Inferno

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Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of Inferno published in 1950.
Canto 1 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Dante (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Journey, Light and Dark
Page Number: 1.1-3
Explanation and Analysis:

These are the opening lines of the Inferno. They describe how the speaker, Dante, is personally and spiritually lost—and in need of aid to right himself again.

This beginning is a classic example of a story “in medias res,” or that which commences mid-action without any preface. Instead of outlining the scene or his personal history, Dante places his reader immediately in the moment. Indeed, the phrasing highlights suddenness with the opening word “Midway” and the opening image “I woke”—both of which point to a rapid shift. Thus the text stumbles into its own first events without any orientation—much as the speaker Dante has lost “the right road” and has no clear route forward. The Inferno places reader and speaker in analogous situations of being lost.

It is worth digging into the specific way in which the speaker Dante has become lost. He casts it, first, as a crisis that has hit at a specific moment—“midway” in his life, which implies that his experience in the Inferno will seek to address this personal plight. The image of the “dark wood” takes the idea of being internally lost and makes it an external experience, while the “right road” can indicate both a geographical disorientation and also an ethical or spiritual uncertainty. Thus the opening lines of the Inferno establish a key theme in this work: an external geography and journey will be used as an allegory for an internal one. As Dante travels through the different circles of hell, he will address these corresponding moral and personal uncertainties.

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Canst thou be Virgil? Thou that fount of splendour
Whence poured so wide a stream of lordly speech?

Related Characters: Dante (speaker), Virgil
Page Number: 1.79-80
Explanation and Analysis:

After being thwarted by several animals, Dante glimpses the shade of Virgil, who will become his guide. Dante then goes on to praise Virgil for his poetic prowess.

This interaction is the first of many in which Dante will seek to recognize a historical figure he encounters in the Inferno. Phrasing his greeting as a question—“Canst thou be Virgil?”—implies a certain surprise and indicates that the identifications will not always be automatic. Dante then clarifies his surprise by recalling the reason for Virgil’s fame. He uses the metaphor of a fountain spurting water to relate to Virgil’s creation of language. So as a renowned Roman poet, he is a “fount of splendour” for his ability to produce excellent verse—which is deemed a “stream of lordly speech.” The water imagery highlights the bountiful and rejuvenating quality of Virgil’s verse and foreshadows how Dante will be guided by it along the various bodies of water in the Divine Comedy.

That Dante (the writer) has selected Virgil to be his guide is highly significant. Beyond conveying his personal preference for Virgil's poetry, Dante has made the daring choice of selecting a pagan guide through a Christian landscape. He could well have chosen the figure to be Jesus or another Christian figure, but instead he selects a famed Roman poet. Such a choice reveals the relative importance of classical art even within the confines of a Christian society and poem. Dante has positioned his own work within a famed classical lineage, demonstrating that the text may be theological in nature but that it draws on a Greek and Roman heritage.

For the Emperor of that high Imperium
Wills not that I, once rebel to His crown,
Into that city of His should lead men home.

Related Characters: Virgil (speaker)
Page Number: 1.124-126
Explanation and Analysis:

Virgil lays out the route that Dante will take, first through Hell and then ascending toward Heaven. He notes that another spirit will have to play the role of the guide later, because Virgil is not permitted in heaven.

Dante cleverly introduces the pagan backstory of his guide Virgil with the reference to “once rebel to His crown.” As a result, God—deemed “Emperor of that high Imperium”—has demanded that he not be allowed to enter heaven. This pronouncement fits with the general tenants of Christianity, which would relegate non-believers to Hell. (And, according to the Christianity of Dante's time, all people born before Christ's resurrection--like Virgil--must automatically go to Hell as well.) Despite having evidently renounced his earlier credences and come to adopt some form of Christianity, Virgil is still barred from “that city of His”: heaven. As a result, he will only play the role of the guide in the Inferno and most of Purgatory, after which Dante must be brought “home” by someone else.

This passage sets the limits in how prominent of a role figures like Virgil could play in Dante’s work. As pagans, they could never have access to any realm beyond Hell—but Dante was able to humanize them and give them important roles within those confines. His text can thus be seen as a complicated negotiation between affirming the merits of classical artists and philosophers and confirming the rightness of his own Christian dogma.

