Lecture on Dante’ s Inferno

[The following pages are the text of a lecture delivered, in part, in Liberal Studies 302, in January 1997, by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College (now Vancouver Island University).  The lecture was last revised on January 2007. This text is in the public domain and may be used by anyone for any purpose, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged.

References to and quotations from Dante’s poem are taken from the translation by John Ciardi]

For comments and questions please contact Ian Johnston .




Introduction: An Opening Caveat

My purpose today is to offer something of a general introduction to what is, by common agreement over many, many years, one of the finest poems in our Western tradition, Dante’s Inferno. Given the complex magnificence of this poem and the enormous commentary on it, such an introduction is no easy task, especially since I do not bring to the poem any particular disciplinary expertise in Dante’s work.

However, in spite of the obstacles, I can assist you in your first reading of the poem. My intention, as usual, is to concentrate upon a number of fairly obvious things, because here, as in many complex works, the most important first things are the most obvious, and one needs to take a few very basic steps before springing into more complex interpretative possibilities.

At the very outset, however, I’d like to issue an important caveat.  For reasons I’ll attend to later, discussions of this poem, especially among students, tend to want to focus mainly, and sometimes exclusively, on its “philosophical” dimensions, that is, on the logic of the structure of Hell, on the nature of God’s justice, on the rational explanations for crime and punishment, and so on, rather than on the poetic qualities of the work, and thus end up treating Dante’s great imaginative vision as if were a logical argument from first principles (by, say, a pupil of Aquinas), something which can be adequately dealt with in the same manner we treat such argumentative writings.

So I’d like to insist right at the beginning here that Dante’s poem is not a work of philosophy.  No course studying the great philosophical thinkers of the Middle Ages would include this poem on the primary reading list (although it might get a nod of approval for secondary contextual consideration).  The reason is clear: as a work of philosophy, Dante’s Inferno is seriously deficient.  The ideas it presents are, as we shall see, an essential part of the poem’s structure and vision, but no one would ever claim these concepts find an adequate logical justification in this work.  On the other hand, no course surveying the greatest literary works of the Western tradition could afford to ignore the Inferno.  Indeed, it would rank, as Dante clearly hoped it would, with the best poems we have ever producedthe works of Homer, Virgil, and Shakespeare, for example.

Hence, in our discussions of the poem, if all we want to talk about are things like “Is the structure of punishments in Hell, in your view, justified or not?” or “Does Dante provide an adequate logical defence of God’s justice or not?” then we are, I think, missing the point, rather as if we spent all our time in discussions of Aquinas focusing on the rhythm of his sentences and the poetic evocativeness of his imagery.  Yes, we shall have to attend to those questions, but we need to remember that the “justification” for the ideas this poem offers may be aesthetic and poetic, rather than philosophical.  That is, the important point is attending to how Dante, as a great poet, makes us respond emotionally to the ideas, how he, in effect, makes us accept them imaginatively and keep reading and then remembering his pictures of what these ideas amount to in a very particular poetic vision.  More about this later.

[ Parenthetically, one might observe that a similar opening warning is appropriate to a great many fictional works which involve, in one way or another, apparently philosophical ideas (e.g., Aeschylus’ Oresteia or Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey).  The greatness of these poems rests on the poetic vision they offer, that is, on the feelings they generate in us about the ideas they present, not on the structural logic of the ideas they appeal to.]

The Divine Comedy as Epic

So to start with I’d like to consider some obvious poetic labels we attach to Dante’s great poem, explore what these mean (in a general manner), and suggest some ways in which these might direct our initial interpretations. In particular, I’d like to focus on what we mean when we call this poem an epic and an allegory. In the process, I’ll have some things to say about the structure of the poem. Then, I’d like to consider some of the ways in which this poem is much more than what these terms might at first suggest.

As we all know, The Inferno is the first section of a long three-part poem, The Divine Comedy. Many of us have heard the Comedy praised as a magnificent epic, the greatest epic achievement of the late Middle Ages. And we don’t have to read The Inferno very far before we sense a quality that we often call epic.

What does this mean exactly? In very general terms, an epic work is a long narrative (traditionally in verse) with a hero or heroes who go through a series of adventures.  However, the epic narrative is separated from other long narratives by its unusual scope. For, to a greater or lesser extent, the term epic refers to a quality the poem creates that it is in some way exploring or celebrating something much larger than the particular characters and places it describes: it is bringing before us, to put the matter very simply, a world view, a sense of cultural completeness, so that as we move through the work, we experience the exploration of some big questions about individual and social purposes, about a system of belief, often about the past traditions and future prospects, about the major things which we use to define a culture. The breadth of the epic brings before us a comprehensive picture of an entire culture in a way that an ordinary narrative, no matter how exciting, does not.

We are familiar already with this quality from a study of Homer’s Odyssey, a superb adventure narrative but also the celebration of a system of valuesindividual and culturaland the exploration of a belief system. Put another way, epic adventures tend to drive home for us the old truth that human beings imitate in action their vision of the nature of things. In following the adventures of the epic characters, especially the main hero, we inevitable explore a particular vision of the nature of things in a comprehensive manner, so that by the end of the Odyssey we have had to confront an extremely wide range of insights into all those things which define a civilized culture, everything from a vision of the gods and the rules of hospitality, to the relationships between men and women, the nature of the wilderness, the importance of beautiful art, the major priorities of human experience, and the nature of human virtue.

[Parenthetically, it is interesting to observe that many great epicsand Homer’s and Dante’s (not to mention Virgil’s) are excellent examples of this pointoften appear very late in the cultural moment that they hold up for our examination. There’s often a sense that what the poem is most celebrating is under a certain strain, under threat, and that the forces which will overthrow it are already gathering strength (think, for example, in Dante’s poem of the corrupting effects of money and political in-fighting).  This phenomenon has led to a saying to the effect that the greatness of a particular culture finds its most eloquent expression at the moment of its passing away. I leave this to you to reflect about, especially as you encounter later epic writings (e.g., those of Chaucer, Malory, Milton, and so on]

I might mention also, in passing, that this challenge to the epic poet to provide something all-encompassing about his culture traditionally made the epic poem the highest achievement to which the poet might aspire.  Homer, in effect, set a standard for the greatest excellence in poetic art, at least in Western literature.  Many later writers of epic have deliberately patterned their own work, the subject matter, the style, and many of the incidents, on the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Dante is, as one might expect, clearly aware of this tradition and this challenge. Here he is quite deliberately (as is obvious from the opening books of the Inferno) setting out to meet this most difficult of poetic challenges, so that he will rank up there with Homer, Hesiod, Ovid, Lucan, and Virgil.

Before moving onto examine particular details of the poem, I’d like to explore this epic quality by focusing on two things in particular: on the geographical and cosmological scope of the poem and on the historical comprehensiveness of the time frame. Both of these are important characteristics of most works which we consider to have a traditional epic quality.

Physical and Spiritual Geography: Maps as Dreams

Let us consider first, then, one really significant way epics characteristically generate in the reader a sense of very large significance, and that is something I call their epic geography, the scale and detail of the world which they create for us. It might be useful to think for a moment about an epic as the making of a map, the creation of a world in which the physical dimensions bring with them a moral, spiritual, and physical sense of order. “Dante,” Ciardi writes, “is not just taking a walk. He is constructing a universe.” Yes, indeed he is, and if we wish to understand the epic, we had better pay some attention to the nature of that universe he is creating or, alternatively put, the map he is drawing for us.

We need to do this because maps are not simply things we use to orient ourselves physically; they are also symbols of our beliefs and expressions of our desire. Maps, in other words, are dreams. Thus, if we want to understand a particular culture’s vision of experience, one very useful place to start is with that culture’s maps.

This point vis-à-vis epics should be clear to us from studying Homer’s Odyssey. That is a famous travel adventure, but it is also clearly much more than that, because the organization of the geographyfrom Troy, to magic islands, to civilized aristocratic homes, to the uncivilized territory of the Cyclops, to the underworld, to the fabulous world of the Phaikia, and finally back homeis establishing for us a total spiritual, political, and moral understanding of that world. We, in our prosaic way, argue about where Odysseus really went on our maps. But doing that misses the point. It’s a complete, detailed, and closed visionary map, whether it matches our maps or not.

