Canto IX of Dante’s Inferno is remarkably representative of the work as a whole. It includes a number of prominent themes, among them the role Virgil plays as the manifestation of human reason and the argument that faith can achieve what reason cannot, as well as contrapasso¸ or the matching of sins on Earth to punishments in Hell. Canto IX also demonstrates the marked divide between the first five circles of Hell, housing the Incontinent, or relatively minor sinners, and the next circlethe Violentwhose damned God despises much more. A microcosm of the entire epic, the importance of Canto IX lies in the themes and values it reflects.Canto IX begins with Virgil’s failure to penetrate the gates of Dis. His attempts at reason with its demon guards are useless; Dante fears desertion. He is rightly frightened by Virgil’s sudden weakness. In the first eight cantos, the shade is a surefooted, confident guide; he surmounts obstacles with ease and disarms all challengers handily. His abrupt impotence leads a pallid Dante to ask discreetly for reassurance that Virgil is still in command of their journey. Virgil begins to explain that he is, but the anxious poets are interrupted by a fearsome sightthree Furies tearing at their breasts, calling for Medusa to turn Dante into stone. Virgil takes the threat seriouslyhe considers Dante’s hands to be insufficient protection for his eyes and blindfolds his ward himself. Dante is terrified, helpless. Then an earthquake. This sequence of eventscompounded by Virgil’s uneasinessis not mere drama. The barrage is something new for The Inferno. For the first time there is a real, almost palpable sense of danger. Dante clearly intends for Virgil’s ashen face at the start of Canto IX to represent fearthere is no evidence offered to the contrary, as in a similar scene in Canto IV, when Dante,who’d seen the change in his complexion,said: “How shall I go on if you are frightened,you who have always helped to dispel my doubts?” (IV: 16-18)There, the shade reassuringly explains: “The anguish of the people / whose place is here below, has touched my face / with the compassion you mistake for fear. (IV: 19-21)” Dante is convinced; the shade’s pallor is not mentioned again. In Canto IX, however, Dante is not comforted by Virgil’s wordsin fact, the opposite occurs:[H]is speech made me afraid,because I drew out from his broken phrasea meaning worseperhapsthan he’d intended. (IX: 13-15)Virgil’s sudden vincibility and the newfound possibility of harm also signify a shift in the type (and awfulness) of sin that the pair are about to encounter: they are leaving the first five circles, home of the Incontinent, and taking a large step downwardto the Violent. The souls they encounter will no longer be accidental sinnerssuch as those whose only crime was living before Christ, and so were unable to live according to his teachingbut those who deliberately harmed themselves or others. This is a significant escalation in severity of sin. The notion that Virgil might be unable to protect Dante permeates the rest of the epic, creating tension as the duo descends deeper. The poets are clearly entering an entirely new region of Hell, fraught with danger.The surefooted Virgil, who for most of the work shepherds Dante through danger with physical and verbal protections, is the embodiment of human reason. This makes Virgil an excellent escort, and for most of the journey he knows his route and occasionally lends mettle to the weak-kneed Dante. This is why Virgil’s stark failure at the gates of Dis is so thematically important: it represents the limits of human reason. There are certain places, Dante the poet implies, that even as eminent a man as Virgil cannot tread upon when he counts but reason among his faculties. Reason has literally and allegorically taken Dante the character as far as it can go. For the pair to progress, Faith must step inand it does, via a deus ex machina intervention by a Heavenly messenger, who opens the gates of Dis with ease. (Throughout the poem, Hell’s creatures serve as obstacles to Dante’s trek and Heaven’s messengers act as catalysts; ” ‘What good is it to thrust against the fates?’ ” the messenger asks the fallen angels rhetorically (IX: 97).) The clear implication: Faith succeeds where Reason fails. A harbinger of this sequence occurs in Canto I, when Virgil informs Dante that he will lead him through the deepest circles of Hellbut no further, for he is unworthy of entering Heaven:If you would then ascend as high as these [“the blessed people”],a soul more worthy than I am will guide you;I’ll leave you in her care when I depart,because that Emperor who reigns above,since I have been rebellious to His law,will not allow me entry to His city. ( I: 121-126)In both instances, there is only so far Reason can go; it is powerless without Faith. This characterizes The Inferno as a primarily Christian poem. For all his disparaging of Church figureseven popesDante the poet implies through his writing that God is indeed omniscient and omnipotent, that his wisdom is infinite, and that faith in him will save one’s soul.The final verses of Canto IX hint at another prominent theme of The Inferno: contrapasso, or the matching of eternal punishments to worldly sins as part of God’s infinite justice. For example, Diviners, Astrologers and Magicianswho in life claimed to see the futureall have their heads turned backward; Thieves are transformed into serpents and must bite the similarly damned to regain their form. As Dante enters the Sixth Circle, Virgil explains the flaming tombs around them:”Here, like has been ensepulchered with like;some monuments are heated more, some less.” (IX: 130-131)That is, within this particular circle of Hell, each of the damned is punished according to the extent of his heresy. The flames are a fitting punishment for the Heretics, who obstinately believed in their interpretations of Christianity instead of the Church’s, and so they are encased in correspondingly immobile tombs. The flames of the Sixth Circle are in marked contrast to the swampy Styx, in whose murky depths the sullen lie submerged.
The journey of introspection can lead to unbound places and uninhibited realizations. In the course of his travels throughout the Inferno, Dante Alighieri encounters the damned souls of the underworld and experiences their prodigious punishments. Undoubtedly one of the most exalted and enigmatic poems to have ever been written, an unassuming reader can be virtually overwhelmed by all of the multifaceted allegory that distinguishes the Inferno from all other works. Unrequited love that burns its desire in misery, desolate despair that becomes disfigured in perpetual gloom, and falsified deceivers who bluster their shame evermore all become personified in each sinner that Dante approaches. The Inferno invents a complex, elaborate system of hell with each sinner’s own hell appropriately suiting the crime committed; as Professor Braden of the University of Virginia states, “the sinner eventually and often grotesquely becomes what they made of themselves.” In particular three sinners, (Francesca da’ Rimini, Pier della Vigna, and Ulysses) though each committed distinctively different wrongdoings, all entertain a significant conversation with Dante, who desperately seeks the attention of all three individuals. Each leave him moved and more learned, with the profound, chilling realization that though the sinner may be a virtuous person, at times, austere consequences of their actions are inescapable.The Inferno creates two interlocking explanations for the allegory, both of politics and religion. Dante, while writing this poem in exile of his native city Florence, cunningly permeates his own political propaganda noticeable by in the circles of which he places his enemies. Through his own unique placement, punishment, and portrayal of each sinner, Dante sculpts the readers own perception of those who he pities and also of those whom which he frowns at with little more than merciless disdain, as in with Pope Nicholas III. Clearly shown by sensitive gestures and words, Dante empathizes with Francesca da’ Rimini in canto V. A famed and greatly known fate in contemporary 14th century, she had married Gianciotto Malatesta of Rimini, but fell in love with his younger brother, Paolo, as she explains “love, which in gentle hearts is quickly born, seized him for [her] fair body” (41). As history unfolds, her husband found out about the illustrious affair and had them both executed. Francesca has been placed in the 2nd circle amongst the incontinent sins, and at first she describes “love gave [them] both one death,” (41) it is evident that her crimes are ones of passion and desire. However, she quickly contradicts herself in altering the impulse that she and her lover suffered from when she clarifies that “A Galeotto, that book!” (42) was the true reason their passion bloomed. Comparing themselves to Lancelot and Guinevere, Fransceca tells Dante that it was while Paulo and she was reading the tale that they gave in to the impulse of desire. Her infinite doom is to rage on in the tempestuous wind, gusting about the 2nd circle of Hell like her emotions had gusted out of her with Paolo. Dante the poet responded overwhelmingly proclaiming, “My pity overwhelmed me and I felt myself go slack: swooning in death, I fell like a dying body,” (42) and fainted in sympathy, apparently understanding the energy and influence that the written word can provoke.Further descending down past the sins of incontinence, Virgil leads Dante to the sins of violence, and noteworthy in canto XIII, the sins of violence against oneself. Here surrounded by the decaying disfigured trees who held the souls of those who committed suicide. Dante describes them with “leaves not green, earth-hued; their boughs not smooth not fruit but poisoned thorns;” (101) each timber is clawed at continuously by bird-like daemons. Amongst the contorted woods lay Pier della Vigna, a primary counselor to Frederick II, who had been wrongly accused of disloyalty to the emperor, and in despair of being denied his love of service, killed himself. He claims his innocence to Dante, “I stayed so true I lost both sleep and lifeI never betrayed my lord who was so worthy of honor” (103-105) defending how loyal and diligent he was. Dante discovers that it was “the common fatal Vice of courts” (103) as Pier refers to envy as the sin that coerced his own violence towards himself. He begs Dante to “comfort his memory” (105) when returning back to the living, which presented a not often found sympathy in the poet; so intense was his compassion for Pier, that he had to ask Virgil, his guide to continue conversing with the doomed shade for he “cannot because of pity that fills [his] heart.” (105).This example represents the second time that Dante had become overcome by a single encounter with a punished soul. Dante pities both Francesca and Pier, fainting from Francesca and touched so deeply by Pier it left him speechless. Both have committed the “lesser of sins,” different from those kept in Malebolge who have committed sins of fraud, like the soon to be introduced Ulysses. Dante has categorized each so the more conscious and deliberate sins are morally worse than those which are done by impulse such as Francesca, motivated by desire, and Pier, who’s suicide is punished more severely, but is still sorted amongst the sins of incontinent and violence. These two souls also demonstrate to Dante that often the sinner may still be a virtuous person, though there are irrefutable consequences to one’s actions. The two souls do differ in that Pier’s suicide put in the deeper seventh circle than the second circle of Francesca, and is punished accordingly. Francesca’s sin was derived from love in the lowest form, physical desire. Pier was motivated by madness, anger and depression, neither of which emotion involves love. As love is a predominant theme throughout the Divine Comedy, Dante suitably punishes sins because of love less torturously than violence, and in particular, suicide.Becoming gradually more assured of himself as hell becomes more shocking, Dante’s growing confidence becomes a valuable virtue. As he enters the 8th circle of Malebolge, he is introduced in canto XVI to one of the greatest heroes of classical literature, Ulysses, who is perplexingly placed amid the false counselors. Ulysses, warrior of the Trojan war and con-artist of the Trojan horse, with Diomedes “grieve for their device, the horse that made the doorway thorough which went forth the Romans’ most noble seed.” (219). The two schemers have been doomed to swirl in a mist of flames, circling the cliffs like “fireflies a peasant has seen (resting on a hill)” (217). Virgil must again speak with this soul, like he spoke with Pier della Vigna secondly, insisting to Dante to “leave speech to me- Greeks that they were, they might treat words of yours with some disdain,” (221) which Robert Pinsky explains as Dante’s method of acknowledging that he does not speak Greek. Ulysses is punished, along with being the deceptive strategician, for failure to recognize that he conned his own companions who “grew so keen to journey, spurred by the little speech [he] made” into joining his “insane flight” (223). He tells Dante that nothing could overcome his longing for experience in the world. Dante’s placement of Ulysses deep in the 8th circle demonstrates his own values and opinions of lying and fraud; Ulysses defies many Christian principles like lying, cheating, and stealing. Violence, even murder, does not provoke near as much reprimand as falsifying oneself, and adultery does not even begin make a case against it. Ulysses serves as a message to warn that prominence gained fraudulently will gain priority in punishment.Francesca and Ulysses both commit similar acts of passion, and succumb to their own desires. Yet Francesca is placed in the 2nd circle and Ulysses in the 8th; Dante distinctively divides them into two ways. The first discrepancy is the deceitful methods Ulysses resorted to that Francesca did not, and the second is that Ulysses is from the ancient Greek world and Francesca is of Dante’s Roman contemporary. Ulysses fought against the Trojans and brought down their kingdom, and the most well-known Trojan of course, happens to be Aeneas, founder of Rome. Pier and Ulysses both show Dante’s Guelph preference into dealing with the souls he longed to speak with who dealt in the aspects of politics and war, as opposed to his outright scorn for the wicked shades of the religious like Pope Nicholas III.All of these three characters demonstrate the poet’s introspective discovery and underlying themes that even though the sinner may have been well-regarded and honorable in their time on earth; in hell, they may still be punished along with the most wretched and vile. All three are left in endless sorrow, never to experience a joyous thought again. God created hell to implement justice; the gates over hell in canto III read “JUSTICE MOVED MY HIGH MAKER, IN POWER DIVINE; WISDOM SUPREME, LOVE PRMAL” (19). Hell’s sole purpose is to fulfill God’s will of justice, and that the punishment of the damned, even those who were virtuous in their lives, shall be fitting of their sins.Works CitedPinsky, Robert. The Inferno of Dante, a New Verse Translation. The Noonday Press: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. New York, New York: 1994.
