From the Dark Wood to Styx (Cantos I - VII)

This section works through the first seven cantos of the Commedia, taking us from the very beginning of Dante's journey into the first realms of Hell. Use the links at the bottom of the page to move from canto to canto.

Inferno I

Dante finds himself lost in a dark wood, midway through the journey of his life (i.e. at the age of 35). He sees three animals: a leopard; a lion; and a she-wolf. A figure appears, who Dante realises is Virgil, the Roman poet. Virgil explains that Dante will have to avoid the three beasts, and makes an enigmatic prophecy.

This canto can be divided into four sections:

  • Dante finds himself lost (1-30)

  • The animals (31-60)

  • Virgil appears, and reveals his identity (61-90)

  • Virgil's warning about the beasts (91-136).

Virgil's prophecy is one of the most controversial parts of the Commedia, and there is no consensus in the scholarship about any single interpretation of it. Consider what the prophecy might mean. Scholars have proposed many possible explanations of who, or what, the 'veltro' ['hound'] might be (line 101). Some give a religious account of it, as a representation of the second coming of Christ; others suggested it might be understood as a political leader (although it is unclear who that would be). Similarly no consensus has emerged in the scholarship about the difficult idea of 'tra feltro e feltro' ['between the felt and felt'] (line 105). Suggestions for its meaning have included the ideas that it refers to geographical places (such as Feltre and Montefeltro), two types of monastic order, the star sign of the Gemini, or indeed to the pages of the Commedia itself.        

You should not feel discouraged by finding such a perplexing passage so early in your reading the poem. The good news is that this is about as obscure as Dante's poem will get. There will be other passages which are difficult, and hard to follow, and which will require serious thought; but there are few moments where it is so difficult to understand just what the poet is getting at. We can learn two lessons from the confusion. First, it is often important to think of Dante's poem as both political and religious at the same time. Second, there may be no single correct interpretation of such moments; Dante may have built several meanings into his poem.

It is also worth noting in this canto how the poem makes use of the distinction between Dante-poeta and Dante-personaggio. The poem begins with a focus on Dante-personaggio, but the figure of the poet quickly appears, talking about how hard it is for him to write about his experience. Even here, the distinction between poet and character is not straightforward: the poet still feels the same fear that he felt when he was the character.

Further listening: Download a short lecture on this canto, by Matthew Treherne (University of Leeds) at: Key Moments in the Commedia I: Inferno I, 1-3 

Inferno II

Dante expresses his own fears for the journey. Virgil gives an account of how Beatrice came to tell him of his mission.

This canto can be divided into two sections:

  • Dante's fears for his journey (1-42)

  • Virgil's account of Beatrice (43-142).

What precedents does Dante mention for such a journey? The two prime examples are Aeneas (13-27), whose journey was described in Virgil's Aeneid, and St Paul (28-30). Notice the characteristic mixing of Classical and Christian culture.

Beatrice's lines make clear that Dante has been chosen to make the journey, not because he is more worthy than others, but because he has strayed from her, and is in need of rescuing.This immediately makes clear that, among other purposes, Dante's experience is supposed to be one which changes him. Alongside the narrative of the events which occur on Dante's journey, then, the text also looks likely to develop a narrative about the moral changes which Dante undergoes.

Inferno III

The canto opens with the words written over the Gate of Hell. Virgil responds to Dante's fear by emphasising the need to avoid cowardice. The two travellers see the 'indifferent ones' (sometimes called the Neutrals, or 'ignavi'), who are running around beneath a banner, chased by wasps and flies. Dante and Virgil reach the river Acheron, where they encounter Charon. Charon initially refuses to allowed Dante onto his boat, as he is still alive, but Virgil persuades him. The ground shakes, and Dante collapses.

This canto can be divided into three sections:

  • the Gate of Hell, and Virgil's admonishment of Dante (1-18)

  • the indifferent ones (19-78)

  • the river Acheron, Charon and Dante's collapse (79-136).

This space, invented by Dante, is sometimes described as Ante-Inferno, as it is not quite in Hell proper; yet the punishment carried out there is brutal. The fact that Dante had to create a place where those who refuse to make a choice are punished is suggestive of the importance Dante placed on action and on moral responsibility.