It might be worth mentioning in this regard that the geography of the Odyssey has played a decisive role in the European understanding of the world. When we started voyaging out into new territories, like North America, our imaginations about the wilderness had been decisively shaped to expect that wilderness and the inhabitants in it would have certain characteristics (we were, if you like, carrying with us Homer’s map, among others). So it is not surprising that many of the early explorers found one-eyed monsters, cannibals, seductive maidens, magic potions, and so on, and reported back to Europe (often in illustrated form) what we now regard as hopelessly distorted views of the new world. What enables us to see these early reports as distortions is that we developed new maps.

A Brief Digression on Maps

I don’t wish to go overboard this point about maps, but I would like to offer two contrasting examples in order to make this point clear. A third example will be an overview of Dante’s “map.”

A common map of the world in the middle ages came in the form we call OT maps. Here the world is pictured as a simple circle, with a horizontal diameter bisecting it and the lower half bisected again by a radius perpendicular to the first line. The top half (a semicircle) represents Asia and the bottom two quarter circles represent Europe on the left and Africa on the right. Jerusalem (not shown on this map) lies at the centre of the circle (as the Old Testament states).  The three great bodies of water separating the land masses are sometimes the Great Sea and at other time the Red Sea (between Africa and Asia), and the Danube (between Asia and Europe), and the Mediterranean (between Africa and Europe) with the Ocean in a circle all around.  Here’s an example from the fifteenth century.

OT Map of the World

Our first reaction to such a map is probably to dismiss it as uselessit’s hopelessly simple. But that may be because we are failing to see how this map functions. If we want an accurate way to get from A to B, say from Northern Europe to Africa by ship, this complaint might have a good deal of weight; for this purpose such a map is no help to a navigator. On the other hand, the demand that maps serve as aids for accurate travel is fairly recent in some quarters. What people demanded from a map like this is something elsea structure of meaning which integrates the places of the world into a coherent vision of what the world means, a vision which corresponds to our dreams. This map, which might be (and indeed was) often embellished considerably without any compromise to its basic design, is a complete and coherent statement of the world, and those who take this as the map of the world express in that acceptance a unified vision. Such people have no need for accurate travel mapsthey have no desire to travel except in their imaginations, or, if they do, then they will not be asking this map to serve as a physical guide.   

Such maps were very current even as late as the time of Columbus. It’s interesting to note that when he had to give directions on how to get to America, his instructions were to sail south until the butter melts and then turn right; moreover, he believed to the end of his life that he had reached Asia, because in his image of the world there were only three continents—thus, he must have reached the Indies.

You will notice in a moment some very obvious similarities between this common map and the one Dante is constructing for us, even though the latter emerges as something much more sophisticated. Indeed, Dante is, in a sense, adopting such a map as his basic design and extending it. He is taking the reader’s understanding of the world and delivering back in an enormously imaginative yet still recognizable form.

Modern maps, of the sort most of us are familiar with, begin with a new principle first applied by Gustavus Mercator (the Latinized version of the Gustav Kremer, a Flemish cartographer) in 1569, for whom the most important function of a map was to base the shapes of different lands and the relationships between them upon a grid from which navigators could plot compass courses and have an accurate sense of where they would get to if they maintained a particular direction (i.e., a course charted on a map should have the same compass bearing as a navigator uses at sea).  Mercator’s projection eventually (in modern times) produced an image of the world most of us are familiar with. 

(c) www.odt.org

The World as a Mercator Projection
An Illustration of the Greenland Problem

(taken with permission from the following site: Peters Map)

So which map is closer to the truth? Ah, that’s an interesting question. For us, Mercator would clearly have the edge, because his vision approaches much more closely to our desires and our immediate traditions, and if you are a sailor, then Mercator is still your only choice.  But in many respects his image is seriously misleading in its own way. For instance, this map clearly sacrifices any desire for a pleasing overall circular unity and spiritually significant organization of the data. Moreover, this map seriously distorts the size of many countries (the so-called Greenland Problem).

In the above map Greenland and Africa (shaded in black) are approximately the same size.  One would never imagine from this that the land mass of Africa is more than twelve times the size of Greenland or, to take another example, that South America is seven times larger than Greenland in area.   However, this serious discrepancy is obviously pleasing to people of the north, because it makes their part of the world appear so much larger and, by implication, more important than areas closer to the equator (the same effect occurs in the south, too, but the only major beneficiary of that is Antarctica, a land mass not included above, and, to a lesser extent, Australia).  Hence, when we felt the values symbolized in this map were no longer worth celebrating, there was a call (in 1989) by a number of important cartographers (including the National Geographic) to ban a display of this map in public places, including especially public schools (a call that was widely heeded, so that, in my experience, one rarely sees this famous map on public display any more). *

Dante’s Map

So in evaluating Dante’s poem we might well want to examine how this terrestrial and cosmic geography is an expression of belief, of desire.  Although in the Inferno, we are concerned with only a part of Dante’s entire cosmos, I’d like to say a few words about the whole. Clearly it is, in some ways, closely related to the OT mapfor it makes no attempt to produce something that is useful for extended trips, if our first desire is to be able to plot accurate compass readings. Both Dante’s map and the OT maps before it are, in a sense, mandalas, geometric shapes symbolizing spiritual meaning.

Dante’s cosmos is dominated by the geometry of the circle. This is clear enough by the general layout of hell, and the concept becomes a dominant one in the ascent up Mount Purgatory and the vision of the layers of the heavens and radiant empyrean, the domain of God. This is an organizing principle that you will be quite familiar with from reading Hildegard and looking at her art, much of which is directly concerned with expressing cosmic visionary experience ordered by the principles of circularity.

We know also from the Greeks that the circle has a special significance, and it is not difficult to imagine why, even though we may have lost touch with the spontaneous spiritual responses to mathematical shapes. The circle has no beginning and no end; its shape is aesthetically pleasing; and, most important, stacks of circles can be organized in such a way that they share, in an instantly recognizable visual manner, a common centre, obviously the organizing principle of the shape. Thus, a series of concentric circles is an immediate and pleasing way to express the apparent paradox of variety and unity in the world. Variety can be a function of the hierarchy and the size of the circles, while unity is achieved by the common centre, the proportional spacing of the circles, and their common shape.

This principle becomes, as you will probably discover in your readings in science next year, the basis for the longest lasting and most important scientific and political and poetic concept in our culture: the Great Chain of Being, the notion of a structured moral hierarchy of everything, from the most inert stuff right up to God, a concept that makes the structure of the universe a manifestation of divine order confirming the established value of everything in the world. It is, simply put, the most important and longest lasting map in the history of Western culture.

Hence, in Hildegard’s painting and in Dante’s poem, circles become an essential way of representing the two simultaneous truths basic to much Christian understanding: the universe is a ranked gradation of being from the depths of sin and non-life stage-by-stage up to the perfect presence of God, and at the same time the universe is a unit, coordinated by the central point in a manner mathematically perfect and readily comprehensible to the scholar or to the illiterate peasant.

Dante insists upon this metaphor and combines it with a sense of ascent and descent. As we read the Inferno, we are aware always of descentwe are constantly moving from the ground of the Earth downward into tighter and tighter circles as we move toward the central pit, and the moral associations of descent are made clear to us very early on. We know that the purpose of this descent is to reach Mount Purgatory, so that Dante can begin to climb, once again in circles, so that eventually he may direct his gaze to the very summit of the universe, the realm of God.

I’ll have more to say about the descent later. All I am insisting upon here is the fairly obvious point that Dante’s geography is inextricably linked to his moral and spiritual vision of the nature of things. Indeed, his central purpose might be described as getting us to recognize through the geography the importance of a carefully graded sense of moral organization, corresponding to the topography of the universe.

We are not used to this method of understanding geography, but responsive readers are quick to see what is going on. And this raises some interesting questions which have nothing to do with geography, but which the geography of The Inferno forces us to confront. Why are the usurers ranked so much lower than the murderers? By our standards, Brutus and Cassius, even if we see them as sinners, seem less serious offenders than some others. But Dante’s geography makes it clear that, in his value system, they belong where they are, right along Satan. Wherever we are in Dante’s universe, we are always aware of the moral system of the whole, because the geography always places us in a relationship to what is above or below us.

