illustration of a human covered in a starry sky walking from the sky and plains toward a fiery opening to hell

The Divine Comedy

by Dante Alighieri

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The Pilgrim's Journey through Hell

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2802

Dante's Divine Comedy is a poetical paradox, a brilliant failure. How can one of the great works of Western literature—one of the most innovative, profound and, in many ways, unsurpassed poems of the Middle Ages—be a failure? Put simply, neither Dante nor any poet before or after him was capable of accomplishing this impossible task—to use the imperfect medium of language to represent convincingly and accurately his journey to Paradise and, even more problematic, to write God, to represent the unrepresentable. Dante himself was aware of the impossibility of his undertaking, of course, and this drove him even harder, pushed him to lead his reader to that final, stunning vision of God. Most astonishingly, he very nearly succeeded.

As the Pilgrim travels toward God, the poet's task becomes increasingly difficult. The closer Dante moved his Pilgrim to his goal, the more regularly his language failed him, until he had to admit that his descriptive "wings were not sufficient for that," that his "power failed lofty phantasy" (Paradise 33, ll. 139, 142). In order to leave his reader with the essence of the moment when his "mind was smitten by a flash wherein its wish [to know the mind of God] came to it" (Paradise 33, ll. 141-42), Dante had to rely upon metaphor. This kind of figurative language is perhaps the most potent tool for image-making and asserts that A=B, that, for example, poem=journey. We know that Dante's poem is not a literal journey, but it is a figurative one, a metaphorical one. Seeing it in this way allows the reader to cross from A and B, to consider for him or herself how and why this poetic pilgrimage is relevant to the road of life we all travel.

Dante's poem is fundamentally didactic, that is, instructive. In order to accommodate our low-level understanding of the poem's theological, philosophical and historical components, it guides its armchair pilgrims carefully through a plethora of unfamiliar images and mystical paradoxes. Dante managed this by constructing his world's three spaces in a logical order that is still unprecedented. As the Pilgrim experiences Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, he really re-experiences events Dante the poet claims to have had in this life. Thus, the reader follows the Pilgrim through spaces that present the poet's memories. As Frances A. Yates writes in his classic study, The Art of Memory,

If one thinks of the poem as based on the orders of places in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, and as a cosmic order of places in which spheres of Hell are the spheres of Heaven in reverse, it begins to appear as a summa [a full collection] of similitudes and exempla, ranged in order and set out upon the universe. (p 95)

Taken together, then, Dante's remembrances, presented as striking poetic images, produce the world of the Divine Comedy and thus reproduce his supposed journey to Heaven.

The Pilgrim receives these images via his sight, which functions on three levels, the ocular or physical, the spiritual, and the intellectual. These levels derive from the writings of St. Augustine (354-430), which were a major influence on Dante's thought, and which correspond to stages of understanding and to cantiche, or what we might call books, of the Divine Comedy: ocular in Inferno, spiritual in Purgatory and intellectual in Paradise. The lowest level, the ocular, includes sensual experiences of things terrestrial and celestial. It therefore corresponds to the physical nature of Inferno and its closing view of "the beautiful things that heaven bears" (34, ll. 137-38). Level two, spiritual vision, and Purgatory mesh in...

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the same way. In this second canticle, the Pilgrim's spiritual vision makes possible the encounters with the angels and the dreams he has. Finally, the Pilgrim's visions of the Earthly Paradise, Christ, and God inParadise conform to Augustine's description of the third and highest level of vision, the intellectual.

The Pilgrim and reader take in images, store them in their memories, convert them to knowledge—to what Hugh of St.-Victor called "history"—and graduate to the next level of understanding. As the Pilgrim (and the reader following him) progresses from one spherical realm to the next, Dante's fictional faculty materialize, quiz and instruct him about what he has learned. Along with this instruction, Dante's unique metaphors accommodate the Pilgrim's and reader's weak understanding by converting difficult concepts into visual images that they can more easily decipher and more easily store in memory for later retrieval. These images accumulate as knowledge of sin and salvation, which Pilgrim and reader process into divine wisdom, all of which prepare them for the final vision of God in Paradise.

After graduating from each training level, the Pilgrim is ready to see with his mind, to link to the mind of God in the most profound way possible. The fact that the reader and the Pilgrim achieve one of these levels of vision in each of the three books, suggests that Dante saw them as plottable points upon an ascending scale that moves from potential damnation to certain illumination. The following three sections use this upward itinerary to demonstrate in small how wisdom is attained by focusing on one vibrant image from each canticle.