To tell a story is to narrate events, or to give an account. Within literature, storytelling becomes a frame within a frame, a story within a story. A character from the outer frame of the book creates a smaller frame in the form of his or her story. As Dante descends through Hell in his Inferno, he and his guide Virgil hear many damned souls tell stories. Some sinners foretell the future, as do the suicide of Canto XIII, the gluttonous Ciacco of Canto VI, and the heretics of Canto X. Others, such as the Jovial Friars and Navaresse barrater, identify other sinners and explain punishments distinct from their own. Most of the stories that the damned tell, however, are their personal confessions. The structure of each confession is usually tripartite, consisting of the sinner’s identification of himself or herself, narration of the occasion for his or her particular sin, and the description of his or her punishment. The suicide in Canto XIII, for example, begins his lengthy confession to Dante and Virgil by identifying himself: “I am the one who guarded both the keys to Frederick’s heart and turned them…” (Canto XIII, lines 58-59). He then explains how he was driven to suicide. He tells Dante and Virgil that he became the object of envy for his great influence with Emperor Frederick. Such envy, the sinner says, “inflamed the minds of everyone” against him (Canto XIII, line 67), and he committed suicide, believing that he “could flee disdain through death” (Canto XIII, line 71). The damned soul then completes the three-part confession structure when he gives a vivid description of the punishment for suicides, who become thornbushes in Hell and are eaten by harpies.These confession stories serve several functions. The confessions not only identify actual historical figures in Hell, but they also highlight certain differences between Dante the author and Dante the character. By identifying an individual soul and his or her sin, each confession gives a specific example of a particular sin. Since Dante the author places historical people in Hell, their confessions allow him to identify those people, thereby condemning their earthly deeds. The author creates the system by which these souls are eternally damned, and even invents the tortures with which these sinners afflicted, but Dante the character occasionally feels pity for a confessing soul, as he does for Francesca in Canto V: “Francesca, your afflictions/ move me to tears of sorrow and of pity” (Canto V, lines 116-117). Thus, the stories, because they identify the speaking sinner, provide occasion for the distinction of Dante the character from Dante the author.By expounding a sin’s unique punishment, the confessions give insight into the structure of Dante’s punishment system. Bertran de Born, for instance, in the eighth circle, where sewers of schism are punished, explains why he is punished with his head severed from his body. He says:I made the son and father enemies…because I severed those so joined, I carryalasmy brain dissevered from its source,which is within my trunk. And thus, in meone sees the law of counter-penalty.(Canto XXVIII, lines 136, 139-142)This “law of counter-penalty” lets the punishment fit the crime. Bertran de Born severed father and son, and so in Hell his body is severed from his head. Most sins in Dante’s Hell are punished by counter-penalty. The suicides, for instance, are never to be reunited with or to resemble their bodies because, as the thornbush explains to Dante and Virgil, “it is not right for any man to have/ what he himself has cast aside” (Canto XIII, lines 105-106).An additional function of confession is to place each sinner in the appropriate circle. Upon entering Hell, each soul is assigned a punishment according to his or her sin by the creature Minos, whom Dante calls the “connoisseur of sin” (Canto V, line 9). Minos casts judgment only after a soul has confessed his or her sins to him. Dante explains that “when the spirit born to evil/ approaches him, it confesses all” (Canto V, line 7-8), and that “they speak and hear, then they are cast below” (Canto V, line 15). Speaking confession, that is, telling the story of one’s sins, is integral to the judgment and placement process for new souls in Hell.These souls before Minos are compelled to tell their stories, but the sinners who speak to Dante and Virgil are not so obliged. Most of the souls whom the sojourners meet volunteer to tell their stories, such as the heretic whose voice “burst so unexpectedly/ out of one sepulcher” that Dante is startled (Canto X, lines 28-29). But why do they speak? Why tell these stories? Each soul does not confess the story of his or her downfall simply to satisfy Dante’s curiosity, but, rather, is motivated by the desire for fame. For instance, in order to entice the soul of the suicide to speak further, Virgil encourages him, “But tell him who you were, so that he may,/ to make amends, refresh your fame within/ the world above, where he can still return” (Canto XIII, lines 52-54). The soul does indeed identify himself for Dante, and also adds, “If one of you returns into the world,/ then let him help my memory…” (Canto XIII, lines 76-77). The importance of telling one’s story is perhaps best illustrated by those who are not allowed to speak, the cowards of the Ante-Inferno. Virgil says of them, “‘The world will let no fame of theirs endure/…/ let us not talk of them, but look and pass'” (Canto III, lines 49-51). Of course, by simply looking and passing, Dante and Virgil do not speak to any of these, and thus prevent them from attaining fame by telling their stories. In fact, not one of the cowards is identified by name. In this way, storytelling, in the form of confession, is integral to achieving fame. The confession structure becomes for these damned souls the vehicle for memory and, thus, means of attaining or maintaining fame on earth.