In some interpretations, Virgil is also seen to represent reason and human talent, which, in the allegory of the poem, can only take one so far. At some point, even one with the reason and skill of Virgil must take a leap of faith and hand his life over to God (or, in the poem, to God's representative Beatrice, who leads Dante to Heaven itself).

Canto 2 Quotes

Beatrice am I, who thy good speed beseech;
Love that first moved me from the blissful place
Whither I'd fain return, now moves my speech.

Related Characters: Beatrice (speaker), Beatrice
Page Number: 2.70-72
Explanation and Analysis:

Virgil recounts the story of how he was led to Dante, during which he came into contact with the divine inspiration for the tale: Beatrice. Beatrice explained to Virgil how her love for Dante motivated her to leave heaven and speak with this intermediary.

This passage establishes a chain reaction of affection toward Dante that has saved him from his personal and spiritual crisis. Virgil may be his direct guide, but their relationship is actually ordained through Beatrice, herself an emissary of the Virgin Mary and God. Her line “Love that first moved me” may pass over the reader, but it should not be taken lightly. Beatrice has chosen personal affection as her central motivation—as opposed to a moral or strictly religious justification. The Divine Comedy is thus, in an odd way, a love story between Dante and Beatrice—in which she plays the role of both muse and distant guide for the speaker-protagonist.

Her lines here also help clarify the way the three different divine planes will operate. Although Virgil cannot ascend into heaven because he is pagan, Beatrice can evidently move between the realms. Yet at the same time, she desires not to do so, saying “the blissful place/ Whither I’d fain return,” implies that she feels a natural gravitational pull toward heaven. Thus while blessed beings may indeed move between the realms, the text demonstrates that they have a natural desire to remain in heaven—which only underlines the extent of her love for Dante, as she left heaven for his sake.

Canto 3 Quotes

Justice moved my great maker; God eternal
Wrought me: the power, and the unsearchably
High wisdom, and the primal love supernal.

Related Characters: Guido Guerra, Tegghiaio Aldobrandi, and Jacopo Rusticucci (speaker)
Page Number: 4-6
Explanation and Analysis:

These words are the inscription on the gates of hell. They glorify God for the wise and just way he crafted the doorway.

Throughout the Divine Comedy, Dante continually reasserts God’s omnipresence—constantly showing how he has positively affected each component of the mystical universe. The gates proclaim first how he was moved by “justice,” indicating that the division of hell, purgatory, and heaven stems from firm moral systems that give each person his or her correct end. Next, they allude to the “power” and “high wisdom,” thus combining the values of strength and intelligence that would allow God to have an idea and will it into existence.

Although these are expected qualities to attribute to God, the gates also significantly append the phrase “primal love.” This focus on love recalls how Beatrice is motivated to aid Dante, just as Dante is primarily inspired by his love for her in return. That the doors speak first of justice but then transition into love speaks to how this quality undergirds much of the spiritual and narrative meaning in the Inferno. Dante has crafted a unique worldview and religious schema in which love for and from God is placed at the center of the text—despite the seeming disconnect between love and the often cruel, excessive punishments of Hell.

Canto 4 Quotes

They sinned not; yet their merit lacked its chiefest
Fulfillment, lacking baptism, which is
The gateway to the faith which thou believest;

Or, living before Christendom, their knees
Paid not aright those tributes that belong
To God; and I myself am one of these.

Related Characters: Virgil (speaker), Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan
Page Number: 4.34-39
Explanation and Analysis:

Dante has now entered the first circle of Hell: Limbo. Virgil explains to him that those present in Limbo have not actually sinned, but since they were never baptized, they cannot ascend to heaven.

This passage develops the complex theme of how to contend with classical artists and philosophers whose works and lives are admirable. For being technically pagan, they cannot be sanctified in a dogmatic religious work like Dante’s. Virgil affirms “their merit”—which refers to their various artistic accomplishments—yet saying that their merit “lacked its chiefest fulfillment, lacking baptism” implies that their works would never reach their complete potential due to their spiritual flaws. Dante thus subtly canonizes these figures, while also leaving them sufficiently defective to appeal to a Christian audience.