There are a number of places in the poem where one could begin to chart this progression, but the appearance of Geryon in Inferno 16 is the first instance of the truly outlandish. As such, it works nicely as an example of a visual image processed by the lowest level of vision, which is then firmly imprinted on the reader's memory. In this section, the Pilgrim and Virgil find themselves at the rim of the Great Barrier and in need of a way down to lower hell, the last of the three infernal regions, where sinners are punished for ever more serious levels of fraud. The travelers stand at "the verge" (Inferno 17, 1. 32) that separates these regions. Virgil, the Pilgrim's guide and teacher, tosses his student's belt over the edge, causing the Pilgrim to wonder: "'Surely'…, 'something strange will answer this signal that my master follows so with his eye'" (Inferno 17, ll. 115-16). True to form, the strangest vehicle in the Divine Comedy swims into view, Geryon.

This bizarre image of fraud is a patchwork of man and painted serpent: "His face was the face of a man, so complaisant was its outward appearance, and all of the rest of his trunk serpentine; he had two paws which were hairy to his armpits; his back and chest and both sides were painted with knots and small wheels" (Inferno 17, ll. 10-15). Faced with this incredible apparition, the poet asks the reader to trust him, to trust this metaphorical voyage and all it represents. What better infernal example, with perhaps the exception of Lucifer, is there of Augustine's first level of vision? This is, after all, the creature on whose back the poet swears he flies down to Hell's depths: "I cannot be silent; and by the notes of this Comedy reader, I swear to you, so that they may not fail of lasting favor" (Inferno 16, ll. 127-29). There was no need for "I swear to you," unless Dante knew or expected his reader to doubt his word—or unless he wanted to impress this image upon the reader's memory. Dante knew that the strangeness of this creature would be surpassed by the vision of Lucifer frozen in the pit of hell—not engulfed in flames as we might expect— and sets us up for it by challenging us with Geryon.

Dante's Lucifer is not just a perverted version of God; he is not the Trinity, not love, not hope, not charity, neither light nor any longer the bringer of light, not order, not calm, not peace, not harmony. The list of negative descriptors is as infinite as God is positively indescribable. Given these considerations and Lucifer's heavy corporeality, we can say with Francis X. Newman that, "The confrontation with Satan is the ultimate exercise of the [corporeal vision] since Satan is the ultimate center of corporeality" ("St. Augustine's Three Visions and the Structure of the Comedy," Modern Language Notes, [1967]: 65). If we have little faith in the poet, what will we make of his final vision, of that moment when Dante writes God? Incredulous though we might be at this point, Dante schools us from his unique perspective and pulls us along with his Pilgrim, as he climbs to Heaven.

As his Pilgrim comes upon Lucifer, Dante again challenges his reader: "How frozen and faint I then became, ask not, reader, for I do not write it, because all words would fail. I was not dead nor did I remain alive: now think for yourself, if you have any wit, what I became, deprived of both the one and the other" (Inferno 34, ll. 22-27). This address to the reader is more intense, more insistent, than the one above. Here is no mere oddity like Geryon: this is the one and only Satan, "Belzebù" (Inferno 34, l. 127), cause of all the world's troubles. The address to the reader insures that close attention is paid to this dramatic manifestation of the ultimate corporeal vision. The sight of Satan is so horrific that the poet cannot explain his feelings. Language fails him and Dante tells the reader to "think for yourself" make this image and moment yours; feel something of what I felt at the moment. Here the reader and the Pilgrim have experienced the worst of the corporeal universe; here poet, Pilgrim and reader momentarily merge in experience. After this profound encounter, we are ready to move with the Pilgrim to Augustine's second level of understanding, that of spiritual vision.

Purgatory 17, halfway through the Divine Comedy, is an excellent location from which to view this process of growth, change and education. In this section Virgil lectures on the crucial doctrine of love as driving force. This is also the point in the poem where the Pilgrim figuratively comes out of his fog to see the sun, a moment that foreshadows the poem's final vision. This is such a monumental occurrence that Dante again challenges his reader to confront a startling image and to participate in his Pilgrim's spiritual education:

Recall, reader, if ever in the mountains a mist has caught you, through which you could not see except as moles do through the skin, how, when the moist dense vapors begin to dissipate, the sphere of the sun enters feebly through them, and your imagination will quickly come to see how, at first, I saw the sun again, which was now setting. So, matching mine to the trusty steps of my master, I came forth from such a fog to the rays which were already dead on the low shores (Purgatory 17, ll.1-9)

Dante expects the reader to match both imaginative power and figurative steps with his Pilgrim, to follow spiritually and "physically" as he ascends. Here he compares the Pilgrim's mental state to that of a man in an alpine fog, a state in which imagination cannot function because the fog of physicality and faulty vision block the light of God. A glimpse of the sun, of loving enlightenment, is necessary to drive away the confusion before the Pilgrim and reader can confront fully the solar brilliance of divine wisdom. By reading through the skin, so to speak, like Dante's mole, by seeing through the parchment of the poem, the reader perceives a glimmer of this divine light.

