Inferno

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Themes and Colors
Sin, Justice, Pity and Piety Theme Icon
Paganism vs. Christianity Theme Icon
Individual Fame Theme Icon
This World vs. the Afterlife Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
Love Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Inferno, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Language Theme Icon

Words and language have an almost magical power in the Inferno. Dante's words often stir souls to speak and share their stories, while Virgil's words move demons and other obstacles out of their way, as they journey through hell. At the gate to the city of Dis, the angel that opens the gate does so merely by speaking. And finally, Dante's entire journey is able to happen because it is divinely ordained by the word of God. This association of God with the mystical power of the word of God draws on the beginning of the book of John, in the New Testament, which starts, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." This power of the word of God trickles down, so to speak, to his various agents, such as the angel and Virgil, who help carry out God's will.

Aside from this kind of holy language, words are also important for spirits suffering in hell, because the ability to speak means the ability to name oneself and thus attain fame in Dante's narrative. The punishments of hell cause pain in many ways, but almost always hurt sinners additionally by robbing them of language itself, reducing their voices to inarticulate screams and cries of pain. Those who, in the midst of their pain, can still talk to Dante are at least able to gain some kind of fame and remembrance in Dante's poem. Dante, in turn, is able to grant such sinners' a bit of fame precisely because of his skill with language as a poet. His use of the written word is what guarantees the fame of these sinners and of Dante himself.

However, Dante also shows the limits of language. He often worries that he cannot express in words what he saw in hell, that his poem is not adequate to represent the fantastical sights of hell, and that readers will not believe what he writes. The limits of Dante's language can be seen in his prolific use of long similes. In these similes, he can only express what he sees in hell in terms of what his readers have seen on earth. At a more fundamental level, Dante must also try to express the sights of hell in a language that only has words for things on earth. Dante's very language inevitably reduces what it describes to earthly terms. But we should not let Dante's posturing of humility deceive us: he is still immensely confident in his ability as a poet. Despite the limitations of language, Dante uses his talent as a poet to create a stirring, vivid portrait of hell. Ultimately, while there are limits to what language can do, exceptional people like Dante and Virgil (to say nothing of God himself) can use words to extraordinary ends.

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Language Quotes in Inferno

Below you will find the important quotes in Inferno related to the theme of Language.
Canto 1 Quotes

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.

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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 4 Quotes

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 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 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.