There is some disagreement about the identity of the sinner who enables Dante to deduce which type of sin is punished here, 'colui/che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto', (59-60)[the one /who made, from cowardice, the great denial.']; some have suggested Pontius Pilate, as the person who refused to pass judgement on Christ, and in so doing enabled the crowd to crucify him; others have suggested a more recent figure, especially since Dante seems to have recognised him. Many commentators have argued that this figure must have been Pope Celestine V (c. 1214-1296), who resigned the papacy after just five months.

The inscription above the Gate of Hell introduces an idea which will be very important to Dante's Commedia, and which is central to mediaeval Christianity.That is the idea of the Trinity: that God is not simply a single being, but is also at the same time three persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This notion, that God could be at the same time three things, and one, was not simple-and for mediaeval Christians the fact that it was beyond human comprehension was part of the mystery of God. Here, the Trinity is introduced through 'podestate', 'sapienza' and 'amore' ['power', 'wisdom' and 'love'](lines 5-6).

Discussion point

Dante's reaction to the words on the Hellgate ('Their meaning, sir, for me is hard') has two possible meanings. One is that they are 'hard' in the sense of being unpleasant to contemplate; it is not difficult to see why Dante would find that the case. Another possible meaning, however, is that they are 'hard' in the sense of being difficult to understand. Why might this be so?

First of all, there is an element of what we might now call 'psychological realism' in the lines: after all, Dante has only recently come to his senses in the dark wood, and it is natural that he was still bewildered by what he is experiencing. Second, there is a difficult conjunction of power, wisdom and love: it is hard for us, as well as Dante, to understand what love could have to do with a place of 'everlasting pain' where there dwell 'lost souls'. This is a question which is developed over the whole of the Commedia; but it is worth noting that even at this early stage Dante brings together the concepts of divine power, wisdom and love in the workings of justice.

Further listening: download a short lecture, by Claire Honess (University of Leeds) relating to this canto at Key Moments in the Commedia 3: Inferno III, 1-9

Inferno IV

Dante wakes at the sound of the thunderclap, and looks about him. Virgil explains what they will do next, and expresses his sadness at the fate of the people in the place they are about to reach. They enter Limbo. He then goes on to describe the Harrowing of Hell, the moment when Christ entered the underworld, and rescued the souls of those who had, even before his coming, believed in the prophecies which had predicted that he would be sent by God into the world. Dante and Virgil meet four of the great ancient poets (Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan) and see some of the great figures of the classical world.

This canto can be divided into three sections:

  • Dante awakes, and Virgil describes the place they are about to see (one-22)

  • Dante and Virgil enter Limbo, and Virgil describes the Harrowing of Hell (23-63)

  • Dante and Virgil meet some of the great figures of the classical world (64-151).

Notice the way in which Dante is included in the company of the poets (101-2); one of the first assertions of the authority of Dante, as he is suggesting that the greatest classical poets - who were held in the highest esteem by mediaeval culture - considered him, Dante, to be their equal.

The list of classical figures named by Dante in lines 121-142 is intimidating to the modern reader, as we are no longer familiar with many of their names. Notice the hierarchies within them: in particular, one philosopher is described as ''l maestro di color che sanno' [the master of all those who think and know'] (131). He is so dominant, that he does not need to be named (elsewhere in Dante's works he is often simply referred to as 'il Filosofo'): Aristotle. Dante's praise for Aristotle is qualified, of course, by the fact that Aristotle is condemned to Limbo. Being the master of those who have knowledge is not enough to bring him salvation.

In philosophy, Dante and his contemporaries did not draw sharp distinctions between 'schools' of thought. In this connection, it is interesting and important that Dante includes Islamic philosophers here, in particular Avicenna and Averroës. The relationship between Islam and the Christian world in Dante's day was a complex one. On the one hand, it was marked by conflict; but there were also affinities between the two philosophical traditions, and the eleventh century Avicenna was a Neo-Platonist while Averroës was an important commentator on Aristotle, and was widely respected in the Christian world. Dante includes both thinkers in with a list of classical thinkers, proof of the range of traditions he drew he draws on.

One important principle which Canto IV reinforces is that of the importance of Christ, and the Church, in salvation. These souls are portrayed as having merit, or as being innocent (in the case of the unbaptised children); but they lived before Christ, or died before being baptised. In fact, Dante is highly original in placing the virtuous pagans and unbaptised adults in Limbo. The Church taught that only unbaptised children and those who had been faithful and had anticipated Christ before his coming would end up in Limbo. In other words, Dante is actually being more generous in his opinion of the classical poets and philosophers than the Church had been. This is indicative of the importance he gives to them, even within a Christian scheme.