Dante fittingly situates his foggy image here and requires his Pilgrim and reader to "see" at the spiritual level. This transitional space, midway through the poem, requires us to engage both our external and internal modes of sensory perception, if we are to rise to the middle level of understanding. To paraphrase Paul, here in Purgatory things are seen darkly through a glass. This is the realm of dreams, the shadowy zone where imagination holds sway:

O imagination, which at times steals us from things outside, which does not leave man aware, even though a thousand trumpets sound, what moves you if the senses offer you nothing? You are moved by the light which is formed in heaven or by the will that sends it. (Purgatory 17, ll. 13-18)

Here we read as the poet calls upon his own "imagination," linking it to the reader's before wondering about its source. But what does he mean by imagination? Following Aristotle Thomas Aquinas explained it as an interior sense, a kind of treasure chest, into which images are received through the physical senses and within which they are stored. The "light which is formed in heaven" sends down instructively helpful images to engage the reader's imagination. We store images of Geryon, Lucifer and the mole in the treasure chest of memory. As Charles Singleton notes, such "images descend into the mind directly from God, whose will directs them downward" to help us understand things divine (Purgatory, p. 379, n. 13-18). This fits nicely with the spherical universe in which Dante situates his Divine Comedy. The Primum Mobile, the First Mover, drives all of the other spheres, which it contains. In turn, the First Mover is contained by the Empyrean, that heaven which exists only in the mind—in the imagination—of God. This is the source of the poet's inspiration. After crossing from the sphere of The Primum Mobile to the Empyrean, the Pilgrim's interior vision takes over. He "sees" via his intellect, while the reader is left longing to duplicate his experience and Dante strives to write what he has seen. Fully aware of the task before him, he summons all his talent to write that final moment: "And I who was coming near the end of all I desired, as I should, raised high the desire burning in me" (Paradise 33, ll. 46-48).

Shifting to the present tense at the end of his poem, returning to his life in exile, Dante questions his memory before trying to describe his vision of God, the "infinite good" (Paradise 33, l. 81). Such a task not surprisingly brings with it descriptive failure, and Dante admits his shortcomings a number of times in Paradise 33: at lines 55-66, 67-75, 93-105, 106-08, 121-23, 139-41 and 142-45. In fact, Dante tells us that his memory is obliterated by this sight, and that it would be easier to remember 2500 years back to Jason's voyage with his Argonauts, the first ever: "One moment brings greater forgetfulness than twenty-five centuries..." (Paradise 33, ll. 94-96). But since the love of God survives even after human memory fails, Dante can—indeed, must—tell us of that instant when he achieved spiritual stasis, peace in God:

Therefore my mind, completely suspended, was gazing fixed, immobile and intent, and ever desirous to see more. In that light one becomes such that it would be impossible to think of turning from it for another sight; because the good, which is the object of the will, is completely gathered in it, and outside of this everything is defective that is perfect here. (Paradise 33, ll. 97-105)

As Mark Musa has written, here the Pilgrim witnesses "the conjoining of substance and accident in God and the union of the temporal and the eternal..." (Paradise, p. 397, n. 91-93). To depict as best he can the vision of God, Dante turns to the language of mathematics, to "Geometry, [which] is whitest, in as much as it is without error…" (The Banquet 2.13, l. 27). This is the goal toward which his massive poetic machine has moved, and the image of squaring the circle (a feat still unaccomplished) is the perfect figure for the immensity of his task:

Like the geometer who completely sets himself to measuring the circle, and in thinking cannot find the principle which he needs, so was I at that new sight. I wished to see how the image came together in the circle and how it fit there; but my own wings were not sufficient for that, until my mind was smitten by a flash wherein its wish came to it. Here power failed lofty fantasy; but my desire and my will already were turned, like a wheel in balance that is moved by the love which moves the sun and the other stars. (Paradise 34, ll. 133-45)

Undaunted by his undertaking and driven by the impossibility of fulfilling it, Dante strove to mirror Creation and to lead his reader to see the "love which moves the sun and the other stars." Here Pilgrim achieves that full intellectual vision, brief but total and overwhelming understanding of the Godhead, and the reader should, ideally for Dante, desire the same. If this happens, if we experience a slight ray of this burst of light and love through Dante's 700 year-old text, we cannot but characterize the moment and the poem that led us there as brilliant.

Source: Daniel Terkla, for Epics for Students, Gale Research, 1997.

The Relation of Speech to Sin in the Inferno

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2421

In the De vulgari eloquentia Dante reveals the high importance he attaches to human speech—it is the gift which distinguishes man from other creatures. Angels, with direct intuition, and animals, with natural instinct, have no use for it. Only man needs words to reveal his thoughts to others because only man has perceptions which differ from his fellow's and which, taken together, may add up to wisdom. By nature a social animal, man must draw on this wisdom in order to live in society. To have a workable government, he must be able to communicate effectively, hence speech is his most important tool.