In Canto XI of Dante’s Inferno, Virgil carefully explains the layout of hell to his student, Dante. Toward the end of his speech, Virgil says that “Sodom and Cahors” are “speak[ing] in passionate contempt of God,” (XI, 50-51), and divine will thus relegates them to the seventh circle. The sin of the Sodomites is clear for Dante, who poses no question on the matter, sodomy perhaps being an obvious affront to God which the bible directly addresses. However, the sin of “Cahors,” namely usury, is not clear to Dante. He asks Virgil to “unravel” the “knot” in his mind, since there is no obvious reason why a usurer – a money lender essentially – deserves any punishment at all for a crime which does not necessarily involve dishonesty, and certainly is not violent in nature.Independent of the question itself, the very fact that Dante is comfortable enough to ask Virgil anything reveals a certain intimacy between the two characters. The student-teacher relationship need not be interactive. An interaction implies an equality. Dante could very well have written a Virgil who talks but does not listen, much like the Virgil who wrote the Aeneid; there is no dialogue when one reads an epic poem. Dante’s Virgil allows Dante into his intellectual circle, both by listening to Dante, as he does here, and by introducing Dante to other master poets, as he does in Canto IV. Virgil even says that the “pupil imitates his master,” which, as we shall see, has an entirely separate meaning, but does refer back to the relationship between this pupil and his master as well.What is especially remarkable though in the way that Virgil addresses Dante’s question is that he is at first condescending. By beginning with, “Philosophy, for one who understands…” Virgil effectively mocks Dante, since Dante is certainly familiar with classical literature (as is evidenced by the Divine Comedy itself). Thus, Dante is on Virgil’s level in one sense, and far below him in another, which is true in the grand scheme of the work: Dante is only beginning to understand the workings of the divine order by Canto XI, while Virgil borders on omniscience throughout. Furthermore, Dante has not yet eclipsed Virgil as a poet, since at this point the Inferno is hardly begun, while the Aeneid presents Virgil’s view of Hades from top to bottom..In Dante’s hell specifically, the reason that usury is a deadly sin is very confusing, which is why Dante calls it a “knot.” Unlike other sins, usury is not on its face a dreadful immorality. Virgil approaches the issue at first philosophically, making the profoundly esoteric claim that “nature follows… the Divine Intellect and the Divine Art.” The idea “nature” is therefore composed of these two abstract elements. The “Intellect,” coming first, must be at the root of the “Art,” since intellect must precede production, as in the Platonic doctrine of the “essence” of a thing preceding the existence of a thing. The “Intellect” is the potential; the art is the result. In concrete terms, the “Intellect” must therefore be the primordial “stuff” from which everything is made, and the “Art” therefore must be the process of making it into something tangible or usable. From this, then, we can deduce that “Intellect” is literally the stuff that God provides to enable us to live – the land, the fruit, the animals – and “Art,” the process of sustaining ourselves by using that stuff, the labor.This interpretation fits perfectly with the rest of the passage. Virgil elaborates on the idea of nature as being the process of going from intellect to art by citing Aristotle’s Physics, wherein Aristotle apparently proves that “when it can, your art would follow nature.” Our “art,” as it were, is not very different from the Divine Art, since God is the source of all that we do (as Saint Augustine says over and over again). Our “art” is our method of self-sustenance as determined by God, since God has given us the tools we need to employ our method (“intellect”). Therefore, we are learning from God “just as a pupil imitates his master.” We are, then, “God’s pupil,” which is an apt analogy since self-sustenance is really a type of creation: Planting and harvesting crops is the human version of making the universe. Virgil goes on to say that our “art” or production “is almost God’s grandchild.” This analogy sums up everything Virgil has previously said and foreshadows his later comments, as it works in several different ways. First, if the Divine Intellect leads to the Divine Art, and if our art is a derivative of the Divine Art, then our art is indeed the “grandchild” of nature, since it is the offspring of the Intellect and the Art, which are in a way the offspring of nature herself. Second, we are all in some sense God’s grandchild, as we are all sons or daughters of Adam. Finally, the idea that our “art” is “almost God’s grandchild” reveals the egregiousness of any sin, as we all can imagine a child who is disrespectful to his grandfather more easily than a man who is disrespectful to the abstract “God.” Thus we are further prepared for all the terrible punishments that we will encounter in the coming cantos.Furthermore, the idea of our art being “God’s grandchild” is clearly an allusion to the biblical concept that we are made in “God’s image,” as it says in Genesis. It is therefore perfectly fitting that Virgil makes the allusion, asking Dante to “recall” how Genesis “begins.” What Virgil asks us to focus on though is not how we were made, but what Adam had to do to “make [his] way” and thus what “men” in general are supposed to do “to gain their living.” The Genesis story teaches that Adam must “in toil eat of [the tree] all the days of [his] life…” and must “eat of the plants of the field.” (Genesis, 2.17). To be moral then is to procure wealth (sustenance) through work, turning the “Divine Intellect” through “art” or human labor into life-giving food. Finally, the “knot” has been “unraveled” for Dante. The usurer “prefers another pathway,” meaning that a money lender does not seek to sustain himself by using “stuff” for “life.” A usurer by definition uses money to make money. Thus he is cut off both from “Intellect” and “Art,” or, as Virgil puts it, “he scorns both nature in herself and art,” as “his hope is elsewhere.” A banker, for example, charges a fee in exchange for loaning money. Nowhere is he working to produce anything, in contrast to Adam who is a “producer” in the most basic sense. Instead, he is using others as a means of life: in Dante’s pre-capitalist economic system, he is a parasite. He is a fraud of the highest magnitude because at first he appears to be doing nothing wrong. As we see in the usurers’ punishment in Canto XVII, their “outer semblance” is very normal. Only upon looking closer does one make out that they are “adorned with twining knots and circlets,” the word “knots” of course referring back to Dante’s original confusion, his own personal “knot” of the mind.After Virgil has made everything clear, he tells Dante to “follow.” The word “follow” (in Italian “seguimi”) is the same word that Virgil had used to refer to art “following” (“segue”) nature. This repetition underscores the divine presence throughout the Comedy, showing us that Dante is “following” a path that was set for him by the higher power. The reason that it is “time to move” is that Dante now understands why the usurer is a sinner. This means that what is propelling the story forward is Dante’s progressive education. At points of confusion, we stop to try to understand. Once the issue is clear, we move on. This gives us a key into understanding the whole work, in that it shows that Dante is on this divine path in order to learn from it. From that we can deduce that we too are on the same path in order to distinguish the moral from the immoral. Dante serves as our Virgil.Another subtlety within the text that demands a wide-angled literary lens to see is the mixing of secular doctrine with Christian doctrine. Dante has moved seamlessly from Aristotle to Genesis, so that his argument holds on every conceivable level. He even seems to make a indirect reference to the fact that the ideas of the respective schools of thought are both in perfect harmony with the claim – which can be interpreted in a multitude of ways – that “[our] art would follow nature.” Our art could very well be a combination of philosophy and science: Aristotle coins the term “metaphysical” in his work Physics. And our art, our logic, does not contradict in the least with the inescapable nature that God creates in Genesis. In fact, it “follows” directly from Genesis.One final possible interpretation of “your art” (as Virgil says to Dante) is the Comedy itself. The Comedy is a poetical depiction of the divine order as Dante sees it. This is in a way a contradiction, because no human could ever wholly grasp the divine order. Dante seems to recognize that when he has Virgil say that his “art is almost God’s grandchild,” the word “almost” being key. The connection to the divine mind is irrefutable, as art follows nature, but Dante subtly admits his own humanity. Just as Dante is in one sense the teacher (the writer) and in another the student (Virgil’s “pupil”), so too is he in one sense divine, and in another sense human. Perhaps this is how Dante wants us to see him throughout the Comedy. The only way that we could trust him is if he is omniscient like God throughout the whole of the work, while the only way that we could learn from his journey is if he is as ignorant as the reader at the same time.The only certain conclusion that one can draw from this incredibly rich passage is that there are a thousand possible conclusions that one could draw, a thousand possible interpretations of a phrase like “Divine Intellect.” Not one plausible interpretation however seems to contradict with any other plausible interpretation. This means that Dante has deliberately layered his text just as he has layered hell. We must then, like Dante, work our way carefully through the divine path, asking deeper and deeper questions of our teacher along the way, striving to “unravel” all of our “knots” as we descend further and further down through the spiraling realm of ideas called the Inferno until we have probed deep enough to finally ascend upwards toward the Divine Intellect as nature had always intended.