Inferno V

Dante and Virgil descend into the second circle of Hell, which is guarded by Minos, who allocates each sinner to a particular part of Hell by wrapping his tail around his body the appropriate number of times. Minos warns Dante to be careful who he trusts in Hell; Virgil tells him not to impede them on their journey. Dante hears the sounds of groaning and wailing, and sees souls being forced around in a whirlwind like birds; he understands that these are the lustful. The group comes towards Dante and Virgil, and Virgil points out some of the most famous sinners in this category. Dante is moved by pity, and asks to speak with two souls, who come towards him. These are Francesca and Paolo. Francesca explains who she is, and how she came to commit the sin for which he is being punished. On hearing this tale, Dante faints.

This canto can be divided into three sections:

  • the encounter with Minos (1-24)

  • the lustful (25-69)

  • Paolo and Francesca (70-142).

It is important to remember here that although Dante feels sympathy for the sinners, this does not necessarily mean that Dante is endorsing their behaviour. Minos has, after all, just warned him not to trust everyone in Hell. Dante identifies the lustful as those who have subjugated their ability to reason to their desire (38-39).

Notice the use of a figure from the classical tradition, Minos, as a central figure in the Christian scheme. (Minos was the son of Zeus and Europa; according to Virgil's Aeneid he became a judge in the underworld). This is a clear example of Dante's syncretism  - his drawing together of a wide range of sources - in his description of the afterlife. In fact, he displays considerable freedom in his depiction of Minos: in classical depictions he was not a monster, whereas Dante describes him as being a frightening one.

This is an important canto because it explores the nature of love. We will return to it when we examine the nature of love in the Inferno, and also the style of language Francesca speaks in.

Further listening: download a short lecture relating to this canto, by Matthew Treherne (University of Leeds) at: Key Moments in the Commedia 6: Inferno V, 121-38

Inferno VI

Dante recovers consciousness in the third circle of Hell, where the gluttons are punished. The punishment is a perpetual raining down of hail, water and snow; Cerberus (a three-headed dog described in Greek mythology as the guardian of the entrance to Hades; notice again Dante’s use of a figure from classical mythology within a Christian notion of Hell) barks over the damned souls. Virgil throws earth into Cerberus's mouth, and he and Dante are able to pass. As they walk through the crowd of souls, one speaks out to them: Ciacco, a Florentine. Ciacco tells Dante what will happen to Florence, and also indicates where Dante will meet some other notable Florentines. Dante asks Virgil what the fate of the sinners will be after the last judgement, and Virgil explains that, reunited with their bodies, the sinners will suffer even more strongly.

This canto can be divided into three sections:

  • Cerberus (1–33)
  • Ciacco (34–93)
  • the discussion of the body after the Last Judgement (94–115).

Inferno VII

Plutus utters nonsensical words, and Virgil silences him. The two travellers enter the fourth circle of Hell, and see numerous people rolling weights along, colliding with each other and shouting at each other. Dante asks Virgil to explain who the sinners are, and Virgil explains that these were the avaricious and the prodigal. Virgil says that it is possible to see how far Fortune mocks and takes control over our worldly possessions; in response to a question from Dante, he explains what Fortune is, and how it works as an inevitable, divinely ordained force.

Vostro saver non ha contesto a lei [Fortuna]; 
questa provede, giudica, e persegue 
suo regno come il loro li altri dèi. 
   Le sue permutazion non hanno triegue. 
(Inf. VII, 88-91) 
  Your powers of mind cannot contend with her. 
She, looking forwards, will pronounce her law, 
advancing, as do other gods, her own domain. 
   Her permutations never come to rest."

They enter the fifth circle, where they find a swamp called Styx, in which the angry and the sullen are punished. These souls tear at each other, under the mud; Virgil tells Dante what they are trying to say. Dante and Virgil carry on, and arrive at a tower.

This canto can be divided into four sections:

  • Plutus (1-15)
  • the avaricious and the prodigal (16-60)
  • Virgil's explanation of Fortune (61-96)
  • Styx; the angry and the sullen (97-130).

 © Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson

This resource is a collaboration between the Leeds Centre for Dante Studies at the University of Leeds, and the Devers Program in Dante Studies at the University of Notre Dame