The Meaning Of Dante

’s Inferno Essay, Research Paper

The Meaning of Dante s Inferno

Dante s Inferno is a poem that is not easy to understand. The Inferno opens itself up to many questions, as well as, complicated interpretation. Metaphors and symbolism are found in every line, and to give a complete description of all the interpretations that have been made would be a huge undertaking. However, in order to understand the richness of the poem, it is necessary to have an understanding of the more widely accepted interpretations. The first five cantos of the Inferno hold undiscovered meaning as well as reflections of the time period that Dante lived.

Canto I begins showing Dante finding himself lost in a dark forest, having lost the right path while half asleep. Worried and frightened, he is comforted by the sight of sunlight over a nearby hill. However, when he tries to climb the hill to reach the brighter regions, he finds his way blocked by three savage animals: first a leopard, then a lion, then a she-wolf. Dante is too frightened to continue, and retreats back to the forest, where fortunately he meets up with Virgil, his literary hero. Virgil informs him that the three beasts are impassable. The she-wolf would reign until the greyhound came and slew her, and restored peace to Italy. In the meantime, Virgil would lead Dante to salvation, but first they must pass through Hell. Virgil would not be able to take Dante all the way to Paradise, since as a Pagan he had no right to enter there instead a more worthy soul would take him the final part of the way. Dante gladly accepts his offer.

The Inferno was written during Dante’s exile from Florence, whereas it purports to recount events that occurred much earlier. Averbach discovers that A passage in Canto XXI, 112-114, has been used by commentators to fix the fictional date of Canto I as the night before Good Friday, April 7, 1300 (103-105). The morning spent trying to climb the hill is Good Friday. Since Dante wrote the Inferno after he was exiled in 1301, this made it possible for him to make accurate “predictions” about events which had already occurred, thus lending an aura of truth to his genuine prophecies.

Carl Cohen tells us The dark forest is a metaphor for everything that Dante thought was wrong in 1300. This could include inner confusion and sin, the necessary imperfection of the world as opposed to Paradise and God, political corruption, the absence of true authority, the bad behavior of the Pope, etc. (12-15). Redemption is associated with struggle, in this case the struggle uphill, which is made impossibly difficult by the continual temptations of sin. Cohen also says, The leopard is symbolic of lust, the lion pride, and the she-wolf greed. The identity of the greyhound has been widely disputed: Christ, Dante himself, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Dante’s benefactor Cangrande Della Scala are some candidates (20-21). Zastrow finds that, Since Dante strongly supported the imperial claim to authority, it seems most likely that the greyhound is the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VII, elected in 1308, probably before the Inferno was written, but after it took place. (43-44).

Canto II of the Inferno prepares the reader for the great journey through Hell that Dante must go through. It begins with Dante invoking the Muses to help him tell his story. He begins to doubt his worthiness to make the great voyage through Hell. He asks Virgil for guidance, and Virgil tells him not to surrender to cowardice. In order to give him courage, Virgil tells him that Beatrice herself had descended from Paradise to Limbo to find him. Concerned about Dante, she asked Virgil to lead him to safety, which Virgil agrees to. Dante also discovers that not only Beatrice, but two other blessed ladies, Lucia and Rachel, were also concerned for him, having been warned by “a gentle lady” that he risks damnation. Hearing that his love had not forgotten him, Dante was encouraged, and he decided to follow Virgil wherever he would lead him.

The mixture of different literary genres and themes are particularly evident in this canto, though it occurs throughout the poem. The Inferno is part epic, modeled in some ways on Virgil’s Aeneid. It is also a deeply Christian poem full of traditional symbolism, describing a Hell quite differently from that of the Ancients (Chiarenza 82-83). Hell is not simply the underworld where the dead are, but is specifically the place where the wicked are punished, each according to his sin. The ultimate goal is to reach God. Another theme in Canto II is that of courtly love: much medieval literature deals with the love of a knight for an unattainable and lovely lady. In the literature of courtly love, the knight’s hopeless devotion spurs him on to chivalric feats, which he accomplishes in order to honor his chosen lady (Bloom 25). In some lyrics of courtly love, the perfection of the desired lady undermines the religious morality of the poetry: a Christian should love God above all else (Lehman 153). However, Dante melds the two genres, by loving a lady who is dead. There is no risk of physical sexuality, and since Beatrice is a blessed soul, she can be accepted as a link between Dante and God. By aspiring to Beatrice in the courtly manner, Dante becomes all the more Christian (Cohen 30). This rationalization would not have been accepted by the sterner Protestant sects, but in the courtly early 14th century, no one could find fault with it (Zastrow 45). Dante’s journey through Hell is an epic adventure, a mystical religious experience, and a way to honor his beloved.