Virgil clarifies, too, that this fate befalls both those who live during Christianity but were never baptized, as well as those who predated “Christendom.” Thus Limbo becomes a place for people who could not have reasonably ever been baptized or believed in the “proper” religion—who failed to do so through no personal fault of their own, but rather because their era did not allow them to do so (whether because they lived before Christ, or died as babies, or, presumably, lived in countries where Christianity did not yet exist). In acknowledging that he himself fits into this category, Virgil further clarifies why he may play Dante’s guide here but can ultimately never enter heaven. That the text’s guide is himself morally implicated here serves to generate sympathy for those who reside in Limbo—a technique that will be used in many of the ensuing circles.

And greater honour yet they [Homer, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan] did me—yea,
Into their fellowship they deigned invite
And make me sixth among such minds as they.

Related Characters: Dante (speaker), Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan
Page Number: 4.100-102
Explanation and Analysis:

In Limbo, Dante meets a number of important classical artistic figures. He describes, here, how these five ancient poets welcomed him into their fold.

Despite the earlier renunciations of these poets for being pagan, Dante here speaks in admiring, almost worshipful terms. He considers recognition to be “greater honour” and calls them “such minds,” which emphasizes their intellectual accomplishments as opposed to their religious flaws. Using the somewhat pretentious language of “fellowship” and “deigned invite,” Dante stresses the deep significance of their welcome, and so elevates himself to their level. Indeed, to be accepted into the arms of these five poets would place Dante at the pinnacle of classical Western culture.

Yet as his text is written in Italian, as opposed to Greek or Latin, and since it conforms to the necessities of Christian doctrine, his work would actually be of a far greater cultural significance to his time and place. Furthermore, Dante will be able to leave behind the Inferno, unlike these poets, and progress to Heaven. By placing his speaker-character in the company of these figures, Dante the poet has also written himself into their company on a symbolic level. The Inferno thus establishes itself, within its very pages, as a classic that would be “sixth” in the set of other canonical works.

Nay, but I tell not all that I saw then;
The long theme drives me hard, and everywhere
The wondrous truth outstrips my staggering pen.

Related Characters: Dante (speaker)
Page Number: 4.145-147
Explanation and Analysis:

Dante continues to pass through Limbo, recounting the scores of luminaries he finds there. Here he notes that it would be impossible to make reference in the work to every single person he spotted.

This passage presents the poet in an artificially humble fashion. His text, represented by the “staggering pen,” is supposedly incapable of fully rendering the “wondrous truth” of the reality he experiences. That is to say, his art cannot measure up to the complexity and nuance of the world, and therefore he must “tell not all.” A comment such as this one plays several roles in the text. First, it generates sympathy for the speaker and makes the audience accepting of any aesthetic flaws in what he has created; second, it makes a broader philosophical comment on the impossibility of any “pen” to fully capture the complexity of reality, and particularly the reality of spiritual and supernatural realms; third, and most subtly, it shows the importance of Dante’s “long theme.”

Any artist or poet takes such a theme to organize the direction of their work. For Dante, the theme is the ascendence to spiritual salvation. To pursue this theme with a singular purpose, he must refrain from distractions and becoming too deeply lost in the characters of Limbo. Thus Dante must carve a specific direction for his work from the vast potential available to him—a choice made by any artist, but here one that takes a specific religious “long theme.”

Canto 5 Quotes

Love, that so soon takes hold in the gentle breast,
Took this lad with the lovely body they tore
From me; the way of it leaves me still distrest.

Love, that to no loved heart remits love's score,
Took me with such great joy of him, that see!
It holds me yet and never shall leave me more.

Love to a single death brought him and me.

Related Characters: Francesca da Rimini (speaker), Paolo Malatesta
Page Number: 5.100-106
Explanation and Analysis:

Now in the second circle of hell, Dante listens to the tale of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta. Francesca explains that love bound the couple together, but also caused them to sin.

