Inferno Canto 1
Ralph Wood is a former Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University. He is the author of The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth, Literature and Theology, and Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-haunted South.
Questions for Reflection
- The Comedy begins with the line, “Midway through the journey of our ” Why would Dante the Poet use the word “our” here? How does this language immediately incorporate us as readers into the pilgrim’s journey?
- What is the dark wood in which we first find Dante the pilgrim? What spiritual, moral, or existential state does it depict? What does Dante show us about the character of sin by stating that he does not know how he came to be so lost in the dark wood (1.10-12)?
- What do the sun, the mountain, and the three beasts mean to the pilgrim? What might they represent to contemporary readers about the Christian life? Is the pilgrim’s aborted journey up the mountain a critique of Plato’s allegory of the cave?
- Notice that the pilgrim’s first words in the Comedy comes in line 65: “Miserere di me”: a callback to David’s great prayer of penitence in Psalm 50/51. What is the significance of these being the first spoken words in the poem?
- Why Virgil? Why might Dante select a pagan to guide him through the Christian afterlife?
- Why must Dante first descend into hell in order to escape the dark wood? What kind of education or therapy for his soul will his infernal journey provide?
Well, friends, Dante in 100 days, a hundred cantos. We are embarked on a wonderful journey, a trip through the greatest of all Christian epics, Dante’s Divine comedy. If we read and heed this epic well, it will change our lives, but first of all, they’re just a few data. There are a few things that we need to know.
Dante’s dates are 1265 to 1321. He was a native of Florence, an important cultural and political city during the Middle Ages, and yet, Dante was struck with tragedy fairly early in his life. It occurred in 1302 when Dante was exiled from his high public office in Florence, on trumped-up charges of corruption. He was never allowed to return.
We can’t really fathom what that meant to Dante. For Dante had been stripped of his identity. You were your city, and if I were exiled from Houston, I wouldn’t mind very much. I’d be glad! Not in the Middle Ages. You were your community.
He died in 1321. He’s buried in Ravenna, the Sea Coast Italian city, and yet in a paradoxical way, we can be grateful for Dante’s exile, for it was during these years that he wrote The Divine Comedy from probably around 1308 to 1320.
Dante would become, eventually, a married man with three children, yet his poetic inspiration came a good deal earlier. It came through his personal vision of a young woman who embodied something transcendent in her self-evident beauty and goodness. She was a Florentine damsel named Beatrice Portinari. Remember that name, Beatrice, and pronounce it that way. It happens also to be the word that means “blessed”.
He saw her only three times in his whole life. First, when he was only nine years old, you imagine, and she was only eight. Again, nine years later when they exchanged greetings in the street, he would’ve been 18 while she was 17, and then finally, a few years later, when she met him in the street and she mocked him for the excessive attention he was giving to her, but Dante was not deterred. He remained convinced that he had discerned an eternal beauty and goodness that lies beyond mere human sight. It called him to order his loves to the love of God, and therefore to enable us, as we read his great book, to do the same. Beatrice, therefore, remains the central figure of the entire divine comedy.
Now, Dante did something really quite daring. He constructed this epic poem, not in the grand Latin of Virgil’s Aeneid, but in the ordinary speech of cultivated Italians, Florentines, specifically, and therefore, this was to be a colloquial epic, an unheard of thing, and yet he would seek to account for the existence of the entire cosmos, the whole universe, in the language of the people, Italian.
More startling still, he called this book The Divine Comedy. He called it strictly The Comedy. The Divine was added later, because for people in the Middle Ages, stories that begin in darkness and sorrow and sadness but end in gladness and hope and victory, are a far-off echo of the gospel itself. So the word “comedy” does not have anything to do with guffaws, belly laughs, or side-splitting humor. There’s some humor in Dante, but it’s very slim. It means, instead, that while tragedies close down to death, often noble deaths, comedy becomes a Christian form that opens up to new life, and that’s the word, of course, for the gospel: Good news.
So Dante did something even more daring than that. He decided to include contemporary Florentines in his epic. People who were known on the streets and in the city of Florence and throughout the whole of Italy. So if you can imagine Donald Trump or Kamala Harris in an epic poem of our time, that strikes us as ludicrous, but Dante brings it off. So we encounter people who were still alive in his own time, many of them already in hell, where maybe those two belong, I don’t know.
So for example, the corrupt Boniface VIII is in hell. Dante’s beloved teacher, Brunetto Latini, is in hell, though they’re both still living, but in making his epic poem something as engaging and direct and down to earth as he could, he did not neglect form, structure, or pattern.
The best way to read the Divine Comedy is to think about a medieval cathedral. It has a magnificence of symmetry, and that symmetry depends upon the Trinitarian number three. God is three and one, and one in three. So what do we get in Dante? Three books. Each of them having 33 cantos, plus this one introductory canto, making a total of 100, and 100 was thought to be the perfect number. 10 times 10.