Dante’s admiration for Virgil and his identification of himself with Aeneas (Sylvius) and St. Paul (the Chosen Vessel), should be understood in the context of his pro-Imperial politics (Lehman 161). The Aeneid was written in order to create a heroic past for the Roman Empire. Dante hopes to predict the success of the Holy Roman Empire, which unites the martial virtues of the Romans with the Christian virtues (Chiarenza 95). Dante describes heavenly justice in terms of a stern judgment, presumably that of God-the-father and Christ, tempered by the merciful pleas of the Virgin Mary (the “gentle lady”) and other female saints and saintly beings. Justice is then a masculine attribute, and mercy is feminine.

Canto III shows Dante and Virgil arriving at the gateway of Hell. On the front of the gates was the inscription “Abandon hope, ye who enter here.” Past the gate, Dante heard voices of suffering and despair that makes him cry. Virgil tells him that he is hearing the laments of the morally neutral people, the sorry souls of those who lived without disgrace and without praise, as well as the angels who sided neither with God nor with Satan in Satan’s rebellion. Dante and Virgil approached the shore of the river Acheron, which forms the boundary of true Hell. Charon, a demon in the shape of an old man, warned the waiting souls of the torments in store for them, and tells Dante that he, a living man, can not cross the river. However Virgil told him that God had willed it, and Charon could not go against that order. Charon forced the exhausted, bitter, and damned souls across the Acheron on his boat. Even as the first group of the damned crossed the river, more crowds assembled on the bank, waiting, unable to resist their fate. The earth trembled and Dante, terrified, falls unconscious.

The inscription on the gate is the only text Dante reads in Hell. Harold Bloom says that, In it, different attributes are assigned to different members of the Trinity: God-the-father is divine authority, Christ is highest wisdom, and the Holy Ghost is primal love (53). Dante will very rarely refer to God directly: just as Mary is known as a gentle lady, God is known as these different forces (Cohen 33).

Dante’s rejection of the neutral souls might seem overly harsh, although they did nothing evil. This, and Dante’s lack of compassion for them, are evidence that he was no believer in moderation or compromise (Chiarenza 101). Charon and the Acheron are both borrowed from classical mythology. Dante uses Pagan characters and geography in his Christian underworld (Copi 160). In the Italian Renaissance, there was great renewed interest in Classical mythology and literature, which was sometimes at odds with Christian beliefs, since theoretically even the greatest Greeks and Romans were all worthy of damnation. (Zastrow 57) Dante is careful to make sure that his veneration for Antiquity is kept within the bounds prescribed by Christianity, which we will see in the description of Limbo in the next Canto.

Canto IV Continues with Dante s Journey through Hell where we find Dante waking up to find himself on the brink of an abyss. Seeing Virgil turn pale, he is afraid to go into it, but Virgil explained that his paleness is the result of compassion rather than of fear: the first circle of Hell contained his people. In the first circle, Limbo, there were sighs rather than wails: it was peaceful yet sad. Multitudes of people, infants, women, and men, stayed there. Virgil explained that these were those who were virtuous, but lacked baptism and could not be saved. Virgil happened to be one of them. Dante is sorry to see these unhappy good souls, and asks if anyone has ever been able to leave Limbo. Virgil said that he had seen a Great Lord come and rescue Adam, Abel, Noah, Moses, Rachel, and other early Israelites. They came to the place where particularly honorable shades were, and four giants, Homer, Ovid, Horace, and Lucan welcomed Virgil. Dante was very pleased to find himself accepted into their number. They came to the castle of Limbo, surrounded by a green meadow, where the great non-Christian souls lived. He gives particular honor to “the master of men who know” (Aristotle), and also mentions famous Arabs, Avicenna and Averroes. Leaving these heroic souls, Dante and Virgil continued on into darkness.