“What is fame? Fame is but a slow decay Even this shall pass away.” Theodore TiltonThe Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri, is a poem laden with such Christian themes as love, the search for happiness, and the desire to see God. Among these Christian themes, however, is Dante’s obsession with and desire for fame, which seems to be a surprising departure from conventional medieval Christian morality. Indeed, as the poem progresses, a striking contradiction emerges. Dante the writer, in keeping with Christian doctrine, presents the desire for fame and glory among the souls of Inferno in order to replace it with humility among the souls of Purgatorio. Yet this purification of desire is not entirely embraced by Dante, who seems preoccupied with his own personal fame and glory. Therefore, how do we reconcile the seemingly hypocritical stance that the souls must strip themselves of pride and become humble, yet Dante can continue in his quest for fame and glory and still be saved? This contradiction is developed as the reader and the character Dante travel through Inferno and Purgatorio and is resolved in the second sphere of Paradise. It is this sphere, which allows for fame and glory for honorable reasons, that permits us, as readers, to resolve this tension. It is in this sphere that Dante elucidates that fame is not always bad, but only becomes so when one’s motives are impure. The power of fame and glory is nowhere more powerful than among the souls of Inferno. The importance of earthly fame is particularly apparent in the figures of the several shades who have asked Dante to recall their names and stories on Earth. In fact, it is this promise of fame that induces most of the souls to speak with Dante. “But tell him who you were, so that he may, to make amends, refresh your fame within the world above, where he can still return,” says Virgil to Pier della Vigna in the wood of the suicides (Inferno, Canto XIII, Lines 52-54). To which Pier replies, “Your sweet speech draws me so that I cannot be still” (Inferno, Canto XIII, Lines 55-56). Even Dante is spurred on by promises of fame while in Inferno. During the difficult ascent to the seventh pouch in the eighth circle, Virgil emphasizes the importance of fame to urge Dante to persevere. He says, “Now you must cast aside your laziness, for he who rests on down or under covers cannot come to fame” (Inferno, Canto XXIV, Lines 46-47). Indeed the willingness to be bribed by earthly fame is an aspect unique to those souls in hell. As Dante travels towards God and towards perfection, through Purgatory and finally through Paradise, he will find that the bargaining power of earthly fame is markedly diminished as souls become less and less interested in and motivated by fame.As Dante continues to Purgatorio the theme of humility starts to overshadow that of fame and glory, especially in Dante’s encounter with Oderisi, Guido Guinizzelli and Statius. In Canto XI, Dante meets Oderisi, a respected artist. After Dante praises him, Oderisi quickly points out that Franco Bolognese is now more famous: “Brother, the pages painted by the brush of Franco Bolognese smile more brightly: all the glory now is his; mine, but a part” (Purgatorio, Canto XI, Lines 82-85). His earthly fame was short-lived and he claims “O empty glory of the powers of humans! How briefly green endure upon the peak unless an age of dullness follow it” (Purgatorio, Canto XI, Lines 92-93). He is quick to point out to Dante that fame does not last unless an age utterly devoid of talent and artistry follows. He also cites the example of Giotto and how he is now acclaimed instead of Cimabue. “In painting Cimabue thought he held the field, and now it’s Giotto they acclaim the former only keeps a shadowed fame” (Purgatorio, Canto XI, Lines 94-96). But even Giotto will soon be forgotten when someone else will chase him “out of the nest.” Oderisi is trying very hard to point out how fleeting fame can be and how dangerous the pride that precedes it is. The very punishment in this sphere is a caution to Dante about the dangers of wanting earthly fame. Oderisi would not be in the fires of purgatory if he had avoided the prideful desire for fame in the first place.These very same things are echoed later when Dante encounters Guido Guinizzelli and Arnaut Daniel in Canto XXVI. When Dante begins to praise Guido, Guido quickly defers his skill to that of Arnaut with the same tone of modesty and humility evidenced in the encounter with Oderisi. He says to Dante, “He there, whom I point out to you he was a better artisan of the mother tongue, surpassing all those who wrote their poems of love or prose romances” (Purgatorio, Canto XXVI, Lines 115-119). Yet, when Dante approaches Arnaut Daniel, he doesn’t even speak about his fame. Rather than those souls found in Inferno who want Dante to bring them earthly fame, these souls are quick to demonstrate humility. In fact, when Dante encounters Statius it becomes apparent that even if one’s fame on earth were to persist, it is not enough. In Canto XXI he says of himself, “I had sufficient fame beyond; I bore the name that lasts the longest and honors most but faith was not yet mine. On earth my name is still remembered.” (Purgatorio, Canto XXI, Lines 85-91). Statius, although famous, has still had to pay his penance in Purgatory fame was not enough to save him nor will it be enough to save Dante.Yet among all this talk of humility, Dante’s desire for his own personal fame and glory is ever present and is never more transparent than in his dealings with the poets found in Limbo. Indeed, one of his main goals seems to be to prove his superiority to these poets. When Dante comes face to face with these poets he says,”And so I saw that splendid school assembled, led by the lord of song incomparable, who like an eagle soars above the rest. Soon after they had talked a while together, they turned to me, saluting cordially; and having witnessed this, my master smiled; and even greater honor then was mine, for they invited me to join their ranks I was the sixth among such intellects” (Inferno, Canto IV, Lines 94-102). Dante doesn’t hesitate to place himself with these renowned poets. Yet even when he meets these talented poets of old, his attitude toward them combines respect and condescension. He respects their poetic talent yet even when he meets them he is ever conscious of the fact that they will remain in hell while he continues to Paradise. Even later when Dante exalts the classical poetry of Virgil that was able to convert a soul like Statius, he can’t help but underline its limits. No matter how effective Virgil’s Latin poetry was, he will always, always, be an unsaved soul. Dante continues to take opportunities to advance his own glory as the poem progresses. Rarely modest about his own poetic gifts, he uses the power of infernal scenes to support his claim of superiority over the ancient poets. He devises a grotesquely fitting penalty for the Thieves: having stolen in life, they must constantly steal one another’s forms and constantly have their own forms stolen from them. He portrays the punishment in lucid and imaginative detail. Halfway through his description of these horrors, however, Dante declares outright that he has outdone both Ovid and Lucan in his ability to write scenes of metamorphosis and transformation: “Let Lucan now be silent, where he sings of sad Sabellus and Nasidius, and wait to hear what flies off from my bow. Let Ovid now be silent, where he tells of Cadmus, Arethusa; if his verse has made of one a serpent, one a fountain, I do not envy him; he never did transmute two natures, face to face” (Inferno, Canto XXV, Lines 94-101). Dante touts both his ingenuity in envisioning these monstrous transformations and his poetic skill in rendering them. In both aspects, he claims to surpass the two classical poets most renowned for their mythological inventions and vivid imagery.As Dante ascends from Inferno to Purgatorio he seems to become more conscious of his prideful desire for fame. When he enters the First Terrace, the terrace of the prideful, he immediately assumes their same bent-over posture, as if, he too, were weighed down by the heavy weight of pride. Even after he leaves the terrace, Virgil must rebuke him for being absorbed in that terrace and its punishment. By the time he reaches the terrace of the envious, however, Dante himself admits to succumbing to pride. He says, “My eyes will be denied me here, but only briefly; the offense of envy was not committed often by their gaze. I fear much more the punishment below [pride]; my soul is anxious, in suspense; already I feel the heavy weights of the first terrace” (Purgatorio, Canto XIII, Lines 133-138). Yet, Dante does ascend from the terrace of the prideful and the P on his forehead is erased by the Angel of God as he ascends to the next terrace. Dante will not be punished in this terrace. So, although Dante himself admits that he has committed sins of pride, somehow he is not being held accountable for them. Therefore, a reconciliation between his desire for fame and its proper punishment, must be found later. It is as Purgatorio comes to a close that the reader is given the first glimpse of this reconciliation. After the assurance from Beatrice that he is one of the elect, Dante is invested with his poetic and prophetic mission, “And thus, to profit that world which lives badly, watch the chariot steadfastly and, when you have returned beyond, transcribe what you have seen” (Purgatorio, Canto XXXII, Lines 103-106). Until now, Dante’s journey might have seemed to be directed to his personal salvation; now its universal, exemplary aspect becomes explicit. Beatrice has now given Dante a specific mission to help the world out of the “dark forest” of sin. This mission to save the world becomes the transcendent link between Dante’s desire for fame and its dangers. In Dante’s mind, worldly glory and the glory of God’s kingdom are intimately connected. As long as one’s glory arises from honest work, it can improve one’s lot in the afterlife. This viewpoint illustrated in Limbo is also illustrated through the example of Justinian in the second sphere in Paradiso, the sphere of Mercury. Justinian, whose greatest accomplishment was the codification of Roman Law, said of this work, “As soon as my steps shared the Church’s path, God, of His grace, inspired my high task as pleased Him.” (Paradiso, Canto VI , Lines 22-24). After he was converted to the true church, it was God who inspired him to produce the Codex. In a similar fashion, Dante would have us believe that he is the mere mouthpiece for God a scribe inspired to create an important work to save the world from the avaricious “she-wolf.”Therefore, although Dante cannot deny his desire for fame and glory, he has done so for righteous reasons. With the popularity of The Divine Comedy would come the knowledge that people are reading his work and that he may be helping them out of the dark forest of sin. As Justinian said of the Sphere of Mercury, “This little planet is adorned with spirits whose acts were righteous, but who acted for the honor and the fame that they would gain: and when desires tend toward earthly ends, then, so deflected, rays of the true love mount toward the life above with lesser force. But part of our delight is measuring rewards against our merit, and we see that our rewards are neither less nor more. Thus does the Living Justice make so sweet the sentiments in us, that we are free of any turning toward iniquity” (Paradiso, Canto VI, Lines 112-123). Thus, Dante will ultimately be saved by God’s divine grace because of his righteous motives. Surprisingly, the idea that the desire for ‘fame and glory’ is not entirely sinful is actually one of the first themes to appear in The Divine Comedy, but we, the readers, and Dante the character, are not ready we must all travel through hell in order to receive illumination. When Dante comes across the poets that reside in the “noble castle” in Limbo, the first circle of Inferno, he asks why these souls reside apart. Virgil replies, “The honor of their name, which echoes up above within your life, gains Heaven’s grace, and that advances them” (Inferno, Canto IV, Lines 76-78). The idea that earthly fame can affect a soul’s eternal judgment seems contradictory to Christian doctrine. Since Christ urged His disciples to shun worldly glory and focus instead on the glory of God’s kingdom, this appears to be a striking discrepancy. Unprepared at the beginning of the journey to delve into the meaning of this contradictory statement, Dante must travel through Inferno and Purgatorio towards the illuminating light of Paradiso. As with many other themes elucidated in The Divine Comedy, the theme of fame and glory is not fully understandable until we enter Paradise. Thus, the closer we come to God and his immutable truths, the more clear Dante’s secondary themes become. So, while Dante’s preoccupation with and quest for fame seems to contradict his subsequent condemnation of it, this paradox is reconciled in the second sphere of Paradise when we find that fame can have a place in paradise if it is sought for righteous reasons.