This passage develops and complicates the theme of love seen in Dante’s relationships with Beatrice and with God. Whereas up to this point “love” has been identified as the motivating factor for Dante’s quest for salvation—and even the main foundation for all divine action—here it becomes a negative force. Francesca shows how this transition may occur subtly, for it first "takes hold in the gentle breast,” employing a calming tone and appealing image. The “gentle breast” becomes the “lovely body,” yet instead of offering a nurturing environment for love, it is instead taken hold of and crippled by the same force. The following lines play with the images of taking and holding to corroborate this dual nature of love: Though love may take away from others, it is also bound intensely to Francesca. It is something that severs people precisely in the act of keeping them close.

When Francesca adds, “Love to a single death brought him and me,” she portrays simultaneously the benefits and detriments of this emotion. For while it may have brought them the “death” confined to Hell, the emphasis of the sentence falls on the modifier “single”—thus stressing less their fate and more the way that they were bound together in it. Thus Dante is careful to avoid any stark judgement—positive or negative—on the behavior of these lovers. Though the poem may place them in contrast with the more spiritual love of Beatrice or God, it also generates a certain pathos for these sinning characters. Their actions, the text affirms, are reasonable and even have a certain poetic beauty (hence their lasting fame among Dante's many characters).

Canto 9 Quotes

So we stirred
Our footsteps citywards, with hearts reposed,
Safely protected by the heavenly word.

Related Characters: Dante (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Journey
Page Number: 9.103-105
Explanation and Analysis:

When Dante and Virgil first arrive in Dis, they are distraught at the resistance they meet from the Furies and other diabolical forces. After an angel clears the way, however, they proceed more confidently.

That Dante and Virgil stay “safely protected by the heavenly word” corroborates that their quest is sanctioned by God. More specifically, it shows that the heavens are taking an active stake in their journey as it proceeds, continuing to protect and to aid the travelers. The emphasis on “heavenly word” accents how this protection stems from language—God's word and the angel's word (which cleared the way to Dis), just as Dante has exalted his own poetic verse and Virgil harnesses speech to move various obstacles aside.

The scene at Dis also shows the innovative way Dante generates dramatic tension and suspense. This is a somewhat difficult task, for he must affirm God’s omnipotence, while also leaving sufficient textual obstacles to create a compelling narrative. As a solution, Dante will often describe events like this one at the gates of Dis: an evil creature surfaces who will be eventually dispelled by God, but first it is able to instill sufficient terror in Dante and Virgil to generate an emotional response. Thus Dante is able to maintain both his loyalty to religious doctrine and his commitment to crafting a well-wrought, suspenseful tale.

Canto 11 Quotes

Of all malicious wrong that earns Heaven's hate
The end is injury; all such ends are won
Either by force or fraud. Both perpetrate

Evil to others; but since man alone
Is capable of fraud, God hates that worst;
The fraudulent lie lowest, then, and groan

Deepest. Of these three circles, all the first
Holds violent men; but as threefold may be
Their victims, in three rings they are dispersed.

[...] the second circle opens to receive

Hypocrites, flatterers, dealers in sorcery,
Panders and cheats, and all such filthy stuff,
With theft, and simony and barratry.

[...] in the smallest circle, that dark spot,
Core of the universe and throne of Dis,
The traitors lie.

Related Characters: Virgil (speaker)
Page Number: 11.22-66
Explanation and Analysis:

While Dante and Virgil are becoming accustomed to the smell of the lower circles of Hell, Virgil explains its geography. He delineates the different regions inhabited by traitors, liars, and perpetrators of violence.

This passage portrays how minutely structured Hell is in the Divine Comedy. In other religious representations, it is often presented as a undifferentiated space in which sinners of all types mingle. Yet here Hell is rigorously categorized: each person is slotted into the area appropriate for their sin, and each punishment is meted our accordingly. Though Virgil outlines some universal features—“the end is injury” in all cases—he explains that God finds some sins more despicable than others. That he “hates that worst” of fraud shows, again, how hate and love underlie God’s various judgments. The rigid structure of hell thus derives not from any artificial plan but rather from the emotional associations formed by God.

