a political satire as well as a spiritual treatise. Yet in relating the political and ecclesiastical faults and sins of his times, he emphasizes the spiritual nature of the acts and attitudes of those figures, including himself, set against the biblical standards of Christianity.
Initially, Dante presents himself as a wanderer who has lost his way. The implication is that prior to this journey he had been on the correct path, one true to the teachings and standards of the doctrines of the Church. However, through inattention rather than deliberate rejection of truth, Dante finds himself not where he is supposed to be at this time in his life. In a sense, Dante is having a “midlife crisis,” spiritually speaking, and needs redirection to finish the course of his life and reach Heaven.
The intercession of Beatrice is symbolic of the role of the Virgin Mary in the Roman Catholic tradition. Beatrice is Dante’s true love, though each is (assumedly) faithfully married to someone else. This gives his love a purity that sets it apart from the sexual laxity that is portrayed in many of the Church and state representatives that he encounters in Hell. Out of this pure love, Beatrice has sent Virgil, a poet like himself, to guide Dante back to the road of salvation. The spiritual insight in providing a kindred spirit, a fellow poet, to reach the dark places in Dante’s heart reveals Beatrice as wise as well as blessed. She truly understands Dante and his spiritual struggles.
Virgil, as Dante’s mentor, is responsible for guiding his protégé along his spiritual quest. Although he usually demonstrates kindness and understanding to Dante, he is not above rebuking him for his greater good. Dante’s disobedience, willful yet not malicious, must be chastised, and Virgil does so swiftly and to the point. Dante, to his credit, feels great shame and true remorse for his disobedience. Virgil, in his mercy, quickly forgives him and restores him to his good graces. Seeing that Dante has learned from the lesson, he harbors no malice or doubt about Dante’s eventual redemption.
As a traditional hero, Dante has accepted his invitation to the quest, receiving the call from Beatrice (in the role of the Goddess) and accepting a mentor. His descent into Hell is the entrance into the “belly of the whale,” to use Joseph Campbell’s term from The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Supernatural aid helps him to overcome the series of trials he must undergo in order to fulfill his quest. Through the rest of his journeys in The Divine Comedy, Dante will encounter more adventures before he reaches Paradise and the ultimate goal of his quest—a return to redemption.
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