Instead of leaving all of Inferno’s sinners to burn in the traditional flames of Hell, Dante successfully uses contrapasso to build a world with unique psychological depth, and therefore a deeper potential for suffering. Contrapasso distinguishes each sinner by making his or her punishment uniquely appropriate to the sin so that every soul in Inferno inhabits an individual Hell of different thoughts, desires, and pains. As Dante moves into Purgatorio and Paradisio and still sees distinctions between souls according to their Earthly characteristics, it is tempting to say that contrapasso continues to define a soul’s existence throughout the Comedy. But though contrapasso works so brilliantly in Inferno, Dante does not use this technique of separation as a central theme when building an effective Purgatorio and Paradisio. This shift away from the human isolation of contrapasso and towards a unity of desire and purpose helps Dante create a vision of Purgatorio and Paradisio both uniquely peaceful and awe-inspiring.The effectiveness of contrapasso in punishing Inferno’s sinners is apparent in the isolated position of Master Adam, for whom contrapasso creates an individual world unique to his sin. Dante meets Adam, a coin counterfeiter, in the Tenth Pouch of the Eighth Circle, where the Fraudulent suffer together. Adam’s body is unnaturally disfigured so that he appears “fashioned like a lute” (Canto XXX line 49) and he can not move from his spot. His immobility and deformity are appropriate to his sin, the distortion of metals, an occupation that allowed him everything he desired on Earth. In the Eighth Circle, he is not only physically distorted but also psychologically affected: the two things that he most longs for are water and revenge on his fellow falsifiers, both goals that require movement. He says:alive, I had enough of all I wanted;alas, I now long for one drop of water.. . . I am racked by memory the image of their [streams of the Arno] flow parches me morethan the disease that robs my face of flesh. (Canto XXX, lines 62-69)Master Adam’s world is eternally limited to his internal suffering, his mind forever stuck on revenge against his fellow sinners and his inability to fulfill his desires. His punishment isolates Master Adam forever from his fellow men.Another sinner that helps elucidate contrapasso’s effectiveness is Brunetto Latini and his conversation with Dante in the Third Ring of the Seventh Circle of Inferno. The Seventh Circle contains Sodomites who were Violent Against God and Dante has a hard time even recognizing Brunetto, his old mentor and teacher, from among a group of souls running under a rain of fire. Brunetto’s face is badly scorched and he must keep their meeting brief so as not to fall behind the group he is running with. His sins continue to dominate his existence and act as the instrument of his punishment. The indignity of the old and respected master’s position makes his punishment not only physically appropriate the raining fire akin to the homosexual passion he could not control on Earth but also psychologically so. Indeed, Brunetto never discusses his sin directly and instead discusses politics and earthly matters with Dante. But Brunetto’s only hope is for earthly fame and to be remembered in the great encyclopaedic work he left behind, the Tesoro: “Let my Tesoro, in which I still live, / be precious to you; and I ask no more” (Canto XV, line 119-120) are his parting words as he races off to join his fellow sinners. Because of his homosexuality, Brunetto did not leave his name behind through his offspring, the natural way, but instead wants his name to live through his work. This pride in his work plays a crucial role in his punishment because fame and respect are things he can never attain from his humiliating position in Inferno. These obsessions are unique to Brunetto, placing him alone in his torment and separated from the many other souls in Inferno who each have their own private Hell of desire and pain.This severe isolation is lessened in Purgatorio, where the characters experience a transitional form of contrapasso, one that takes them from the Inferno’s eternal punishment to the timeless unity of Paradisio. In one sense, contrapasso still exists in each of Purgatorio’s terraces where the souls purge their sins through punishments directly related to their faults on Earth. However, the contrapasso does not define the center of their existence: the souls are not consumed with their sin as the sinners in Inferno are. Instead, all of the pilgrims in Purgatory want to discard their Earthly distinctions, wash away their sins, and move towards a unity in God, a goal they share as they suffer together. One can argue that contrapasso still remains in the suffering accorded them on each terrace, but their ultimate and most painful punishment is their distance from God and an awareness of a Paradise they have yet to reach. Dante begins to observe this new harmony in Purgatorio when he reaches the Second Terrace where the Envious purge their sins. He greets the souls with:”You who can be certain,”I then began, “of seeing that high lightwhich is the only object of your longing,may, in your conscience, all impuritysoon be dissolved by grace, so that the streamof memory flow through it limpidly”. (Canto XIII, lines 85-90)After seeing the eyes of the Envious sewn shut (because it was through their vision that they envied others), Dante feels compassion for them but realizes that their unified desire is to forget their sin through this physical pain and experience God’s love. Whereas contrapasso works in the Inferno by trapping the sinners with their painful memories forever, Dante recognizes that these souls wish for only a “limpid” memory of their past. Purgatorio’s souls not only share a disdain for their personal pasts, but also a desire for a unity with God and the other souls. Guido del Duca, one of the souls on the Second Terrace, cries out against the isolated heart of a sinner when he admits his envy on Earth to Dante and entreats him: “o humankind, why do you set your hearts / there where our sharing cannot have a part?” (Canto XIV, lines 86-87). Dante later questions Virgil on what Guido meant by this “sharing” and Virgil explains that:when your longings center on things [sins that need purging]. . . then envy stirs the bellows of your sighs.But if the love within the Highest Sphereshould turn your longings heavenward, the fearinhabiting your breast would disappear;for there, the more there are who would say “ours”,so much the greater is the good possessed by each so much more love burns in that cloister. (Canto XV, lines 49-57) Therefore we see that the greatest goal for the Purgatory characters is to leave behind and purge their distinctive sins and human qualities in order to become one with God and with their fellow souls. The inhabitants of Purgatory do not suffer in a private Hell for their sins on Earth as we saw in Inferno, but instead focus as a united group on God and their desire to make their own free will at one with God’s. Though Dante witnesses many brutal punishments in Purgatorio that draw his pity and compassion, the souls do not seem to concern themselves as much with the contrapasso-like pain as the souls in Inferno did. Their greatest punishment is that the sins they must purge prevent them from receiving God’s love in full and delay their entrance into Paradisio. Whereas in Inferno, each sinner voiced his own desires, whether it was for Earthly fame or revenge, the characters in Purgatorio request the same thing — only that Dante pray for them when he reaches Paradisio or remind family members to pray for them in Purgatory.This disregard for Earthly pain can be seen in Dante’s meeting with the poets Guido Guinizzelli and Arnaut Daniel in the Seventh Terrace of Purgatory where the Lustful (heterosexual and homosexual) are punished. Their sin of excessive lust as well as their fame on Earth make this scene a striking parallel to Dante’s meeting with Brunetto in Inferno. Just as with Brunetto, Dante sings his appreciation for Guido Guinizzelli’s work after recognizing him, but Guido’s reaction immediately separates him from Brunetto. He unconcernedly brushes off Dante’s compliments, declaring the greater talent of Arnaut, another soul on the Seventh Terrace, and asks Dante to pray for him in Paradise as he runs away with his group. Dante speaks soon after with Arnaut, who also refuses to speak of his work on Earth as if it were inconsequential, declaring that:with grief, I see my former folly;with joy, I see the hoped-for day draw near.Now, by the Power that conducts you tothe summit of the stairway, I pray you:remember, at time opportune, my pain! (Canto XXVI, lines 143-147)Whereas Brunetto suffers alone wanting only for his work to gain Earthly fame, both Arnaut and Guido long to forget their past writing and sins in their fervor to reach God. The last words of each master artist further cement the difference between Inferno’s contrapasso and Purgatorio’s new unified vision. Brunetto’s existence and all his desires relate directly to his personality and individual qualities on Earth: contrapasso demands that he will always be trapped and consumed with his sins. Guido and Arnaut, in contrast, share the same desire to move closer to God, just as all the other many characters Dante encounters in Purgatorio: despite their current purging and their different accomplishments as humans, their existence is no longer defined by their sins but by their increasing capacity and devotion to God. As Dante leaves Purgatorio and moves into Paradisio, he once again sees a separation of the inhabitants in their placement on different spheres according to their faults and assets on Earth. Despite this distinction, however, this is not the contrapasso that Dante uses in Inferno. Dante’s guide Beatrice explains that the spheres are not a reality as the circles of Hell were because all those souls grace the Empryean;and each of them has gentle life though somesense the Eternal Spirit more, some less.They showed themselves to you here not becausethis is their sphere, but as a sign for youthat in the Empryean their place is lowest. (Canto IV, lines 34-39)Though the souls have different places in Paradise, their relative positions do not dictate their happiness or constitute the focus of their existence; it merely symbolizes their differing capacities for God’s love. An example of this seeming paradox, wherein all souls are unified and happy despite their higher or lower positions in Dante’s eyes, is Piccarda, who appears on the sphere of the Moon in a lower position in the Empryean because of her inconstancy on Earth. Dante immediately questions whether she desires to be in a higher sphere, to which she gently answers,Brother, the power of love appeases ourwill so we only long for what we have;we do not thirst for greater blessedness.. . . to live in love is here necessity,. . . The essence of this blessed life consistsin keeping to the boundaries of God’s will;. . . all this kingdom willsthat which will please the King whose will is rule.And in His will there is our peace. (Canto III, lines 70-85)Piccarda’s thoughts are not consumed with her life on Earth or her individual position but instead with receiving God’s love — she even uses the plural voice, saying “we” instead of “I”. So though the individual qualities of each soul dictate their capacities for receiving God’s love in Paradise, the ultimate reward for the souls here has no relation to their human qualities on Earth but is instead the same for all souls: the peace of being at one with God’s will. The individuality of the contrapasso in Inferno, and its purpose of assigning uniquely appropriate existences to each soul, is not found in the unity and singular focus among the souls in Paradisio.Perhaps one of the most individually distinctive souls in Paradisio is Cunizza, and the ease with which she dismisses her unique character on Earth for the shared goal of peace and unity in God provides a strong example for the absence of contrapasso. Dante meets Cunizza in the Sphere of Venus, where those who were influenced by amorous love are grouped. Cunizza was a famed woman with many lovers and husbands, and her appearance in Paradise may be surprising to Dante’s contemporaries who were aware of her reputation. But her excessive love also meant she was compassionate and warm and she apparently turned her energies to God in her later life. Despite her fame on Earth and location in Venus, Cunizza does not experience Paradise any differently than the other souls around her. She says . . . I shine herebecause this planet’s radiance conquered me.But in myself I pardon happilythe reason for my fate; I do not grieve and vulgar minds may find this hard to see. (Canto IX, lines 32- 36)She goes on to comment on the political scene in Dante’s home city of Florence and concludes her speech with “Above are mirrors — Thrones is what you call them –/ and from them God in judgement shines on us;/ and thus we think it right to say such things” (Canto IX, lines 61-63). So after she dismisses her renowned past on Earth, she goes on to evaluate Dante’s politics according to God’s judgement, using “we” instead of “I”, thus dismissing her identity in favor of speaking collectively with God’s will. Cunizza’s thoughts and focus are not on her own unique excessive love on Eart she dismisses that outright. Instead, her reward in Paradise is the same as all the other souls. Dante says it best, when he realizes that “every place/ in Heaven is in Paradise” (Canto III, line 88).When one so examines the desires and thoughts of the souls in the Comedy it is apparent that contrapasso no longer operates as the central focus in Purgatorio and Paradisio. In the Inferno, each character is consumed with their own distinct thoughts directly related to his or her individual sin: often they involve Earthly fame, revenge, or politics. The sinners are isolated from those around them and face a tormenting eternity of unfulfilled hopes and desires. In contrast, while the souls of Purgatorio are still assigned punishments directly related to their sin, there exists a unity among their thoughts and desires. Time and again, the souls Dante talks with quickly dismiss their own lives on Earth and their sins as stumbling blocks on the path to their higher goal: a union with God. This unity of thought and desire among the souls is a continuous theme as Dante travels to Paradisio, where the distinction between souls is even less tangible and the unity of their thoughts and desires is always the same God and His love. Though the individual qualities of each soul correlates to their capacity for receiving God’s love, Paradise leaves each soul completely satisfied and thus all are unified in their will (one with God’s Will) and focus. Dante’s use of contrapasso in the Inferno followed by a move away from it towards collective feeling in Paradisio perhaps reveals something about his conception of happiness and love: an insistence on individuality, isolation, and Earthly fame can only lead to an eternity of unfulfilled desires, while leaving behind our personal demands in favor of God’s will can leave us ultimately satisfied in our need for love and comfort Dante’s Paradise defined.