Speech is a gift of God, like life itself, bestowed on man so that he can share in the joy of existence and the pleasure of expressing that joy. Although, as Dante points out, God knew what Adam would say, He wanted him to know the happiness of saying it. But because speech is the outward expression of man's reason, it is vulnerable to the same weaknesses of human nature—it is corruptible, always changing. As language moves further and further from its divine source, branching into various tongues and dialects, communication among men becomes increasingly difficult. This opens the way to war among nations, to strife within cities and families.

The connection between speech and sin is of ancient tradition. The confusion of tongues was visited on man at the tower of Babel as divine punishment for his pride. Echoes of this attitude towards language are to be found in the Fathers and in secular writers throughout the Middle Ages. Dante, however, is the first to use a man's speech dramatically as the symbol and betrayer of his sinfulness. I should like to suggest that in Dante's use of direct discourse can be seen a conscious artistic pattern which is based on the philosophic view of language expressed in the De vulgari eloquentia.

In Hell, the realm of sin from which the "ben dell'intelletto," God, and truth are absent, speech has lost the power to communicate in a normal way; men who have denied or abused the use of reason cannot control the outward expression of reason, speech. Either they make sounds without meaning or their words convey a meaning they did not intend. Conversely, in Purgatory, communication is facilitated by an apparent unification of language. When Dante finds himself beyond the human experience in Paradise, words fail him and he begins to create new ones to describe mystical concepts, "s'india," "intrea," "s'inluia," etc. Thus we have the failure of language as a mode of communication in Hell, the unification of language in Purgatory, and the creation of language in Paradise.

The positive function of language to teach virtue and truth is seen particularly in the Purgatorio and Paradiso The negative effects are found in the Inferno: the tongue as a harmful weapon, language as a means of deception, either consciously to harm or delude the hearer, or unconsciously to betray the speaker himself; we see the danger of too many words, the fear aroused by unintelligible sounds. As speech is what distinguishes man from other animals, the discourse of each sinner in Hell is what distinguishes him and his sin.

Hell itself is a great mouth, "l'ampia gola d'Inferno," as Dante calls it in the Purgatorio (XXI, 31-32). It is filled with horrid sounds, but its core is the terrible silence of Lucifer, parodying the perfect silence of the Trinity, in Dante's vision (Par. XXXIII). As we progress through Hell, we are assailed by disharmonies, wails, screams, curses, barking, hissing, but at the center, completely void of God, truth, good, there is no sound at all. Antithetically, in heaven, after the passage through realms of harmonious sound, which is increasingly difficult for the ear to apprehend, we reach perfect harmony in the utter quiet of the final vision.

The God Dante sees in Paradiso XXXIII is light, a light which in Hell is "silent'' (Inf. I, 60; V, 28). What Dante hears instead as he enters Hell is a Babelic confusion of tongues and sounds: "Sospiri, pianti e alti guai … diverse lingue, orribili favelle, parole di dolore, accenti d'ira, voci alte e fioche, e suon di man" (III. 22-27). The sounds come from those who have lost "il ben dell'intelletto," without which language cannot function properly. The disintegration of communication is shown in various stages: it is total in the gibberish of Plutus and Nimrod, in the garbled sounds of the submerged, and in the animal noises of the monsters. Some souls can express only laments, some have lost the use of speech altogether, some, whose bodies are hidden in tombs or trees or flames, have nothing but speech left of their humanity and that speech betrays them, belieing the impression they wish to give; others seem normal in appearance and speech, but the very banality of their style reveals their state.

Since effective communication is essential to the proper working of any society, it is not surprising that Dante uses the most blatant examples of non-communication, the gibberish of Plutus and Nimrod, to enclose the sins that threaten the social order (Circles 4 to 8). Outside these circles lie sinners who behaved like animals rather than men. Above Plutus' circle, there is only lust and gluttony, sins in which men surrendered to their animal instincts; beyond Nimrod are the traitors, men who, by consciously denying all human bonds to family, state, guest, benefactor, chose to be no better than animals. Plutus guards the circle of avarice, where men are punished for misusing material wealth. It is fitting that his incomprehensible invocation to Satan should introduce this circle, for coins, like words, are a basic medium of exchange in a civilized state—the misuse of either can disrupt the social order. Indeed, Dante often associates sinners with words and sinners with coins: users and blasphemers in the third ring of the seventh circle, falsifiers of coins and words in the tenth bolgia of the eighth circle. Plutus, as the classical god of wealth, represents the abuses of that means of exchange, while Nimrod, the biblical tyrant, is responsible for the confusion of tongues that resulted from his building the tower of Babel, according to medieval tradition... Dante's Nimrod guards a circle in which all human feeling is dead, frozen in a lake of ice. Thus, although speech remains, it no longer has power to move the hearer (cf. Dante's callous treatment of these souls). Here the intent of speech is betrayed not by the words but by the actions that precede and follow them, e.g., the cannibalism of Ugolino (XXXIII, vv. I and 76-77). Nimrod's non-words, which introduce this circle, prepare us for Lucifer who emits no sound but sends forth a silent and freezing wind of hate, a parody perhaps of the love-inspiring tongues of flame brought to the Apostles by the Holy Spirit.