The specific order that Virgil outlines here is worth considering: though some contemporary readers might find violence to be the most disreputable and thus most punishable act, Dante locates “traitors” at the deepest level of hell. Those who are fraudulent or have lied in various ways are also deemed worse than those who have committed violent acts. Thus the text establishes a moral framework that does not emphasize the external horror of an act, but rather finds more fault with internal actions of treachery and deceit: these do not simply deny love, but actually pervert it to horrifying ends.

Canto 15 Quotes

Keep handy my Thesaurus, where I yet
Live on; I ask no more.

Related Characters: Brunetto Latini (speaker), Dante
Page Number: 15.119-120
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Dante speaks to the shade of his teacher Brunetto Latini. As their conversation finishes, Latini asks Dante to recall and continue to use his book: the Thesaurus.

Latini repeats and develops the pattern of characters asking Dante to honor their memory outside of Hell. This repeated theme indicates that the characters in Hell maintain a vested interest in the Earth even after their demise—and that, more specifically, they want to protect their reputation and memory beyond their death.

That Latini wishes this to take place through his Thesaurus offers a slightly different spin on the theme. Whereas other characters have requested that Dante speak of them as people, Latini focuses on the written work he has produced. There he can “yet live on”: he will continue to exist through its pages—existing, in fact, beyond the confines of Hell. Dante establishes, then, the way that inscribed language grants a version of immortality to its writer. And, of course, this is precisely what the Divine Comedy is permitting Dante to do: crafting his own "thesaurus" of the divine spheres that will allow him to persist beyond death, and even beyond his own personhood.

Canto 16 Quotes

So may thy soul these many years abide
Housed in thy body, and the after-light
Of fame shine long behind thee.

Related Characters: Guido Guerra, Tegghiaio Aldobrandi, and Jacopo Rusticucci (speaker), Dante
Related Symbols: Light and Dark
Page Number: 16.64-66
Explanation and Analysis:

Dante speaks to three Florentine noblemen, who give him advice on how to act when he returns to earth. They encourage him, particularly, to seek fame so that he will be more immortal than a common man.

The exchange reveals the fraught relationship that Dante as both poet and speaker has to the idea of fame. If one were to take Jacopo’s comments at face value, one might believe that “the after-light of fame” is an essential end for Dante to pursue. That is to say, that while he should try to “abide” in the world for an extended period of time, more important is seeking a fortune and renown that persist “long behind” him. Similar recommendations have been offered by other characters, and they repeatedly request that Dante aid their fame in shining beyond the confines of Hell.

Yet one must also note that these recommendations come from Florentines who have been condemned to Hell. Though Dante may treat them with interest and respect, the fact that they have sinned should cause their advice to be received skeptically. Too much pride and ruthless seeking of fame is, indeed, staunchly opposed to the universal love and humility so repeatedly lauded by this poem. Thus while Dante’s characters often place value on immortality through fame—and the Divine Comedy itself could be seen as the fulfillment of that project—the work also implies that egoistically searching for immortality will be self-defeating in the end.

Canto 20 Quotes

Because he tried to see too far ahead,
He now looks backward and goes retrograde.

Related Characters: Virgil (speaker), Amphiaraus, Tiresias, and Manto
Page Number: 20.38-39
Explanation and Analysis:

In the fourth trench of the eighth circle, Virgil and Dante encounter the Greek oracle Amphiaraus. Virgil explains how his punishment was given to correspond to the exact nature of his scene: trying to see too far into the future.

This moment is a classic example of the “contrapasso” logic that undergirds much of the Inferno. “Contrapasso” is a Latin term for “suffer the opposite,” and Dante repeatedly portrays sinners to be experiencing inversions of what they did to spite God on earth. Here, Amphiaraus’ sin was to “see too far ahead,” or to prophesy beyond his appropriate role as a mortal. And therefore, he must suffer the opposite: see “backward” and “retrograde.” Contrapasso often takes, as it does here, a metaphorical sin and makes its inversion literal: for Amphiaraus, the abstract idea of seeing forward is made literal in that he physically looks backward. The importance of these scenes is to show how rigidly structured Hell is—that is to say how minutely and perfectly God has planned it out. In this way, Dante shows its composition to be inherently just, while also insulating himself from critiques that something would be flawed in his conception of the Inferno.