I don’t wish to belabour this point, which, as I shall explain later, is in some sense less important to us than other features. But it is important, when we consider the epic qualities of this poem, to recognize how Dante is, like other writers, constructing through his physical universe what we might call a carefully worked out system of belief, a system of values which applies directly to our understanding of ourselves and the conduct of our lives.

There’s one more point you might like to consider about the attractions of the circle as a symbol of the cosmic map: it gives us a universe on a human scale. For the radii of the concentric circles (as we know from Hildegard’s art) place human beings within reach of all the different levels of being. Moreover, our position at the centre is a reassuring reminder that, in God’s created scheme, humanity occupies a very special place and that we are all directly linked to God who is within reach of all of us.

[All this, parenthetically, is an important part of the resistance to the changes in our cosmological understanding brought about by the Copernican revolution, which insisted that the most important organizing principles of our map must be abandoned. The resistance to the development of this metaphor, like the Cardinal’s refusal to look through Galileo’s telescope, is not just the pig-headed reaction of ignorant or selfishly self-interested dogmatists (although at times it might be). It is also a decision of people who recognize the moral implications of giving up an understanding of the world and the heavens loaded with particular spiritual meaning and endorsed by a particular map. For when we change our maps, we force upon ourselves a change in beliefsand something is always lost in the process.  For example, nowadays, the most most basic map of human life, we are told, is our DNA, a purely mechanical aggregate which has developed by accident.  Those who want to resist some of the implications of this mapfor example, cloning or genetic engineering—are adopting the same stance as those who resisted the new scientific models of a mechanical universe].

It will be evident, too, that Dante’s sense of geometrical structure is much more sophisticated than Hildegard’s, although there are some obvious similarities. And this indicates to us, even if we are no specialists in the Middle Ages, that his imagination belongs to a period later than Hildegard’s, for Dante is living at a time when wrestling with the philosophical notions of the Greeks in order to reconcile them to traditional Christian doctrine is an exciting and creative activity. You have some familiarity with that movement, called Scholasticism, from your brief study of Aquinas. And you are no doubt therefore to some extent aware of the intense interest in reconciling complex Greek ideas with the orthodox Christian tradition.

This movement, of profound importance to the development of Western ideas, led to an immense enthusiasm among artists and thinkers in a challenging projectto widen and deepen the philosophical basis for religious doctrine, to reconcile revealed truth with what was perceived as the highest achievement of pre-Christian culture: Greek philosophy and mathematics. Original Christian thinking had established a very ambiguous relationship with the Greek past. Many early Christian thinkers were well-educated Greeks, who used their philosophical training and experience to ridicule pagan mythology as highly irrational; yet at the same time many other Christians emphasized that the very essence of Christianity had nothing to do with reason and that to base one’s faith on reason was to betray the essence of the faith: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem,” cried Tertullian rhetorically; he knew the answer: nothing whatsoever.

In the development of Christian doctrine in the early middle ages, the hostility to Greek philosophical thinking led to the closing of the Greek schools and the virtual disappearance of that classical tradition from Western religion. Thus, the energetic appropriation of Greek ideas in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries marked a decisive shift, establishing a major intellectual tradition which is Dante’s immediate inheritance.

We can see this enthusiasm clearly in Dante’s cosmological structure. Thus, while his world comes across as recognizably similar to Hildegard’s, it is clearly much more complex and sophisticated, and Dante takes a wonderful and infectious enthusiasm in communicating a sense of the prevailing order which coordinates and provides the structural principles for this complexity.

The Moral and Political Implications of Dante’s Map

Dante’s structured map of hell, like any structured map, expresses also system of moral and political meaning, and this feature is often of considerable interest the readers coming from a different time.  For our own sense of the relative seriousness of different sins is clearly challenged by Dante’s system in which, for example, murderers are ranked higher in the hierarchy (that is, considered less heinous) that, say, counterfeiters or promise breakers.

Dante takes his time to explain through Virgil (in Canto XI) the logic basic to this hierarchy, which rests on an acknowledgement that crimes stemming from a corruption of reasonthat is crimes undertaken with deliberate planning and rational calculation over timeare much more serious than crimes committed by passion.  And this is the case, because reason is (following the absorption into Christianity of Aristotle’s understanding of the human soul) a much more distinctively human, God-given faculty.

The emphasis here falls on the nature of the sinner’s intentions, rather than on the effects of the crime.  That’s something we may have some trouble adjusting to at first, for we commonly judge the seriousness of a crime in large part by the nature of its effects (so that, for us, a bloody murder is much more grievous than a calculating long-term embezzlement).  Given this point, reading Dante’s poem should affect the thoughtful reader in some interesting ways, inviting her to re-examine the moral basis for this modern sense of priorities. It might also disturb us.   For the question about how we justify our structure of punishments is one well worth posing.  Where would Dante place the corporate executives who brought about the collapse of Enron or WorldCom, for example?  The evidence suggests he would rank them deeper in hell that he would a murderer who acted from passionate impulse.

The issue of eternal punishment, after all, involves a judgment on the soul of the individual based on an understanding of the full nature of a human being with absolute freedom to choose how to behave (and a corresponding responsibility for such decisions).  Dante’s sense that sins arising from the lower parts of the soul (passions) are less reprehensible that those arising from a willed deliberation over time (that is, from human reason) makes perfect sense given his understanding of the relationship between reason and the divine.

There is also something of a political vision in the structure of punishments as well, since crimes against the body politic, especially those against the bonding central to a Christian understanding of a good society, tend to be much more serious that those against one or two individuals.  The willed decision to violate the most important Christian principle of allloving one’s neighbour as oneselfthus receives a more severe punishment than crimes against particular individuals.

This principle accounts, of course, for the last and most famous circle of hell, which contains those who betrayed their masters, those people to whom the sinner had a special obligation, not only for personal reasons, but also for social-political-religious reasons.  These are the worst sinners because they corrupted their reason in a way that subverted the social group and the entire value system which coordinates that social group in the most deleterious manner.

In that sense, one might argue that Dante’s map of hell has what we might call a significant conservative ideology, one which is reinforcing the traditional idea that violations against the hierarchy of bonds which holds the community togetherespecially when such violations occur in the service of individualistic ambitionsare the sins deserving the worst punishments.  That may account for the attention Dante pays to sins which involve the acquisition of money (usury and simony, for example) by assertive individuals at the expense of the traditional organic community.

Dante’s Numerology: The Number Three

These points, I think, are evident to modern readers. There are other features, however, which strike me as there but without the same obvious symbolic effect. For example, the geometrical emphasis here is matched also by Dante’s personal interest in the spiritual power of numbers, of which some critics make a great deal. For example, it’s clear that Dante sets much store by the number three:

A very useful principle to bear in mind in studying the Commedia is the rule of three. The work is divided into three cantiche, corresponding to the three realms of the afterlife; it is written in terza rime; and there are numerous other examples of cabalistic or semiritualistic allusions to the pregnant number which had haunted Dante’s mind ever since in the Vita Nuova he had made the happy discovery that Beatrice was a 3 x 3. We need not wonder unduly about the sources of Dante’s triadomania. He had sanction in the doctrine of the Trinity itself; he had the prophetic sanction in the doctrine of Joachim da Fiore; we have seen that his contemporary Bonvesin da Riva had also written a Book of the Three Scriptures. Indeed, if his subject were to be the afterlife and its three realms, the number was forced upon our poet’s consideration; given his love for symmetry and mysterious numerology, the ninety-nine cantos . . . and even terza rime followed naturally. Carducci was right too, I think, in seeing in the tertiary principle an element of discipline pervading the whole work. (Bergin 213-214)

. . . Dante has given us three kinds of measure, almost three kinds of time, running concurrently and on different planes, yet cunningly crossing and converging to strengthen the fabric of the poem and enmesh the reader, who is captured without quite realizing how it has come about. To be precise, I think we may say that the cantos, the physical divisions in the narrative’s landscape (i.e., circles in hell, terraces in purgatory, and spheres in paradise), and the subjects presented (a character, a topic, an argument) are three measures; their manipulation, unobtrusive but calculated, keeps the poem moving and gives it a kind of vitality of fibre, a persistent resilience. . .(Bergin 214)

I call this to your attention here, because it’s a common observation people make about this epic. But I must confess that I’m never sure if such an observation really amounts to very much, except perhaps to those who share the same numerological enthusiasm. Yes, the figure three is an important feature of the poem, but once we have recognized that, I’m not sure what we are to make of it. The number three conveys no spiritual significance or emotional excitement to me, and although I’m prepared to concede that there might be some people for whom this is a vital and impressive feature of the poem, to me it amounts to little more than a personal quirk of the poet or, as Bergin suggests above, a way he imposed discipline upon his imagination (as, for example, Shakespeare does with the iambic pentameter or countless writers of sonnets do with the fourteen lines and a strict rhyme scheme).

