Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Into the Inferno

Dante lost in the wood
Engraving by Gustave Doré. 

“ Midway along the journey of our life

   I woke to find myself in a dark wood,

   wandered from the straight path. ” 


So begins the Divine Comedy, as Dante finds himself alone and vulnerable in the wilderness of the dark forest. The fear wells up within him as the eerie silence and blackness of the wood begins to take its grip. An uneasy feeling possesses Dante, a thought that he has stumbled upon ‘the pass that never let a living soul escape’. Unsure of himself, and if he is awake or even alive, Dante begins to climb the slope ahead. No sooner had he begun than he is faced by the form of a leopard, which marks his every move. Just as our pilgrim recovers his nerve, a lion appears and starts toward him. Following in its wake was a she-wolf, who ‘forced me back to where the sun is mute’.

Bracing for his end, Dante spies the figure of a man approaching and cries, ‘Have pity on my soul... whichever you are, shade or living man!’ The stranger reveals to Dante that he once was a poet of old who ‘sang of that just man, son of Anchises, who sailed off from Troy after the burning of proud Ilium’ (He refers to his epic poem – The Aeneid). Dante rejoices as he recognises Virgil, and begs the poet to protect him from the savage beasts. ‘But you must journey down another road’, the great man answered, when he saw Dante lost in tears, ‘if ever you hope to leave this wilderness’. Guided by the comforting words and company of the legendary poet, Dante discovers that he is to be lead through Hell:

                               “ Where you will hear desperate cries, and see

                                    Tormented shades, some old as Hell itself,

                                    And know what second death means, from their screams. ”

                                                              - VIRGIL WARNS US OF WHAT IS TO COME

Our pilgrim is filled with dread at the thought of descending to the Pit, and confesses to his guide that he feels unworthy to follow in the steps of other great men, like Aeneas or St Paul, who once trod the path to Hell. Virgil explains how it was he came to Dante, guided by the will of the Virgin Mary, who took pity on our wandering pilgrim, lost in the forest. The departed soul of Dante’s beloved Beatrice in Heaven came down to Hell and tasked Virgil as to be his infernal guide. Comforted by his story, and word of Beatrice, Dante renews his journey to the accursed place armed with fresh courage. Descending down a barren slope, the two poets reach a vast Gate, the way to the vestibule of Hell itself. Dante spies, in horror, the legend inscribed above the Gate, the last line of which has entered immortality:


                                “ I AM THE WAY INTO THE DOLEFUL CITY,

                                    I AM THE WAY INTO ETERNAL GRIEF,

                                    I AM THE WAY TO A FORSAKEN RACE.

                                  JUSTICE IT WAS THAT MOVED MY GREAT CREATOR;

                                   DIVINE OMNIPOTENCE CREATED ME,

                                   AND HIGHEST WISDOM JOINED WITH PRIMAL COMPASSION.

                                  BEFORE ME NOTHING BUT ETERNAL THINGS

                                   WERE MADE, AND I SHALL LAST ETERNALLY.

                                   ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE. ”

                                                            - THE GATE OF HELL

The descent into Hell
Engraving by Gustave Doré.

Virgil turns to his faithful follower, and warns him that all his cowardice and distrust must die on this spot, if he is to brave the journey and the sight of the tormented souls. Placing his hand upon Dante’s shoulders, and encouraging him with a smile, the two cross the Gate of Hell. Immediately an unearthly din breaks the deathly silence:

                             “ Here sighs and cries and shrieks of lamentation

                                  Echoed throughout the starless air of Hell;

                                  At first these sounds resounding made me weep:

                                Tongues confused, a language strained in anguish

                                  With cadences of anger, shrill outcries

                                  And raucous groans that joined with sounds of hands, ”

                                                      - DANTE HEARS THE CRIES OF THE DAMNED

Our pilgrim turns to his guide and asks of the souls so overwhelmed with grief. The great poet reveals that these are the souls of those who lived a life of neither blame nor praise. Men and women who stood undecided, neither faithful nor faithless. So too lie the ‘repulsive choir of angels’ who took no side in the War in Heaven between Satan and God. ‘Heaven, to keep its beauty, cast them out, but even Hell itself would not receive them, for fear the damned might glory over them’. As for the men and women - unknown in life, both Heaven and Hell turn from them, as they bathe in melancholy at their separation from God. 'Why do they lament so bitterly?' asks Dante. Gazing upon the ghastly sight before him, Dante finds his courage, and stomach, tested once again. He spies a banner rushing through the dank air, as though fated to never stop, and behind it follow vainly the souls of the indecisive. Punished to chase a thing and never catch it, this was not the only torment the souls endured:

                             “ These wretches, who had never truly lived,

                                  Went naked, and were stung and stung again

                                  By the hornets and the wasps that circled them

                               And made their faces run with blood in streaks;

                                 Their blood, mixed with their tears, dripped to their feet,

                                 And disgusting maggots collected in the pus. ”

                                                  - THE PUNISHMENT OF THE INDECISIVE

Filled with nausea, our pilgrim gazed beyond and saw a throng of souls gathered upon the shore of a large river. Asking his guide for what they waited, Virgil leads the way to the River Acheron, which forms the boundary of Hell. Suddenly, across the dark waters appeared a boat, steered by an ancient man, ‘with eyes of glowing coals’- Charon, the boatman, who bears the souls of the damned into Hell. Aware that Dante was of the land of the still living, Charon commands our pilgrim to get away from, ‘all these people who are dead’. Placating the boatman, Virgil reveals his purpose there, and his words bring silence to the fearsome Charon:

Charon goads the damned onto the ferry
Engraving by Gustave Doré.

“ But all those souls there, naked, in despair

Changed colour and their teeth began to chatter

At the sound of his announcement of their doom ”


Weeping bitterly, the souls of the damned board the craft, as Charon strikes with his oar all those who lag behind. A sudden wind blasted forth from the ‘tear drenched land’, filling Dante with panic, and bringing our two poets on their way into the First Circle of Hell...

The Divine Comedy is the cornerstone of Italian literature, and indeed even the Italian language. Being the first work of epic poetry written in Italian, it formed the model for all that has come since. Most of the stereotypes of what Hell, Heaven and Purgatory are like come directly from this. The punishment of the damned is a classic example of Contrapasso, the idea that the punishment fits the crime. It is a powerful piece epitomising the fear of what lurks after death takes us, and a grisly warning against trespassing the laws of good. In future posts, we will descend with Dante into Hell, and see the hideous fates of the evil men and women of history. Inspiring countless motifs in modern culture, the Divine Comedy is easily available at a low price from Amazon:

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
(A nice edition which even has the original Italian on the left hand side of the page!)

Oxford World's Classics:
The Divine Comedy (Oxford World's Classics)
(Accessible and well annotated, also includes Purgatorio and Paradisio)

United States

Penguin Classics:
The Divine Comedy: Volume 1: Inferno (Penguin Classics) (Pt. 1)
(A nice edition which even has the original Italian on the left hand side of the page!)

Oxford World's Classics:
The Divine Comedy (Oxford World's Classics)
(Accessible and well annotated, also includes Purgatorio and Paradisio)

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