Canto 24 Quotes

Put off this sloth [...]
Sitting on feather-pillows, lying reclined
Beneath the blanket is no way to fame—

Fame, without which man's life wastes out of mind,
Leaving on earth no more memorial
Than foam in water or smoke upon the wind.

Related Characters: Virgil (speaker), Dante
Page Number: 24.46-51
Explanation and Analysis:

Dante and Virgil climb an arduous set of rocks, which winds the speaker. Virgil scolds him in response and reminds him of the dangers of laziness.

Virgil returns to the complicated theme of fame in the Divine Comedy, here linking it to the value of active work. He likens the physical “sloth” of Dante in the moment to the broader sins of sloth: this would be practiced by those who would simply be “sitting on feather-pillows” instead of pursuing any true end. Though Virgil could have finished his reproach by noting how sloth is a sin in the eyes of God, he instead links it to notoriety, pointing out that “fame” will require active effort on Dante’s part.

Thus Virgil further valorizes the importance of being famous on earth after one’s death, because it will grant a type of immortality. With the metaphor of “foam in water or smoke upon the wind,” Virgil summons two poetic images of ephemerality—to which he juxtaposes the potential sturdy immortality granted by “fame.” Dante thus presents his journey through hell and the corresponding task of writing the Divine Comedy to be intensely arduous, but also to be his way to leave a “memorial” upon the earth that will outlast his life (while, at the same time, condemning the excessive desire for earthly fame).

Canto 26 Quotes

Florence, rejoice, because thy soaring fame
Beats its broad wings across both land and sea,
And all the deep of Hell rings with thy name!

Five of thy noble townsmen did I see
Among the thieves; which makes me blush anew,
And mighty little honour it does to thee.

Related Characters: Dante (speaker)
Page Number: 26.1-6
Explanation and Analysis:

After meeting a number of shades that hail from Florence, Dante gives this ironic set of comments on his city. He simultaneously glorifies Florence and disparages it for producing these agents of sin.

Dante plays on a traditional way of exalting cities: by recounting their fame and how they have emissaries spread throughout the world. Thus he notes the “soaring fame” of the city whose metaphorical “wings,” or broad presence, are a fixture in “both land and sea.” Yet by adding the detail “all the deep of Hell rings with thy name,” Dante makes this praise ironic—turning their fame into infamy. For a presence in Hell would speak to a fame due to sinning. This condemnation becomes more explicit when he hones in on the specific characters—“five of thy noble townsmen”—he encountered. He says explicitly that they brought “mighty little honour” to their city. This passage differentiates, then, between different forms of fame that a city or a person may experience. Dante shows that one may indeed remain significant beyond one’s death, but that “little honour” is accrued if the reason for that fame is having sinned.

Tormented there [...] Ulysses goes
With Diomede, for as they ran one course,
Sharing their wrath, they share the avenging throes.

Related Characters: Virgil (speaker), Ulysses, Diomedes
Page Number: 26.55-57
Explanation and Analysis:

Virgil informs Dante about the fates of two souls hiding beneath a split-flame. Ulysses and Diomede, he explains, are being punished for having stolen the palladium of Troy.

As he did in Limbo, Dante here incorporates classical figures and references into his own work. Instead of denying the importance of pagan figures in a Christian worldview, he finds a way to include them within the poem’s religious and artistic framework. This strategy is particularly effective when applied to the characters of Ulysses and Diomede, who are featured in the two most important classical Greek epics: the Iliad and the Odyssey. Both texts feature the underworld as a prominent location, but it functions radically differently from Dante’s. In Homer’s works, Ulysses is treated as a hero both above and below ground. Thus Dante has actually rewritten Homer’s narrative, which was in fact praised many Cantos before in Limbo. In this way, Dante is able to set his text in conversation with classical figures, but also rise above them by claiming the moral high ground of his Christian associations.

Canto 28 Quotes

Who, though with words unshackled from the rhymes,
Could yet tell full the tale of wounds and blood
Now shown me, let him try ten thousand times?

