Dante’s Inferno: Part Two (Summer Poetry Challenge)

It seems fitting that I am entering Hell with Dante on a Monday. I’m hoping to make it through half of the circles of Hell today–first I’ll provide some summation and then get to the good stuff: Dante’s poetry.

Dante has created one of the most intricate (and not always logical) conceptions of Hell. Before entering the First Circle, Dante and his guide, Virgil, enter an antechamber, in which the neutral angels and those who never took a position on anything reside. At the gates to Hell the following words are inscribed:

"Through me the way is to the city dolent;
	Through me the way is to eternal dole;
	Through me the way among the people is lost.

Justice incited my sublime Creator;
	Created me divine Omnipotence,
	The highest Wisdom and the primal Love.

Before me there were no created things,
	Only eterne, and I eternal last.
	All hope abandon, ye who enter in!"

Dante gets a little nervous at the sight of these words, but Virgil comforts him. It’s a good thing, for the punishments that Dante (as poet) has devised are unpleasant to say the least. For those who lived their lives solely for self-interest and preservation and thus refused to take a stand one way or another, Dante (as pilgrim) sees,

These miscreants, who never were alive,
	Were naked, and were stung exceedingly
	By gadflies and by hornets that were there.

These did their faces irrigate with blood,
	Which, with their tears commingled, at their feet
	By the disgusting worms were gathered up.

I quite like Dante’s notion that those who merely pass through life without taking any sort of action are “miscreants who never were alive.” It reminds me of that film (and my apologies to Dante for making this connection) Defending Your Life (starring Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep), in which Brooks’s character watches the movie of his life and realizes that he never took a stand on anything, thus threatening his chances to gain entry into Heaven and leave Judgment City.

One of the aspects of The Inferno that I find intriguing is Dante’s decision to use mythological rivers and figures as features of Hell (which, I can imagine would have been considered rather heretical at best). Virgil and Dante first approach the river Acheron, and are to be ferried across by the demon Charon (who is not too happy to be helping a living man with a decent soul). As Virgil explains to Dante, all souls tainted with sin and evil pass this way and,

Charon the demon, with the eyes of glede,
	Beckoning to them, collects them all together,
	Beats with his oar whoever lags behind.

Overwhelmed, Dante passes out, and when he awakens, he and Virgil enter the first circle containing the virtuous pagans (including Virgil and Homer). Dante is rather unique in creating a space for those who “sinned not,” but “because they had not baptism” they could not enter “the portal of Faith thou holdest.” Dante stops to chat with a few of the men and women, but time presses him onward to the second circle, guarded by the terrible Minos:

There standeth Minos horribly, and snarls;
	Examines the transgressions at the entrance;
	Judges, and sends according as he girds him.

I say, that when the spirit evil-born
	Cometh before him, wholly it confesses;
	And this discriminator of transgressions

Seeth what place in Hell is meet for it;
	Girds himself with his tail as many times
	As grades he wishes it should be thrust down.

Always before him many of them stand;
	They go by turns each one unto the judgment;
	They speak, and hear, and then are downward hurled.

The second circle is the home of the “carnal malefactors” where the condemned are hurled about in a never-ending hurricane of “infernal” wind:

It hither, thither, downward, upward, drives them;
	No hope doth comfort them forevermore,
	Not of repose, but even of lesser pain.

Dante sees Helen and Paris, Tristan “and more than a thousand / Shades did he name and point out with his finger, / Whom Love had separated out from our life.” Dante questions one couple, who had committed adultery and were then killed by the woman’s husband. However, it should be noted that the husband is also in Hell awaiting punishment for murder. The lovers’ story affects Dante deeply, but the purpose of his journey as a pilgrim is to teach him that the judgments as handed down are not to be doubted and the judged are not to be pitied (while also warning him of which behaviors to avoid). Dante, however, once again faints under the sorrow of the story only to awaken in the third circle, where,

In the third circle am I of the rain
	Eternal, maledict, and cold, and heavy;
	Its law and quality are never new.

Huge hail, and water somber-hued, and snow,
	Athwart the tenebrous air pour down amain;
	Noisome the earth is, that receiveth this.

Cerberus, monster cruel and uncouth,
	With his three gullets like a dog is barking,
	Over the people that are there submerged.

Red eyes he has, and unctuous beard and black,
	And belly large, and armed with claws his hands;
	He rends the spirits, flays, and quarters them.

The third circle is the home of the gluttonous. Dante again meets with one of them, a man named Ciacco, who tells of the future political divisions that will befall Florence (and result in Dante’s exile). One of the interesting aspects of Dante’s vision of Hell is that those who reside there can tell the future and know the past, but have no idea about what is happening in the present. Hence, many of the shades that he meets ask him for news of current events. After passing through to the fourth circle, where he sees the avaricious and the prodigal:

Here saw I people, more than elsewhere, many,
	On one side and the other, with great howls,
	Rolling weights forward by main-force of chest.

They clashed together, and then at that point
	Each one turned backward, rolling retrograde,
	Crying, “Why keepest?” and, “Why squanderest thou?”

Once they enter the fifth circle, Dante and Virgil find themselves at the shores of a “marsh”:

The water was more somber far than perse;
	And we, in company with the dusky waves,
	Made entrance downward by a path uncouth.

A marsh it makes, which has the name of Styx,
	This tristful brooklet, when it has descended
	Down to the foot of the malign gray shores.

And I, who stood intent upon beholding,
	Saw people mud-besprent in that lagoon,
	All of them naked and with angry look.

They smote each other not alone with hands,
	But with the head and with the breast and feet,
	Tearing each other piecemeal with their teeth

The wrathful reside in the fifth circle, and Virgil and Dante take a trip around the “marsh” before landing at the foot of a tower.

Because this post is about to become an epic in its own right, I’ll stop here for the day. Dante has created an intricate underworld in which the punishments reflect the crime/sin committed on earth, but as you may have noted, fire and brimstone do not make much of an appearance. Rather, there are lakes and rivers, hailstorms and snow, green pastures and towers. Indeed, there is also a city, called Dis, and in my next post, I’ll cover Dante and Virgil’s attempts to gain entrance and continue on their journey…

3 responses to this post.

  1. I wonder if moving is one of the circles of hell?!


  2. I enjoyed these explications greatly. I particularly identified with two passages, for is it not possible that Dante was trying to relate the condition of the living human soul in its torment during life–in other words to show us our own living torments, with Hell as an allegory? The first line that immediately struck home was the one about eternal dole. I’m a student, and the idea of eternal dole (based on accumulating student loans) is very real to me. The second was yours: “One of the interesting aspects of Dante’s vision of Hell is that those who reside there can tell the future and know the past, but have no idea about what is happening in the present.” I feel sometimes that as a history major who is getting a little obsessed with going to graduate school I lose focus on the world around me. I rarely watch TV news anymore–I get filled in with NPR in the morning (but even there there is a slant)–but I have a news savvy father who I have trouble keeping up with because he is so informed. Two examples of hell intruding into my otherwise (perceived) paradisiacal world.


  3. Ted: I definitely think that moving qualifies as a circle in Hell (my Hell at least). 🙂

    Ian: I’m glad you’re enjoying these posts. I’m not that great at analyzing poetry, but I figure I can at least summarize The Inferno to some extent. And as a former History ph.d. student (I studied Russian and American Jewish history), I wholeheartedly understand the pain of eternal dole (and the tendency to live only in the past that we study and the future we hope to make real). By the way, if you have any questions about programs, let me know (as the memories of applying to history programs are still fresh in my mind!).


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