Dante’s Inferno, itself one piece of a literary trilogy, repeatedly deploys the leitmotif of the number three as a metaphor for ambiguity, compromise, and transition. A work in terza rima that details a descent through Nine Circles of Hell, The Inferno encompasses temporal, literary, and political bridges and chasms that link Dante’s inspired Centaur work between the autobiographical and the fictive, the mundane and the divine and, from a contemporary viewpoint, the Medieval and the ModernDante’s recognition of the Renaissance as our millennium’s metamorphic period and of himself as its poetic forerunner (until deposition by Shakespeare).The Inferno is a work of transition between two points, as attested by the opening lines: “When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,/ I found myself within a shadowed forest,/ for I had lost the path that does not stray” (I, 1-3). Echoes of these famous lines can be heard in Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Traveled”; whereas Frost’s poem concerns itself with the duality and firmness of decision, Dante’s tercet implies an interval of great indecision and limbo. Indeed, he is anything but entrenched in position: “I cannot clearly say how I had entered/ the wood; I was so full of sleep just at/ The point where I abandoned the true path” (I, 10-12). Dante is nearly sleepwalking, yet another fusion of two worlds, the conscious and unconscious. This division of self can best be explained by Dante’s exile and his loss of national identity. He examines this alienated state through a geographic metaphor: “And just as he who, with exhausted breath,/ Having escaped from sea to shore, turns back/ To watch the dangerous waters he has quit,/ so did my spirit, still a fugitive,/ turn back to look intently at the pass/ that never has let any man survive” (I, 22-27). Of course, Dante was in exile when he wrote The Inferno, but his journey takes place beforehand. This “presaging” underscores the theme of cyclical time in the epic, that of historical repetition with confused tenses.The tangle of temporalities is never more evident than in the Sixth Circle, comprised of Heretics. Dante is told of his future difficulties in returning to Florence from exile: “‘If they were slow,’ he said, to learn that art,/ that is more torment to me than this bed./ And yet the Lady who is ruler here/ will not have her face kindled fifty times/ before you learn how heavy is that art'” (X, 77-81). As Mandelbaum points out, “Dante himself learned within 50 months how difficult it is to try to return from exile” (Notes, Canto X, 81). This vision of futurity is also bestowed upon the damned:”‘It seems, if I hear right, that you can see/ beforehand that which time is carrying,/ but you’re denied the sight of present things.’/ We see, even as men who are farsighted,/ those things,’ he said, that are remote from us;/ the Highest Lord allots us that much light./ But when events draw near or are, our minds/ are useless; were we not informed by others,/ we should know nothing of your human state./ So you can understand how our awareness/ will die completely at the moment when/ the portal of the future has been shut'” (X, 97-108).The rhyme scheme of The Inferno also presents the reader (or, more appropriately, the listener) with foresight. The “aba bcb dcd” terza rima permits each lines to function as both the tercet sandwich’s meat and the bread; the cyclical and uniting aspects of time are on sonic display here as the reader is able to glimpse the upcoming tercet’s framing lines through the current tercet’s middle line. The number three even carries mathematical saliencepi is approximated as three, thus furthering the circular imagery. A similar scheme is usually employed in the final lines of each canto, which describe the current setting and the next one: “And so, between the dry shore and the swamp,/ we circled much of that disgusting pond,/ our eyes upon the swallowers of slime./ We came at last upon a tower’s base” (VII, 127-130). More important than the devices with which to compose Dante’s language is his language itself. Brucker explores the implications of Dante’s revolutionary use of the vernacular:”Yet his Divine Comedy was written in the local Tuscan dialect; not in Latin. And although this work contains the universal concepts of the classical and Christian traditions, it is also a Florentine poem, replete with the particular values, emotions, and concerns of that tradition. The poet did not succeed in reconciling all of the contradictions between the two traditions, but his genius enabled him to surmount these discordant elements, and to create a magnificent synthesis combining ideal and reality, the universal and the particular” (215).The Inferno is a landmark in literary history as much for its allegorical and spiritual values as for its accessibility. Its similes are at once sweeping and grounded. Though other languages had been written in the vernacular, such as the French fabliaux, those stories were light and comic. Dante’s work is the natural predecessor to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, which were written in the English vernacular as opposed to Latin, but which were also comic tales of fabliau descent in which characters remained fairly constant throughout. The descent of The Inferno, pun intended, is that of spiritual catharsis and change. Even the tripartite structure of The Divine Comedy follows the Aristotelian conception of a three-act drama in The Poetics, with a beginning, a middle, and an end (Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise), all of which correlate to the protagonist’s metamorphosis.Though Dante writes in a deeply moral tone, the sinners’ immorality is not always so clear-cut. Those in the First Circle, Limbo, are condemned, albeit lightly, for their impious, pre-Christian beliefs: “‘…they did not sin; and yet, though they have merits,/ that’s not enough, because they lacked baptism,/ the portal of the faith that you embrace./ And if they lived before Christianity,/ they did not worship God in fitting ways;/ and of such spirits I myself am one'” (IV, 34-9). The “portal of faith” denotes the filtering powers of religion, and filters often blur the picture. It is fitting that Limbo resides in the First Circle; they are on the cusp of the above- and below-ground worlds for their lack of grounding in the divine world. This is yet another threesome of Dante’s, the heavenly, the earth-bound, and the infernal (and if one chooses to make the correlation, “Paradise” is the heavenly, the infernal is obviously “Inferno,” and our time on earth is “Purgatory”). Further ambiguity arises in the Second Circle, where Minos warns Dante to be careful of “whom you trust;/ the gate is wide, but do not be deceived!” and where the environment is appropriately hazy: “I reached a place where every light is muted,/ which bellows like the sea beneath a tempest,/ when it is battered by opposing winds” (V, 19-20, 28-30). Dante encounters Francesca, who persuades him of her relative innocence through her poetic description of love: “‘Love, that can quickly seize the gentle heart,/ took hold of him because of the fair body/ taken from mehow that was done still wounds me./ Love, that releases no beloved from loving,/ took hold of me so strongly through his beauty/ that, as you see, it has not left me yet./ Love led the two of us unto one death'” (V, 100-6). Her anaphoric refrain of “Love” and its captivating powers stands out as lyrically enchanting even among Dante the poet’s legendary similes, but Dante the traveler’s emotional reaction is suspect; after all, he was warned not to be deceived, and he concedes that “pity/ seized me, and I was like a man astray,” much like his initial state prior to his descent (V, 71-2). Francesca contends that “‘There is no greater sorrow/ than thinking back upon a happy time/ in misery” (V, 121-2), another continuation of the past-present thread, and she then recounts the power a book had over her love:”One day, to pass the time away, we read/ of Lancelot…/ And time and time again that reading led/ our eyes to meet, and made our faces pale,/ and yet one point alone defeated us./ When we had read how the desired smile/ was kissed by one who was so true a lover,/ this one, who never shall be parted from me,/ while all his body trembled, kissed my mouth./ A Gallehault indeed, that book and he/ who wrote it, too; that day we read no more'” (V, 130-8).Mandelbaum explains that “Since Gallehault is a character who encouraged the queen and her lover, the book is a Gallehault indeed,’ for it serves Paolo and Francesca as a go-between'” (Notes, V, 127-138). Not only is literature again used as a bridge, but the power of words is what is truly on display here. Are Francesca’s odes sincere or seductive? Since marriage was so often an arranged affair in Florence and, along “with wealth, antiquity, and the possession of high communal office…were the most important factors for determining social status,” Dante’s fainting from the notion of true love is feasible. Still, Francesca’s wily words serve as yet another trinity, also one of poetic implications: the transition from thought to language to speech. Here, thought parallels the memory of the “crime,” Lust, while language is the factual account, and speech beautifies the act. The intermediary and enhancing qualities of the Arthurian romance she read highlight Dante’s vision of poetry. Even if Francesca is cajoling him, he seems to suggest, her lyricism excuses her. The Lustful are placed only in the Second Circle, after all; theirs is a victimless crime, and the third player is an emotion, not a vice.Less ambiguous is Dante’s indictment of the greed that has split Florence into the White and Black parties. The Usurers of the Seventh Circle each wears a purse with his family’s heraldic emblem about his neck, and one purse is “bloodred,/ and it displayed a goose more white than butter” (XVII, 62-3). The symbolic significancewarring factions asphyxiated by their own nepotistic, violent, and immoral practices from which they grow as fat as an “azure, pregnant sow”compactly explain the prevailing view that holds usury as unnatural and anti-mercantilist (XVII, 64). In contrast to the innocuous Lustful in the Second Circle, usurers capitalize off the loss of others. This is Dante’s underlying moral concern, that of indicting selfishness and disloyalty. The final circle holds three of history’s greatest traitors, Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. Lucifer gnaws at them in his mouth, a digestive image that reconciles the external and the internal: “Within each mouthhe used it like a grinder/ with gnashing teeth he tore to bits a sinner,/ so that he brought much pain to three at once” (XXXIV, 55-7). The unity of wrath the three treasonous figures receive is another conflation of triangulation, and one that leads to the epic’s final image of reemergence: “My guide and I came on that hidden road/ to make our way back into the bright world;/ and with no care for any rest, we climbed/ he first, I followinguntil I saw,/ through a round opening, some of those things/ of beauty Heaven bears. It was from there/ that we emerged, to seeonce morethe stars” (XXXIV, 133-9). The celestial image, as viewed through a portal of the earth, fuses Dante’s trinity of the netherworld, the world, and the other-world, and leaves the reader with a lasting sense of redemption in the divine.A modern critic can interpret Dante’s fixation on the number three with a multitude of metaphors yet to be coveredFather, Son, and Holy Ghost; material-artist-reader; (B)lack-(W)hite-colorbut the very fact that The Inferno lends itself to so many speaks highly of its notion of a “third way” as an ambiguous compromise. What is most fascinating is the degree to which one of the more stable metaphors, that of past, present, and future, has come true. The Inferno repeatedly invokes past epics, especially Virgil’s Aeneid, with such cries as “O Muses, o high genius, help me now,” and Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan welcome Dante and Virgil into Limbo. Now many modern poets, most notably T.S. Eliot, allude quite frequently to Dante’s work. It seems that The Inferno will forever be canonically in the terza rimaoriginally written as a centerpiece to the Italian epic, now accepted as a framer of world literature.WORKS CITED:Brucker, Gene A. Renaissance Florence. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.Mandelbaum, Allen. Inferno (translation). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