Related Characters: Dante (speaker)
Page Number: 28.1-3
Explanation and Analysis:

As he enters the ninth circle of Hell, Dante observes once more how his work will be unable to convey the full extent of the horror he sees. He then challenges anyone else to attempt that feat.

This statement presents Dante as simultaneously humble and proud: he notes that he is unable to "tell full the tale" he sees, while also contending that no other would be able to do so. His tone, however, has grown more assertive from the earlier mentions that his pen would never properly describe the journey. Through his adventure, it seems, Dante's aesthetic confidence has grown and he now believes that while his text may not be perfect, it is indeed a masterpiece.

Attention is drawn, in particular, to the poetic artifice of the text: Dante explicitly notes the "rhymes" that metaphorically shackle him, for he writes within a strict form of meter and rhyme. Thus he cannot necessarily select the easiest language to convey his experience, but must rely on words that function within the form. These constraints are evidence of Dante's struggle against the sin of sloth, and he claims that even without them no other poet would be able to match the work. Thus Dante accents his adherence to form, and claims that other artists with less meticulous compositions will never outmatch his descriptive powers.

Canto 31 Quotes

The self-same tongue that first had wounded me,
Bringing the scarlet blood to both my cheeks,
Thus to my sore applied the remedy.

Related Characters: Dante (speaker)
Page Number: 31.1-3
Explanation and Analysis:

Dante reflects on the benefits and detriments of his linguistic talent. He observes that poetry is not inherently a praiseworthy end, but that it can be so in service of God.

Opting for the metaphor of spoken language, he uses the image of “self-same tongue” and then differentiates between its positive and negative effects. Language “wounded” Dante spiritually because it was sacrilegious, but it also could serve as the “remedy” to that same issue if it is properly used. Dante moves toward resolving his earlier experience of being lost in life’s path, indicating that redemption comes from being able to differentiate between these two types of language.

Dante is also intervening, here, on a complicated religious debate on the meaning of art, and the role it should play in conjunction with the Church. As we have seen throughout the Inferno, art is often associated with pagans and heretics—yet Dante is also evidently drawn to the creative prowess of the classics. Here, he seeks to resolve that tension by explicitly casting language as both capable of harm and healing. Thus Dante defines a uniquely religious type of classic, fusing the Christian and classical traditions together within his own piece.

That's Nimrod, by whose fault the gracious bands
Of common speech throughout the world were loosed.

We'll waste no words, but leave him where he stands,
For all speech is to him as is to all
That jargon of his which no one understands.

Related Characters: Virgil (speaker), Nimrod
Page Number: 31.77-81
Explanation and Analysis:

When Virgil and Dante encounter the figure of Nimrod, Virgil offers this poignant commentary on the nature of communication. He observes that their language will be incomprehensible to Nimrod, just as his language is incomprehensible to them.

To Nimrod, Virgil attributes the origin “of common speech,” which is deemed a perversion compared to the singular language of God. Nimrod was responsible for this because he built the tower of Babel, which fractured the one language of humanity into many (according to the Old Testament story). That, as a result,he  would be unable to understand Dante and Virgil implies that their language is fundamentally different and ordained by God. Furthermore, Virgil sets a high value on the importance of their language, for they should “waste no words” when they need not to. The implication is that Dante’s language—as it appears in the poem itself—is highly valuable and should only be passed to those who deserve to hear it.

The question of common versus holy speech is particularly significant in Dante’s work. Dante wrote the Divine Comedy in Italian instead of the traditional Latin, which was otherwise seen as a holy language. Thus when Virgil says that they are indeed speaking a language that evades “jargon” and that comes from God, as opposed to Nimrod, he is inherently saying that Dante’s Italian is on equal footing with Latin.

Canto 32 Quotes

As ‘tis, I tremble lest the telling mar
The tale; for, truly, to describe the great

Fundament of the world is very far
From being a task for idle wits at play,
[...]

But may those heavenly ladies aid my lay
That helped Amphion wall high Thebes with stone,
Lest from the truth my wandering verses stray.

Related Characters: Dante (speaker)
Page Number: 32.5-12
Explanation and Analysis:

As is characteristic by now, Dante opens Canto 32 by observing how difficult it is for him to recount his journey. He asks the muses to assist him in conveying the events that will transpire.