In this canto, Dante addresses one of the great moral problems of Christianity, which was particularly pressing for Renaissance scholars who revered the Ancients. Bloom writes Baptism is necessary for salvation, but it seems essentially unfair that all the good people who lived before Christianity, or who never heard of it, should suffer for something over which they had no control (47). Dante solves this problem by keeping the good Pagans and infidels in Hell, but giving them a painless and honorable fate (48). Limbo is not a happy place, but it is contemplative and calm. Its inhabitants are not tormented and they can converse with one another among green fields and noble castles (Hinrich 45). The Great Lord is Christ, and his coming to Limbo is the tormenting of Hell, which in Christian teaching occurred after the crucifixion, when the good people of the Old Testament were posthumously saved (Hinrich 88).

The Giants which Dante and Virgil come in contact with are the great authors of classical times. Some critics see this as a conceited act on the part of Dante. Daniel Lehman notices that, According to Dante, no literature of importance had been written since Antiquity before Dante’s work. This was a sentiment shared by many Renaissance writers, who ignored the medieval period and saw themselves as the direct heirs of the great Classical tradition (177). The veneration of Aristotle is not accidental. In Dante’s time, Aristotle was commonly referred as The Philosopher, the base of all wisdom. Late medieval and renaissance thinkers had a great deal of respect for received knowledge and the printed word, perhaps partly because there were so few books.

In Canto V ,Dante and Virgil descend into the second circle of Hell, where the demon Minos assigns each guilty soul its rightful place. After hearing what the soul has to say, he wraps his tail around his body, and the number of times the tail wraps around is the number of the circle where the sinner must go. Minos challenged Dante and Virgil, but is silenced when Virgil claims a divine order. The first circle is characterized by a wind, which whirls the souls about endlessly, never giving them a chance to rest. These are the lustful, including those who died for love including Semiramis, Cleopatra, Helen, Paris, Tristan, and Dido. Dante was struck by pity, and asked to speak to two souls who clung together as they were blown around. The souls floated over to him, and one of them spoke, telling how she had fallen in love while reading about Lancelot with her lover. She described the great power of love, and the deaths she and her lover suffered for it, deeply affecting Dante, who recognized her as Francesca. The other soul wept, and Dante fainted out of pity.

Hell is divided into seven circles, according to the seriousness of the sins. The first, Limbo, is the least blame-worthy, and the second, where the lustful are tormented, is also relatively mild. This moral structure gives an insight into the relative gravity of different sins in Dante’s mind (Chiarenza 137). Carnal sins are relatively unimportant, and lust, which is so closely linked with love, to which Dante is not immune, is viewed with a great deal of compassion. Dante’s inclusion of many women in this circle is, however, a very mild form of this kind of prejudice.

The Historical figures that Dante refers to in this canto are all criminals of lust. Semiramis, Queen of Assyria, is supposed to have legalized all sorts of sexual immorality, including incest. Cleopatra committed suicide after the defeat of her lover Mark Antony. Helen’s beauty started the Trojan War when Paris desired her. Tristan was a knight who drank a love potion and fell in love with Isolde, the wife of his king. Dido committed suicide after Aeneas abandoned her.

In Closing, the first five Cantos of the Inferno are very revealing into the life and environment of Dante Alighieri. After much research we learn that the story supposedly took place the night before Good Friday and how the Dark forest represented everything wrong in the world. We also see that lust, pride, and greed are the three things that govern the wrong in the world. How Hell is not just a holding pen, but a filtered structure for each particular sin. We ve also seen how Dante incorporated characters from classical literature in major roles in his Inferno. Understanding Dante s Inferno is not the simplest task on the face of the earth, but with time and research one can see many aspects of history scattered throughout the poem.


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