Though Dante cannot make out the words of Plutus or Nimrod, he instinctively understands the threat in them and is frightened. He has the same reaction to the confused sounds that issue from the bolgia of the thieves (Circle 8, seventh bolgia); the voice he hears there is "not fit to form words" (XXIV, 65-66), but the sound is angry. The thieves of holy things, who do not recognize ownership, even of what belongs to God, and cannot, therefore, maintain possession of their own bodies, lose their power of speech periodically as they exchange shapes with serpents (the tongue, formerly "united and able to speak" [XXV, 133-134], splits and becomes forked). When they speak, their words are harsh in sound and meaning; they are an attack either on Dante (an ominous prophecy meant to distress him—"e detto l'ho perchè doler ti debbia," XXIV, 151), or on God ("Togli, Dio, ch'a te le squadro," XXV, 3). The wrathful, too, who are perceived at first by the bubbles they cause in the mud, have difficulty speaking; they "gurgle a hymn in their throats," since they cannot form complete words (VII, 125-126). When one of them does emerge from the mud, he also attacks Dante. We might note that the rivers of mud, blood, and pitch all discourage speech to some extent, perhaps to contrast with the "fountain that gives rise to a great river of speech," Virgil (I, 79-80).

The inability to express one's thoughts puts man on a level with beasts; animal-like sounds and actions, therefore, abound in Hell. Among the incontinent, the gluttons "howl like dogs," while their guardian, the mythological dog, Cerberus, barks from three throats; misers "bark'' their shouts at the prodigals; the lustful are carried by a wind that "lows"—only when it is silent can they speak. Usurers lick themselves with their tongues (cf. the counterfeiters whose tongues burn; the thirst for wealth, never sated, led both groups to "make" money, figuratively or literally). Flatterers, whose tongues were "never sated with flattery" make sounds with their snouts.

Most of the sinners give vent to their feelings in moans (grief without words) or curses (a direct perversion of God's gift of speech), but there are others who are unable to make any sound at all: falsifiers of person, who gave up their own personalities to assume someone else's, have lost the expression of personality and rage through the tenth bolgia of fraud, silently biting and tearing at others. The false prophets can only weep silently while Virgil, the true prophet, names and describes them to Dante. These are allowed no opportunity to defend themselves or to request sympathy; indeed Virgil harshly condemns the pity Dante feels for their distorted bodies. Their heads are twisted so they face backwards, as if in an extreme "parlasia" (XX, 16), Dante says, using an odd word for paralysis, probably to incorporate the pun on speech. Some of the schismatics are also deprived of speech, which they had used to tear apart various human and social bonds, and in a particularly graphic way: one has his throat cut and his windpipe exposed, another a slit tongue; Bertran de Born carries his head (the source and outlet of words) in his hand. Dante is so appalled at the sights of this bolgia that words fail him.

In contrast to those who have lost the power of speech, some sinners—suicides, simoniacs, counselors of fraud—have nothing left of their human selves but speech. The suicides who destroyed their bodies have lost even the semblance of them and are confined within trees and plants. They still have speech, but only at the cost of great pain; when a branch is torn off or a wound made in the bark, blood and words pour out, hissing like sap in a burning green twig. Speech is the only relief they have, but it must be released through suffering.

Simoniacs (Circle 8, third bolgia) and counselors of fraud (eighth bolgia), whose function on earth should have been to serve men with their tongues, the former to carry the message of love and truth, the latter to advise men towards justice and order, instead abused the highest trusts of church and state. In Hell, not only are they bodiless voices, but their infernal shapes are parodies of the organs of speech. The simoniacs are upside-down in holes that resemble baptismal fonts; their feet project from the "mouths" of the holes like tongues and, in their writhings, express the feelings of the soul. The counselors of fraud are themselves huge tongues of flame, projecting from the "throat" of the bolgia (XXVI, 40).

The tongues of flame in which counselors of fraud are enveloped, like the tongues of flame that lick the feet of the simoniacs, are probably another parody of the pentecostal tongues of flame through which the Holy Spirit bestowed the gift of language on the apostles, so they might spread the word of God with especial fervor....

Those who surrender to the physical appetites, who ignore reason to indulge their passions, rely on words only when they cannot satisfy their physical desires: when the wind of passion stops, they talk; when they were unable to make love, they read about it. And they twist words to justify themselves.