The precise anxiety that Dante holds to his artwork has shifted here. Before, he was primarily worried about including a sufficient quantity of information—always reflecting on the number of people and sights that he failed to include. Here, on the other hand, he is concerned with accuracy. Saying, “lest the telling mar the tale” differentiates between the actual content (“tale”) and the form (“telling”) through which that content is conveyed to the audience. Dante worries that his particular tale has great stakes being “the great fundament of the world” and that therefore “idle wits” may be likely to incorrectly convey the information. He thus sets the stakes of his endeavor and also shows how any who are indeed able to convey the “tale” would be quite impressive for having done so.

That Dante seeks help in this endeavor from the muses (ancient Greek goddesses) is quite provocative. He cites an example of their prowess in classical mythology: helping “Amphion wall high Thebes with stone,” yet one must recall that this action and its tale were pre-Christian, and thus heretical to the Church. The muses, after all, belonged to the Greek and Roman pantheons, and it was traditional in the Greek classics, such as Homer's, for the speaker to ask the muses for aid is conveying his tale. Once more, Dante straddles a complicated line between affirming his Christian roots and incorporating classical figures and traditions. That he believes the muses will allow his verses to center on “truth” reveals a firm commitment that the two worlds can bridged to great spiritual and aesthetic benefit.

Canto 34 Quotes

How cold I grew, how faint with fearfulness,
Ask me not, Reader; I shall not waste breath
Telling what words are powerless to express.

Related Characters: Dante (speaker)
Page Number: 34.22-24
Explanation and Analysis:

When Dante penetrates the final recesses of Hell, he grows increasingly frightful and reserved. He claims that he cannot describe certain horrors that he experiences.

Despite Virgil’s earlier cautions that Dante should be brave and face his anxieties, he seems to have regressed here, being “faint with fearfulness.” Instead of just having an emotional reaction to the experience, however, Dante observes how this feeling affects his ability to craft art. Evidently, there is a direct connection between the horror experienced and Dante’s ability or willingness to represent it in language. He implies, perhaps, that recounting terrors is a painful process—or that the negativity is carried forth in the artwork itself.

As with many of Dante’s similar asides, we must remain skeptical of his actual inability to describe certain things. Throughout the text, already, we have seen a clear ability to present the various terrors of Hell. Indeed, this has been his task: to represent, without pity or empathy, what he sees to warn potential sinners on earth and to internalize these values himself. This passage thus shows how despite Dante’s progress toward this end, he maintains the human flaws of fear and reticence.

Each mouth devoured a sinner clenched within,
Frayed by the fangs like flax beneath a brake;
Three at a time he tortured them for sin.

Related Characters: Dante (speaker), Judas, Lucifer, Brutus and Cassius
Page Number: 34.55-57
Explanation and Analysis:

Dante here describes the horrifying body of Lucifer himself, as he holds and punishes Judas, Brutus, and Cassius for the worst sin of all: betrayal of one's master.

This final image confirms and centers the moral system that Dante has been recounting thus far, in which traitors are considered to be the most appalling of criminals. Notably, he includes both religious and classical figures: though Judus may suffer the worst fate for having betrayed Jesus, Brutus and Cassius both make an appearance for betraying the secular figure of Julius Caesar. By placing these three characters at the bottom rank of hell, Dante sets the stakes of the most despicable action—from which one can recover the full hierarchy of lesser sins up to Limbo.

That Dante has chosen there to be “three” sinners punished by Lucifer is no coincidence. Recall that the Divine Comedy is structured in three sections and composed of triplet verses—all of which serves to reiterate the importance of the Holy Trinity to his world system. Here, we see a corrupted version, in which the three greatest sinners have been unified into a single body through being consumed by Lucifer. (Just as the Holy Trinity combines three disparate beings into a single identity.) This symbolic association shows how the logic of God pervades every single component of Dante’s world, and how Hell and evil is essentially not its own entity, but only a perversion of what God has made. Even at the furthest depths of Hell, the structure is analogous to that of the height of Heaven.

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