This point is something you might like to consider in the seminarsthe notion that some organizing principles of a vision of the world, no matter how important they are to the author or his immediate audience, can cease to exercise a decisive effect on a later readership. What this amounts to saying is that sophisticated structural principles are not, in themselves, enough to make a great poem. If they contribute significantly to the emotional content of the poem, then they may, indeed, contribute to the pleasure we derive from it. But complex numerology is no necessary sign of poetic quality.

Dante’s Use of the Past

A second important epic quality of this poem emerges from Dante’s treatment of the past. For the universe he is creating is not simply a geometric structure; it is also a coherent and complete historical vision, giving a shape to time. This is commonly part of a traditional epic’s function, as Dante knows well. Thus, he structures his poem so as to bring before us the entire tradition available to him: Christian, Italian, and pagan.

A great deal of the pleasure one derives from reading the Inferno, especially at first reading, is meeting such a wonderful collection of figures from the past. Dante’s frequent references to local Italian politics may not connect with us, but as Liberal Studies students, we meet many old acquaintances here: Ulysses, Plato, Socrates, Homer, Achilles, and so on, and the treatment of them is almost invariably original and interesting.

Now, Dante has, of course, an important purpose in bringing these figures before us, apart from his desire to please and surprise his readers (important as these qualities are). His geographical and historical mapthe structure of understanding the universeis going to have a place for all of history. This poem is going to situate and thus account for all of history within the poet’s vision, so that part of the beauty and persuasiveness of that vision is going to come from its comprehensiveness. And I would suggest that one of the best indications of Dante’s poetic genius is the way in which he appropriates that past and transforms it into remarkable poetic images and stories in the service of his own Christian feelings.

Let me cite just a single (but very well known) example. The passage comes from Canto XIV, Circle 7, Round 3, the image of the old Man of Crete. Dante has asked Virgil about the origin of the river they are faced with. Virgil replies as follows:

“In the middle of the sea, and gone to waste,
there lies a country known as Crete,” he said,
“under whose king the ancient world was chaste.

Once Rhea chose it as the secret crypt
and cradle of her son; and better to hide him,
her Corybantes raised a din when he wept.

An ancient guard stands in the mountain’s core.
He keeps his shoulder turned toward Damietta,
and looks toward Rome as if it were his mirror.

His head is made of gold; of silverwork
his breast and both his arms, of polished brass
the rest of his great torso to the fork.

He is of chosen iron from there down,
except that his right foot is terra cotta;
it is this foot he rests more weight upon.

Every part except the gold is split
by a great fissure from which endless tears
drip down and hollow out the mountain’s pit.

Their course sinks to this pit from stone to stone,
becoming Acheron, Phlegethon, and Styx.
Then by this narrow sluice they hurtle down

to the end of all descent, and disappear
into Cocytus. You shall see what sink that is
with your own eyes. I pass it in silence here.

This extraordinary image links the birth of Zeus (and thus the key story in pagan Olympian religion, the mythology basic to Homer), with the famous Greek metaphor of the four ages of the world (from Hesiod and Ovid)gold, silver, brass, ironto which Dante has added a fifth element (to suggest the fragility of the massive structure), with a reference to legendary King Minos of Crete, in an adaptation of a description from the Old Testament Book of Daniel (2:32-34) of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, concluding with an appropriation of the rivers of the pagan underworld (especially as Virgil deals with them in his great epic poem, The Aeneid), and all in a way that makes a very pointed and truly original poetical political and religious reference: that the river of Hell originate in the tears from a powerful but flawed and fragile statue summing up human history, with its eyes fixed on the state of things in Rome, the centre of the Catholic faith, as if the key to what happens to this structure is going to be what happens in that city.

[Parenthesis: For those interested in the Biblical source of this image, I give below the passage from Daniel.

You saw, O king, and behold, a great image. This image, mighty and of exceeding brightness, stood before you, and its appearance was frightening. The head of this image was of fine gold, its breast iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it smote the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces; then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the god, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff on the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.

Daniel interprets the dream as a succession of five kingdoms (identified by many as the Babylonian, Median, Persian, Greek, and the coming kingdom of God)]

To understand the full working of this reference, we need of course to recognize the allegorical nature of Dante’s poem, a feature that I will turn to in a moment. This example I introduce here just to provide some sense of Dante’s creative and wide-ranging appropriation of an eclectic and rich cultural past.

Now, incorporating the classical past into any Christian poem is a very risky business, as Christians realized long ago. The risk stems from the fact that the classical culture which the Christians wished to replace and which they insisted was sinful and deceiving was, in fact, incredibly rich in works of art, drama, philosophy, history, epic, and myth. Nothing the Christians could offer, not even the Old Testament or the developing New Testament, could rival the richness of this Classical past.

To study, even at a very cursory level, such a treasure house was to confront a potentially very disturbing problem, namely, the power to undermine Christian authority. After all, at a very basic level, the Classical tradition reminds readers that long before Jesus Christ came to define the spiritual gospel, there was at least one magnificent civilization whose achievements in philosophy, morality, heroism, art, and so on set a standard unmatched since. It might also suggest to many people the philosophical and artistic shallowness of much Christian thinking.

Parenthetically, it is important to note that the Romans also had their difficulties with the Greek tradition.  They admired it excessively, and many sent their children to Greece for an education.  At the same time, there were aspects of that tradition about which they were profoundly suspicious, especially those best symbolized by the character of Odysseus (whom they renamed Ulysses)—the trickery, deceit, and lying, along with the enormous emphasis placed upon individual excellence, often at the price of civic stability.  The  most famous line from Virgil’s great poem The Aeneid (and one of the most frequently quoted lines from Latin literature) sums up this attitude: Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes (I fear the Greeks even [or especially] when they bear gifts).  Unlike later Christians, the Romans did not suppress Greek culture, but they re-interpreted many of the most famous stories and characters, to promote Roman virtues of duty, public service, and honour.

One should also stress that while Dante has access to that Roman tradition of re-interpreting the Greek stories (especially the events of the Trojan War) and its continuation throughout the Middle Ages, he has no direct access, not even in translation, to many of the most important texts (e.g., Homer and the tragedians).  Plato and Aristotle had long been available in Latin (the extraordinarily gifted Roman Boethius had translated and written commentaries on the works of Plato and Aristotle in the 6th century AD and the tradition of incorporating them into Christian thinking had been going on for a long time before Dante), but, here again, the authentic Greek aspects of the tradition had, in many ways, been blended out.  Hence, for example, in treating Ulysses the way he does, as an evil villain, Dante is continuing a long tradition originated by the Romans (and one which, of course, directly contradicts Homer’s celebration of Odysseus as a marvelous hero).

Even without all the original texts or accurate translations of many of them, the stories themselves were widely known and potentially dangerous.  In the face of the achievements of say, Socrates or Sophocles or Pericles or a host of others, it was difficult to maintain that without embracing the message of Jesus Christ one’s life was insignificant or sinful. To read about the wonderful tributes to and achievements of Athenian democracy or the early Roman republic was potentially to invite some radical doubts about the very undemocratic authority of the Church and Medieval State. To read what Socrates says about virtue and moral responsibility (and to become familiar with his own conduct in the face of death) was to see a standard of non-Christian human conduct considerably more admirable that than of most Christian Popes, bishops, or what have you. To have any ambitions to be a writer or a lover of literature was to be drawn inevitably to a tradition which sounded, on the face of it, immeasurably richer and more sophisticated (and often very much more overtly erotic) than one’s immediate Christian culture.