We have seen how little control sinners in Hell have over their speech. They are unable to communicate as they wish, whether because they cannot form intelligible sounds or because their words say more than they intend them to, but the problem of communication is not restricted to sinners or to monsters. Dante, who is both an observer and a participant in the three realms he visits, also has difficulty in expressing himself to Virgil, or in describing what he has seen (XXVIII, 1 ff. and XXXII, 1 ff., though the latter is partly an artful pose—"If I had harsh rhymes," he says, using one), or what he thinks (II, 36 and XXX, 139), and sometimes what he hears (IX, 14-15 and XIX, 58-60) or reads (III, 10-12). When speech might be dangerous, distorted by the atmosphere of a certain circle, Virgil is made to understand Dante's thoughts without words (a Power Beatrice frequently exercises in Paradise): in the circle of the pagans, among the heretics, at the approach of fraud (Geryon), among the the hypocrites, and as they leave the falsifiers. In each case, this occurs in the sphere of sinners who dealt in falsehood or in touted truth, where words bear little relation to the truth. The one time Virgil fails to understand is as they enter the bolgia of falsifiers, where nothing can be trusted.

When Virgil speaks, his words are usually effective, for he is carrying out God's purpose and he has the command of language that Dante must develop and finally surpass. Virgil's assertion of the divine will that moves him is sufficient to control most of the guardians of Hell, the classical figures, although they have no power over the fallen angels. And his words have a double effect on Dante, they wound and heal XXXI, 1-3), correct and encourage. It is because of Virgil's "parola ??" (II, 67), his "parlar onesto" (II, 113), that Beatrice summoned him to help Dante. Beatrice, herself moved to speak by the force of love (II, 72), sends the most skillful poetic master of words, Virgil, to teach Dante what he must know in order to move others to good with his words. That, as Dante will learn from Beatrice in Purgatory and from Cacciaguida in Paradise, is the purpose of his journey.

Source: Joan M. Ferrante, "The Relation of Speech to Sin in the Inferno," Dante Studies, Vol. LXXXVIII, 1969, pp. 33-46

An Introduction to Dante: The Divine Comedy

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2909

The ideal way of reading The Divine Comedy would be to start at the first line and go straight through to the end, surrendering to the vigour of the storytelling and the swift movement of the verse, and not bothering about any historical allusions or theological explanations which do not occur in the text itself. That is how Dante himself tackles his subject. His opening words plunge us abruptly into the middle of a situation:

Midway this way of life we're bound upon I woke to find myself in a dark wood, Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.

From that moment the pace of the narrative never slackens. Down the twenty-four great circles of Hell we go, through the world and out again under the Southern stars; up the two terraces and the seven cornices of Mount Purgatory, high over the sea, high over the clouds to the Earthly Paradise at its summit; up again, whirled from sphere to sphere of the singing Heavens, beyond the planets, beyond the stars, beyond the Primum Mobile, into the Empyrean, there to behold God as He is - the ultimate, the ineffable, yet, in a manner beyond all understanding, "marked with our image" - until, in that final ecstasy,

Power failed high fantasy here, yet, swift to move Even as a wheel moves equal, free from jars, Already my heart and will were wheeled by love, The Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Yet the twentieth-century reader who starts out on this tremendous journey without any critical apparatus to assist him is liable to get bogged half way unless he knows something of Dante's theological, political, and personal background. For not only is the poem a religious and political allegory—it is an allegory of a rather special kind. If we know how to read it, we shall find that it has an enormous relevance both to us as individuals and to the world situation of today. Dante's Europe—remote and strange as it seemed to the Liberals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—had much in common with our own distracted times, and his vivid awareness of the deeps and heights within the soul comes home poignantly to us who have so recently rediscovered the problem of evil, the problem of power, and the ease with which our most God-like imaginings are "betrayed by what is false within." Moreover, Dante is a poet after our own hearts, possessed of a vivid personality, which flows into and steeps the whole texture of his work. Every line he ever wrote is the record of an intimate personal experience; few men have ever displayed their own strength and weakness so unreservedly, or interpreted the universe so consistently in terms of their own self-exploring. Nor, I suppose, have passionate flesh and passionate intellect ever been fused together in such a furnace of the passionate spirit.....

But if Dante is to "speak to our condition", as the Quakers so charmingly put it, we must take him seriously and ourselves seriously. We must forget a great deal of the nonsense that is talked about Dante—all the legends about his sourness, arrogance, and "obscurity", and especially that libel … that he was a peevish political exile who indulged his petty spites and prejudices by putting his enemies in Hell and his friends in Paradise. We need not forget that Dante is sublime, intellectual and, on occasion, grim; but we must also be prepared to find him simple, homely, humorous, tender, and bubbling over with ecstasy. Nor must we look to find in him only a poet of "period" interest; he is a universal poet, speaking prophetically of God and the Soul and the Society of Men in their universal relations.