The difference between death and dying can often seem minute. The dying are merely those on the way to death. Yet the intrinsic difference between the process of dying and the moment of death is one of great literary obsession, in particular in Dante’s The Inferno. Robert Pinsky’s otherwise transcendent translation makes a provocative error in translating the following line:My pityOverwhelmed me, and I felt myself go slack:Swooning as in death, I fell like a dying body. When in reality, the original Italian reads “as a dead body.” This moment of frailty, realized after the interaction with the doomed lovers Paolo and Francesca, is entirely dependent on the word choice. If Dante falls like a “dead” body, then the lovers have made him realize his own mortality. By changing the word to “dying,” Pinsky implies that Dante is less aware of his own death. Dante realizes that he is falling like a dead body, meaning that he is not exactly one. One cannot fall like oneself, like one’s state of being. The simile is in fact a state of removal; it suggests that Dante is so unlike a dead body that to compare the two makes for a memorable analogy. Rather, to point out that he falls almost as though he is dead only points out that he is in a similar but different state, living. And what are the living but those in the process of dying? All life is but a forestalling of death, and if death is the inevitable event then dying is the inevitable process leading up to it. To be living (and thus to be dying) is to have a fixed trajectory, to assume that death is waiting in a span of an indeterminate amount of years. Virgil promises the trajectory to Dante early, and his assent is assured, just as his death is assured by his existence as a human being. To realize that he is dying is to assert the trajectory. That he will eventually become one of the dead he meets (even if he will attain eternal providence) is overwhelming to Dante (a poet convinced that his work will outlast so many others), and partly the reason for his fit of swooning. When Dante falls “like” a dead body, he is forced to realize that he is not dead yet, which means that his death is still oncoming. His human mortality becomes more evident, and the text hammers in this realization. In the original Italian, the repeated words “morisse” and “morto” are so linguistically similar as to merely reinforce the realization that death is approaching, and thus that Dante is dying. By contrast, to say like “dying” implies that Dante is not dying, that his trajectory is still mutable, and that Dante is less aware of his path: be it ascent or near-Biblical fall. The key difference between death and dying is one of motion, too, and reinforces Dante’s awareness of mortality. To be dead is to be in stasis; even the shades that appear to be moving lack the ability to change their position. Paolo and Francesca are merely blown about in an eternal circle, able only to drift towards the human and Dante, who by contrast follows a fixed path of ascent. Dante chooses to emphasize how their lack of movement, their being dead, only serves to emphasize that he is not dead but dying. Dante “fell,” collapsed in “swooning.” He has the capability to move, but only in one direction: descent, much like the diminishment of dying. Dante must descend into Hell to become whole, much as he must go through the process of dying to achieve death and thus (as he is promised) salvation. The lovers remind Dante that he must fall, but fall like the “dead.” He will later ascend in contrast to these dead, but the importance of his “fall” cannot be ignored. By suggesting that Dante falls like a “dying” body, Pinsky loses this awareness of the descent, because, as previously mentioned, to fall “like” dying to make clear that one is not dying, and thus unable to make the descent that Dante goes through. We cannot forget that it is the presence of the lovers who bring out this realization, this moment of sublime cognizance of mortality. And the circle where Dante sits is not one of a sin of money or false words, but of the lustful, which ultimately conceptualizes the fact that Dante’s realization of his mortality occurs because of lust, and lovers, and eroticism. In fact, the distinction between death and dying is fundamentally one of eroticism. Death is inherently tinged with erotic overtures, ever since Dante’s beloved Greeks surmised that excessive sexual excretion of bodily fluids was the path to death, and the French invested with the phrase “la petite mort,” meaning “the little death” with symbolism of the orgasm. Dante “felt [himself] go slack,” a phrase that cannot help but conjure up the post-coital fatigue. Death is a societal fetish, in particular in Dante’s time, when the promise of plague and mortality was everywhere. The only response to this was to fetishize, to make death an object of sexual awareness. Medieval and renaissance depictions of death, in particular those connected with a Biblical representation, are often erotic in an almost inadvertent way: from Van Dyck’s 1459 depiction of St. Sebastian to the medieval danse macabre, with its emphasis on the body of death. Dante’s erotic death only further brings out his awareness of mortality, for lust is a sin of the body, which must inevitably be silenced and its urges ceased. Thus for Dante to fall “like a dead body” he is falling with an erotic connotation. He is falling “like” one after the consummation of passion, which despite (due to the simile) distancing him from the actual process of orgasm, connotes to the reader an eroticism that is not awoken by Pinsky’s translation merely through the use of the word “dead.” This connection binds him to the openly erotic and lust-driven lovers; in fact it is the lovers who give Dante a greater self-realization. But “dying” is a state of being supremely un-eroticized. As Sontag’s observed in On Illness and Metaphor, dying is a state of removal, of descent. Thus it is the antithesis of Dante’s ascent towards heaven and the inevitably eroticized Beatrice. Dying is unerotic because it shows the inevitable and tragic fate of man: his mortality. Dying cannot be eroticized because it is such a process, a lingering and depressing malady. Death, by contrast, is a whole, a completed act. Dante’s shades look complete; they resemble human beings with human bodies, and thus have more erotic qualities. To fetishize death is somehow easier in Western society than to do the same for dying, for death is a momentary act, closer to the consummation of lust than dying. Dying is, in its own way, to death what the pursuit is to the orgasm. The pursuit and dying can easily be idealized but never sexualized, and for Dante it is the latent eroticism of death that emerges in this passage. Be it a question of Biblical descent or nascent eroticism, one cannot deny the power of the body for Dante. Seeing the lovers awakens in him a realization, a moment of overwhelming mortality in the face of eternity. Ultimately, The Inferno cannot be undermined by this peculiar choice in translation, but rather more questions can only arise.
The first U.S. Poet Laureate for three consecutive years (from 1997-2000), Pinsky has succeeded in much more than poetry. In 1984, for example, he was the author of an interactive fiction game called Mindwheel; today, he is the poetry editor for the irreverent online Slate magazine. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that his poetry embraces modern life–yet remains firmly rooted in a traditional education in poetry and the classics.In The Figured Wheel, for example, Pinsky’s poetry ranges from a look athi smother to a discussion of psychiatrists. His style, although variable, is readable, and shuns much of the “encoding”, or deliberately obscure language, of other poets. His poem “History of My Heart,” for example, begins, One Christmastime Fats Waller in a fur coat Rolled beaming from a taxicab with two pretty girls Each at an arm as he led them in a thick downy snowfall Across Thirty-fourth Street into the busy crowd Shopping at Macy’s: perfume, holly, snowflake displays. Chimes rang for change. In Toys, where my mother worked (Pinsky, 1996, 123)Even in this short excerpt, Pinsky uses a number of poetic devices that deepen the poem–yet make it both comprehensive, and conscious of modern life. For example, the unusual choice of the word “Rolled” instantly gives the reader the feeling of the large man emerging exuberantly into the snow, perhaps with a sense of urgency or inexorability. The capitalization of “Thirty-fourth Street”, which is unnecessary, gives you a sense of the importance of the time and place. The colon use is unexpected in the “Shopping at Macy’s:” line – and the colon alerts us that it is announcing what shopping at Macy’s was about during Christmastime. “Chimes rang for change” brings up the sound of cash registers ringing and coins rattling, but it can have a different meaning. It can just as well conjure up the image of bell-ringers ringing the changes (each different pattern of bell ringing in a church is called a “change”) in a cathedral. It is an interesting image, and in keeping with the festival aura of Christmas with which Pinsky begins this poem. Pinky’s style in this collection is generally free verse, with the occasional internal rhyme. However, he does not write in a prose style. With the use of inversion, parallel constructions, allusions, and poetic language Pinsky makes it clear what he is writing is a poem, not a prose-poem, or a poem trying to sound like prose. The poem “Ode to Meaning” (which is an example of his wide-ranging subject matter – this is concerned with a philosophical questioning of symbols) shows how his poetry is not necessarily strictly metered or rhymed (the feet of the lines vary – 4, 3, 3, 5, 5, 3), but still very musical and poetic. You also in the laughter, warrior angel; Your helmet the zodiac, rocket-plumed Your spear the beggar’s finger pointing to the mouth Your heel planted on the serpent Formulation Your face a vapor, the wreath of cigarette smoke crowning Bogart as he winces through it (Strand and Boland, 253)He uses anaphora, like the Bible, to make the lines ring together, and it makes the large amount of information passed in this one stanza easier to digest and understand. His exploration of images and symbols continues to the end of the poem: Dire one, Desired one. Savior, sentencer – Absence, Or presence ever at play: Let those scorn you who never Starved in your dearth. If I Dare to disparage Your harp of shadows I taste Wormwood and motor oil, I pour Ashes on my head. You are the wound. You Be the medicine. (Strand and Boland, 254)Pinsky, it is clear, has a distinct ear for language. In one of his books of criticism, The Sounds of Poetry, he writes, “The medium of poetry is the human body: the column of air inside the chest, shaped into signifying sounds in the larynx and the mouth. In this sense, poetry is as physical or bodily an art as dancing” (Summary, Pinsky, 1998). Pinsky believes that poetry is to be experienced aurally. In this, he is harkening back to the origins poetry, when it was only an oral art. Despite the modern roots of Pinsky’s poetry, many of his other works show that he clearly hails from a poetic, classical background. For example, his translation of Dante’s Inferno is tackled in its entirety, both English and Italian, but Pinsky resists the original Italian convention of terza rima; as he explains, triple rhyming is extremely difficult in English. He rejects the terza rima, and instead translates the entire poem in a rhyming convention of “like sounds.” He writes,”This translation rejects that solution and instead makes a more flexible definition of rhyme, or of the kind and degree of like sound that constitute rhyme. But on the other hand, I have not accepted just any similar sounds as rhyming: the translation is based on a fairly systematic rhyming norm that defines rhyme as the same consonant-sounds-however much the vowels may differ-at the ends of words.” He gives examples “tell/feel/well” and “sleep/stop/up” (Pinsky, 1994, xix). In this, Robert Pinsky is innovating into a new kind of rhyme, or at least referring back to an old form (consonance – (Abrams 9) “repetition of a sequence of two or more consonants, but with a change in the intervening vowel”) and then restricting it to the ending consonant In this, he is fulfilling what he said, when commenting on Landor’s