So the past was a problem. And the early Church Fathers set up rules for how Christians (many of whom were Greek speaking) should deal with this explosive storehouse of pagan literature. The most highly approved method (other than banning the works and closing down the schools) was to retell the stories as Christian allegories (I’ll get to that word later)that is, to apply to the pagan work a sophisticated interpretative apparatus designed to demonstrate that, contrary to what anyone might think, the work is, in fact, an anticipation of and wholehearted endorsement of orthodox Christian doctrine.

A leading early figure in this tradition was Origen, who established as the scriptural authority for this approach Deuteronomy 21:10:

When you go forth to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God gives them into your hands, and you take them captive, and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you have desire for her and would take her for yourself as wife, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and pare her nails. And she shall put off her captive’s garb, and shall remain in your house and bewail her father and her mother a full month; after that you may go in to her, and be her husband, and she shall be your wife.

This image is interesting. The pagan cultural past, like the captive woman, is beautifully seductive and someone we might want to bring into our daily lives. But we must first deal carefully with the danger. So the insistence on changing the woman’s clothes, shaving her head, and paring her nails, and seeing if that will make her suitably docile. A second Biblical authority, and one you are probably more immediately familiar with, comes from Exodus 3:22, when the Israelites are urged to “spoil the Egyptians” by borrowing gold and jewelry from them in secret preparation for the Exodus (with no intention of paying the pagans back). Using the pagan money for righteous purposes in this way gave rise the phrase Egyptian Gold to justify the appropriation and reinterpretation or rewriting of pagan stories for Christian purposes.

Thus, although the Christian tradition had always regarded this extraordinarily rich Classical past with suspicion (for the reasons mentioned above) and although this attitude was one of the main reasons for the virtual disappearance of an enormous amount of the Classical tradition from Western culture during the so-called Dark Ages, nevertheless, once the attitude towards this pagan past changed, there was a tradition of how writers should deal with it. And so Dante’s basic method has many precedents.

What led to this change in attitude? Well, this is too complex a question to answer here, but one clear reason is the increased availability of books from the pagan past. In coming to Dante directly from reading Hildegard, you should at once be struck by the fact that he has had access to a range of literature that Hildegard simply could not get her hands on. In fact, in reading Hildegard I get the distinct impression that she read very little of past literature. From now on in your Liberal Studies reading you are going to find again and again the presence of this tradition, unavailable to Hildegard, informing the work of philosophers, poets, political thinkers, novelists, and others (especially once printing starts in Europe in the middle and late 15th century). As often as not, later writers are going to invoke the classical past in order to encourage in the reader a strong critical awareness of the Christian tradition of the reader’s world. In fact, drawing on the classical past (and particularly the figure of Socrates) becomes a vital way of developing a critical awareness of the deficiencies of modern society and the arguments used to defend it.  

Dante, however, has no interest in setting up the Classical past as a means of criticizing his Catholic Christian faith. And so he has a special challenge. As a writer with epic ambitions, he wants to include that past in his historical scheme (if he did not, he would simply be inviting all sorts of questions about where these figures might fit into his moral scheme), and as a great poet he wants to draw on and incorporate these glorious figures and stories from the past (in poetic terms that Classical past is the mother lode). On the other hand, according to his moral scheme all these figures must be consigned outside of heavenin hell. The belief system which Dante wishes to illuminates offers him no choice in this matter.

This is a problem because any sense on the reader’s part that placing these great figures in hell, even on the outskirts, is unfair might create an ironic tension contrary to Dante’s purpose, might, that is, begin to establish a sense that Divine justice is not as just as it ought to be. That this problem can arise in such a situation will be immediately clear to anyone who has dealt with Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which the treatment of Satan is the centre of an enormous critical argument on this very issue.

Dante deals with this problem in a simple yet enormously effective mannerhe has the virtuous pagans endorse their treatment. In other words, where we might expect one of those great pagan philosophers to demand rather harshly, perhaps even in the manner of Milton’s Satan, an accounting of the justice of the arrangement, we do not find it. Quite the reverse in fact.  One can imagine what might happen to our response to the poem if Socrates had challenged Dante the Pilgrim, by engaging him in an argumentative conversation about the virtue of the arrangements and the justification for it in a typically Socratic manner.

The Role of Virgil as Guide

This, I would maintain, is the key function of Virgil in the poem. Whatever else we may want to see in Dante’s depiction of Virgil as the guide through Hell, it is clear that he serves to neutralize any sense we might have that consigning to Hell those who lived and died before the coming of Christ is a serious injustice. Since he sees no injustice and is constantly reminding Dante of his Christian duty, becoming, in effect, an orthodox Christian apologist, who are we to complain? Pagan Virgil, in fact, emerges as a major educating force in getting Dante the Pilgrim to recognize his Christian duty.

Virgil is particularly appropriate for this task because of all the famous pre-Christian pagan writers, he was the best known and most revered for his high moral standards in art and in his life (the altered spelling of his namechanged from Vergil to Virgilstems from his medieval nickname, Virgilius, the Virginal). This reputation as the greatest pre-Christian Christian rests also on the prophetic nature of some of his work, which foretells the coming of a glorious age (which he in the Aeneid associates with Imperial Rome, but which those who saw in the Roman Catholic Church the continuation of the Roman Imperial Mission could interpret as a prophetic anticipation of the glorious rise of the Church). Particularly important in this tradition is the short poem Bucolics 4 (written shortly before the birth of Jesus), which celebrates the imminent arrival of a wonder child who will restore peace to the earth.

[The emotional impact of Virgil has in the past been considerable also because, until very recent times, he exerted an enormous influence on the education of virtually every literate European, because Latin was an essential part of the school curriculum and Virgil is, without question, the finest epic poet who wrote in Latin.  The only other possible candidate, Ovid, was much too flippant and erotic.  So a compulsory immersion in Virgil over many years was a shaping influence on virtually everyone who went to school.  I myself went through that tradition and ended up passing it on as a teacher of Latin in the early 1960’s, just as the subject was about to be largely phased out of the high school curriculum in Ontario].

Traditionally Virgil in The Inferno is interpreted as an allegorical presentation of reason (although the poem never actually says that). This seems appropriate enough if by this we do not import into the poem our own definition of reason but let the poem do that for us, so that in Virgil’s response to Hell and his treatment of Dante the Pilgrim we see the values of handling one’s emotions in the light of the revealed truth of the Christian cosmos (for which Virgil acts as the spokesperson). And that sense of reason does not prompt Virgil or anyone else from the past to question the justice of the arrangements which have left them forever outside the highest ranking stations in the after life.

It’s important to note here that Virgil is a pagan and therefore his attitude and his respect for the arrangements is not (and cannot) be based on a life lived in Christian faith.  He is a figure who represents how close one can come to Christianity without that key element.  The fact that he can accompany Dante the Pilgrim on this portion of the journey (through Hell) but no further helps to underscore the point that an intelligent use of reason is sufficient for an understanding of nature of God’s justice (indeed, is the essential first step)that is, for the first part of a transforming journey to a fuller encounter with Godbut it can take one only so far.  If Dante’s guide had been some revered Christian figure, this point might well have been blurred.

The other important role of Virgil, although this is not something confined to him, is that he is a constant reminder that the past is all simultaneously present. That is, the awareness and appropriation of pagan culture has not led Dante in this poem to develop any critical historical sense which might see present times as the result of a particular sequence of events. Dante’s Catholic faith sees the decisive event of history as the coming of Jesus Christ, which brought with it a spiritual redemption for humanity. But there’s no sense in Dante of historical changethe conditions of the cosmos and the value of the past events is forever fixed. All history is summed up and explained by the story of Jesus Christ, and all historical figures derive their significance simultaneously from the same frame of moral reference which He establishes. Of course, some people lived and died before others, but the significance of their lives is eternally the same.  There is no room here for contextual relativism of the sort we bring to so much of our thinking about these issues.  