We must also be prepared, while we are reading Dante, to accept the Christian and Catholic view of ourselves as responsible rational beings. We must abandon any idea that we are the slaves of chance, or environment, or our subconscious; any vague notion that good and evil are merely relative terms, or that conduct and opinion do not really matter; any comfortable persuasion that, however shiftlessly we muddle through life, it will somehow or other all come right on the night. We must try to believe that man's will is free, that he can consciously exercise choice, and that his choice can be decisive to all eternity. For The Divine Comedy is precisely the drama of the soul's choice. It is not a fairy-story, but a great Christian allegory, deriving its power from the terror and splendour of the Christian revelation. Clear, hard thought went to its making: its beauty is of that solid and indestructible sort that is built upon a framework of nobly proportioned bones. If we ignore the theological structure, and merely browse about in it for detached purple passages and poetic bits and pieces we shall be disappointed, and never see the architectural grandeur of the poem as a whole. People who tackle Dante in this superficial way seldom get beyond the picturesque squalors of the Inferno. This is as though we were to judge a great city after a few days spent underground among the cellars and sewers; it would not be surprising if we were to report only an impression of sordidness, suffocation, rats, fetor, and gloom. But the grim substructure is only there for the sake of the city whose walls and spires stand up and take the morning; it is for the vision of God in the Paradiso that all the rest of the allegory exists.

Allegory is the interpretation of experience by means of images. In its simplest form it is a kind of extended metaphor. Supposing we say: "John very much wanted to do so-and-so, but hesitated for fear of the consequences"; that is a plain statement. If we say: "In John's mind desire and fear contended for the mastery" we are already beginning to speak allegorically: John's mind has become a field of battle in which two personified emotions are carrying on a conflict. From this we can easily proceed to build up a full-blown allegory. We can represent the object of John's ambition as a lady imprisoned in a castle, which is attacked by a knight called Desire and defended by a giant called Fear, and we can put in as much description of the place and people as will serve to make the story exciting. We can show Desire so badly battered by Fear that he is discouraged and ready to give up, until rebuked by his squire, called Shame, who takes him to have his wounds dressed by a cheerful lady named Hope. Later, he is accosted by a plausible stranger called Suspicion, who says that the lady is much less virtuous and good-looking than she is made out to be.… And so forth, introducing as many personifications of this kind as may be needed to express John's successive changes of mind. In this way we can work out quite a complicated psychological pattern, and at the same time entertain the reader with an exciting and colourful tale of adventure. In this purest kind of allegory, John himself never appears: his psyche is merely the landscape in which his personified feelings carry out their manoeuvres. But there is also a form in which John himself—or what we may perhaps call John's conscious self, or super-self—figures among the personages of the allegory, as a pilgrim or knight-errant, exploring the wildernesses of his own soul and fighting against opposition both from within and without. The earlier part of The Romance of the Rose is an example of the first kind of allegory and The Pilgrim's Progress of the second. In neither kind does the actual story pretend to be a relation of fact; in its literal meaning, the whole tale is fiction; the allegorical meaning is the true story.

Dante's allegory is more complex. It differs from the standard type in two ways: (1) in its literal meaning, the story is—up to a certain point and with a great many important qualifications—intended to be a true story; (2) the figures of the allegory, instead of being personified abstractions, are symbolic personages.

To take the second point first: In dealing with the vexed subject of symbolism, we shall save ourselves much bewilderment of mind by realising that there are two kinds of symbols.

A conventional symbol is a sign, arbitrarily chosen to represent, or "stand for", something with which it has no integral connection: thus the scrawl X may, by common agreement, stand, in mathematics, for an unknown quantity; in the alphabet, for a sound composed of a cluck and a hiss; at the end of a letter, for a fond embrace. The figure X is not, in itself, any of these things and tells us nothing about them. Any other sign would serve the same purpose if we agreed to accept it so, nor is there any reason why the same sign should not stand, if we agreed that it should, for quite different things: infinity, or a murmuring sound, or a threat. With this kind of symbol we need not now concern ourselves, except to distinguish it from the other.

A natural symbol is not an arbitrary sign, but a thing really existing which, by its very nature, stands for and images forth a greater reality of which it is itself an instance. Thus an arch, maintaining itself as it does by a balance of opposing strains, is a natural symbol of that stability in tension by which the whole universe maintains itself. Its significance is the same in all languages and in all circumstances, and may be applied indifferently to physical, psychical, or spiritual experience. Dante's symbolism is of this kind. To avoid confusion with the conventional or arbitrary symbol I shall follow the example of Charles Williams and others and refer to Dante's natural symbols as his "images".

We are now in a position to distinguish between a simple allegorical figure and a symbolic image. The allegorical figure is a personified abstraction. Thus, in an allegorical masque, Tyranny might be represented as a demon with a club in one hand and a set of fetters in the other, riding in a juggernaut chariot drawn by tigers over the bodies of Youth, Innocence, Happiness, and what-not, and declaiming sentiments appropriate to tyrannical passions. In a play using symbolic imagery, the dramatist might bring in the figure of Nero or Hitler, wearing his ordinary clothes and simply talking like Nero or Hitler, and every one would understand that this personage was meant for the image of Tyranny.