He does, one other thing that I would like to bring up, that is he deepens and dignifies the poem by his use of what’s called an epic simile. An epic simile is a long, careful comparison of one thing with another, so as to help us not simply stay on the surface of life, reading things just literally, but to see their great depth.
So here’s the first one that appears. It appears in the first page, and that is he’s had this awful, awful dream that he awakens from. He awakens, by the way, on March 25, the year 1300. Good Friday, the day of our Lord’s own descent into hell. He knows he’s just barely escaped with the hope of getting out of that terrible plight.
So listen. “As a man with labored breathing drags his legs out of the water, and ashore, fixes his eyes upon the dangerous sea, so to my mind, while still a fugitive, turned back to gaze again upon that pass, which never let a man escape alive,” and that pass, of course, is the pass into hell.
You see, Dante, with that epic simile, is elevated, he’s dignified, and he’s showing that this is something of cosmic, transcendent significance. He does that throughout. So look out for the epic symbols everywhere to be found in Dante.
One final word about matters of fact. Be sure to distinguish between Dante the poet and Dante the pilgrim. Dante the poet is the author of the entire great grand work, whereas he also impersonates himself as Dante the pilgrim. So when our narrative is not spoken, it’s always Dante the poet, but when it is spoken, it’s Dante himself, the pilgrim, and of course, we’re one of those as well. We are embarking, then, on a trip to the depths of hell, up through the mountain of purgatory, and finally into paradise itself.
Look at the very first line. Remarkable! “Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wilderness, for I had wandered from the straight and the true.”
Notice, it’s midway. This story begins on Good Friday of the year 1300, the Trinitarian year. Dante is 35 in that year. He’s halfway to the biblically allotted 70, at the same time, he universalized that midway in our journey, “I found myself.” So this poem is at once universal and very direct and particular, and he summons us to be his fellow pilgrims along this way.
It’s important to note that for Dante, we will not discover truth, goodness, happiness, beauty until we know we have lost it, and therefore, Dante must discover the extent of which his life is damned before he can come up out of that entrapment, that cage that he is himself caught in, and so for Dante, we must as well plumb the depths of hell with him so that we can go up to happier things at the end.
Now, Dante has to get past, however, this awful she-wolf, she’s called, and she is a symbol of greed, avarice, and an obsessive desire for more and more. Dante believed that greed damns more people than any other sin among all the sins. It is not the worst sin, but numerically, it damns most, and Dante can’t get past her. He himself knows he’s greedy. He’s got to get around her, and there’s no way around, when suddenly, there appears this shadowy figure who Dante can’t identify. He looks and says, “Who’s that?” So Virgil has to identify himself, saying, “I’m not a living man, but a shade from the underworld,” because Virgil has depicted that underworld in the Aeneid, he knows what that dismal world is like, and therefore, he can lead Dante down into it and up out of it, and Dante just overjoyed, overwhelmed at the prospect of having Virgil as his guide. At this point, we might ask ourselves, who are our guides in our time who are leading us out of the abyss?
So the first thing Virgil does is to call for an all-out attack on this pervasive greed that’s consuming all of Italy, and he thus prophesied the coming of the Greyhound. Who in the world is the Greyhound? Well, probably something pretty obvious. Con grande is the Italian for “big dog”, and he had been Dante’s host, and he was a prominent figure at his time, and he hoped that a figure like con grande could come and rip out, with his fierce annunciations, the terrible greed pervading all of Italy.
Here’s a crucial point we’ll discover throughout the comedy: for Dante, salvation in the religious world is inseparable from uprightness in the political realm. Without a fair and just government, the people’s moral and religious life will be compromised.
Our time rings loud. This means, also, that for Dante, life is profoundly communal. We don’t live as isolated beings to ourselves. We are webbed together in an inextricable life with others. It was so for Dante. We often think that we live as self-made creatures. This is not so for Dante. For Dante, we live and move and have our being only among others.
Now, though this Virgil never knew the true God, this doesn’t disqualify him to be Dante’s guide, for his moral and religious wisdom is poetic. Supreme poets like Virgil traffic in the concrete and the particular. While Virgil also represents reason, reason can often get lost in very highfalutin abstractions that are hard to understand and difficult to apply. Not so with poetry. It deals with the concrete, the particular, unlike these theoretical areas of speculation, images, sounds, characters, events, victories, defeats, that remain unforgettably alive in our imagination. They have the permanent power to transform us.
Dante, therefore, salutes Virgil with the highest of all possible accolades. Poetae. Poet. So let’s follow them on this poetic jury of unparalleled importance.
- Dr. Ralph Wood
- Baylor University
- Run Time 13:23