The same is true in Homer, of course, but for a different reason.  In his worlds, there is a sense of permanence: what went on generations before Odysseus and Achilles was much the same as what is going on in their world.  There has been no transforming event or process which enables us see that the past was significantly different from the present.

[In subsequent readings, particularly in Rousseau, you will witness just how sharp and lethal a tool our culture created when we changed this sense of all history being simultaneously present and began thinking about our culture as having a unique and irreversible historical development which has taken it through periods with different cultural values and beliefs, a view which becomes a way of attacking any claim to the eternal rightness of present arrangements and beliefs.]

The Allegorical Basis of the Narrative

Before moving on to look at specific poetic details of The Inferno, it might be appropriate to examine a word we tend to associate immediately with Dante’s epic: that it is an allegory. What does this mean?

Simply put, an allegory is a fiction in which the narrative details “obviously and continuously refer to another simultaneous structure of events or ideas, whether historical events, moral or philosophical ideas, or natural phenomena” (Frye 12). In other words, an allegorical narrative will display a point-for-point correspondence between what goes on in the fiction and something coherent outside the fiction. The world of the fiction, we might say, illustrates in action the systematic world to which it carefully, faithfully, and continuously refers.

How does this differ from what we might call symbolic meaning? Again, this is a complex issue, but, simply put, the major difference has to do with the clarity of the external system of reference. In an allegory that constant reference to an external system of meaning is generally clear enough so that there is little dispute among readers about it. Or, as Frye states, “the presence of a[llegory] prescribes the direction in which commentary must go” (13). A symbolic meaning, by contrast, tends to be more ambiguous and thus to generate a wider sense of interpretative discussion.

How do writers make us aware of an allegorical structure at work? Well, the basic method is to appeal to a system of belief we all share because we have been educated to recognize a particular structure of belief. For instance, if I put on a play with a central hero whom I call Everyman, and if I have two characters called Good Angel and Bad Angel, and then if I parade some figures in front of Everyman called Lust, Gluttony, Avarice, Greed, Sloth and so on, and have the two angels prompt Everyman in different ways, most people with any awareness of our cultural traditions would recognize that I am illustrating certain Christian beliefs about temptation, virtue, sin, and conscience.

The opening of Dante’s poem puts a strong pressure on us to recognize that we are in the presence of allegorythe stage of the speaker’s life, the time of day, the strange animals he confronts. We don’t have to find allegory in order to be caught up in what is going on, but it is comparatively easy to see that a certain pressure is being put on us to respond to the work as an allegory. And, just in case we don’t see this point, Dante actually informs us early on that this work is an allegory:

Men of sound intellect and probity,
weigh with good understanding what lies hidden
behind the veil of my strange allegory. (Canto IX, 58-60)

Allegories often take their names from the belief systems they illustrate. So, for example, we can have Christian allegories, Marxist allegories, Freudian allegories, Frontier allegories, and so on. What these all have in common is that the narrative incidents and characters derive their significance in large part because of their constant and obvious reference to a shaping religious, political, or historical vision, which the readership or audience recognizes easily and which the story illustrates.  Sometimes we may sense that a work is allegorical and yet be somewhat uncertain which framework of reference it is illuminating and exploring (this will be a serious issue for you to consider when you read Shakespeare’s Tempest: is this play’s allegorical potential about art, education, colonialism, or what?).  Sometimes a work puts very strong pressure on us to recognize an allegorical frame of reference and yet defeats all our abilities to find one which fits suitably (a pronounced feature of the work of Kafka).  In such cases, the work is sometimes called a parable.

These details of the Christian allegorical narrative or drama (of the sort I sketched above in talking about Everyman) might well be incomprehensible to someone who had no awareness of Christian notions of sin. But that doesn’t mean that the narrative or drama might have no meaning at all. If I am a competent writer, I will make the action interesting for other reasonsfunny, or scary, or full of interesting colour, songs, special effects. I may be illustrating a coherent (and often simple) set of ideas, but I need to do a great deal more than that. I may even interest someone quite ignorant of doctrine in the ideas by the pleasure he or she gets in the artistic quality of what I present.  No allegory is good simply because of the ideas or framework of events it is based on.  The quality of an allegory arises from the extent to which the artistic details in the work, while illustrating the external system of reference, provide imaginative delight and insight for the reader. What that means is that the allegory, if it is to be anything more than an uninventive illustration of a belief, has to work effectively as a story, so the the reader can enjoy the fiction as a narrative, even without a detailed knowledge of the framework of belief to which details in the story are pointing.

Allegories have always been immensely popular, because, I suspect, we all like the idea that there is a closed and complete system of meaning available to us. If we believe in that system, then allegories can be reassuring to us, confirming pleasurably our sense of how the universe operates (or how we would like it to operate). Hence a lot of popular entertainment, from traditional Western movies, to athletic events, to a great deal of poster art bases itself on an allegorical appeal to a shared beliefor, rather, to the inherited images we have for articulating that belief (e.g., heroes are males, with blond hair, blue eyes, a certain way of talking and walking, and so on).

In fact, the appeal of allegory has, I would suggest, decisively shaped Christian religion. Christianity is, as you know, officially a monotheistic religion: all things come from God. Unofficially, however, Christianity has always been very dualistic, presenting itself to the common people in countless stories, art works, plays, and poems as a contest between Good and Evil, God and His angelic host versus the Devil and his gang of ruffians. Creating amusing, terrifying, or otherwise interesting drama or visual art (the most important educational art form in a largely illiterate community) is much easier to develop if one has a significant conflict to communicate as a means of alerting people to the true faith. The enormous popularity of the Devil in the Western imagination stems from the dramatic possibilities such a figure offers for allegorical instruction and dramatic amusement in all sorts of art.  In fact, one can make a good case that the figure of the Devil was invented by the Christian tradition to make such art possible.

Simple allegories tend often to be psychologically simple in many respects, for they are often concerned with concepts rather than complex characterization. If you take a young child to, say, an allegorical play in which the evil of the world is presented to us in the form of a wicked witch, all dressed in black, with a long pointy hat, screechy voice, and a wand, it’s unlikely that the child will understand a question like the following: “ Why is that person being so nasty?” The answer is obvious: She’s being nasty because she’s a witch; that’s what people who look like that on stage do.

This, I think, accounts for the great popularity of many simple allegoriesthey confirm for us a system of belief in a straightforward way, without forcing us to challenge ourselves with complex ironic questions. By the same token a writer who wishes to challenge a system of belief can often make the readership very uncomfortable by taking a popular allegorical form and  forcing complex psychological questions to emerge in order to challenge the adequacy of the old belief.

For example, above I mentioned the simple allegory of Everyman. If I force the viewer to attend to the subtleties of Everyman’s psychological difficulties in resisting lust or to the pain he experiences by choosing incorrectly, I may invite the viewer to examine the “justice” of the belief system. Or, to take a more modern example: in the simplest forms of the Western movie, the allegory is often the good people versus the bad people, and we are invited into a black and white world where we always know how to orient ourselves because the convention symbols of a comforting belief system are there to tell us what each character and incident means (good people are white, clean shaven, blond; bad people are dark skinned or hairy, black haired, often with beards, and so on). However, if I want to challenge the belief system that that allegory endorses and illustrates I can take the same form and complicate it (e.g., by showing the hero as deranged or the bad people as sympathetic, something that Clint Eastwood tries to do in Unforgiven, not entirely successfully).

What I’m trying to stress here is that allegories can work in complex ways, from the very simple illustration and confirmation of a simple belief to something more deeply challenging and ironic. Some of you have already met some of the latter sort of allegory if you have read any Conrad or Hawthorne, who are masterful at shaping allegorical stories with powerfully disturbing psychological and moral ironies.

I think we all recognize that Dante’s allegory is not ironic. That is, his poem is not inviting us to direct a critical eye upon the doctrine which defines so much of his narrative. By contrast, it is insisting on the immediate importance of the true belief. Yet his allegory is not simplistic. It does not close us off from asking important questions about the arrangement, and, if we attend to it carefully, we are going to learn some sophisticated (although not particularly original) doctrine as well as, and more importantly, experience some important feelings about that doctrine.