In the Comedy, Dante uses the allegorical figure only occasionally; by far the greater number of his figures are symbolic images. Thus, he is accompanied through Hell, not by a personified abstraction called Reason, or Wisdom, or Science, or Art, or Statecraft, but by Virgil the Poet, a real person, who is, by his own nature, qualified to symbolize all these abstractions. The characters encountered in the circles of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise are similarly not personifications of Sin and Virtue, but the souls of real people, represented as remaining in, or purging off, their sins or experiencing the fruition of their virtues.

Being thus real personages, the images of The Divine Comedy are set in a real environment: Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven are not a fiction invented to carry the allegory, but a true picture of the three states of the life after death. I do not, of course, mean by this that Dante's description of them is meant to be physically accurate. He did not really suppose that Hell was a pit extending from a little way below the foundations of Jerusalem to the centre of the earth, or that Purgatory was a mountainous island in the Antipodes, or that a person could go from one to the other in his mortal body in the space of two and a half days; nor did he really imagine that Heaven was located among the celestial spheres. He takes the utmost pains to make his geographical details plausible and scientifically correct; but that is just the novelist's method of giving verisimilitude to the story. Dante knew better, and from time to time he warns his readers against mistaking a work of the imagination for a bald statement of material fact. He did, however, share the belief of all Catholic Christians that every living soul in the world has to make the choice between accepting or rejecting God, and that at the moment of death it will discover what it has chosen: whether to remain in the outer darkness of the alien self, knowing God only as terror and judgment and pain, or to pass joyfully through the strenuous purgation which fits it to endure and enjoy eternally the unveiled presence of God.

But although the literal story of the Comedy is with the qualification and within the limits I have mentioned) a true one, and the characters in it are real people, the poem is nevertheless an allegory. The literal meaning is the least important part of it: the story with its images is only there for the sake of the truth which it symbolizes, and the real environ ment within which all the events take place is the human soul....

We are apt to be astonished at first, in reading (say) the Inferno, to find how little is actually said about the particular sin of which Dante and we are witnessing the retribution. Sometimes the souls relate their histories (as do Francesca da Rimini, for instance, and Guido da Montefeltro), but even then there is little or no moralizing on the subject. More often there is merely a description of the conditions in which the sinners find themselves, after which a character is introduced and talks with Dante upon some apparently extraneous matter which is closely related, indeed, to the subject of the Comedy taken as a whole, but has no special relevancy to the immediate circumstances. In showing us his images, Dante has already told us all we need to know about the sin. He has introduced us, for example, to Ciacco—a rich and amiable Florentine gentleman, well known and much ridiculed by his contemporaries for his monstrous self-indulgence: the familiar name is enough to remind contemporary readers of what Gluttony looks like to the world; he has also shown us the conditions of Ciacco's part of Hell—a cold wallowing in mud under the fangs and claws of Cerberus: that, stopped of all glamour, is what Gluttony is, seen in its true and eternal nature. Why waste more words upon it? Let Ciacco and Dante converse upon the state of Florence.

We now begin to see the necessity for all the notes and explanations with which editors feel obliged to encumber the pages of Dante. To the fourteenth-century Italian, the personages of the Comedy were familiar. To identify them, and to appreciate the positions they occupy in the Three Kingdoms of the After-world, was to combine an understanding of the allegorical significance with the excitement of a chronique scandaleuse and the intellectual entertainment of solving one of the more enigmatical varieties of cross-word puzzle. For us it is different. We do not know these people; nor indeed are we today quite so familiar with our classical authors, or even with our Bible, as a medieval poet might reasonably expect his public to be.…

We need to know what Dante's characters stood for in his eyes, and therefore we need to know who they were. But that is as much as we need. The purely historical approach to a work of art can easily be overdone by the general reader. Just because it puts the thing away into a "period", it tends to limit its relevance to that period.…

The poem is an allegory of the Way to God—to that union of our wills with the Universal Will in which every creature finds its true self and its true being. But, as Dante himself has shown, it may be interpreted at various levels. It may be seen, for example, as the way of the artist, or as the way of the lover—both these ways are specifically included in the imagery.…For many of us it may be easier to understand Hell as the picture of a corrupt society than as that of a corrupt self. Whichever we start with, it is likely to lead to the other, and it does not much matter by which road we come to Dante so long as we get to him in the end.

We cannot, of course, do without the historical approach altogether, for the poem is largely concerned with historical events. Neither can we do altogether without the biographical approach, since the poem is so closely concerned with the poet's personal experience. The allegory is universal, but it is so precisely because it is a man's answer to a situation—a particular man and a particular situation in time and place, The man is Dante; the time is the beginning of the fourteenth century; the place is Florence. All Heaven and Earth and Hell are, in a sense, included within that narrow compass.

Source: Dorothy L. Sayers, in an introduction to Dante: The Divine Comedy, by Dante Ahghieri, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers, Penguin Books, 1949, pp. 9-66.


Critical Overview