poetry “One can be an ‘innovator’, … by reviving, adapting and developing traditional forms, quite as much as by invention” (Schmidt 388-389). Pinsky did not invent a completely new kind of rhyme for his translation of the Inferno, but he has made the sound of it uniquely his own, and adapted it well to the English language. For example, he writes, My teaching; He who made all of Heaven’s features In His transcendent wisdom gave them guides So each part shines on all the others, all nature’s Illumination apportioned. So too, for goods Of worldly splendor He assigned a guide And minister – she, when time seems proper spreads (Pinsky, 1994, 57)The “like sounds” of features/nature’s, goods/spreads, plus the repetition of guide/guides gives the stanzas a feeling of unity and musicality, without the “hard rhymes” which he explains in his Translator’s note (xix) that he dislikes so much. This is a novel innovation, and to modern ears sounds more poetic and less conversational than blank verse, but also lacks the sing-songiness that direct and hard rhymes have come to mean in our day and age The enjambment, even across stanzas, is common in his Inferno and his own poetry works, such as “History of My Heart” (see above). It is curious, perhaps, that Pinsky would choose such extreme enjambment, which would seem to suggest fragmentation of thought. Actually it is part of his innovation against the singsonginess and end-stopped conventionality of old forms. This enjambment leaves Pinsky free to make his like-sound rhymes, but doesn’t limit his thoughts to the limit of his line, whatever its length. “Wormwood and motor oil” – an old substance and a new one – perhaps give some clue to what Robert Pinsky’s poetry is all about. His new poetry is accessible and engaging, without being overly simple or trite. His translations are dense, but poetic and light-hearted, even with serious subject matter. He chose a huge work, and a seven-centuries-old one, in Dante’s Inferno, but he makes the conversations and the descriptions sound both full of poetic gravitas and a modern feel. Thus, the Poet Laureate has managed to make the old new, and bring a kind of rhyme back into poetry that feels poetic without sounding false or old-fashioned.Works CitedAbrams, M. H. (2005). A Glossary of Literary Terms (8th ed., Rev.). Boston: Thomson Wadsworth. The Academy Of American Poets. (). Poets.org. Retrieved October 16, 2006, from The Academy of American Poets poets.org Web Site: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/200The Library Of Congress. (). LOC Poet Laureate Timeline. Retrieved October 16, 2006, from The Library of Congress Web Site: http://www.loc.gov/poetry/more_pinsky.htmlPinsky, R. (Trans.) (1994). The Inferno of Dante. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (Pinsky, 1994) Pinsky, R. (1996). The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems, 1966-1996. New York: Farrar. Straus and Giroux. (Pinsky 1996)Pinsky, R. (1998). The Sounds of Poetry: a brief guide [Electronic version]. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (Pinsky, 1998) Schmidt, M. (1999). Lives of the Poets. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. (Schmidt)Strand, M., & Boland, E. (Eds.). (2000). The Making of a Poem. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. (Strand & Boland)
Humanism had a profound impact on European society during the Renaissance. This movement transformed the thinking processes of many Europeans, altering the way these people viewed themselves, their lives, and their place in the world. Literature written around the time of the Renaissance displays humanism’s influence on the European social order.Dante Alighieri, a prominent Florentine writer, completed his Inferno around 1314. Although Dante lived before the widespread proliferation of humanism and humanistic writings, his style exhibits many precursors, if not aspects, of later humanistic thought. The aftereffects of humanism are apparent in the writings of John Milton, an English writer whose works were greatly influenced by the tumultuous political climate of seventeenth century England. Whereas Dante’s Inferno displays many qualities to be emphasized by humanism, Milton’s Paradise Lost, published in 1667, demonstrates the culmination of the effect humanism has had on his society. The writings of both men are products of the respective times in which they were written; Milton wrote almost three and a half centuries after Dante, and he lived in a different society in which Dante lived. Despite these differences, both the Inferno and Paradise Lost display aspects found in humanism, although they may convey these aspects to the reader very differently.In order to understand how humanism pervades the themes and descriptions found within the Inferno and Paradise Lost, one must first grasp the concept of humanism. Humanism, literally “the study of man”, can be defined as an awakening of the self. Humanism emphasized both the study of the classics and the “liberating arts”, arts that liberate the mind. The study of moral philosophy, history, grammar, rhetoric, and poetry allowed humanists to broaden their minds, become more worldly, and more individualized. Whereas before the Renaissance, Europeans had defined themselves as part of the collective, humanists began to define themselves as individuals. Whereas the Medieval thinkers had embraced the teachings of the Church, humanists distanced themselves from the Church by their intense study of the classics and the liberal arts. As a result, humanists concentrated their efforts towards improving their life on earth as well as improving their position in the afterlife. The liberation of one’s mind through studying, coupled with the humanist’s precedence of life over afterlife, allowed for the humanist to take control of his own life, rather than to submit to the pre-Renaissance view that one is a pawn in the hands of more powerful forces. Both Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost display most of these aspects of humanism in some form and at some point during their progression.Throughout the Inferno, Dante meets a wide range of characters, all with different personalities. Many of these characters are those with whom Dante’s was once acquainted. Dante’s decision to put his contemporaries in Hell reflects humanism, since he respects both his friends and enemies as individuals. All of these characters have their own distinct personalities, and Dante makes them stand out from the collective group of their fellow sinners. Dante isolates characters such as Capaneus, Ser Brunetto Latino, and Bertrand De Born. Dante describes the powerful figure Farinata Degli Uberti as if “he seemed to hold all of Hell in disrespect,” (Inferno X, line 36). Dante could have easily walked through Hell, simply describing the punishments of each specified group of sinners. Dante’s choice to isolate members of a specific group as individuals displays his humanistic process of thinking.In the Inferno, Dante introduces many characters; in the first two books of Paradise Lost, Milton only introduces a handful of characters. Dante briefly and concisely fleshes his characters out, while Milton illustrates his characters with great detail, paying close attention to their particular traits and attributes which identify them as individuals. Milton identifies many of the main characters as part of one singular group, the fallen angels, similar to the way Dante identifies the individual sinners he meets with their respective sins. However, Milton places a much greater emphasis on the individual, and how each individual character differs. The use of contrast to individualize characters is most easily recognized during the speeches of Moloch and Belial in Book II of Paradise Lost. Moloch appears extremely rash and reckless, advocating for open war against Heaven. Immediately following Moloch’s speech, Belial tries to persuade the fallen angels not to recommence the war with Heaven. Moloch’s speech is rather short and filled with emotion; Belial’s speech is long, calm, devious, and persuasive. The speeches of these characters offer the reader a very detailed view of these two individual characters. Milton’s juxtaposition of these completely different characters further identifies each of them as individuals, rather than as members of the fallen angel collective.Although both the Inferno and Paradise Lost display humanism in the form of individualism, each work is a product of the period in which it was produced. Milton’s Paradise Lost was written during the Baroque period, a movement of extremes, so Milton fleshes out his characters with great, almost extreme detail. The late medieval era and early Renaissance shaped Dante’s Inferno; the Inferno was written before humanism had its momentous impact on the vast majority of intellectuals. As a result of this, Dante does not describe his characters in as great detail as Milton describes his characters, but Dante still individualizes his characters by isolating them from the rest of the sinners.Not only did humanism emphasize individualism, but humanism also emphasized the importance and esteem of Classical Civilization and literature. Both the Inferno and Paradise Lost can be considered humanist works simply because they attempt to mimic the epic style of the great Greek and Roman poets. The invocation of a Muse, a distinct characteristic of classical epics, is present in both the Inferno and Paradise Lost. Milton invokes the “Heav’enly Muse” (Paradise Lost, Book I, line 6) in his opening sentence, while Dante buries his invocation, “O Muses! O High Genius! Be my aid! / O Memory, recorder of the vision, / here shall your true nobility be displayed,” in lines 7-9 of Book II. Both Dante and Milton anticipated their works to become modern epics in the style of Homer and Vergil; Dante hoped his Divine Comedy would be considered the greatest Italian epic, whereas Milton intended for his Paradise Lost to become the greatest English epic.One distinct difference between the Inferno and Paradise Lost occurs in the role of Classical characters and allusions present. In the Inferno, many characters in Classical mythology play significant roles in the progression of the story. Such characters include Minos, Charon, the Harpies, and Geryon. No characters in Greek or Roman mythology play a significant role in Books I and II of Paradise Lost. Milton may have chosen to forsake such characters primarily because Paradise Lost is a story about “Man’s First Disobedience” (Book I, line 1). According to Christianity, no characters found in Classical myths play any part in the corruption of mankind; thus, Milton has no need to include any prominent characters of Classical myths in his epic. One can easily misinterpret Milton’s neglect to include any characters of Classical mythology in his epic as a sign that humanism is not present in Paradise Lost. However, it should be noted that even though the characters in Paradise Lost may not be of a Classical origin, the individualism that these characters display reflects the effect humanism has had on Milton.Strangely enough, both the Inferno and Paradise Lost were not written in Latin. If these two compositions were written in Latin, this overt mimicry of the Classical epic would ooze humanism. However, both works were written in the vernacular. This can be explained by the fact that the Inferno was written just prior to the humanistic movement, and that Paradise Lost was written during the Baroque period, considerably after the high-tide of the humanistic movement. If both works had been written during the middle of the fifteenth century, at the pinnacle of humanism’s influence, they may well have been written in Latin.Both Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost exhibit many aspects of humanism. The most recognizable of these aspects include the emphasis Dante and Milton give to selected individuals, rather than to a collective group. Throughout the Inferno, Dante briefly isolates several characters, giving them individual traits and attributes. Throughout Books I and II of Paradise Lost, Milton fleshes out in great detail a small number of characters. Milton individualizes and describes characters in greater detail than Dante because Milton writes much later than Dante, and humanism has had over two hundred years to pervade Milton’s society. Whereas Dante’s Inferno anticipates humanism, Milton’s Paradise Lost displays the effect humanism has had on European culture.