Having said all this about allegory, I want to mention that in many respects we are not in a position to respond to it in the way that Dante’s audience could. Even if we see or educate ourselves into recognizing many of the connections, for most of us the doctrine is not a living faith, and thus the emotional intensity we might bring to the shaping vision of life is gone. In that sense, the allegory does not work for us (except perhaps at an intellectual level). And I would insist that we do not therefore really come to grips with why this is such a great poem if all we do is look at the cleverness with which Dante fleshes out his allegory with all sorts of interesting connections or spend our time arguing about what detail A might represent in the allegorical scheme of things. Scholars worry about such things, but I don’t think they need detain a modern reader very long, simply because finding out about them doesn’t really affect significantly our ability to react emotionally with the poem. This is a viewpoint you might want to challenge.

What this amounts to, I think, is that The Inferno is a great poem for reasons other than its allegorical basis. And the qualities which make it great, to which I now wish to turn, have ensured that we continue to read it centuries after the doctrine which Dante shared with his readers has ceased to mean very much for most of us.

For it takes a great deal more than an allegorical framework and a lot of references to the classical past, interesting as these may be, to generate the imaginative excitement this poem creates for us. I stress this point, because, as I have already said above, many people talk of Dante’s great work as if its quality is most importantly linked to the ideas it illustrates, so that they end up talking more about medieval Christian doctrine or scientific thinking than they do about the poetry.

Any work which has only an allegorical frame of reference to recommend it (and there are lots) may win a good deal of attention in its own time, when that system of ideas is a lively issue for the readership. However with the passage of time, the poem will probably cease to engage the interest of readers who have lost contact with the frame of reference and will pass into a well-deserved obscurity, kept alive, if at all, by the iron lung of academic scholarship.

So what I wish to call attention to here is some of the ways in which this work, for all its obvious borrowings, is a uniquely great poetic work, so much more than an illustration of doctrine, something well worth out attention here in Nanaimo in 1997, to what we may call its eternal poetic quality.

The Pace and Variety of the Allegory

One of the most noticeable features of this poem, particularly if one compares one’s experience of reading it with that of reading, say, Paradise Lost or the Faery Queen, is the rapidity with which the story progresses. Dante sustains our interest in large part by keeping us moving, never lingering too long before we are confronted with another detail.

He can do this without strain because he has cast the story in the form of a journey through strange territory (a common enough narrative convention). The journey to the underworld may be a very traditional story (and you have already met it at least twice: in the Odyssey and in the Myth of Er in Plato’s Republic; and, of course, it had been explored many more times than that, most famously in Virgil’s Aeneid). Dante exploits the story far more fully than any of his predecessors to produce visions of horror, scatological humour, pitiful agony, gothic monsters, dramatic interchanges of all kinds. The story permits of this variety, and Dante makes the most of it.

One thing almost all readers experience in reading this poem is a sense of anticipation: we know something surprising is coming up, and we have no sense of what that is going to be. Dante does not permit us ever to get into a sequence where we are comfortable with a particular emotional mood; his variety here is as rich as the geographical detail and the nature of the punishments.

What adds to this sense of rapidity, too, is Dante’s diction, a colloquial language frequently punctuated with dramatic exchanges. There is no attempt here, as in so many other epics, is create and sustain some elevated epic diction, to generate a sense of epic significance by freezing the style into conventional artifice (what Ben Jonson called, in a reference to Spenser, “a Babylonish Dialect”).  Dante keeps the language simple, direct, and often downright slangy, letting the importance of what he has to say emerge from the pictures and the events he presents to us. This poem does not insist upon its importance, but, like all good poetry, lets us make up our own minds on the basis of the details presented to us.

An important part of this sense of pleasing motion is the verse form Dante adopts, the so-called terza rima, in which there is a very pronounced repetitive rhyme scheme: ABA BCB CDC, and so on, with a light iambic rhythm. The lines are not end-stopped, and the sentence may run many lines, generating considerable momentum, or may be very short colloquial exchanges. The effect is a much more flexible and rapid verse than the conventional epic hexameter or pentameter, especially one with heavy punctuation.

[This last point is particularly a feature of Ciardi’s translation. Dante’s Italian usually stops the sentence after every three lines, but he breaks with the practice frequently, so that the sense of rapid progress is always sustained. Ciardi’s decision to leave a gap after every three lines also contributes to this effect]

There is not much point in pursuing the qualities of Dante’s diction, because we are not dealing with the text in Italian. But we might want to pay tribute to Ciardi’s translation, which emphasizes the terza rima quality and captures that sense of colloquial variety and pace.

An important contribution to the variety and the pace comes also from Dante’s treatment of the sinners. Many of them we see only in a crowd, in a description which emphasizes the punishment and the visual details of a large group scene. But he frequently brings us very close to others, allowing them to speak to the poet-narrator or to each other, to reveal something of themselves, and thus to generate in us a response to a human situation. Some of the most memorable moments in the poem come in these justly famous dramatic interactions (e.g., most notably, Paolo and Francesca in Canto V, Circle 2, or Farinata Degli Uberti in Canto X, Circle 6, or Pier delle Vigne in Canto XII, Circle 7, or Ulysses in Canto XXVI, Circle 8, Bolgia 8, or Count Ugolino in Canto XXXIII, and so on). We may be largely removed from the allegorical details, but we don’t need to know them to derive imaginative stimulation from Dante’s treatment of all these people.

It’s also worth paying close attention to how much Dante gets out of playing with our perspective and focus on what is going on. We are constantly sensing the huge dimensions of hell and the numberless hordes of sinners everywhere; at the same time we are confronting a series of very particular images and often eloquent dramatic exchanges. There’s an enormous skill at work here: this may be a linear journey, but our perspective on what is there is constantly shifting from the big picture, to the particular, to the dramatic, to the disgusting, and so on. This quality is particularly remarkable if you start comparing the experience of reading Dante with the experience of reading, say, Milton’s or Spenser’s epics, where the sense of getting bogged down is frequent.

To bring us this close to the sinner involves a certain risk, of course, for there’s a great danger that our sympathies and our response to the complexities of the characters may challenge the doctrine which is shaping the allegory and which insists that all this is happening by divine justice. After all, the more we can sympathize with the complexities of their situations and their motivations, the more pressure there is on us to question the nature of their punishment. But Dante keeps a very sure control on this possibility and even makes it clear to us that part of the moral instruction we are to derive from this allegory is the need to control our human sympathies for those suffering God’s punishment. The characters thus serve, not just to enliven the poem with all sorts of dramatic, comic, pathetic, horrific, and pitiful episodes (with a corresponding range of emotional responses to the fiction), but also to remind us of the need to educate our emotions in order fully to comprehend the nature of God’s justice.

Thus, one of the major purposes of the poem, to create in us a certain moral tension, so that we come to understand our own Christian faith better, is delivered not in sermons or carefully structured arguments directly from the narrator, but through the events, descriptions, and characters of the fiction. Like the narrator himself, we must learn to understands God’s justice properly with our feelings.  If some of the moments in the poem perplex us, that, too, may well be part of the emotional process.

The Narrator as Pilgrim

The most fully realized character in the poem, however, and our immediate contact with the details of the experience is the narrator himself. In a sense he is inviting us on a journey of spiritual awareness. At the start of the poem he is in a position in life not unlike ours, in the middle of life’s journey and feeling rather lost and in need of spiritual guidance. His descent into the pit of Hell is the preliminary stage in a journey of self-discovery which can only come from a deeper understanding of the nature of God’s justice (or at least that part of it which is concerned with eternal punishment).

In such voyages of discovery one of the biggest challenges facing the writer (and, if successfully met, one of the greatest attractions for the reader) is the process of transformation in the central character. There’s no denying the richness of the Narrator-Pilgrim’s experiencethe variety puts even Odysseus in the shade.  By the time he has completed this part of his journey

Dante has seen one hundred and twenty-eight sinners specifically mentioned by name . . . and has had conversations with thirty-seven of them. He has met thirty monsters and five hybrid creatures. He has had two boat rides; he has ridden a centaur and a winged dragon. He has twice fainted. He has been exposed to excessive heat, bitter cold, strong winds, fearful sights, terrifying sounds, and foul odors. . . . He has felt compassion, pity, scorn, resentment, anger, vindictiveness, courage, and even, once in a while, a touch of amusement. And all these emotions are superimposed on the constants of terror, wonder, and lively curiosity. (Bergin 221)

And we will not be far from the centre of the poem if we keep before us throughout the text the following question: Just what is Dante the Pilgrim learning stage by stage through this experience? How has the man who emerges at the end of the Inferno different from the normal person who entered hell at the start? One particular feature to watch for is the attitude of the Pilgrim-narrator to the sinners.  The way the moments of pity gradually give way to a much sterner attitude (on one occasion, to active hostility) to the sinner brings out what is the most important central theme in the poem, and one still very accessible to us, even if we are wholly or partially ignorant of the allegorical system to which it refers.

Dante’s Imagery

The final point to which I wish to call attention is for me the most remarkableone that most of you will probably agree with at once. That point is Dante’s extraordinarily eloquent imagery. Quite simply, this poem is filled with unforgettable scenes, given to us in such vivid, sharp detail that it is easy to understand why The Inferno has, ever since its appearance, provided a major inspiration to visual artists (and why some students comment that after reading this poem they have experienced extremely vivid dreams).

This quality particularly recommends itself to modern readers, because we are educated to appreciate poetry that lets the imagery do the work, which does not tell us what to feel or lecture us about how we ought to think, but which allows whatever the poem has to say to emerge from the quality of the imagery. And this quality of the poem makes it speak very directly to us in an emotionally moving way, without any reference to medieval beliefs, numerology, or cosmic structures. Dante is, in other words, a great modern poet.

It is not possible here to offer a prolonged analysis of Dante’s style of presenting images. Such generalizations would probably be misleading anyway. I would suggest that the best way to appreciate this aspect of Dante’s style is to focus on particular images and consider in detail how they create their effect.

One quality I particularly admire is Dante’s skill in short, evocative descriptions which pack into a minimum of space a maximum of descriptive power. One never gets in The Inferno, as one does so often in Paradise Lost, a descriptive passage so overloaded and so long and so inert that one loses contact with its purpose long before the ending. Instead one characteristically gets passages like this:

I came to a place stripped bare of every light
and roaring on the naked dark like seas
wracked by a war of winds. Their hellish flight

of storm and counterstorm through time forgone,
sweeps the souls of the damned before its charge.
Whirling and battering it drives them on,

and when they pass the ruined gap of Hell
through which we had come, their shrieks begin anew.
There they blaspheme the power of God eternal. (Canto V, 28-36)

And they, too, howl like dogs in the freezing storm,
turning and turning from it as if they thought
one naked side could keep the other warm. (Canto VII, 19-21)

Their eyes burst with their grief; their smoking hands
jerked about their bodies, warding off
now the flames and now the burning sands.

Dogs in summer bit by fleas and gadflies
jerking their snouts about, twitching their paws
now here, now there, behave no otherwise. (Canto XVII, 43-45)

The way in which these images come instantly alive in a powerfully sensuous way is the surest tribute to Dante’s powers as a poetthis hell is full of an astonishing and immediately accessible movements, smells, sounds, lighting of various sorts, all given in a vivid detail which is astonishing.

Dante will frequently generate a powerful sense of the emotional components in a scene by focusing our attention, not directly on the scene but on its side effects. Few passages in the poem, for example, give us a stronger sense of the power of the Divine Omnipotence than the arrival of the Heavenly messenger to open the gates of Dis. And yet Dante never describes the Messenger directly:

Suddenly there broke on the dirty swell
of the dark marsh a squall of terrible sound
that sent a tremor through both shores of Hell;

a sound as if two continents of air
one frigid and one scorching, clashed head on
in a war of winds that stripped the forests bare,

ripped off whole boughs and blew them helter skelter
along the range of dust it raised before it
making the beasts and shepherds run for shelter.

The attributes of divine power symbolized in the Messenger are here evoked by an image taken from nature, from the common experience of the reader, and given with a rhythm and momentum in the language itself, so that we fully comprehend the pilgrim-narrator’s extreme emotional reaction, without ever being told a specific detail about the figure himself. Ciardi’s translation here, especially the consonantal sounds and the punctuation, really brings out the emotional effects that Dante and Virgil are witnessing.

One of the best ways to appreciate Dante’s poetical genius is to consider an extended section of the poem (say one or two page) with great care (including reading it aloud), paying close attention to the interaction of the various things I have mentioned: the sense of epic scale paired off against the clarity and variety of the immediate close-up details, the dramatic quality of human conversations paired off against the sections of doctrine, the shifting emotional tone (humour, terror, disgust, anger, fear), the constant sense of movement up and down and around, all of this coordinated by the developing awareness in the Pilgrim-Narrator who has to make emotional and conceptual sense of it all. You will have great difficulty finding any other poet who can provide this sense anywhere.

Finally, and most significantly, Dante is capable even in translation of generating unforgettable lines, putting into one’s head lines that stay there for reasons we may not entirely comprehend.

Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

That without hope we live on in desire

Wherever I turn/ away from grief I turn to grief again.

Her changes change her changes endlessly

That harlot, Envy, who on Caesar’s face/ keeps fixed forever her adulterous stare.

One can multiply these examples many times over. Yet one cannot precisely describe this quality, let alone provide some analytical formula for it, other than to use Ezra Pound’s observation that the best poetry is language charged to the highest degree. That quality, so rare in poetry, is everywhere present in Dante’s Inferno. And it, more than any other single quality, transforms the complex and interesting structure of his allegory, the theoretical basis for his beliefs, into some of the greatest poetry we have in our culture.

Or, to use the point made by the most famous recent English admirer of Dante, T. S. Eliot, Dante’s poetry has an unparalleled capacity to surprise us (Eliot 208). In the Inferno, as in very few other poems, all the resources of poetic, narrative, and dramatic skill appear together in a way that holds our attention throughout, filling us with a sense of delight and wonder at the transforming powers in evidence here. If I seem to be labouring because of a lack of words sufficient to analyze this quality more clearly, that may be because, in the last analysis, after we have attended to epic geography, classical references, number patterns, and the like, what really makes this poem so wonderful (the most appropriate word) is the eloquence in the language, phrase by phrase, stanza by stanza, canto by canto. And the best way to understand that is to read on.


List of Works Cited

Bergin, Thomas G. Dante. New York: The Orion Press, 1965.

Dante. The Inferno. Translated by John Ciardi. New York: Mentor, 1982.

Eliot, T. S. “Dante.” Selected Essays. New Edition. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964.

Frye, Northrop. “Allegory.” In Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics. Edited Alex Preminger. Enlarged Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Highet, Gilbert. The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature. New York: Galaxy, 1957.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha. Revised Standard Edition. Edited Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.  



*In 1989 and 1990, the major North American geographic organizations rejected the Mercator projection and maps based on much the same principle, with the following resolution:

WHEREAS, the earth is round with a coordinate system composed entirely of circles, and

WHEREAS, flat world maps are more useful than globe maps, but flattening the globe surface necessarily greatly changes the appearance of Earth’s features and coordinate systems, and

WHEREAS, world maps have a powerful and lasting effect on peoples’ impressions of the shapes and sizes of lands and seas, their arrangement, and the nature of the coordinate system, and

WHEREAS, frequently seeing a greatly distorted map tends to make it “look right,”

THEREFORE, we strongly urge book and map publishers, the media and government agencies to cease using rectangular world maps for general purposes or artistic displays. Such maps promote serious, erroneous conceptions by severely distorting large sections of the world, by showing the round Earth as having straight edges and sharp corners, by representing most distances and direct routes incorrectly, and by portraying the circular coordinate system as a squared grid. The most widely displayed rectangular world map is the Mercator (in fact a navigational diagram devised for nautical charts), but other rectangular world maps proposed as replacements for the Mercator also display a greatly distorted image of the spherical Earth. [Back to Text]



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